Sunday, October 7, 2012

Shipping, happy endings, and all the stories

I've recently, more or less by accident, stumbled my way into the world of fanfiction, and I have to say it has been an eye-opener in more ways than one.

It all began with some idle speculation by my two elder daughters about what became of the Blythe family in the Anne of Green Gables stories after the end of the last book in the series. "I really wish we knew," one of them remarked wistfully.

"Well, sometimes people other than the author write extra stories, you know," I told them. "It's just their imagined version of how the stories might have gone, but..."

"Really?" the girls exclaimed.

So I consulted Professor Google and lickety-split, we were into a fairly serious volume of AoGG fanfic, both of the alternate universe variety (with major or minor divergence points from the events and characters of the actual books) and the extension-of-the-story variety.

Some of the stories were really very sweet and we liked them a lot; some captured L M Montgomery's voice extremely well. And I was quite surprised to find that I found it oddly satisfying in some way reading stories that resolved unfinished story arcs from the books, even given that is only one reader / fan's version of how things could have gone. All stories end, but sometimes, you just don't want them to, especially if you are not done emotionally or intellectually with the characters. The Anne books have always fallen into that category for me.

A logical segueway from reading AoGG fanfic with my girls was a growing curiosity about what other fictional worlds or stories might have inspired fanfiction. The possibilities are vast, and I quickly worked out that most of them have been explored, in some way, by someone, somewhere.

Rather than get lost in the mass of options, I decided to concentrate my reading on two stories / worlds that I am extremely attached to, and that, like Anne, left me wanting more in terms of story development. Both are TV series that, in my opinion, finished far too early, before they had a chance to provide a satisfying completion of their quite complex plotlines. Note that I'm not necessarily arguing that shows that run longer get this right - sometimes, getting all caught up in master plots is a terrible, terrible thing (X Files, I'm looking at YOU), but in these two cases, I really think the shows were on a path to something wonderful before the pin was pulled. I'm talking about Rob Thomas's Veronica Mars and Joss Whedon's Firefly.

Now, it should probably go without saying that fanfiction is variable in quality, plausibility and readability. (That's an obvious statement if ever there was one :-) It also shows a lighter - or in many cases completely absent - editorial touch than does most published fiction, and in many cases, it reads as more amatuerish, which isn't surprising, because, well, it is. Very few clever literary tricks or pomo stylings are deployed; straight narrativity, with an emphasis on dialogue and action, is the norm.

But with all of that said, what it all gets right, even the less polished efforts, is an enthusiasm, a commitment to the fictional world, a wholeheartedness, that is enormously appealing. People writing fanfic of these shows are doing because they really love, and deeply know, these worlds. They are deploying their imaginations and creative energies to craft something that adds to the world of the canon. I find that impossibly great in many ways.

Two things, though, that have struck me through reading VM and Firefly fanfiction - and again, these won't surprise anyone - are the absolute determination of almost all writers to create relationships between characters that are either non-canon or very differently presented in the shows themselves; and the not universal, but still widespread, trend towards providing happy endings for the key characters and storylines. These two trends often meld, naturally, with the happy endings being supplied by relationships between characters.

Of course, one of the mingled joys and irritations of fanfic is the wildly variable ways that fans interpret or represent possible relationships and how they might play out. I have found this especially fascinating in the Firefly stories, where literally (and I do mean literally) every possible combination of characters has been paired off by some fanfic or other, even the ones that are so inherently implausible based on the relationships presented in the show as to be laughable and / or nauseating. Some of this stuff is not only unabashed, it's ... disturbing. (And I do not mean because it can be explicit; I mean that it makes me deeply uneasy because that is not how those characters would behave.)

I was working through exactly why all this determined shipping* was annoying to me, even in stories that are otherwise well-written, when it struck me that I was the problem, not the stories. It's because I have this thing about the integrity of the story as presented by its creator. I love to run my mind over what-next scenarios - I do it for almost every story I've really engaged with - but I feel bound, even on my speculations, to respect the characters and aesthetic of the story that the author actually wrote. To me, having characters do things that there is never the slightest hint they might be capable of - and sometimes direct evidence that they wouldn't be - doesn't sit right. (I am much less affronted - in fact, not at all affronted - by people filling in gaps or playing out future storylines between characters that actually were in relationships in the canon. That's part of extending the story, to me, and I like that).

But here's the thing - that's just me. That's the way I approach texts and worlds, not the way everyone does. If fanfic is read as not just an extension of a fan's engagement with a story, but also as an outlet for other drives and subconscious yearnings, it makes perfect sense that it might work for one writer to pair up two unlikely characters, if each one represents something important in that writer's own life. I guess this is the true dynamism of creativity, that when good things are created, they will inspire more than one reaction and more than one imperative.

While I'm not a mad lover of the all the shipping, the second trend, to giving people and stories happy endings, is one I'm much more in tune with. I always feel a little regretful when things end badly in a story, even where it is clearly the "right" ending artistically. I know sadness and pain and loss are the fuel of story, and that unrelieved sunshine is, well, boring. But when I am attached to characters, I want things to end well for them, and the urge to fix up wounds, restore the dead, and kiss-better traumas is one I really sympathise with. (The number of Firefly fanfics in which Wash does not die in Serenity is a case in point here. I, also, did not want Wash to die, and I so I sneakily and shamefacedly approve of the AU** fics where he lives on). At the end of the day, I am wistful for the "and they all lived happily ever after" version sometimes, and fanfic delivers this in massive spadefuls.

So it's been a pretty fun ride, filling my non-work, non-kid time for the past 10 days or so. I'd not claim to be any kind of expert on fanfiction - and, much as I've enjoyed some of it, I'm not tempted to write any; when I write fiction, it's my own characters that sit up and speak. But I reckon I will read more. It's fun, it's relaxing, and some of it's damn good. Sometimes, when I'm tired and preoccupied, it's a perfect fit for my reading mood.

UPDATE: I have just been directed by a reader (much more experienced in fanfiction than I am!) to the following TV Tropes entry on Crack Pairings, which refers to Ships that are so inherently implausible as to evoke the idea that their author must've been on crack. Naturally, everyone's line in the sand on this one will differ, and mine's a fair bit further back than many. Some of the Ships that I saw listed ... to me, very, very skeevy indeed, and definitely Crack Pairings. Given that my criteria for not-squicky is a bit more than "both are breathing entities" :-)

*Shipping: Wikipedia defines it thusly - "Shipping, derived from the word relationship, is the belief that two characters, fictional or non-fictional, are in an intimate relationship, have romantic feelings that could potentially lead to a relationship, or have another form of less intimate relationship, which may involve platonic friendship, or even violence. It is considered a general term for fans' emotional involvement with the ongoing development of romance in a work of fiction."

**AU: Alternate universe - a representation of the fictional world in which some or many elements differ from those in the core story.

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