August 16, 2012 by Julia
(this post contains spoilers for Avatar: the Last Airbender)
Kaitlin recently wrote a good post on the basics of fanfic over at the blog for the Athele Series: Fanfiction: What’s the use? (discovered through Freshly Pressed). I end up having a lot of conversations about fanfic, so I wanted to throw out my theories. Yes, it is discussed so often that I have actual theories–this is kind of just what geek girls do.
Anyway, the baseline for my perspective on fanfic is that the original author did not get the story wrong. The author may in fact be a poor writer, and the characters, as individuals, may make poor decisions, but the things that happen in canon actually happened within the confines of the fictional world. (This is terribly meta of me, and a bit off topic, but I treat fictional worlds as if they are parallel dimensions, which keeps their events and people contained in a sterile environment) For a reader to happen along and state that the author “got the story wrong” indicates that the reader does not understand where the story came from. The “right” ending is the one that the author–the one who created and owns the world and people in it–put on paper. Period. In this context, of course, “right” means “accurately describes events.” It does NOT mean that an ending was well-written or that characters made good decisions for themselves.
The purpose of fanfiction, therefore, is to explore the world or the characters in ways that the original story did not have room for. This conception of fic certainly leaves room for Mary Sues, crossovers, AUs, or any number of creative re-imaginings; they are simply ways to conduct that exploration. What if my favorite character met an original character just like me? What if a character I like in one book met a character I like from another book? What if all the characters were pirates instead of ninja? None of those scenarios necessarily state that the author was wrong. Rather, there’s a sense of, “Okay, what would this person do if X thing were different?” That’s fair game, I believe, and Kaitlin described it well:
In fanfiction, you take a ready made character and then put them through trials and joys in order to change them in some way. In original fiction, you create a character, and then put them through trials and joys in order to change them in some way. Notice how the concept ran together after a little while? This is the most important shared principle of fanfic and original writing. In the end, both stories, and indeed, all stories, require change. Whether you learn to orchestrate that change in fanfiction or original fiction, it’s up to you.
Once we treat the characters as people (albeit people who can multiply themselves and exist in several worlds at the same time), we can separate what actually happened in the original story-world and the decisions available to the characters. I’ll give you an example from Avatar: the Last Airbender, because it perfectly illustrates my point and because I am a huge shipper of Zutara (Zuko + Katara). Be warned, the next paragraphs will have spoilers.
The television series ends with Aang together with Katara and Zuko together with Mai. Based on the Legend of Korra, these couples appear to have stayed together. Now, that is actually what happened in the world. While it feels rushed, the ending was not badly written per se. However, the characters made poor decisions, which the writers then white-washed with happily-ever-after BS. Yes, that storyline really happened, but it only worked because it occurred in an isolated parallel world that does not operate like our world.
If the magical world of Avatar played by our rules, Aang’s childhood crush on Katara probably wouldn’t have lasted; at the same time, Katara would have gotten sick of waiting for Aang to grow up. Seriously, how many couples do you know who met in middle school and are still together? I only know of one (yes, I sure there are more, but it’s probably not common). Further, they spent Lord knows how long traveling around as practically each other’s ONLY potential mate. Of course they developed a physical attraction to each other–they were in a very stressful, dangerous situation, frequently battled and fueled with adrenaline.
Zuko and Mai would fare even worse. Zuko has all sorts of mental problems, not least among them a huge problem with inadequacy as inheritor of the Fire Nation. As a side note, it is one of my pet peeves when anti-heroes with obvious problems are instantaneously cured by either TRUE LOVE! or victory of some sort. Sorry, it doesn’t happen overnight, and just gives innocent young girls in the real world an excuse to date dangerous men under the guise of “saving” them. Drives me up the wall. Anyway, he would likely be constantly battling with himself over decision-making, and angsting over whether the people 1. like him and/or 2. believe he is the rightful Firelord. Guess what WON’T help Zuko in this scenario? Yeah, constant negativity from his beloved wife.
Given Katara’s eventual boredom and Zuko’s dark downward spiral, this seems like the more realistic outcome:
This is the role of fanfic (to explore what would happen if X happened to the characters) at work. Yes, it’s fanart, but it serves the same purpose and is easier to digest than a huge block of text. Here, X is “the psychology of our reality being imposed on the Avatar cast.” We know that in “reality,” Zuko somehow put up with Mai for his whole life (unless one of the remaining seasons of Korra is going to reveal a Zuko-Katara love child), but what if . . . ?
There is one other role of fanfic that interests me, and that is the “fill in the blank” aspect, where fic fills in spots not covered in the original story. The author didn’t put any canon in there, so it’s also fair game for readers. Now, this type of fic usually presupposes the same ending that “really” happened (i.e., if A and C happen in canon, the fic describes B), but what is neat is that the filled in part could make a case that the end wasn’t actually the end–there was more to the story that the author simply chose not to tell (i.e. the story ends at D or E, not C). That’s also fair game, because the story-world kept going, even if the author stopped documenting the events therein.
Quickly, there is also fic that involves other aspects of the world, with different characters exploring it. Because I like characters more so than worlds, this does not interest me as much.
After all that rambling, I’m sure I sound like a huge fan of fanfiction, but here’s a secret: I’m not. I almost never read it. The beauty and the bane of the internet is that everyone is allowed on it–so everyone is allowed to post their crappy stories to their heart’s content. I would never take away that freedom, but there’s no way I’m going to waste my time reading poorly-written drivel with barely characterized versions of the people I love doing boring things. I read very little fic, and then only if I decide I like a particular couple and want to read about how people think they get together (and even then, I will only read things rated 5 stars, and will stop if there are too many errors). I do write fic, but only in spurts, and mostly in very specific fandoms.
So, there you have it. I have respect for the institution of fanfiction, and I will absolutely defend it, but I really don’t interact with it much. That said, if you know any great Zutara, GokuderaxHaru, or ShikaTema fics, send me a link 🙂