Minor Complication: How Derivative Works can Develop and Complicate Minor Characters

I’ve been buried under assignments lately so instead of a shiny new post, I thought I might post an essay I wrote last year about fanfiction and how it develops minor characters.

 Warning: Academia. Thar be dragons here.

One of the joys of reading is the ability to engage with the text, to care about the characters and their story, and to interpret them in a way that is meaningful to you. Often it is not only the major characters within a story that produce this effect but also the minor characters whose stories remain largely untold. Derivative works, works that derive from an original text such as a novel or a movie, give us an avenue to explore the stories of these minor characters in ways that cannot be done within the original text. They can be both official, published works and also unofficial works created by fans of the original. This essay will argue that derivative works can not only enhance and develop upon minor characters but also change our perception of the way these characters function within the original text.

In order to properly discuss this topic, several terms need to be defined in the context of this argument: minor characters, derivative works and the concept of canon in the context of derivative works. David Galef defines minor characters as characters within the text who “in their paucity of detail invite the reader’s elaboration”(1993, p. 3). This broad definition allows for characters who may be crucial to the plot of the original text but do not have any kind of detailed characterisation or depth to be included within the scope of this essay.  Derivative works are “work[s] based on or derived from one or more already existing works.” (United States Copyright Office, 2010). ‘Canon’ as it is used in the context of derivative works is the original work from which the derivative work has come. For example, in the Harry Potter fandom both the books and movies would be considered as “canon” with derivative works based on either or both of these sources being included within the scope of this essay.

One example of a minor character being developed through an official, published derivative work can be found in Jean Rhys’s  Wide Sargasso Sea(1966).  In this text, Rhys takes the character of Bertha, Rochester’s mad first wife, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and expands upon her, detailing her life before the events of Jane Eyre. In this, Rhys joins a “long tradition of writers responding to, and developing on each other’s work” (Pugh, 2005, p. 14). Rhys states that her motives behind creating this derivative work was partly that the character of Bertha “seemed such a poor ghost” (Rhys, 1968, as cited in Thorpe, 1977) and that she wished to expand upon her and see the story from her side. In doing so, Rhys gives an account of Bertha’s descent into madness and the reasons behind her marriage and subsequent imprisonment in Rochester’s home. This gives some context to Bertha’s actions in the original text and makes both it and Bertha’s character seem more relatable and understandable to the reader.  By giving this minor character her own story, motivations and goals in a derivative work we are able to apply these to her character in the canon and find a deeper meaning in the way she interacts with the major characters in that context. By creating Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys has ensured that “Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha will never look the same to us” (Jung, 2005).

However, minor characters are not only expanded through official derivative works; often they expanded upon by readers of the canon though unofficial works such as fan fiction. Sheenagh Pugh (2005) theorises that fan fiction has two main purposes: to give readers “more of” or “more from” the canon text. When fan fiction gives readers “more of” the canon, this is often by creating storylines and plots that could well fit into the canon but does not expand upon the characters. For example, a story set in a Star Trek universe where the characters find and explore a new world in a similar fashion to the series can be considered  “more of” the text. The development of minor characters, however, into fully realised individuals with their own stories and complications is an example of writers wanting “more from”  the original text.  Pugh discusses the way in which fan fiction can focus on “how did such and such a character get to be the way he is” (p. 52) in order to get “more from” the canon such as in Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. She also discusses the way in which fan fiction authors “use minor characters, whose personalities and opinions are not so well established in the canon or known to your readers” (p. 69) in order to further enhance our understanding of the canon material.

One of the more extreme examples of derivative works and fandom developing minor characters can be seen in the character of Figwit from the Lord of the Rings movies. Figwit, whose name derives from an acronym of the reaction that started the fanbase: “Frodo is great . . . who is that?” (Hadad, 2002, as cited in Poole, 2003) is an extreme case of fan participation creating depth in a minor character. In the first movie, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Figwit is an unnamed, non-speaking part and appears on the screen for three seconds as a background character during the Council of Elrond. Despite this incredibly minor role, Figwit has many derivative works based around him such as “fan fiction, diaries, photo galleries and karaoke” (Wloszczyna, 2002). His character, apart from his appearance, has been fully created and developed by fans wishing to gain “more from” his appearance in the movies. However, there are many minor characters whose personalities have been enhanced based on their more meaningful participation within the canon.

A good example of a minor character enhancement can be found in Longing by JuliansGIrl (2007), a fan fiction concentrating on the relationship between Elizabeth and Norrington from Pirates of the Caribbean. In the canon, Norrington is a Naval officer engaged to Elizabeth. He is a minor character with minimal development, serving as a foil to Will, the adventurous pirate’s son whom Elizabeth loves. In Longing, Norrington is married to Elizabeth after Will has left her for a life at sea. However, it is not a happy marriage because Elizabeth is too busy pining for her old life with Will. She acknowledges that she is married “not to the man she loves, for he is gone, but to a man who loves her”, Norrington. Norrington, for his part, “loves her more than he ever thought was possible” despite his knowledge that “he’s not who she wanted”. It is through this knowledge and insight that Norrington gains depth in this fan fiction. His love for Elizabeth means that he will never leave her, despite the pain her indifference causes him, and his respect for her means that he will not forcibly try to break down that indifference but, rather, wait for her to realise that he could be the man to fulfil her dreams. In Longing, both Norrington and Elizabeth long for passion but, due to their respective personalities—Elizabeth’s established solidly through the canon and Norrington’s through this derivative work—neither has the courage to find it.

