So as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Dumbledore is gay. I knew I should have read those sequels!!! But here’s the thing: those who have read the books tell me that he doesn’t even so much as hold hands with anyone. Hmmm…
This we know: he’s a bachelor (not this kind), he kind of maybe liked this other wizard dude but it’s kind of ambiguous…. Oh! and JK Rowling says he is. But then, the New York Times kind of put him back in the closet, basically saying it doesn’t matter.
In order to decide whether or not Dumbledore actually is gay, it opens up a bigger literary can of worms. Who gets final say on the interpretation of a character, especially when the evidence on the page is ambiguous? Does the author get final say based on her intention? Do the readers get final say based on what’s there on the page? Who gets to decide?
So you tell me: who owns the characters on a page? The Author? The readers? A combination?
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
I read the first three or four Harry Potters, and Dumbledore’s sexuality never crossed my mind. On screen, however, he was definitely played with a touch of camp.
Which leads me to wonder what it must be like for an author, who is in the process of writing a series at the same time as the preceding novels are being interpreted in film.
On the question of ownership: give life then let go.
Property is theft. Intellectual property is just… um. Intellectual theft?
No, wait. That’s stupid.
I think on a legal level, if JK Rowling doesn’t own Dumbledore, she’s not the business person she seems to be (which is to say, extremely savvy).
I tend to disagree with the poster who said she blew it. I think that representing Dumbledore as overtly gay in the novels would have hurt sales, and that answering the news conference question as she did probably helped sales.
I also tend to believe that this particular revelation enriches the subtext of the novel. And the fact that people are having this conversation three weeks (or is it only two) after the news conference says something about the strong emotions Rowling has evoked about her characters, which, you know: good writers do that.
It also, to bring us to the philosophical underpinnings of Our Gracious Host’s question, says something about the feeling of ownership of these characters that her readership already has. As I said, Rowling almost certainly owns the rights to her characters, and if she wants to write a Young Dumbledore series in which his sexuality is frankly discussed, she can, and good luck stopping her.
But I doubt she will (v. her savvy business sense).
However, at some point, I suspect that we will all be dead, and people will be reading Harry Potter books. At that point, of course, there will be people talking about Dumbledore’s sexuality with footnotes and citations and erudite examples. They will surely get an A when they make a sound argument, regardless of their actual position on the subject, for that’s what college is all about.
Their subsequent (or perhaps preceding) essay will be on the sexuality of Hamlet. Yeah, there are people who care. Amazing, huh?
Here, incidentally, is a link to an unofficial transcript of the Q&A session where she dropped the bomb. Don’t know if the <a> tag works here, on blogger, or if that lt gt thing will either. Here’s hoping for the universality of HTML.
Since I have absolutely ZERO interest in Harry Potter, I’m just going to answer the bigger question of who owns fictional characters.
My answer: The author, through and through. They created the character, they thought up the story; it’s their world.
That being said, there’s nothing stopping the reader from thinking of the characters differently than the author intends. Like my dad said when I told him my cousin considers me and my guy friend dating, “She can consider whatever she wants. She can consider you guys MARRIED if that’s what she wants to believe.”
Self-delusion, people. It’s a beautiful thing.
Dr. Dume says
Seems to me that if Dumbledore being gay or straight doesn’t affect the story, there’s no need for it to be spelled out in the books. This was all because some film-maker wanted to add in a girlfriend for Dumbledore, and he never had one. Ghoul friends, maybe.
Do the books say whether Harry Potter is white, black, yellow or brown? The cover art and the films say he’s white, but is it specified in the books, I wonder?
As to whether an author owns characters, I’m more worried about whether the characters own me. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Michelle Moran says
I think v.l. smith put it most succinctly. While your children may be linked to you genetically, and while they may have spent their earliest years with you, at some point they grow up and join the real world. “They become influenced by new people and new perspectives.”
Writers can do their best to shape a character, but ultimately, characters belong to the reader. After all, a character may come alive on a page, but they will only speak once a book is opened. It’s the reader who brings them to life — in their own mind.
So perhaps it’s joint ownership?
Author hands down! Unless I disagree with the author, and then it is the reader, absolutely! ;o)
midnight oil says
To me it is a matter of intent vs. impact. what we say or write vs. what we mean in our heads against the way it is accepted in someone elses mind. (Cnfused?) I write with the ultimate desire to touch someone in the world, even if it is just one. The story boils through their mind and comes alive. It is the reader who ultimately creates the character. And they will create the same one that I did if I did my job right.
