Francine - harvest
I Blame the Dutch mpoetess
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More Canon Blather

Not a rant -- as a rant, in this forum, it would be akin to "Dear grandma, here's how to suck eggs" -- but an essay for S/X & Violence that I've been meaning to type up in this form since Christmastime. Thoughts, suggestions, arguments, before I add it to the site?

Shot Who? Character Assassination as a Free Pass

And lo, upon the face of the mailing list, a writer asked: "Why do people bitch about characterization? Aren't slash writers indulging in character assassination from the get-go? If so, why should it matter whether the characters are true to canon in other areas?"


The (paraphrased) question came up, of all places, on a slash fiction list, and it made me wonder -- and worry. Do new slash writers really believe this? Is it a partial explanation for why so many S/X stories feature characters who bear little resemblence to their onscreen counterparts beyond superficial physical details and (sometimes) speech patterns?

The anti-slash character assassination argument -- pairing any characters of the same gender in fanfic who haven't been seen to be romantically involved with same-gender characters in canon is plain old bad writing, as well as disrespectful to the original creator, and we Just Shouldn't Do It -- is as old as my grandmother's dentures. It's also a steaming crock of horseshit, but legions of people older, wiser, and wearier than me have been explaining why since I was a very tiny poetess. What frightens me is the thought that it might need explaining to slash lovers.

The moment we portray Spike or Xander having lusty wrong thoughts about each other -- or anybody else of the manly persuasion -- we're committing character assassination by violating a canon that has never shown them to do so? And why should it matter then, if we portray a 21 year old Xander as a cringing weakling afraid to tell his friends that his father is sexually abusing him -- despite the fact that he moved out of the house two years ago? Or a Spike who hates Buffy and her holier than thou attitude towards killing evil demons, but falls for Xander because of his goodness and purity of spirit? Isn't slashing them just as bad? Once we've had them stick their tongues in each others' mouths, isn't anything else fair game?


This is where I question the logic. Or, miss it entirely. We're not talking about disagreements on characterization, here. "I don't think Xander would do that, considering how he acted in Hush" We're talking about an action (kissing, shagging, hugging, covering with chocolate pudding), or an emotion (admiration, lust, love) being out of character, period. No matter what the situation. And we're saying that since (A) all slash is out of character, then (B) slash writers can have the characters do anything they please, regardless of how logical it is within the setting of the story. Regardless of whether it *feels* like Xander or Spike, or just some people with their names, whose physical descriptions match.

And readers, other writers, critics, who complain about it are just being silly? Mean? Need to get a life?


No. Slash is not automatically character assassination. Spike having homoerotic thoughts may conflict with the interpretations of some or all viewers -- but that's a matter of opinion, based on individual analysis of his psychological and emotional makeup. As long as Spike's never been definitively shown not to have such thoughts, it's not character assassination to posit that he might have them, in a given fictional situation. Nor is an absence of something in the character's revealed history proof that he'd never do it. Fans who claim that because Xander has only dated the opposite sex in the past, he's obviously straight and any other interpretation is character assassination, don't know many living gay or bi people, I'd wager.

It's not character assassination if the author presents a valid situation in which these characters, as seen on TV, *would* fall in love, have sex, shove chocolate covered cherries in places where the sun rarely shines. It's not character assassination if, when you read it, the thoughts and words and patterns of behavior make the reader feel that yes, this is Spike I'm reading about. This is Xander. And they're reacting as I believe those characters would, given the plotline the author has developed. Whether it's an AU from the beginning, where we see a version of the characters as they might have been after a totally different history, or whether we start with more or less canon characters, and events occur that bring them together romantically, it's about the skill of the author in making it believable. Nothing is character assassination if the author can make me believe that, in the setting of the story, Spike and Xander would do it.

(Whether or not I personally believe that Spike would do it with anything that moves is completely irrelevent.)

So, what is character assassination? Why is that (B) a few paragraphs up, so worrying? Because it's a lazy writer's free pass to remain a lazy writer.

What is character assassination is writing Xander in a way that Xander wouldn't be expected to act in the situation shown -- without providing a good explanation of why.


