You Mean Everyone Brought Potato Salad?

This was written by Merlin Missy in 2007. Some references may now be outdated but the general advice is very good. It is used with permission. — Cygnet


Knowing What Your Audience Is Bringing to the Table Is Half the Battle

Some months ago, my children were on a playdate at a friend’s house, which is to say, the kids were playing with toys in the living room and we were hiding in the kitchen drinking coffee and chatting about fandom. (I love having fannish friends in real life!) As my friend’s fandom at the time was Harry Potter, and her favorite subject at the time was why Harry and Ginny should under no circumstances be a couple, our conversation drifted to the current discussions on Fiction Alley Park about the pitfalls of the H/G pairing. My friend asserted that Rowling was demonstrating her lack of real-world knowledge, because the Guy Code [TM] said: “No guy shall hit on, date, or marry the sister of his best friend, let the relationship between him and his best bud be destroyed.” (This is summarized by a shorter phrase which my friend did not use and I shall not repost here, but for the curious, there’s a rhyme for “Bros.”) My friend confirmed this with her husband, and with a male fan of her acquaintance, and thus was certain of its rock-solid veracity. She was disappointed, flabbergasted and I think a bit horrified when I responded that my father’s best friend married Dad’s little (red-haired, no lie) sister and they’ve been together for over thirty years. I’d never even considered that H/G couldn’t happen because of Harry and Ron’s friendship, because this is a story I’ve been told since I was a child. (Also the one about how Uncle P. punched a priest and got expelled, but I was given to understand the priest was vaguely Snapelike in his dealings with his students, so this was presented as a Good Thing All Around.)

Family anecdotes aside, we are what we bring to the table. A straight Caucasian middle-class American female is going to bring a different background and perspective to anything she encounters than will a bisexual Asian working-class Australian male. (Feel free to mix and match, and take a gander at “The Outer Culture Is You.”) When I read, watch or talk about any particular fandom, I’m going to do it with my own personal background and biases in tow, and while on occasion, I may drop them at the door, more likely, I won’t.

Part of Fandom Wank Bingo (get five across, and someone’s gonna report you) is that classic chestnut: “You’re interrogating the text from the wrong point of view!” But as any English major who’s got a degree minted in the last fifty years can tell you, there’s no wrong point of view when it comes to looking at a text. There’s just different points of view. Sometimes the author of a particular piece has a different point of view than large groups of the audience; for example, Ray Bradbury went on-record not long ago claiming that classic text <U>Fahrenheit 451</u> wasn’t about censorship, but instead a diatribe on the perils of mass media (see “Canon, Fanon and Authorial Intent” for more). Authors of novels, plays, television series and movies all have to keep in mind two separate but important audiences. The most obvious audience is of course the wider viewing/reading public. If no one’s going to want to buy the product, there’s a hard decision to be made whether or not creating it will be worth the effort. The less obvious but de facto far more important audience is the person sitting behind a desk somewhere who decides whether or not the piece will be published and/or produced. Making Light is run by Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who are editors at Tor. They are people who get to make decisions about what does and does not see the professional light of day, so any aspiring writer who sends her or his stuff their way first has to impress them before impressing the throngs of adoring fans. Big (and small) screen properties have a similar process.

Why do I bring this up? Because as Henry Jenkins has spent a great deal of grant money saying, fanfiction is our way of retelling the cultural myths that are important to us, and we? Are our own audience. One of the occasional (and stupider) complaints against fanfiction is that fanfic: “is usually devoid of character description, including each character’s idiosyncrasies and each character’s unique way of talking and dealing with others, because its writers assume that fanfic readers already know the characters.” (cite). Nevertheless, what is considered a bug is in fact a feature. Fanfiction, in much the same way as media tie-in novels, take into account the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter and rather than spending time and effort on world-building and character establishment, gets right to the story itself.

Fanfic writers have the luxury of knowing what the audience is bringing to the picnic. If the readers already have cups, forks, spoons, knives and napkins, all they require are plates, food and drink. Reading in an unfamiliar fandom is much like lining up for potato salad without any utensils: it can be done, but it’s messy. An example: the very first X-Files fanfic I ever read was “Generation X” by Kellie Matthews-Simmons and Julia Kosatka, and I read it because I had read some of their previous work and liked it. Having never seen the X-Files prior to reading the story, I had no context for the characters’ actions, but the story itself was good enough that I didn’t mind. I ate my potato salad with my hands, and I liked it enough that I eventually got a fork.

Authors who write crossovers (the next X-Files story I read was Kellie and Julia’s “In the Dark,” a crossover with Highlander and Star Trek: TNG) need to bring more to the picnic for the folks who have forks but no spoons and vice versa. I might be obsessively aware of the canon details for a particular Thundercats story, but if it’s crossed over with Power Rangers and Madagascar, I’d be lost on references about those fandoms. Occasionally, that might be the point, for the point-of-view characters to discover things about the other characters/fandom, but more typically, authors build on already-known details, and things get lost in translation, which is why crossovers are always risky, even when they’re brilliant.
Fanfiction is about expectation, and about turning those expectations abruptly backwards.

