On Fanfiction (and why I ship Zutara)

10

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 🙂

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10 thoughts on “On Fanfiction (and why I ship Zutara)

  1. […] that we get a lot of hits from people searching for Zutara fan art and fanfiction, all going to my fanfiction manifesto.  That’s awesome, because CLEARLY Zutara is the pairing that makes the most sense within the […]

  2. NyNy says:

    Your paragraph quote is right! Another way you can see it as “Fans are outsiders wanting to look in” – we want to write what we believe goes on behind the scenes of an idol’s life. But if it’s not set in a current universe then idol fiction writers usually just want to recreate their idols into their own original fiction. Does that make sense at all?

    By the way, I wrote a post about my own fiction pet peeves on my blog so I hope you will read and comment with your own! http://nynyonlinex.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/fiction-pet-peeves/

  3. Darkmaster006 says:

    Firstly, you really do not have the right to say whole fanfiction is poorly written because it’s not. Secondly, check this out: http://homtanks.tumblr.com/post/21122062293/zutara-is-the-worst-ship-ever altough it’s a bit extreme and some points are a bit nonsense, I think it sums up why Zutara couldn’t be, and why Kataang yes. You just mentioned Zuko’s part and Aang’s crush impossibility to last, which I don’t share that opinion, you have to consider that he’s the Avatar, they were friends all the way travelling and they really mutual care about each other, I don’t wanna enter a looong discussion here as I’m afraid I’d lose my time trying to change your mind or make you understand, anyways, there’s nonsense in Katara liking Zuko, a guy who killed people, tried to kill Aang, kidnapped and used her just in order to capture Aang, picture that and see, Katara would not forget him so easily and less would her love him, not even Zuko loves her as a romantinc thing, just friendship, acceptance, because he wants her to accept him, that’s why she tries his best with her.

    • Julia says:

      Unfortunately, most fanfiction is poorly-written. I tried just yesterday to read some, as a matter of fact (I’ve become a huge Tiva fan, and watching nothing but NCIS while on maternity leave made me want to read about them), and I got disgusted and stopped after two attempts to read stories that sounded promising but contained so many errors that they were just distracting. Lots of people have great ideas to explore worlds and characters, but writing fiction well is a specific gift that not everyone has. I fully admit that I myself am not a great writer of fiction. I write nonfiction like a champ, but fiction? Not so much. And when I say poorly-written, by the way, I can point to specific rules of grammar, sentence construction, storytelling, and things like that. All I’m saying is that there are simply too many errors in too many stories for me to want to waste my time sifting through them for the good ones.

      Here’s the thing about Zutara: I don’t like either Katara or Zuko. In the first series, Katara is a bossy bitch, and Zuko is violent and unstable. We see in Legend of Korra that both characters mellow out and gain wisdom in their respective roles (by all accounts, Zuko is a good ruler), but based on the original series, I couldn’t stand to be around either one of them. I only like the unit of them together, because they would be good for each other. That Tumblr post is full of goofy arguments, but I don’t really have time to debunk them one by one. But, Katara’s self-righteousness would easily have allowed her to “grant” Zuko forgiveness for his treatment of her–and that would have led to (as she grew up and confronted her emotions, and learned more about other people) real forgiveness and understanding of why Zuko did what he did. In turn, receiving loving forgiveness from someone he had hurt and exploring his own emotions about being used and abandoned by his father would turn Zuko into a better man who can serve others. I strongly, strongly doubt Mai spent even a single moment really understanding Zuko or helping him grow as a person. She is so negative that she would have (if the original series took place in the real world instead of an artificial world) made him doubt himself and turn inward in self-loathing.