Xander smacks Buffy, at the end of an argument. Why?

1. She's absolutely hysterical, and is about to run blindly into the street and get hit by a bus. He slaps her to calm her down, because she's stronger than he is, and is pulling away from him. We know from his thoughts and feelings that he's really worried about her getting killed if he doesn't do something. That's in his character. He's saving her life. Xander does that.

2. Buffy is acting normally, and Xander seems to have no reasonable provocation for hitting her, other than being slightly annoyed about their disagreement. That's out of character for Xander as we know him. He's never been shown to be a violent person, outside of life or death situations or very harsh provocation (think "Entropy"). Never to his friends. But -- we've been shown in this story that he's under the influence of a spell that acts only on males, increasing their levels of aggression until both their intelligence and their normal personality are overwhelmed. A la "Billy" on Angel. It's *not* out of character, in this story.

3. Buffy is acting the way she normally does, and Xander has no reasonable provocation for hitting her. The author simply tells us that he's pissed, and suddenly can't take her bitchiness anymore, so he decks her. Xander goes on about his business, possibly with some applause from Spike (which would be in character pre-Buffylove) and Willow (which would be utterly out of character) and the story never explains why he acts so differently from the way the Xander most of us know and some of us love, would act.

That's character assassination. It's having a character do any damn thing you want him to do, because it gives the author a thrill to make it happen, or because the story requires that someone do it, and Xander is the author's favourite character. It's changing the rules of the fictional world that we're sharing without any reason except the author's own pleasure, without any explanation or excuse for why those rules have been changed. It's making Buffy out to be a bitch in everyday circumstances, when onscreen, she isn't. It's making Willow, her best friend, act like she dislikes Buffy, when really, it's the author who dislikes Buffy. It's cowardly, it's lazy, and as a reader, it makes me ill.

Fanfic, and slash, can be all about taking characters in new and different directions. Go for it. Create new storylines, new demon worlds, new alternate histories. A fantasy/horror/Sf series like BtVS is ripe for it. Make whoever you think is pretty shag like monkeys in the middle of Giles' living room. That's part of the beauty of not having to write for an 8 pm non-cable audience. Invent AUs where your characters are wildly different, futures where they're horribly changed. Do it. Please. Use whipped cream, baby oil, and lots of cinnamon -- but for god's sake, start with the established characters. Or start with those wildly different people, and show us how this world you've created turned the established characters into something strange and new.

I'm not dissing PWP's here; a good PWP can be so in character that the reader never stops to ask how Xander and Spike manage to be sharing an apartment with a sling in the living room and a view of the Atlantic -- because they're recognizably Xander and Spike. They bitch, they snark, they act like a hardassed posturing vampire and a defensive, insecure human.

But show us the characters we know, or show us how they got there. Is that so much to ask? Really?

Otherwise, you're writing about two guys called Xander and Spike, one of whom happens to be human, the other a vampire. One brunette, one blond. They may be naked, they may be pretty, but they're not Xander and Spike. Some readers get off on those fics, if they hit the right emotional places, if they feed the right fantasy, if they just fill that empty belly that's hungry for any X/S at all. Hey, the right kink button will make me read a story like that too -- to a point-- but it's not good writing. It's the fan-world's equivalent to bad stroke porn -- whether it's NC-17, or G rated. They fit into somebody's fantasy -- maybe the author's, maybe multiple readers -- but they don't reflect the characters as I know them, and they don't explain why.

Unfortunately, these stories are legion. And while I don't usually send criticism to them -- I tend to make free with the delete key on fics like that, and never say anything at all about them, except perhaps to discuss them with close friends -- other people will. I think it's dangerously self-indulgent for writers to assume that every critic who says their characterization is off is anti-slash (I can't even imagine where one could post Buffy slash, and get anti-slash feedback, except at or anti-originality. Some critiques are a matter of taste, and some may be just plain wrong -- but it's important to *think* about whether they're right, or not, if one wants to improve as a writer-- and not dismiss the critic out of hand because after all, slash is out of character anyway. That's kind of like the "It's only fanfiction" argument. Sure, it's only fanfiction, but don't ask for feedback, if you don't want to hear people's opinions of how you wrote it.

