News that Star Wars Episode VII has had its release date pushed back seven months has sparked a number of rumours. Chief among these is that the reason for the delay is to allow for script re-writes that will grant more development and screen time to fan-favourite characters Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron. Apparently the big cheeses over at Lucasfilm and Disney weren't expecting these to be the characters audiences connected with. Sources suggest that executives were sure it would be Kylo Ren who was the favourite, and this fed into the prominence of his merchandise, while toymakers were specifically instructed to leave Rey out, because of the belief that 'boy's toys' shouldn't feature female characters.
And this got me thinking a lot about the way we construct a story, as writers. Especially when writing a series, reader reaction is going to have some influence on your creative choices. Readers might love a character you thought was going to be forgotten. They may have zero interest in your favourite character, the one you've got so many plans for. What do you do?
Do you dig your heels in and write as you'd originally planned? You're taking a risk here. What if readers continue to show no interest in the characters and plotlines you wanted to focus on?
Do you change what you had planned, turning the focus to the fan-favourites? This might be a hard thing to do. Does this count as selling out? Have you compromised your artistic integrity?
There is no one universal answer to this, but it's naive to think that a writer can shield themselves from the influence of reader opinion. Something will change. Once you let your story out into the world, it's no longer really yours. Not completely. Part of it will always belong to the reader, and as you receive more feedback, you will have more factors to consider in all your decisions.
Is it wrong to stick to your guns and keep things the way you wanted them, regardless of what your readers want? No, I don't believe so. However, it's foolish to do this without accepting the risk that you will lose readers, and arrogant to assume that what readers want doesn't matter. No book or movie is perfect, and we shouldn't pretend our own work is any different. If someone later points out something they regard as a flaw, we must accept that our work is flawed, and decide if we're content with that, or if we want to do things differently in the future.
And neither is it wrong to change what you were planning. The term 'self-censorship' gets bandied about an awful lot. Any time I talk about the Bechdel-Wallace Test it is almost a guarantee that someone will make a comment about self-censorship, and ask why a writer should have to change their work just to satisfy what they see as an arbitrary condition. What's arbitrary or unimportant to one person, however, is an essential issue to another. We have to decide whether our own biases should determine what we write, or whether we're open to seeing things from another perspective.
Deciding to change something in response to feedback is not self-censorship. Nor is it self-censorship to make a decision in order to promote a particular idea. These are creative choices, made by artists who value not only their own ideas, but the feedback of their audience.
I believe completely in an author's responsibility to be honest about their work. So whether you're certain your work will be the best it can be by sticking to your original plans, or you want to do whatever it takes to make your readers happy, or you fall anywhere between those two extremes, write the best books you can. Accept both praise and criticism, because no matter what choice you make, you'll never receive all the praise you want, and you'll always receive more criticism than you'd like. ;-)