This week my book-centric Twitter timeline and Facebook news feed were all abuzz with news about the J.K. Rowling interview in which she said the Ron/Hermione relationship was a mistake, and that Hermione should have ended up with Harry. (Here’s a link to one of myriad articles about the brouhaha) In the interview, Rowling implies that she kept the couple together because that’s how she had originally plotted out the series, ignoring how the characters actually evolved (or didn’t) during the writing. At least, that’s my take-away from it.
I’m a big Harry Potter fan – one of my fondest memories of my son’s childhood is reading these books together – and I was even a member of a Yahoo group for adult fans of Harry Potter. But I was never a Ron/Hermione shipper. I always thought that Harry was better suited for her, and that Rowling put Hermione with Ron as a kind of consolation prize – you’re not the chosen one, but at least you got the girl! Furthermore, I didn’t think Harry and Ginny had any kind of real chemistry, and the movies themselves seemed to point this out even further. The Harry/Ginny bond was essentially lifeless, while the bond between Harry and Hermione – especially after Ron left them to fend for themselves – seemed strong and real. Yes, I know this is just my opinion and there are many in the Potterverse who love both couples together. But still.
As writers, though, is there something we can learn from Jo’s post-publication hand-wringing? Or are these regrets typical of all writers? Does everyone wish they could go back and change some element of their plot after their book has been published?
Author Gillian Flynn is actually getting the chance to do this, by the way. She’s the screenwriter for the movie adaptation of her gi-normous bestseller “Gone Girl,” and it was recently announced (see the article here) that she wrote an entirely different third act for the movie version. I loved Gone Girl, and I thought the ending worked on so many different levels, and yet I’m dying to see what she did differently.
I self-published my “momlit” book KEEPING SCORE last summer, and I haven’t had any regrets about how the plot ended up. But truthfully, the version that I published was not the original ending. I hired a professional editor who told me that my genre required a certain type of ending, and without it, publishers weren’t going to want the book. Well, I changed the ending, and publishers (but mostly agents) didn’t want it anyway. But you know something? He was right. It was a much better book with the new ending, wrapping things up well and rewarding readers for their attention.
Still, I think there are take-aways from Rowling’s regrets. For me, as a “planner” myself, the biggest is to not be completely wedded to your outline. It’s great to know your ending and build your plot points beforehand. It makes the writing easier. But if you find your characters developing in a way that makes that ending a head-scratcher, it’s okay to go back and rethink some things. Maybe you won’t end up changing the plot; maybe it’ll be characterizations that need tweaking in order for things to work out the way you planned. One characterization issue I’m always grappling with is that my “ex” male characters always are giant jerks in my first few drafts. It’s fun to write giant jerks, but they make my protagonists look like idiots for getting involved with them in the first place. Perhaps if Ron hadn’t been so insecure throughout the entire series, the pairing with Hermione wouldn’t have seemed so forced to me.
Second, I think it’s important that a writer get feedback from several different types of readers (not just Mom!) before publication, and really listen to what those readers have to say. I have no idea whether Jo had beta readers for each book in the series, but I do know I wasn’t the only one who thought Harry and Hermione should have ended up together. Stephen King, in his book “On Writing,” also recommends using beta readers, and advises that if more than one reader points out the same problem, it’s something that needs to be fixed. This is easier said than done, of course. We tend to get quite attached to the characters and worlds we’ve created, and making changes just because three or four people said our antagonist’s motives were convoluted is emotionally very difficult. I created the villain, I understand why he’s doing what he’s doing; if I just explain it better, everyone will get it!
For me, my bottom line is to listen to my gut. When that editor told me to change KEEPING SCORE’s ending, I just knew in my gut he was right. When two of my beta readers for my latest project said my main character wasn’t likeable, I knew they were right, too. (and I really hope I’ve solved the problem with my latest draft.)
While I would love to be J.K. Rowling – who wouldn’t? – I do not want to be the writer who, seven years later, is still regretting choices I made that found their way into print. While I’ll always love the series, there’s a big part of me that wishes Jo had listened to her gut and made those changes. Long live Harry and Hermione!