Last week I finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. And for the record, I wept like a baby through the last two chapters of Mockingjay. I had been told by several people that I had to read the series but I was reluctant at first. I always cringe a little bit when a series becomes so hyped. Of course the last time I hesitated to get involved in a series because of the hype was Harry Potter, and I now list those as among my favorite books ever. I loved The Hunger Games too. But several people told me that the second and third books weren’t as good as the first. My best friend went so far as to tell me that a lot of people she knows didn’t like Mockingjay because of “one thing that happens”. I’m still not sure what thing she meant, but it made me think….
Who owns a story? To whom does the story belong? Books, obviously, belong to the author. There are all sorts of copyright laws that spell this out. You can’t plagiarize and you can’t use an author’s characters or plotlines for your own work. Likewise it’s clear that any tangible hunk of paper and ink that is called a book belongs to the person who purchased it. But who owns the story?
As I was reading Mockingjay with the expectation that I wouldn’t like it as much as the other two books in the series I continually found myself thinking “I wouldn’t have had the characters do that.” If it had been up to me the plot would possibly have gone in a different direction. Well, maybe. Because in the end I handed my trust over to Suzanne Collins and let her take the story where it wanted to go.
So the author owns the story, right? It’s their story. They wrote it. They decide where the plot goes and how the characters unfurl. They are the mastermind that creates the magic. … But wait. That makes them the Creator of the story. Do they own it?
I grew up on Winnie-the-Pooh. My childhood memories are tinted with “silly old bear”. I played Pooh-sticks at the bridge over the creek down the hill from my house with my friends on a regular basis. I had a fascination with honey. My grandmother had a set of antique stuffed animals of all of the characters that I loved to play with every time I went to her house (especially Roo – I loved that Roo!). So does A.A. Milne own my childhood play time? Or did his stories, his characters, transcend the words he put on pages, sent to an editor, and had printed on paper with ink?
I feel a sense of ownership for a lot of stories, not just Winne-the-Pooh. It’s something that extends far beyond copyright law and legal concerns. Those stories have settled in my heart. Obviously I have a special place in my heart for the stories I’ve written. But I’ve already seen pieces of that ownership slip away as my friends read my work. I have a character, Jack Tanner from my Noble Hearts trilogy, that my one friend in particular just loves. It’s flattering to me that she now owns a bit of that story because of her love for Jack. It’s cool. And a bit weird. Jack is no longer just a figment of my imagination. He’s gone beyond that. (and how weird is it that as I typed that my “Jack Song”, Whistle for the Choir by the Fratellis, started playing on my iTunes!)
I’ve always felt like the stories I write are like children. I bring them into this world, I nurture them until they can stand on their own, and then I have to send them off into the world to make their own way. When we send our human children out into the world we lose a big chunk of our ownership of them. Sure, they’ll always be our babies, but at the same time they’re not anymore. I will retain the legal rights to my books when they are published, but the stories … the stories go far beyond that. If I’m lucky they will enter other people’s hearts and imaginations and a piece of them will become theirs.
Stories are a joint-ownership venture. We all own a bit of them.