What Authors Know About Their Characters
In a New York Times piece on Dumbledore’s homosexuality, critic Edward Rothstein suggests that J.K. Rowling, Dumbledore’s creator, might not know what she’s talking about:
But it is possible that Ms. Rowling may be mistaken about her own character. She may have invented Hogwarts and all the wizards within it, she may have created the most influential fantasy books since J. R. R. Tolkien, and she may have woven her spell over thousands of pages and seven novels, but there seems to be no compelling reason within the books for her after-the-fact assertion. Of course it would not be inconsistent for Dumbledore to be gay, but the books’ accounts certainly don’t make it necessary. The question is distracting, which is why it never really emerges in the books themselves. Ms. Rowling may think of Dumbledore as gay, but there is no reason why anyone else should.
Sure there is: Because he is. Because the author made him that way. Whether or not anyone but the author knew about it up to last week simply doesn’t matter. The author, in her formulation of the character, has this as part of his background, and that background informs how the character was written. Rothstein is under the impression that because Dumbledore’s sexuality is not explicitly in the text it’s irrelevant or not necessary. But it’s not true; if Rowling had as part of Dumbledore’s background that he was straight, or entirely asexual, his character would be different and his actions and responses and backstory would be different. He would be different. He wouldn’t be the Dumbledore he is today (or was, because he’s dead, but even so).
Rothstein seems to be falling into the trap of assuming that everything that goes into a character shows up on the page. This is entirely wrong. What shows up on the page is the public life of the character, so to speak: The things about a character that a writer chooses to let you know about them. The private life of a character exists off the page, and takes place between the writer and the character. You don’t see that unless the author discusses it later, in interviews or commentary or whatever. Authors have privilege concerning our characters; we know more about them than the readers. Or as Neil Gaiman recently put it:
You always wind up knowing more about your characters than you can get onto the page. Pages are finite, and the story isn’t about giving you all the information about everyone in it any more than life is. Things the author knows about characters (or at least, strongly suspects — it’s never really real until it hits the page, because the process of writing is also a process of discovery) that don’t make it onto the page could include the characters’ backstory, what they like to eat, the toothpaste they use, what happens to them after the story is over or before it began, and what they do in bed. That something didn’t turn up in the books just means it didn’t make it onto the page or wasn’t relevant to the story.
Does the reader need to know Dumbledore is gay? Probably not. Does the reader have to care that he’s gay? That’s up to the reader. Do these facts mean that Dumbledore’s sexuality is unimportant to who the character is? Absolutely not. The moment Rowling said (or discovered, however you want to put it) that Dumbledore was gay, it made a difference in how she perceived him and how she wrote him. The only way Rowling’s statement of Dumbledore’s sexuality would be irrelevant or should be ignored by the reader (should they hear of the fact at all) is if there were proof that Rowling was tacking on the sexuality of Dumbledore after the fact of the writing, i.e., that Rowling had no conception of Dumbledore’s sexuality through all the books, and then is throwing the “dude, he’s gay” statement out there now just for kicks. Given how much people have been saying “well, now such-and-such scene makes perfect sense,” regarding the books, this doesn’t seem like it’s the case. She’s got backup in the work.
Which is not to say such after-the-fact author revisionism doesn’t happen. The reason that Ray Bradbury’s recent declaration that Fahrenheit 451 wasn’t about censorship but was instead about television destroying literature is looked upon with such utter skepticism is because for the last 50 years it has been about censorship (Bradbury himself has explicitly noted this); while Bradbury takes a poke at TV in the book, the core of the story — what’s in the text — is the effect of censorship on his primary character, who is himself a censor. Bradbury’s free to say what he wants, but his own words and his own text speak against him, and on balance I’m going with the text, because it doesn’t change its mind.
Now, if Rowling had lardered the Harry Potter books with tales of Dumbledore’s heterosexual relationships, and had done numerous interviews about how in his younger years he cut a swath through witches and mugglettes alike, leaving a trail of women raving about his wandwork, then we would have reason to discard a latter-day revelation of his gayness; it would be patent nonsense. She did neither. Rowling’s outing of Dumbledore might be surprising, but it’s not inconsistent with what we know of the text or the character.
Rowling is getting some whacks because she never explicitly stated Dumbledore’s sexuality within the books themselves, which is fair enough, although I think it’s a little silly. Authors are not obliged to outline every detail about a character, and from what I know of Dumbledore (I haven’t read the books themselves because the little I’ve read of Rowling’s prose style doesn’t set me aflame; I stick to the movies) it would be entirely in character for him to be circumspect about the topic of his sexuality, both in dealing with Harry and his pals, and in the clearly rather conservative world of magic. Rowling’s made it pretty obvious that in her Potterverse it’s hard to be “out” when you have an alternate lifestyle (cf. that Lupis dude), and there’s no indication that the world of magic is any more gay-friendly than it is werewolf-friendly. She built a world that has certain rules; characters in that world live by those rules. Those rules aren’t necessarily the same rules as our world lives by.
Going back to Rothstein, the best you can say for his argument is that it notes that Dumbledore doesn’t have to be gay for many of the influential events of his life to have had an effect on him. To which the correct response is to say, yes, well. And this would be different from the lives of actual gay people exactly how? We go through any number of events in our lives without our sexuality front and center — it would make sense an author would model a character similarly. But it doesn’t mean that at the end of the day that sexuality doesn’t matter to who the character is.
Dumbledore’s gay: He was written that way. As a reader, you may not need to know it, or may even feel it’s essential to what you see as his purpose, any more than in the real life you’d need to know if your mailman were gay, or your bank teller or your local librarian, or would see their sexuality as essential to how you relate to them even if you did. But what you know, and what these people know about themselves — and what an author knows about his or her characters, not to mention what the characters know about themselves — are separate things. And what they know matters to who they are.
So, no. Rowling’s not mistaken about Dumbledore. Rothstein, however, is.