Fandom or Fan Dumb?

First up, Happy New Year everyone! May 2018 make all your dreams come true. Except for the weird naked ones. (Unless you want them to…)

Second up, in February I’m teaching my first courses since I became a mama. I’ll be teaching folks at Quad in Derby how to write SF, horror, and fantasy, and how to create fantastic plots and characters. Tell your friends!

Third up, I’d like to share with y’all a few thoughts I’ve had lately about the topic of fandom. There has been a lot of discussion in the last few years about fan entitlement, and fans’ attempts to change things they don’t like. The latest iteration of this is the petition by some Star Wars fans to try and get The Last Jedi movie excommunicated from the canon of the Star Wars universe because they didn’t like what the film did with Luke Skywalker. Meanwhile, many Harry Potter fans were vocally annoyed about the failure of Magic in North America to address crucial aspects of American history, and – more recently – about the continued presence of Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts franchise.

These attempts to change things about beloved franchises can sometimes seem misguided – the originator of the Star Wars petition has now backtracked on the idea. But they show the depth of passion people feel about their favourite things, and if that’s sometimes uncomfortable for the creator, so be it.

Independently of all this, I was recently involved in a discussion on the Fantasy Faction Facebook group on the topic of fanfiction. Some people were pro, some anti, but what struck me most was the number of people who said something like ‘fanfic is fine so long as you don’t make the characters gay. If I wanted Character X to be gay, I’d have written him like that in the first place’. Which, well, anyone who knows anything about fanfic will tell you that making the characters gay is frequently the entire point of the exercise (see my own previous comments on the topic). And also, I feel these authors are deluded if they think they can control what fans do with their characters.

Once a book, or a movie, or whatever, is out in the world, then you as the creator to some extent lose control of it. We have copyright laws which mean people can’t just rip it off, but you can’t really predict or govern fans’ reactions. They might love it, they might hate it so much they start a petition to have it wiped from the face of the earth, they might decide it’s great but would be that *little* bit better if Harry ended up with Draco instead.
Various authors have tried in the past to exert a greater measure of control over their works’ reception, probably most famously Anne Rice, who has expended a great deal of effort trying to put a stop to fanfic of her Vampire Chronicles series (incidentally, there are currently 757 VC fanworks on Archive of Our Own, most of them gay). She also responded to poor reviews of one her books by posting a long rant on Amazon. Needless to say, this didn’t endear her to many.

My take on all this is simple: I would love it if people felt passionately about something I’d written. Maybe I wouldn’t agree with the direction of their passion, but hey, it’s their passion. Creators can start the fire – they can’t stop it spreading.

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I’m currently revising the second draft of my novel, The Silvergreen Sea. One of the elements I’m trying to develop further is the romantic attraction between my heroine and her – let’s go with prospective boyfriend, needless to say the course of true love runs no smoother for them than for any other fictional couple.

In revising their scenes together, I’ve found it difficult to imply attraction without implying physical attractiveness. And this means I’ve run right up against an issue which has been bugging me in a low-key way for a while now. Namely, as an author, should you make your main characters hot? I couldn’t find any scholarly research on the topic, and I suspect it varies accordingly to the genre, but certainly in my personal experience there are many more books with good-looking protagonists than with plain ones. I find this kind of annoying, especially if not only the protagonist and the love interest(s) are hotties, but the supporting cast as well. The worst example in my own recollection is Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman: a book in which every single character is gorgeous, even the alcoholic who lives in a shack. But there are plenty of other instances – Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles spring to mind, or Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries (vampires are obviously particularly guilty of excessive beauty, although you’d have thought the whole mirror thing would cause issues for personal grooming).

What’s the problem with all this literary hotness? Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, not that many people in real life actually look like movie stars. That’s why the few who do get to be movie stars, and the rest of us get to be project managers or supermarket shelf-stackers or unemployed writers or something equally unglamorous. But books – even fantasy books set in medieval societies without cosmetic dentistry or hair salons – are overflowing with luscious auburn locks, sparkling green eyes and perfectly sculpted cheekbones. It can send my suspension of disbelief crashing to the floor. The only thing worse than making characters pretty is making them ‘not pretty’, as satirised mercilessly by Max Beerbohm back in 1911: ‘Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been’.

Not only is it unrealistic to populate your book with babes, there’s also something rather problematic about the way so many authors focus in on the stories of the handsome, neglecting that ugly people have feelings too. I remember vividly a line from Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth: ‘She had sensibilities which, to Lily, would have seemed comic in a person with a freckled nose* and red eyelids … but poor Grace’s limitations gave them a more concentrated inner life’. And yet the book isn’t about Grace, but the lovely Lily. Is it more poignant to see the [spoilers] downfall and death of a young beauty than that of a young minger? Perhaps. We read, after all, to escape from reality, so if we’re going to imagine ourselves into the role of tragic heroine, we’d probably prefer it if she had perfect skin and sleek hair and thighs which never rub together.

The other side of this coin is that the reader generally wants to fancy the love interest, which is what I’m trying to (subtly) make happen at the moment. I’m also trying not to be too obvious, to maintain some uncertainty, not have the heroine go ‘phwoar’ early on and give the game away. Get her – and, by extension, the reader – to love him for his engaging personality and all that. But still imply that he’s kind of a dish. The book I’ve just finished, The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb, does a great job of establishing an attraction between two rather plain characters, although Hobb still describes at least half her male characters as ‘handsome’. And I have to confess I’ve called my heroine ‘pretty’ a couple of times, albeit in dialogue rather than narrative voice.

So I guess the conclusion I’ve come to is that, unrealistic, shallow and vaguely problematic or not, readers want hotties and that’s all there is to it. Even if you try to make characters plain, many readers will just imagine them as hot anyway – a phenomenon known by tvtropes.org as Draco in Leather Pants. So you may as well bow to the inevitable. And if the book is ever successful enough to be made into a film – well, then they’ll all end up looking like movie stars in any case.

*as someone with a freckled nose myself, I object to Ms Wharton’s implication here and will counter it with a link to a Buzzfeed article about hot guys with freckles http://www.buzzfeed.com/juliegerstein/freckle-face-yes-please#.vmd91x3Mz . You’re welcome.