Haha; I just had this discussion in my Humanities 200 class! The point that was brought up was that the author has no power over the characters once they have actually written down what they wish to write down. That they can’t have a power-trip over making sure that every little detail is understood. Or, that there is “no reality outside of the book”. So, if it’s not there, it’s not there, and it’s free game!
I don’t know how much I agree, but I like the idea of “no reality outside of the book”; that’s why fanfiction is so awesome, because it builds alternate worlds outside of the reality.
When I read the last HP book, I thought the relationship was not all that subtle. So I wasn’t overly surprised when JK announced Dumbledore’s sexuality.
Authors generally have a pretty good idea of the background and history of their characters (it’s all the false starts we have :P) and if the author says such and such a character is gay, then in their world he is. How the reader’s choose to interpret this is a different story. The writer has no control over that.
Personally, I’m happy that she outed him, because I like being right. *grin*
As long as the author’s statements aren’t directly contradicted by the text, then I think the author’s words have weight.
Even better is if the author’s extratextual comments are actually supported by the text.
sex scenes at starbucks says
I like that different people take different things from characters. It’s one of the joys. A perfectly formed, unread character is a sad, sad thing indeed.
Fiction is a tender dance between author and reader. The author leads, hopefully gives the reader a few good twirls around the floor, and the reader follows in his/her own style to complete the turns and help execute a graceful dip or lift at the end.
Adding details about characters after the fact is like the leader trying to throw in a few fancy steps after the last pas-de-deux; it’s anticlimactic and should have happened within the context of the dance. If JK really wanted Dumbledore to be gay, she should have written it into at least one of her books. I read them all and never got that about him. But knowing his orientation would have made his inner conflict ever so much sharper and understandable.
The thing that’s frustrating about this debate (not the debate on this blog, but the greater Dumbledore debate) is that it feels like it’s about homophobia, not character representation.
JK Rowling was ASKED a question about Dumbledore’s love life, so she answered. It’s not like she randomly issued a press release about his orientation.
If she had been asked a question about his favorite type of pasta and she said “linguini with pesto sauce” would there have been an outcry like this? “No, I thought it was fettucini alfredo!” “How can she say this, it’s not in the books?” No, people would have accepted it as a detail of his background that helped her make him more real on the page.
If his sexual orientation didn’t matter in the books, it shouldn’t matter now. Just like in real life, it doesn’t change anything about the person.
Tom Burchfield says
My feeling is that no matter how hard I try, I eventually wind up giving up control of my characters, hell, my whole book. My intentions only get me so far, and while, I hope that most readers will understand it as I do, there may be more than a few who interpret it in their own peculiar way. If someone wants to read my novel “The Vampire of Alpine Canyon” (sorry for the plug)as a perverse portrayal of Santa Claus, there’s little I can do. No matter how many circles I run screaming “I didn’t SAY that!” they’re going to insist otherwise. I am hopeful any alternative interpretations are intelligent ones.
This reminds me of a story a friend told me: Her father had been a hobo riding the rails during the Great Depression and used to bore her for hours and days on end with his stories of the hardships he faced during that time.
She always dreaded having to listen to these stories . . . until the time came when she read “The Grapes of Wrath.” by John Steinbeck. After she finished, she ran to her father in tears, crying: “I’ve just read ‘The Grapes of Wrath!’ Now I understand everything you went through!”
Her father glared at her: “That man was a lousy, stinking Communist,” he said. “Everything in that book is a lie.”
She never wrote about Dumbldore’s oreination in the actual books therefore since she not writing them any more I do not think she can change anything like that. Although there was a part about people gossiping on whether Harry and the wizard had a thing going everyone who was reading knew that wasnt true because all the main characters Harry, Ron, and Hermione all were straight and had relantionships. Anyways I’m sure out of everyone who ever read those books not everyones going to have heard about what she’s said. Thank you for bringing up this topic so I can form my own opinion.
This question (and you’re not the only one asking it, Nathan) is interesting in itself to me. I mean, really the point is: who cares about Dumbledore’s sexuality? Harry Potter certainly didn’t, and that’s why it wasn’t in the books. Ardent fans (I’m one of them) want to know about everything in JK Rowling’s head, and they do care.
But JK’s revealed a lot of backstory that wasn’t in the books. Why is Dumbledore’s gayness the “revelation” causing a discussion about authorial control? I think the discussion says much more about our culture than it does about Dumbledore. And, ultimately, people are putting their own ideas of gayness into their reading of Dumbledore now.
