The North Tower #31: Fanfiction and Shipping
Hi everybody and welcome back to the North Tower. Today’s article will be a bit different from what I’ve done before. I wanted to discuss and analyse the concept of fanfiction with regards both to Harry Potter and to literary genres in general—concentrating on romance fanfiction writing and how it goes together with the whole shipping-phenomenon. It’s thus more about the relationship readers-HP-literature than it’s about HP-analysis in the more traditional sense. So if you think that the NT should only be hard-core literary analysis, and that’s the only reason to why you read it, maybe you should skip this one. Sorry, no hard feelings and see you next time. 🙂
Before I get going though, I thought I’d start with addressing a question I got on my last article (on who might be the next DADA professor).
A lot of people seem to think that Aberforth Dumbledore is the most likely man for the job and ask me what I think about that. Well, I don’t think it’s very likely for the following reasons.
We’ve seen and heard very little about Dumbledores brother. What we know is that:
- Dumbledore claims Aberforth once got accused of doing inappropriate charms on a goat but held his head high and went about business as usual (GoF)
- Albus jokes about Aberforth’s intelligence (I’m not entirely sure that he can read [GoF], which is obviously an exaggeration because if he was able to charm a goat, he’s a wizard and if he’s a wizard he went to Hogwarts and thus he’d be able to read.)
- Moody (Mad-Eye Moody!!!) considers Aberforth to be a weird person (OotP).
- He played a limited and/or secret part in VWI, based on the fact that the only time Moody claims to have met him was at the Order photo shoot.
What we (or at least some of us) suspect is that:
- Aberforth Dumbledore is actually the barman at the Hogs Head (based on the facts that he looks oddly familiar to Harry and that the place smells like goats)
- Aberforth was the one who discovered the eavesdropping Death Eater (or spy? A person that went to report back to Voldemort in any case) the night of the first Trelawney prophecy.
I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t strike me as a person who’d be very well suited for DADA teacher (not that you have to be to get the job, remember Lockhart). He also doesn’t strike me as a person who’d want to become a teacher, since he seems to like staying out of the spotlight. One could also suspect that if Aberforth is the barman (and possibly, owner) of the Hog’s Head, Albus would want him to stay there since it’s apparently an important location to have covered (i.e. someone to listen to shifty conversations). This is of course very speculative and based mainly on gut-feeling. The case of Aberforth Dumbledore and his future role in the series is yet another example of a case where we simply don’t have enough information to make well-supported predictions. So I can only tell you what I think, and I dont think he’ll ever be a teacher.
Ok, over to today’s article![Note to young readers: this article discusses fanfiction and romance, which means that it also discusses sex in regards to this. The writing is in no way graphic, however, and doesn’t use offensive language. I personally think that it’s ok even for younger people (if you can read the actual books, you can read this, in my opinion), but if you know that you’re very sensitive with regards to sexual themes, perhaps you should skip this article.]
Until a few months ago, I was blissfully unaware of the existence of fanfiction. Then I fell upon this site and got hooked. It has not been a good thing for my work schedule, as some stories have proved to be more addictive than the American soaps I used to watch religiously as a teenager. 🙂
To start out, I’d like to point out that I think that fanfiction is generally a good thing: it makes young people (and older people) read, write and use their imagination. I also think that it’s a very interesting type of writing, because not only is it subjected to the universe of another writer, but it’s codified the same way other literature is (which means that the writing follows the “rules” of the chosen genre). These two characteristics often find themselves opposed to one another, which is especially true for one particular genre: romance writing.
There are few genres as codified as romance writing (though the French back in the 17th century came pretty close with their control-freakiness [not the most formal English word, I know] regarding dramatic tragedies). Plots vary, characters vary, but the underlying structure is basically the same. Your average romance novel starts with a man (always handsome) and a woman (always beautiful, even if she might deny it) meeting and, by some outer circumstance, becoming bound together (usually not literally) for what is supposed to be a limited time. They are instantly attracted to one another, but try to deny it for different reasons. Arguments and bickering ensue. After about 150 pages, they finally admit their attraction and have unrealistically perfect spontaneous sex, after which they’re both undeniably and utterly in love with one another (which they usually still deny fervently). The blissful moment is interrupted by a misunderstanding (bad communication is crucial to romance writing) and they fight again. All seems lost, but a greater danger (enter the Evil character with his/her evil plot to separate the two heros) forces them together and a big crisis (often accompanied by a thunderstorm, the average romance heroine is very scared of thunderstorms) literally throws them into each other’s arms, where they have unrealistically perfect spontaneous sex (again). Sex resolves all misunderstandings and the hero and heroine declare their undying love for each other. Evil guy/girl is defeated and the couple live happily every after and has a pair of twins. The end.
