Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Fans

As some of you might have noticed *ahem* I like cartoons. After a pretty long break, one of my favorites is coming back from hiatus today and I'm going to a friend's house after work to watch a new episode. Everybody in the fandom is freaking out about it, throwing around fan theories, and even making art about what they want to happen. And, of course, preparing to have their emotions fried. When fans get invested in something, their enthusiasm really shows.

It's been a while for me since I've been in anything like that--pretty sure the last time was about eight years ago, when I was feverishly consuming the manga issues for Eyeshield 21 as they were being published in Japan and weren't even available in my country yet--but I'm sure having a great time with it. And this is certainly the first time in a while that I've been into something that's actually popular in my country. You know your thing is a "thing" when they start selling the merchandise at Hot Topic.

I've never been the hugest fan of Harry Potter, but I liked the books. The hype surrounding Harry Potter is STILL pretty amazing, but when the books were still coming out I was working at a bookstore. You can imagine I saw my share of crazed fans.

I don't write or read fanfiction, but I know people love writing it as a way of participating in their fandom. They draw fan art. They produce songs inspired by the fictional work. They create online quizzes featuring trivia or personality analyses based on the characters, and they post reaction videos and they write blogs full of theories, analyses, and responses.

Some authors don't like it.

There have actually been authors and creators who go out of their way to stop fans from celebrating their work in this way. I've heard the most about cracking down on fanfiction because people are taking their characters and doing stuff with them, and sometimes that "stuff" can be, well, adult. Yes, if something gets popular enough (and in some cases popularity isn't necessary), there will be porn of it in both text and art form. This is true of Harry Potter. This is true of the children's cartoon that I watch.

Fans are kind of weird.

Now, as far as I know, many authors have a policy of not reading fanfiction because they don't want fans thinking they "stole" ideas from derivative works. If they state upfront that they don't read fan works, people won't be as likely to accuse them of using their ideas, though I'm pretty sure you would get laughed out of court if you tried to pursue legal action to stop a creator from using "your" ideas after you used theirs to create it in the first place. And some creators are pretty disturbed by the adult-themed creations (especially if they create children's media), and make statements or pursue action to get them removed.

My perspective on it is that fans are gonna fan.

Some of them are going to do so in sort of gross and inappropriate ways, but if you're a creator and you holler about this, you're probably going to attract more people looking to pervert your work on purpose. I don't really agree with creating pornography from someone's non-pornographic creation, but I accept that people are going to do it, and that a (usually small) subsection of a popular work's fans like to explore all of their favorite fictional works through adult-themed art or stories.

I'm similarly not a fan of people taking existing characters and grafting different thoughts or feelings onto them (like making them attracted to a character they're not attracted to in the original story, or giving them a different past, or creating an alternate version of them), but these are also very popular ways fans like to interact with media. People sometimes write alternative universes where Harry Potter got together with Hermione instead of Ginny. People sometimes draw fan art featuring if Harry and Ron were gay. A surprisingly popular pairing is taking the character Hermione and putting her in various adult scenarios with her teacher Professor Snape. It's weird to me because I fall in love with certain fictional creations because of how their creators created them, and I wouldn't want to interact with that thing by saying "hey, I love this so much that I'm going to recreate it with fundamental differences," but lots of people enjoy this form of creativity, and in a way it's a bit like fairy tale retelling (which you all know I like to do, though I think it's different since fairy tales are not single-author stories with a set of regular, specific characters). 

This is just how some people like to celebrate their favorite stories besides just consuming it and talking about it. I guess writing a story about something that didn't happen in the canon is not much different from drawing a picture of the characters doing something they've never done in canon, though I think it's more appealing when it features scenarios that could have happened or could happen later. Ultimately it's all about imagination and enthusiasm. And even though I probably wouldn't want to look at or read "alternate universe" or pornographic derivative works from any of my creations, I would be happy if my stuff got popular enough that people got invested in it and showed their investment by creating derivative works.

I have received some fan art over the years, which is fun because often the artists will create a scenario they enjoy imagining or put the characters in clothes or situations they wouldn't be in in the real story. Sometimes it's something they wish I would write about. 
Artist Corinne depicted a reunion of two of
my webcomic characters, even though
this can't really happen. 

