Stories are hard. They’re hard to write. They’re hard to edit. They’re even sometimes hard to process. Am I getting out of this narrative what I should be? Are my interpretations of what happened even remotely in line with what the author intended?
And, as a writer: Will my audience even be able to understand what I am trying to say? Am I being clear enough? Am I being too obvious? Not obvious enough?
When we write stories, we seek to communicate. When we read, we seek to understand. But that’s not often where the biggest issue lies. What happens with understanding a story is that not everyone has the exact same understanding. And this can become confusing — especially if it turns into an “I’m right and they aren’t” scenario.
We all view stories through the lens of our own experiences. This is why some people see abusive relationships when others don’t. Some people see mental health implications when others do not. Even those well versed in the perspectives of others can’t help but see things through their own eyes the first time they are introduced to them. This is how our brains work. We recognize patterns. We draw parallels. It is how we cope with the highs and lows of our lives.
So to say someone is “wrong” or “doesn’t understand” an element in a story is, in its own way, not right. An opinion based on someone’s own interpretation of a story is their opinion. It doesn’t make it fact, it doesn’t mean it necessarily aligns with what the author may have been going for, but just because you don’t see where someone is coming from doesn’t mean their assumptions are incorrect.
As a writer, it is essential to remember that differing points of view are not problematic. You cannot speak for everyone. You can really only tell one story at a time, and those who feel they need to react to that story in one way or another are going to do so whether you want them to or not.
Stories are meant to leave things up to interpretation. There is no “right” or “wrong.” There are many authors out there who will hunt down and disassemble any and every fan theory that does not align with their original intentions (you might know a few famous ones). This is completely justified in some cases — at least, in terms of a writer wanting to make their messages clear.
But there comes a point where theories become headcanon, and it’s at this moment where most writers have to accept that the moment they released their story out into the world is the moment they gave up full control of that story. Stories, in a way, become the property of their audiences. The writer may legally own their rights, but they can’t always have a say in how someone interprets the meaning of their words.
I haven’t had the luxury yet of watching my work passed between many hands and discussed publicly in casual settings. I may never see what that’s like firsthand, but that’s OK. But I can imagine that it’s thrilling, as a storyteller, to watch how members of your audience respond to your words. To see what their varying takeaways are. To know that everyone can walk away with something different than everyone else.
This is all part of the fun, don’t you think? As a reader, listener, and viewer, I don’t want to have all the answers handed to me. There are some people that do, and I suppose I have to respect that desire when discussing this point. But I have spent a large portion of my life dissecting and analyzing stories in pieces, and that just means that I am much more inclined to need messages in the media I consume that aren’t as obvious, that require some digging to interpret however I might. That’s just me. I’m not saying everyone has to be like me. But more people could benefit from less hand holding in this regard.
One problem with many stories produced even today is that they spoon-feed their audiences. They tell instead of show. They let the reader or listener or viewer know exactly what they should be thinking or feeling in response to something that happens onscreen or on a page. Whether this is due to a lack of mastery in this part of the writing process on behalf of the writer, or something else, is a debate for a different post. But stories for mature audiences need to leave things open. People need more of that kind of mental stimulation, whether they want it or not.
Some readers need to see themselves in certain stories whether they are meant to or not. The more analytical you become of stories in general, the easier it is to forget that there are many readers out there who use stories, especially fictional stories, as a desperate form of escape from the real world.
These are the readers who don’t want real-world politics appearing in their primetime dramas. Those who stop watching shows when they get too sad, and don’t enjoy movies without satisfying fairytale endings. They do not want to be reminded of a story’s reflection of real life. They want to forget. They want to get away, even if only for a little while.
There is nothing wrong with escapism. It may be a much more common preference in the consumption of entertainment than you realize.
On the flip side, there are many, many people who deliberately search for the parallels they can draw between themselves and the characters in stories they are reading. They want to feel understood. They want to feel seen. This is why discussions around representation in media are so important. Even if you aren’t part of a particular minority group, you can’t ignore the fact that members of specific audiences are hungry. They need to be fed.
These two extremes do, often, meet in the middle. This is where the “how dare you not give this character a happy ending” complaint often turns up. People don’t just want to see a version of themselves in a story. They want to see a version of themselves in a story that turns out hopeful, because they need that kind of hope for their own future. They want to BE that character. The one who gets the guy/girl, the one who defeats the menace. The one who makes it out of a tragedy alive and becomes better because of it.
So even if you are a writer who refuses to give your characters happy endings, for example, it’s important to be empathetic toward those who might find this distasteful. You can’t please everyone, and you should never TRY to please everyone (especially those you have already displeased). But you do have to keep all members of your audience in mind when they are responding to the messages you are sending.
The same goes for readers or fans who want to interact with other readers or fans. Because everyone views the same story through a different lens, there are going to be disagreements. If you don’t have the maturity to say “I don’t agree with you or your opinion but I respect your feelings,” then don’t join the discourse. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion. Everyone is allowed to feel, not just you.
Everyone comes into a story with a different way of looking at the world. It is how we are built, it is how we approach every circumstance outside our own making or control. You may be judged, but do not be the one doing the judging. Your experience isn’t anything like someone else’s, and experiences outside your understanding aren’t wrong, they are just different. How you portray these differences, and how you react to them, matters.
Be cautious. Be open and honest. But most importantly, in all of this, be kind. To everyone. Always.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.