      • Darkmaster006 says:

        Yes, there’s poorly-written fanfiction, a lot of grammar mistakes, impossible to read, but there are a lot of fics well-written too. Anyways, I don’t agree with you and I can’t really explain myself anyways, but I don’t see what you see and we’ll never agree with each other so there’s no point. By the way, how would that leave Aang to? He and Katara had been in love all along the series, and they’re more than good for each other, they’re perfect for each other, if Katara wouldn’t have loved Aang, Aang would be destroyed really. By the way, I think you see Mai wrong at saying he does not comfort Zuko or can deal with him, she might be too negative, but she would be able to help Zuko, and she did it a lot of times. Katara would be really ooc being with Zuko, and don’t you think she wouldn’t really like Zuko? I mean, he’s full of anger and everything, and Mai can understand that, but Katara would grown tired of him, she certainly likes Aang, full of happiness and love. And yes, that article has a lot of goofy arguments, but we can save one or two. Aang and Katara, they’ve been caring for each other all the series and they complement each other. Zuko would not be good for Katara at all, Katara may help Zuko, but if there’s one path and no return Katar would just be a thing to help? It’s nonsense. Katara has nothing to learn from Zuko if you think that, Aang is way more wiser, and in the episode where he travels to kill the man who killed her mother, Aang was really present there to stop her, in her mind, Aang helped her to think rationally, Zuko just wanted her to let it be done, would that help to forgive? No. They both lost their mothers? Aang lost the entire race, so he can share the pain with Katara if there’s somethhing more in common. Zutara is nonsense in every way you can see it.

      • Darkmaster006 says:

        Don’t yousee, by the way, that maybe Mai wouldn’t be so negative if she’s with Zuko? That’s the cure for her depression, Zuko can help her and therefore Mai would help Zuko. Oh, and thatdraw it’s just irrational, why would Katara go with Zuko if he comes when she’s with Aang and she’d not just be like: “I’m yours” if Zuko decides to come :/.

      • Julia says:

        Mai is with Zuko during the series, and she is negative then–it’s not that she’s depressed, that’s just her personality. She needs someone who is more positive and confident to help her see the good side of things. Zuko would not be any better for her than she is for him, since he is ALSO negative (although I think he has more mental illness issues than she does).

        The point of the fanart is that Katara loved Zuko all along 😉

      • Darkmaster006 says:

        Actually the only times we see Mai smile is when he’s with Zuko, Zuko does good to her because she loves him, and that’s what matters. The point of the fanart is that Katara is that Katara would be waiting for Zuko just because he’s “handsome” and the fanart shows her actually really OOC. Sorry, Katara loved Aang all along :). I see we are not going anywhere with this, idk if you have read my last comment (before the Mai one) read it if you want, I won’t be able to change your mind I see tough I believe I have the reason, actually I do, but well you won’t agree with me, so it’s pointless, Zutara is really wrong on so many levels, I hope you realize someday, anyways, good luck with your ship or whatever haha.

      • Julia says:

        I didn’t see the other comment, so thanks for pointing it out. I completely agree that there is some good fanfic out there. My problem is that I don’t have the time or patience to dig through the bad fic to find the good ones. As it is, I don’t have time for actual productive things (like laundry), so when I sit down to read, I want to get right to the good stuff.

        I have always interpreted the series as Katara seeing Aang as a little brother and Aang having a crush on her. I just about fell over when Katara indicated she loved him back, because it was so out of left field for me–I thought Aang just had a little crush that Katara would kindly let him know was pointless, and then they would be best friends who married other people.

        But, this is a good example of why I don’t interact with fandom anymore. It doesn’t bother me one bit that you like Kataang and Maiko; I feel no need to tell you why your ships are wrong. All I want to do is look at cute pictures and read cute stories (if I could find any good ones–I’ve basically stopped looking) about my ship. Part of the reason I like Zutara has to do with thinking the other potential pairings would make no sense in the real world, but I don’t begrudge anyone who likes those pairings. Fandom is much too adversarial for me anymore.

      • Darkmaster006 says:

        I know, we all have our opinions and they’ll barely change if they change st all, so there’s really no point to this discussion as long as no one will change their mind. Anyways, in fact it was a rich discussion and it was good and fun for me to let out Zutara’s hate hahaha. But yeah, anyone can ship whatever they want and there’s no kind of how it’d be wrong, altough it could be, but the wrong one will not hear reasons and still thinking it’s fine, at least for him, that may be More Zutara’s hate, but actually I’m talking more about Katokka or Ursko, that’s seriously nonsense at all with no discussion xD.

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