Reader Interpretation Versus Writer Intention

Christian Fantasy Writing

Dictionary pictureFantasy deals with worlds other than our own, yet it has strong application to the realities of life. Allegory, supposal, applicability, or the range in between allow for the drawing of parallels between fantasy situations and that which we encounter in life–but interpretations widely differ.

Readers often take ownership of a story and use their perceptions to draw definitive conclusions about its meaning.

To an extent, books belong to the reader. A story, once released, takes on a legitimate meaning to each individual that others may not observe.

When we come to read, we bring with us our own imaginations and experiences, and they naturally shape our perceptions. It’s when we try to interpret an author’s motives or beliefs from the meaning we perceive that problems can arise.

In Tolkien’s day, some considered Lord of the Rings a political allegory dealing with the World Wars, a notion he went to great lengths to combat. Was it right for readers to claim it was a political allegory, regardless of what Tolkien stated? Could they rightly claim they offered a definitive interpretation of the tale?

Others have used their views of stories to accuse writers of holding problematic beliefs. For example, some have raged against the supposed anti-semitism of CS Lewis. They claim he displayed this in his novels, when in fact, his letters condemn persecution of the Jews, and his wife had a Jewish background.

So while we will determine our own story meaning, it may not be the meaning or core essence of the story that the author intended. This applies particularly to the fantasy genre, since it allows so much room for interpretation. Given that, we have to be careful not to make too many assumptions about the beliefs of the writer…and also not to assume meaning that goes against the writer’s stated intent.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Image credit: jollyville


  • Jennifer Hallmark
    May 31, 2012 - 9:33 am · Reply

    Interesting thought. There’s a flip side to that. As a person that likes to write allegory, I’ve had people mention the way my story spoke to them, often something I didn’t see myself. I’m often surprised by the way allegory slips into, undetected by me, the stories 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 4, 2012 - 4:52 pm · Reply

      Good point, Jennifer! Themes or symbolism can make their way into our stories during the creative process without us realizing it, and it’s fun when that happens. 🙂

  • Mary Ruth Pursselley
    May 31, 2012 - 10:33 am · Reply

    I agree, Sarah. You put this into words beautifully.
    I almost get the feeling that people are quicker to criticize stories in the speculative genres than they are other genres. I suppose this is due to the fact that the possibilities are so broad and that writers do often construct fictional worlds as a means of communicating their own ideas or beliefs, so there is more room for interpretation. Still, like you said, we have to be careful not to assume intents the author never had.
    On a related note, I also find it interesting just how many different interpretations different people can make of the exact same book or movie. That should say something about the validity of ‘definitive’ interpretations.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 4, 2012 - 4:56 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Mary! I’ve observed quick criticisms of speculative novels and their supposed meanings as well, and I think you gave a good summary of factors that contribute to the issue.

      And I know what you mean about the huge differences of opinion that can exist of the same book. I’ve had discussions where I’ve wondered if the other person read the same book I did or something entirely different. 🙂

  • Janeen Ippolito
    June 5, 2012 - 9:28 pm · Reply

    As a reader, I’m pretty attached to my imagined versions of stories–makes it difficult to see books-to-movies sometimes, because they “get it wrong.” I’m more relaxed with fairy tales, in general, because it’s more acceptable to rework them. As a culture, we’re used to it.

    I also agree that other kinds of spec fic can be ridiculously easy to read into. Any time you create a new race, it could come under fire for negatively reflecting the traits of a real-life ethnicity. While I suppose there have been instances of genuine defamation, a lot of the time I believe it’s the reader who brings a set of preconceived notions/slights and then filters the story to fit that sense of victimization.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      June 11, 2012 - 4:46 pm · Reply

      Janeen, I’m the same way. I rarely enjoy movie adaptations of my favorite books, although I do appreciate fairy tale retellings (they’re by nature flexible, as you said).

      Perceived racism is an excellent example, because it’s a touchy subject and people are much more likely to “see” it in a fantasy novel when in reality it doesn’t exist. It’s an interesting aspect of human nature!

  • Virginia Ripple
    June 28, 2012 - 12:59 pm · Reply

    This reminds me of a recent debate I saw on Facebook over the movie Prometheus. One person loved it and said anyone who didn’t obviously was in league with those who accept, and even promote, the social status quo that represses gays and minorities because that was what the movie was about. Those who hated the movie said the story line was weak and there were plot holes galore. It all reminded me of something Mark Twain said about Huck Finn: anyone trying to get more out of the story than entertainment should be shot (paraphrase).

    In the end, I wonder just how much the writer has to do with what the reader gets out of the story.

    Great post!

    • Sarah Sawyer
      July 2, 2012 - 4:44 pm · Reply

      It’s good to “see” you again, Virginia! That’s a good example of the wide variety of opinions and ideas people take away from a story. I don’t think I’ve heard that Mark Twain quote before, but it sounds like the words of a writer fed up with people’s interpretations of his book. 🙂

      Thanks for chiming in with your thoughts!

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