In 2015, my friends Nick Hayden and Tim Deal produced an episode of their podcast, Derailed Trains of Thought, about who “owns” a story. This included the writer, the audience, and the publisher. That planted a kernel in my head that has recently bloomed. It has to do with whether the fans of something—particularly in the creative fields—know what’s best for what they like.
The most immediate example I can think of is taken from this video on Linkin Park (produced before the sad death of frontman Chester Bennington). The host mentions that the band, which has experimented with different sounds in all of their albums, was constantly being asked by their fans if they’d make something like their first album, “Hybrid Theory,” again. This prompted an angry response from Bennington, who more or less said that was a great album but that the band was working on new things now.
Honestly, I sympathized with Bennington. It can be annoying when you’re trying new things but your fanbase just wants you to keep making all the same stuff. If I had readers coming up to me, saying, “Why don’t you write more books like Pandora’s Box?” I’d be vexed. I decided a long time ago that I didn’t want to be a writer who got pigeonholed, as many have been. It’s why, believe it or not, many authors use pseudonyms if they write something outside their usual genre. The publisher thinks that readers won’t buy the book because it isn’t the same stuff they’re used to seeing from that author. Now, some authors are such huge names they can get away with it now (like, say, Stephen King), but they’re exceptions. It is something I’ve considered doing, though. I have some ideas so divergent, seeing my name on the cover might disinterest readers.
The problem is fans can like something so much they just want to keep getting more of the same. But no matter how much an artist tries to refine it, it gets stale. Instead of branching out and taking risks, they play it safe. That might bring them money, but it won’t help them grow as artists. Changing things up, though, could scare their fans away because it isn’t the same. People like familiarity and often oppose something new. Just talk to any Whovian (Doctor Who fan) whenever a new Doctor or Companion is introduced. Many won’t like them at first, if at all.
Am I saying artists shouldn’t listen to their fans? No, not at all. There are times when an artist could stray so far off the beaten path he produces something that ceases to resemble what he created that made his fans like him in the first place. Or it’s just plain bad. Believe me, I’ve often said that I could write a better script than most people in Hollywood when lamenting the dumb decisions made in films and TV shows I like.
The other problem, though, is the creator may hear what fans want and try to give it to them, but they end up not liking it. Now, this could be because the creators misunderstood what the fans wanted (i.e. the demand that DC/Warner Bros. make a Superman movie where he “fights” a villain, which resulted in the oft-criticized Man of Steel), but more often, I think, fans realize that what they wanted wasn’t what was best.
In the end (hey, an unintentional Linkin Park reference!), it boils down to trust. Fans need to trust creators to know what they’re doing and that the creators are taking their thoughts/ideas into consideration. Creators need to trust their storytelling instincts and abilities and not be people pleasers. It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Even the best-reviewed films have detractors. Even literary classics have readers who don’t like them. That’s why my mantra has always been, “Story is king.” Whatever is the right thing to do for the story, whether that’s what the fans or creator want, is what’s best.
Do you think fans or creators know what’s best for stories? Why? What are some good and bad examples of both?