Fandom comes ready-made with expectations. We expect the Winchester brothers to be obsessively protective of each other. We expect Wonder Woman to be a pro-woman warrior. We expect Luke Skywalker to continue the Hero’s Journey. We expect Captain Kirk to be a womanizer. We expect Buffy to kick vampire butt and look pretty while she’s doing it. We expect Harry Potter to have adventures alongside Hermione and Ron, while Malfoy and Snape scorn him and Voldemort tries to kill him. We expect. We write characters who are both broad and subtle, Hals and Falstaffs, Beatrices and Benedicks, even Pucks for a new generation. And because the story’s the thing, we don’t spend time on stage directions or makeup suggestions, unless it’s vitally important for Han Solo to exit, pursued by a bear. We know these people, and we know their backstories (or don’t and want to explore them), and we know what we’ve seen them do.

In fanfiction, our audience comes in expecting to see a strong, confident, damaged Buffy, so we don’t need to lay the groundwork of explaining seven years of canon before writing the tale of how she met up with Angel again after the “cookie dough” speech. We know our audience will eat it up with their spoons. And sometimes we play with those expectations: the womanizer Kirk (who did in canon abandon his career, steal and blow up a starship and then sacrifice his son all for the sake of another man) turns out to be covering his desire for Spock. Now it sounds trite and almost self-parodic (and well, so does the plot of “Star Trek III,” though I do love it so) but when the idea was first floated around, it shocked fans, and still upsets some segments of fandom to this day. (Anecdote: I live around the corner from someone who teaches Star Trek and SF-related media courses at the local college. He has been a Trekkie [sic] since childhood and is not someone you want to get into the dynamics of K/S with.)

What if the simmering rivalry between two characters means they’re hiding passionate feelings? Han and Leia followed the “fake adversaries -> lovers” path; why not Harry and Draco? What if the intense closeness of two characters is read as an unspoken but soon to be realized attraction? Sam and Dean love each other, but do they love each other? Sure we know of Hercules (especially those who watched the Disney toon and/or The Legendary Journeys) but the great American strongman myth is Superman. We take this on face value, and we tell each other stories of his heroics. We take this and twist it, and we tell each other how the strongman adjusts when he’s suddenly turned into a woman. We can’t tell the story of how Coyote lost his penis by the waterhole, but if we write about Bugs Bunny shoving dynamite down Elmer Fudd’s pants, everyone gets the joke. And if it turns out Bugs and Elmer actually like their marriage, that’s an interesting story, too. In a previous Yuletide, the story that Everyone read and recced was a BDSM Care Bears story (title: “Slave Bear of Care-a-Lot”); this year, the Golden Care Bear award goes to a Sesame Street piece that is perfectly in-character even as it is utterly wrong and demented (title: “Why Sex Ed Should Stay In Schools”) . Both start with the basic expectations of simple kiddie series and then take a serious left turn for the weird. The audience knows who the Care Bears are, who Bert and Ernie are; the stories wouldn’t be nearly as demented/fun (circle one) without that prior knowledge.

One anti-fanfic argument is that fanfiction cannot survive without the source material, like fleas on a dog’s back. But the truth is, many can, in all their “eating mayonnaise-based food products with one’s fingers” glory, by taking the basic building blocks and creating a huge castle atop those blocks. And others simply don’t care. If my audience knows my subject, I don’t need to rehash the basics for them. If my audience knows my subject well enough, I can play on their knowledge and expectations as a frame to tell them a story they never expected at all.

And that, children, is why fanfiction is transformative: it takes the stories we know and transforms them into something else, and then gives them to someone in particular. When I write a Beauty and the Beast story, it’s not for someone who has never seen the show, it’s for someone who loved and gnashed their teeth at it as much as I did. When I write Star Trek: TNG ‘shipper pieces, it’s not necessarily for anyone who doesn’t already ‘ship my two favorite characters and who therefore knows all the backstory between them. I’ve transformed the original text into an intentionally esoteric piece that may be enjoyed by only a handful of readers, or possibly only one if that’s the intent. Again, Yuletide is a gift-exchange, designed for people to write each other stories from extremely rare fandoms, so participants are encouraged to write what their recipients, and possibly no one else, will enjoy. Thus, it becomes the exact opposite of the mass-marketed media which we adore: a boutique ‘fic, desired by a select few, though at the best of times, a perfect complement to the source itself, be that as a mirror, or a diamond reflection in a vastly different direction. And the person for whom it’s written is the one who best enjoys the gift.

Fanfiction is about the reader, even those stories written solely to entertain the author herself (or himself), as the writer is also a reader. Trying to define fanfiction by the rules of professional publication falls down, because the focus is simply not the same. This isn’t a restaurant, and we’re not here to serve people who didn’t bring their own forks and spoons. This is a potluck, and we’re here to sample the goodies that folks made with their own two hands and the love in their own hearts, and we’ve already brought our spoons (and the froodier of us even brought our own towels). Sure, I’d like to go out for a nice dinner now and then, where I can be served and don’t have to do the dishes, but really, I enjoy well-made potato salad, too.

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