And sometimes it's a silly joke.
Artist Jessie imagines what would happen to my character
Delia from
Bad Fairy if the economy tanked and
she had to get a job as a tooth fairy

I've also received a very few pieces of fanfiction. The fanfic in particular makes me a little uncomfortable, because I know where the authors "get it wrong" when they make my characters say things they wouldn't say and do things they wouldn't do, but as long as I remind myself that it's their interpretation and they're just playing, it's not as difficult to read. And sometimes it's illuminating; when someone "gets your character wrong," sometimes you're actually seeing how they think your character is and how they're coming across, and you can gain new perspective on your own writing. (Of course, sometimes they're changing them on purpose, but many fanfiction authors try to write established characters "in character.") 

It's also neat to see which characters and which scenarios get written about the most and therefore must have captured readers' imaginations. In the digital age, we have access to our audiences in ways we did not have before, and while I would not want to use that connection to deliberately write my work for crowd-pleasing or fan service, it can sometimes be illuminating. I'm sometimes surprised by which issues of my webcomic inspire the most comments (and what they're commenting about), and the parts of my novels that others like don't necessarily tend to be the ones I like the best. That subjectivity becomes more real, more solid, when you can see your audience's reaction right in front of you.

It must be kind of amazing and frightening at the same time when your creation Really Takes Off, and there are hundreds of thousands of fan creations about something you came up with every week, and I'm sure there's an increased sense of responsibility too; you want to make sure you're doing something good with the microphone that got handed to you, and you know any mistake or misinterpretation will be amplified and broadcast to throngs of followers who may be elated or devastated based on just about anything you say. When J.K. Rowling says anything new about her characters, it literally makes the news, and thousands of blogs analyze it and critique it and put it in context with everything else we know. It's intimidating, but it's also such an incredible opportunity. Rowling mentioned the sexual orientation of her character Dumbledore during an interview once and the news still hasn't shut up about it:

She was criticized for this because people would have preferred Dumbledore be presented as gay in the actual text if that was the case, and yet it was only implied in the foggiest way. She got some crap for trying to suggest she created gay characters when she had to point out they were gay after the fact for anyone to figure it out. (Of course, some people would have preferred that he not be anything but straight at all, but I think a lot of those people were already boycotting Harry Potter over the witchcraft, though you might be surprised how many people were suddenly disgusted at the implication that a children's book contained gay characters.) 

And then when it comes to sexual orientations outside of heteronormativity in children's material, here we have Steven Universe with multiple queer characters just being queer all over the place with no fanfare in the show. Because they don't use the Actual Words "lesbian" or "queer" or "gay" or "femme nonbinary" or anything like that in the show, people are sometimes confused about whether this is "representation." It's been discussed in interviews here and there. For example:
Question: Steven Universe has really pushed gender norms and supported queer representation on television, was it always the plan to show real love and a loving nurturing “non traditional” family on this series, or did the characters just fall into place as you began working on it?

Rebecca Sugar: The show was always very much about family, because Steven is based on my younger brother Steven Sugar, and I really wanted to get at the unconditional love and support I get from him and try to give to him and that we get from our parents, so that’s always been the foundation of the show! I don’t believe that those themes are exclusive to traditional families or heteronormative characters, and I’m very uninterested in trading on genericisms, or talking about what is or isn’t “normal.” I think so much entertainment deals in those terms that almost everyone is left feeling abnormal if there’s anything specific about their life at all. I hope to represent people who have felt a lack of representation, but I hope to also show people who have felt represented that they can also relate to characters that are not heteronormative, and to families that are not traditional, maybe even more so than the more generic characters and families that they’ve been seeing on TV. 
And one of the directors/co-developers of the show, Ian Jones-Quartey, was asked about the romantic relationship between a couple of female-presenting characters, and he came up with this on Twitter:

This was following some brouhaha where Ian said it's okay for people to imagine whatever they want, and some other people took that to mean that he agrees that it's valid to interpret these characters' romantic relationship as friendship, thus ripping away much-needed representation. Even though he later established that he believed they were canonically in a romantic relationship, he was trying to say he's fine with people making up their own stories about characters he helped bring to the world. He has to be especially careful about what he says because people might use it to suggest he supports things he does not support. Creators of very popular media have to be so delicate about their interaction with fans, because someone will always use their words to shove in someone else's face.

With my nonfiction publications, I've of course been in that situation--do I support this, would I recommend that, hey let's get a statement from this chick because then we can claim "the asexual community says X." With fiction, what you say can certainly intersect with the real world but so much of it is about a world that only comes from inside your head. And then people still want to interpret it their way, put their own characters in your settings or take your characters and put them into their own settings, and put words into your characters' mouths (and sometimes your own).

Like I said, fans gonna fan.

On the one hand, it's a little scary, especially since you never know whether something you wrote is going to end up under that spotlight.

And on the other hand, I think I wouldn't have it any other way.

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