So…the answer the question is: both – the author, JK Rowling, gave us more information about one of her characters and readers are still interpreting the books the way they want to.
Josephine Damian says
Nathan: OK. Point taken. You are casting a wide net with your posted submission list and especially with the “anything else” you happen to like. I understand as a young agent you’re eager to keep your options open, submission-wise.
But some agents who represent mysteries prefer the cozy kind to the hard boiled, or historical romance to erotica, and I’m sure if I knew enough about SF, I’d list some differences.
I know in the past you said “Fight Club” was male ennui, but I always thought of the Richard Ford and Richard Russo books that way – I thought of “FC” as urban fantasy (I only recently got an education in what UF means). Sometimes a writer’s idea of what a genre is is different from the agent’s.
BookEndsLLC agent Jacky reps a cozy mystery writer friend of mine. I have a referal from my friend, but I doubt I’d ever submit to her because my stuff is hard-boiled.
My approach to agents is to read their clients’ books- I have a better sense of what my chances with an agent are by reading their clients’ books and asking myself – realistically – if my book is similar to theirs.
While it’s a nice thought to give in to letting the reader have their say, the problem with that is there will be endless readers (or so the author hopes) and that makes for endless, and inconclusive, interpretation.
So then, for sake of finality, if for some wild reason finality becomes necessity, Author-ity.
Well, the author owns the character and certainly thinks all manner of things about her character. But “book” isn’t fluid…it exists in black-and-white on the page. If Rowling always thought of Dumbledore as a big fluffy sheep, it doesn’t change the fact that the character in the book was not written as a big fluffy sheep.
If what the author thinks is in direct conflict with what she wrote (as it is in this case — she thought of his motivation in a pivotal moment in the book being motivated by young romantic love, but wrote it as being motivated by loyalty to a friend during a dark time in Dumbledore’s life…and wrote it just about the bluntly too) then one of two things happened.
(1) The author chose to write something different from what she always thought — for whatever reason, it fit better, it was less controversial, whatever. In which case, she intentionally chose something different from what she always thought — which is an author’s right. Though it means the character in print is now … well, the character.
(2) the author can’t seem to figure out how to put the character in print the way she always saw him — which is just bad writing.
Pretty much, there isn’t a third option in a case where what was written is very clear and blunt where the author has never played games with other characters in similar situations (for example, Snape’s feelings for Lilly were never presented loyalty to a best pal). She has no history of making you guess if characters were motivated by loyalty or romantic love (well, except in who Harry would end up with, but that was part of the fun and eventually revealled in the books) so … there is no logical reason to have written the character contrary to how she saw him and still hold on to how she saw him.
Dwight said The purple robes. The tastefully decorated study. Thin, neat, lifelong bachelor. Grindewald. The way he could host a killer party.
What does any of that have to do with being gay? Or are we dealing in stereotypes here…
Danette Haworth says
I’d say the author owns the characters–she wrote them knowing all their secret backstories.
Great page on PM. I’m a short story addict (especially flash)–The Star Above Veracruz might be up my alley.
Legally, due to copyright, the writers own the character (unless they give up said rights)… However, seems to me that once that puppy gets published, the readers get to have their way with the characters, just like they do with the meaning and intent. No matter what the author says it was intended to say, the public ultimately defines the work. Just like poetry.
Kinda makes you wonder about Frodo, doesn’t it? But we can’t ask J.R.R. why he never married.
Personally, I suspected Dumbedore was gay anyway. And I didn’t care. He made certain choices during his life because of love, and they influenced the outcome of the book.
Readers don’t own the characters, but they are welcome to their own interpretation of the characters.
Kinda makes you wonder about Frodo, doesn’t it? But we can’t ask J.R.R. why he never married.
He never married because he was slowly dying and he knew he was dying — and he also knew that he could never give him himself fully to life in the Shire again. Besides, he was raised by Bilbo, a confirmed bachelor.
Heather B. Moore says
I think JK made a mistake in the way that she informed her audience. It was like an afterthought . . . If the series wasn’t finished, it would be a different story. I don’t care if Dumbledore is gay or not–it doesn’t change the story for me–but she should’ve had the guts to write it into his character. I don’t think did. Or if she “thinks” she did, she didn’t do it well. Pointing out an obscure sentence/scene after the fact just doesn’t make sense.