In the canon, Norrington follows Elizabeth into piracy, despite his history of hatred for pirates, and, eventually, gives up his life in order to help her escape. These actions are never explained in the canon due to the focus on the more plot-relevant relationship between Will and Elizabeth. JuliansGirl’s Norrington gives us a better understanding of Norrington’s actions in the canon. In Longing Norrington’s devotion to Elizabeth, despite her affections clearly lying elsewhere, is explored and his acceptance of his inferior place in her heart is discussed.  JuliansGIrl’s derivative work gives us a clue as to why he is content to die for her

Another example of a minor character being expanded through fan fiction is in hijklmnop’s The Living and the Dead (2009), which focuses on Sirius Black from Harry Potter. In the canon text, Sirius is Harry’s godfather, a supporting character whose background is mentioned but never discussed in detail. Instead, Sirius is presented as a desperate, impulsive, prison escapee wanting to be involved in Harry’s life. In the canon, there are flashbacks to Sirius’s youth when he was an arrogant and confident young man with a propensity to get in trouble with his best friend, James Potter(Harry’s father). Due to Sirius’s status as a minor character, the canon does not try to explain how or why Sirius underwent such a dramatic change in character after being falsely accused of killing James and his wife, Lily, but rather allows the reader to fill in the gaps themselves about what happened. The Living and the Dead is a derivative work that attempts to explain this change by following Sirius’s time in Azkaban, the wizard prison.

The Living and the Dead puts forward that, while in Azkaban, Sirius’s personality change was caused by a loss of identity. Even before he confronts the dementors (beings that feed off positive thoughts and bring about a feeling of hopelessness) his head is shaved and his appearance changed, giving him the conviction that the person he had become “wasn’t the Sirius Black he knew. That wasn’t him”.  This feeling of being divorced from reality and being in an unreal world is repeated throughout the text with Sirius constantly imagining himself as not being in his current situation and constantly insisting that “he wasn’t here”. It is only, near the end of the text when Remus visits him in order to vent his feelings about Sirius’s betrayal that we see the desperation and loneliness that Sirius displays in the books. Instead of defending himself, as he would have done before his time in Azkaban, Sirius simply accepts Remus’s harsh words and even treasures them because the contact with his old life makes him feel “the most alive he’d felt in a while”.

This enhancement of Sirius’s character helps to explain the significant differences between Sirius’s character as a young man and how he is as an adult and also helps to explain his reckless behaviour in contacting Harry in the canon despite the risks and dangers it poses to both of them. Hijklmnop’s Sirius changes dramatically due to his time in Azkaban when any  contact with his past life was treasured and clung to with desperation no matter how unpleasant. Thus his desperate, often reckless, attempts in the canon to connect with Harry, a clear link to his life before Azkaban, can be explained. By writing an account of his time in Azkaban, hijklmnop enhances Sirius’s character and gives him depth and meaning that the canon cannot.

It is important to note, however, that it is not only in individual fan fictions that a greater understanding of minor characters can be acquired.  Henry Jenkins (1992) puts forward the idea that interpretations of characters within the canon are often community based:

“Fan reception cannot and does not exist in isolation, but is always shaped through input from other fans and motivated, at least partially, by a desire for further interaction with a larger social and cultural community” (p. 76)

Through his studies of fan community and culture, Jenkins strongly links fan culture with the way texts and characters are interpreted.  This is supported by Angela Thomas (2006), who notes that communal understanding and feedback are very important in fan fiction with many authors writing collaborative fiction. Collaborative fiction is when two writers work together based on a mutual understanding of a canon text in order to create a new story. This practice allows authors to bring their own, unique interpretations of the canon and the characters within it and expand  upon them by sharing and discussing them with another person who shares the fandom. Jenkins suggests that “it is this public sharing that shifts fannish interpretations from individual to collective responses […] [helping] sustain the emotional immediacy that initially attracted the fan’s interest“ (p. 77). Thus, it is not only through individual interpretations of characters that they are expanded but also the understanding of the fan community as a whole. This is especially true in the case of minor characters who do not have enough presence in the canon material to have a concrete character formed and, instead, rely on fan interpretations to give them life and complexity.

In order to understand how the expansion of minor characters can enhance the canon it is important to discuss how minor characters function. The reason for a minor character’s existence within the canon is in order to support the major characters and to propel the story forward. They are not the main focus of the story and thus their background and motivations are often not discussed; the reader is left to make their own judgements based on their actions and appearances. By writing derivative works, authors help to give these characters context and help to explain why they interact with major characters in the way they do.

