torsdag 16 mars 2017

The art of character-pinching: serial numbers on or off?

I know I've already gushed about the first part of James Benmore's Dodger trilogy, but it's worth noting that the two follow-up volumes - Dodger of the Dials and Dodger of the Revolution - are equally first-rate. True, they're not so chock-full of references to other Dickens novels and characters, but there are a few. Noah Claypole resurfaces in Dodger of the Dials (though disappointingly it is never made clear that it is he, not Oliver Twist, who is responsible for Fagin's fate) as well as Oliver himself as a young man, who turns out to be convincingly priggish and likeable at the same time. In Dodger of the Revolution, which I've recently finished reading, we're introduced to the grandson of the Defarges in A Tale of Two Cities (who's a chip off the old block) and the son of Rigaud in Little Dorrit (who, luckily for Dodger, isn't).

What especially impressed me was the continuing charm of the central character, who feels true to Dickens's original throughout. It would have been easy to go down the predictable route of making Jack Dawkins aka The Artful Dodger into a sort of class warrior, what with him having reason to find himself in Paris during the June uprising of 1848 and everything. However, when Dodger is - in spite of himself - carried away by revolutionary ardour, it's because of the festive feel at the beginning of the revolt, before the actual fighting starts. His good humour remains: while there's fellow-feeling with the hard-up masses of Paris, he can't really bring himself to hate those better off than them or himself (though pinching their valuables is obviously not a problem). Dodger's mission in Paris is to steal a valuable document on behalf of a brother and sister which proves their claim to legitimacy and an aristocratic estate, but while these siblings are snooty enough to have anyone in Dodger's position casting a side glance in the general direction of the nearest lamp post, he actually sees the point of his employers and quite likes them. I have a feeling this trilogy hasn't done as well as it deserves sales-wise (I only found the first volume by a fluke), which is a pity: I think I'm going to miss the Artful.

Benmore's sure touch is the more noteworthy since it's especially difficult to get another author's characters right if you keep their name and setting, giving yourself little leeway to do your own thing with them. If you stray too far from the original, fans like myself will complain and wonder - as I have done more times than I can count - why you didn't simply invent your own character with some traits in common with a figure from a well-loved classic. If, on the other hand, you don't put any kind of new spin on your material, you risk what I call character congealitis, where all the reader gets is a tired retread of a series of traits and mannerisms displayed by the original character, though seldom as well done as the first time around.

On balance, then, it seems less risky to do what I believe is called "filing off the serial numbers", though if wiki sources are anything to go by the expression is mostly used when writers of fan fiction change characters' names etc. for copyright reasons. The practice has its non-copyright-related advantages as well, though. If you pinch a character, or several - hey, why stop at one? - from another author and change the names, you can suddenly do what you like with the raw material. It doesn't have to stop with the name, the setting or the general context: you can experiment with changing a few of the personality traits as well and see what happens. Is the original character's essence still there, or has the non-serial-numbered copy morphed into something else entirely? And does it matter, as long as the result is a success?

Filing the serial numbers off has its own perils, though. Kate Saunders included some characters from David Copperfield in her Victorian crime story The Secret of Wishtide, but under other names. She wasn't sneaky about it - she made the characters' origins clear in her acknowledgements. Still, their inclusion irked me strangely, though I've always wanted to see more in the prequel/sequel/retelling genre relating to Dickens. Moreover, I've loved other books by Saunders (Wild Young Bohemians especially) and was glad to see her writing fiction for adults again. However, truth be told, the Copperfield copies were so close to the originals that I didn't see much point in giving them other names at all, though it does allow the author to imagine another (not necessarily better) fate for them than in Dickens's novel. There was also a slightly didactic "look how women were treated in Victorian times" feel to the story, even if the heroine (entirely Saunders's own creation) was not the judgemental kind. While I understand how Dickens's telling of the Little Em'ly story could get anyone's blood up, I didn't feel that Saunders added anything new to my understanding of her, Steerforth, his mother or Rosa Dartle who are the borrowed characters in question. I think what it amounts to is that if you do file off the serial numbers, you should do something with the freedom this brings you. Either that or I'm just miffed that Uriah didn't make an appearance.