sarnath: Fai from Tsubasa reservoir chronicle (Default)
[personal profile] sarnath
I've been thinking a lot about a certain fanfic phenomenon recently. It's something I've been noticing for a long time, I think, bur haven't really put in words. I'm having a hard time coming up with a good term even now!

But I think it's something along the lines of "characterisation displaced by statistical averages".

Yeah, I'd be grateful if someone came up with a better name. I'm apparently of the Leonard of Quirm school of naming things.

So, definition. Putting it as concisely as possible, it's basically about replacing existent characterisation by what an "average" version of said character's age and sex would do or say (I would say "nationality" as well if fandom wasn't so dominated by the U.S. as it is, and characters from canons in for example Japan or Britain often have their personalities rather Americanised). Often also going to statistical averages instead of extrapolating from canon.


Examples, though, they always makes things clearer (hopefully). Take Harry Potter (hey, I'm rereading and he's the most well known character in any of my fandoms anyway); he's rather... clumsy when it comes to love and dating, right? He's not very sociable, doesn't mingle effortlessly with new acquaintances (though he does have a rather disarming honesty), he's not exactly an accomplished flirt. The oblivious type, if you will. So why are so many fics started off with how he hasn't been able to find that special someone and is filling his free time with a series of one night stands he picks up at pubs or clubs?

The author's mind seems to go to a place of "what would a normal twenty-year-old man have done or said?" But Harry isn't a normal young man. Neither is most characters in fiction, because they all have their own specific pasts that have formed their lives, behaviour, and wants. When Harry feels lonely he tends to isolate himself even more (from what I can tell). He isn't the type to drown his trouble in company.

Then we have the romantic comedy tropes. Sure, some characters would try to make someone else jealous by pretending to be interested in someone else, by lying about their true feelings, by playing a complicated game. But Harry is one of the most emotionally honest people I've ever read about. Sure, he can be oblivious to the extreme, but not intentionally manipulative (when it comes to emotions, that is).

Language, then, shouldn't that be easy? The source material tends to be full of dialogue, especially for the main characters, right? There are cases like in books like Harry Potter where the swearing, for example, tends to be indirectly described. Ron tells Malfoy to do something "that Harry knew he would never have dared say in front of Mrs Weasley", and that's not the only example for him. Harry's insults, on the other hand, tend to be written out. They are generally insults (that can be very inventive) or acidic retorts, but not plain name calling. And Harry Potter saying "shite"? Yeah, I know, the modern cool interjection for the average teenage British boy. But this isn't Skins, and Harry hardly lives in the muggle world aside from the fact that he doesn't actually pepper his speech with edgy interjections in any case. The "slimy gits" come from Ron, the "toilet has never had anything worse down it than your head" tend to come from Harry (though, I hasten to say, Ron is pretty good with the pointed comments, just not generally when he's angry). There often has to be some extrapolation, but there also does tend to be patterns in the canon that can be extrapolated from.

One of the worst things though, is the attitudes. Sometimes the author wants a bit of gay angst, I understand. Wants to have the main character afraid of being called nancy-boy, poufter, or similar. But once again, is this something that feels in character for this specific character? After living with the Dursleys who were very definite about what they thought of "abnormality", and Harry's disdainful opinion of them and everything they liked? Some people internalise the opinions of their abusers, but Harry has never done that with concrete things (his unsociability, on the other hand...). He's never had a problem dismissing what they say about "freaks". Or, indeed, internalised the way the talk about people "not like them". (I actually think one of the points of Dobby is to illustrate this, but that discussion would be a long parenthesis, so let's just leave it at that.)

Some of these things are mostly done to make a certain type of story work, of course. But I also think that they're the source of a lot of truly unintentional OOC, something that authors just doesn't pay attention to when it comes to characterisation.

You can also see this in the "this isn't how real men/gay men act" which tends to mean "this isn't how middle class gay men active in the gay club scene in the eighties and nineties would act". The question is: how would Harry act? Aside from step one, of course, being "not getting it". When he has realised what he's feeling, what then? He's not a character from Queer as Folk, which is important to remember. Looking at all his history with the Dursleys, he's prone to dislike and dismiss the things they like and believe in. Looking at the wizarding world, that's not a prejudice that's been shown (it all really does seem to be about magic/non magic).

The question the author must ask is: what would this character do in this setting?" Not: "what's normal for a British man in London circa 1994?"

Of course, on all these characterisation points there can be disagreement. And though I've only talked about Harry here, he's just one of many characters it happens to; he's just a well-known example. The point I'm trying to make is that many authors forget to think about these points, and instead rely on automated averages that displaces real characterisation.


Sorry about all the Harry Potter, he's just such a good example of this! And it wasn't as structured as I would have liked it, but hopefully you'll find some kernel of sense somewhere in there.
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sarnath: Fai from Tsubasa reservoir chronicle (Default)
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