Though derivative works are not part of the canon, they do affect the reader’s perception of it. Abigail Derecho (2006) explains the experience by comparing it to “reading two texts at once” (p. 73). When reading a derivative work, the reader cannot help but compare it to what they know of the canon text because it is the canon which gives the work its meaning.  This transference of meaning also works the other way with the reader bringing the insight they gained from the derivative work back when they revisit the canon. Derecho comments that, having read Wide Sargasso Sea we are now “force[d] […] to read Jane Eyre with new eyes” (p .73). This same effect can be seen with unofficial derivative works such as fan fiction. Having been exposed to JuliansGIrl’s Norrington we cannot watch Pirates of the Caribbean without noting how his devotion to Elizabeth and her subsequent indifference causes him to act. Observing this, we cannot then ignore the significance of his death despite his position as a minor character. Similarly, having read hijklmnop’s explanation of Sirius’s character we cannot not take this into account when reading the canon and seeing Sirius’s actions. What has been read cannot be unread. Just as one cannot read Wide Sargasso Sea without Jane Eyre, we cannot now, having read the derivative, look at the original without the insight it has given us.  Derivative works interact with the canon texts in order to create more meaning.  Additionally, especially in fan communities, derivative works and the canon interact with the communal understanding of the meaning of the texts and characters in order to create even more complex meanings and insights. This is especially true in the case of minor characters whose motivations and goals are not made clear in the canon text.

Minor characters are characters that couldn’t be fleshed out in the original work because of the need to tell the protagonist’s story. By giving life to them in derivative works, a greater depth and understanding can be found in these characters and in the canon work as a whole. By understanding minor characters and their motivations behind their interactions with major characters more meaning and depth is added to the original text.

Works Cited
Derecho, A. (2006). Archontic literature: A definition, a history and several theories of fan fiction. In K. Hellekson & K. Busse (Eds.) Fan fiction and fan communities in the age of the internet (pp 61-78). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Galef, D. (1993). The supporting cast: A study of flat and minor characters. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.
hijklmnop. (2009). The living and the dead. Retrieved from http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5114178/1/The_Living_and_the_Dead
Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual Poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. New York: Routledge.
JuliansGIrl. (2007). Longing. Retrieved from http://www.fanfiction.net/s/3572085/1/Longing
Jung, D. (2005). Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea: Exploring its success and failure as post-colonial text around characterization of “Antoinette” vs representation of “Christophine”.  Journal of English and American Studies, 4. Retrieved from http://jeas.co.kr/sub/cnt.asp?num=39&volnum=4
Poole, O. (2003, January 11). The elf who turned into a chick magnet. The Age. Retrieved from  http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/01/10/1041990093364.html
Pugh, S. (2005). The democratic genre: Fan fiction in a literary context. Bridgend, Wales: Seren.
Thomas, A. (2006). Fan fiction online: Engagement, critical response and affective play through writing. The Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 29(3), 226-239.
Thorpe, M. (1977). “The other side”: Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre. Ariel: a review of international English literature, 23(2), 99-110.
United States Copyright Office. (2010). Copyright registration for derivative works. Retrieved from http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ14.pdf
Wloszczyna, S. (2002). ‘Lord’ of the extras: Elfin charmer nets fans. USAToday. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2002-08-05-figwit_x.htm

About Meg Laverick

I can never be found without a cup of tea in my hand or a notebook in my bag. In between university and generally being awesome I read, write and nerd (that's a verb, right?). I also like analysing things that are probably best left alone.
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7 Responses to Minor Complication: How Derivative Works can Develop and Complicate Minor Characters

  1. JuliansGIrl says:

    Ahhh yes. An oldie but a goodie. Awesome, as always (and recycling is good for the planet <3)!!!

  2. phoenixandtiger says:

    …Wow. That was awesome. Now I have other fanfics to look up!

    And as for Sirius, I’m sure it can totally be argued that he wasn’t really a ‘supporting character’ or a ‘minor character’. Or maybe it’s just me and how I obsess over every little mention of him in the books. Eh.

    • Meg Laverick says:

      I’d love to see you argue that Sirius wasn’t a supporting character. In my opinion, the only main characters in HP were the awesome threesome and Voldemort (…Maybe Draco but that’s pushing it). Everyone else was there to support and keep the story moving.

      So scary academic essay wasn’t too scary?

  3. As someone who has never been involved with fanfic, this post offers a great introduction as to the whys and what-fors of derivative works. It also makes me wish I’d studied whatever it is you are studying, because writing this seems like more fun than doing advanced maths (although perhaps you are doing that, too, and your next post will solve some particularly gnarly triple integral!)! Best of luck with your studies!!

    • Meg Laverick says:

      I’m glad that you found it interesting!

      I’m still not sure how I talked my way into doing this essay, actually (Though it probably involved throwing around the phrase ‘Derivative Fiction’ like it was going out of fashion. Academic language- even in the service of allowing me to read more fanfiction- always sounds impressive) OR how I talked myself into writing my current fanfic-related one (though, again, probably with the irresponsible use of big words allowing me to waste a few days reading fanfic in the name of ‘research’)

      I study Business and Writing so no chance of me mathleting it out on you, I’m afraid. Though advanced maths sounds wicked impressive. The mere thought of maths makes my head ache a little, to be honest. I solve this by surrounding myself with people who can do my maths for me.

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