It's the difference between reading a story about Spike and Xander, being part of a story about Spike and Xander the way I can't be while watching BtVS, because we don't get in their heads, seeing them love and shag and fight and shag and kiss and shag... ahem --- and reading a story where I could do a search and replace and change the names to Frank and Joe, and it would be Hardy Boys slash.

Which doesn't turn me on. At all. Really. Shut up.


2002-06-13 10:55 am (UTC) (Link)

Lovely egg sucking discourse. Enjoyed it immensely.

Oh, how many times have I gotten to part 12 or 15 of a lovely S/X fic, only to suddenly meet the near-unrecognizable character of nastybitchy!Buffy and/or smugbitchy!Willow?!? Too many. It verges on literary coitus interruptus -- taints and spoils any loveliness that has gone before.

From a purely mechanical, clarity-of-expression standpoint, I'd suggest that you put quote marks (or something) around the attitudes that you're questioning, to distinguish these ideas from your own POV. Without something -- quote marks, boldface (as you use a few times), indented paragraph, whathaveyou -- to make these thoughts stand out as *not* yours, there's a moment of confusion created for the reader (well, at least there was for me).

And when you're trying to inform and educate an audience who "just doesn't get it", you can't chance even a tiny moment of confusion, cause they'll lose your thread and start thinking you're *agreeing* with them. And that way lies head-banging-against-wall stuff.

Since I don't frequent slash lists (or any fic discussions except what I get here on lj and by cruising blogs), I haven't had too much experience with this attitude in other than artifact form (in the stories themselves, I mean). It definitely does boggle the mind, though.

It makes me think of the "one suspension of disbelief" rule that I used to read about in fantasy/sf lit-crit. You take one circumstance, one techno-marvel, one social dynamic, something, and place it over a "normal world" framework. Then extrapolate from there.

That's kinda what writing slash is like. The "one suspension of disbelief" is that these two characters are attracted to/involved with each other. And the rest of their characterization should stay relatively "normal/canonical" -- well, unless we're talking an AU such as you reference in your essay. But *internal consistency*, people! Respect for the source material. *Logical extrapolations* and *integrity* of storyline and characterization!!! It's not too much to ask, it's what you're supposed to be doing in the first place.

Or just admit that they're Original Characters and go from there.

Some writers write to work out their emotional issues. A lot of repressed outsider hostility towards "the popular perfect girls" shows through whenever the whole nastybitchy!Buffy stereotype shows up. Which is so strange to me because Buffy herself is demonstrably, in canon, an outsider.

But calling somebody on their psychological issues is so tricky, I guess it's better if you leave that out of your essay.

It does make me want to jump up and down, though, and give a lecture about transference of the Shadow and mirroring and how the stuff that bothers you in other people is the stuff that bothers you in yourself -- and all that kind of stuff.


2002-06-13 12:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

You know, sometimes I'd gove up all the characterisation and canonicity rants and let them butcher the text in piece, just for a promise of internal consistency. Just that. Just don't contradict *youself*. Just don't make people do things that make no sense for *anyone* to do. Just...

Yes, James already pointed out at least one spot that could use clarification that no, this isn't *my* opinion, which I fixd, but obviously I need to go back through with a fine toothed comb. I want the sarcasm font and I want it *now* dammit!


2002-06-13 03:46 pm (UTC) (Link)

[soothing pats] Heh. Yeah. I get that.

And just saying, could people *try* to picture blocking in their heads? Like can ya get a hand from that position to the next one without going through someone else's rib cage? 'Cause I'm thinking that'd be a plot point.


(Deleted comment)


2002-06-14 07:09 am (UTC) (Link)

We all do. Oh, most of us do it when we see writing that we know damn well is better than ours, but I think we all do it to an extent when we see writing that's frighteningly out of character or otherwise bad -- you start with "Sigh of relief. At least I'm not that bad" then go "Oh no! What if I am that bad, and no one's bothered to tell me?"