This is of course oversimplified, but actually not that far from the truth, in my experience (and I’ve been reading romance novels since the tender age of 13). Your average romance novel also has a set list of characters as follows:
The Hero: Tall dark, dangerous man with a past (though the hair colour might vary). Dramatic and usually violent backstory where the hero is usually accused of some crime, such as murder, piracy, seduction and impregnation of a young servant (before the story ends, he is of course found innocent of these allegations. Well, either that or he had a very good reason to do what he did). Extremely handsome, always a sex god, and deep inside, he’s a good guy and a gentleman.
The Heroine: Comes in a few different types, such as the “spoiled beauty”, the “shy innocent”, the “bluestocking” and the “vamp”. They all have a few things in common though, such as being breathtakingly beautiful (and the ones that are considered “plain” when the story starts get a makeover and are discovered to have exceptional curves under their ugly clothes and/or hairdos), they all transform into sex goddesses their first time and they are traditionally at least 10 years younger than the hero (15-20 if the story is set in 16th century England).
The Mentor: Usually friend/family to the heroine, like father (mother is nearly always dead), aunt, uncle, grandmother and so on. Will help the two lovers get together.
The Rival: Other man who covets the heroine. Either evil or hero’s best friend who’s been misunderstood and would never dream of breaking “the Code” and is cleared of all charges (hitting on/sleeping with heroine) at the end.
The Evil guy/girl: Usually someone close to the couple, frequently a family member e.g. the gambling uncle, the spinster sister or the abusive cousin. Often holds the part as rival as well.
The Confidante: Another woman the heroine can talk to about her troubles. Usually sister or servant.
These characters might change their names and appearance, and can be used for different things (the stencil used to draw the Scottish servant and confidante looks very different from the one used to draw the heroine, but it might easily be used in another story to draw the understanding sister instead. It’s an apples-and-oranges sort of situation.)
Romantic fanfiction follows the same basic outline as any other kind of romantic writing, but there’s a big difference: the universe and the characters who are to step into the already defined romantic roles have already been created. Just as a size 10 foot won’t fit into a size 6 shoe (at least not without considerable pain), all HP-characters dont fit naturally into the requested roles. Which means that either you make use of the characters that are still hazy (enter Blaise Zabini) or you change the canon-character into fanon-character (enter Jerk!Ron) or you disregard the rules of romance writing (which basically means that you change the genre. It’s sort of like substituting the ball in soccer for a frisbee, it’ll still be interesting but it won’t be soccer anymore.)
Canon and Fanon
When faced with the above dilemma, most fanfiction writers seem to choose to respect the genre rather than the book source, changing the characters to fit the desired roles. At the same time, each writer puts his/her interpretation of the canon character (i.e. as JKR writes him/her) into his/her writing, creating a fanon version (i.e. their own creation). The fanon character will have the same name and the same basic characteristics as the canon version but might be anything from slightly different to basically have a whole different personality. If canon and fanon differ too much for the readers to see the character shift as believable, you talk about the character being OoC (Out of Character). This happens a lot.
The funny thing is that not only can the fanon characters be OoC in relation to the canon version, but they are sometimes even OoC in relation to themselves as they were defined when the story started. Example: Dark!Hermione is a fanon character, ranging from everything from a teenage girl with an attitude problem to a twenty-something Death Eater dominatrix. Dark-Hermione still carries the name of her canon equivalent and is usually still quite the bossy know-it-all (which fits well with the dominatrix theme :-)) but that’s about it. If compared to canon, she’s OoC. The double OoC situation occurs when a writer introduces Dark-Hermione as the heroine of his/her story and then makes her have a complete personality transplant (usually as soon as she has sex). In the space of a chapter, Dark-Hermione suddenly morphs into Unsecure-and-in-love-Hermione, who is another fanon creation all together. Lack of consistency in the handling of the characters is one of the main things which can make what seemed to be a very good fic plummet on the interest scale. It’s a bit like when Angel changed into Angelus on BtVS (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but in a bad way because instead of giving the story a nice twist, it flops it, as there is neither explanation, justification or logic behind the personality swap.
Fanon and HP-analysis
An interesting phenomenon, and one which is important to notice, is that many of the fanon characters have been used so often that they’ve become established in almost the same way as the canon ones (which is where you get the pun—canon means “collection of accepted-as-true texts” and is used mainly for religious collections, like the Bible). This often creates confusion when people go back to the actual books to make analyses. I get a lot of e-mails where people argue different theories using fanon evidence. Example: there’s the fanon character I’d like to call Gay-Lupin. Gay-Lupin is very sweet, very shy and (usually) in a pretty kinky relationship with Gay-Sirius (puppy love!). Some people would then use things from the Gay!Lupin character to explain canon-Lupin’s behaviour in PoA e.g. that the reason that Lupin ran when Trelawney offered him a crystal gazing was that he was afraid she’d discover his love for Sirius and believe that he had something to do with said prisoner’s escape from Azkaban. This is about as advisable to do when attempting qualitative HP-analysis as it would be to argue that Harry and Hermione are in love based on the third movie. (which doesn’t stop it from being an easy trap to fall into, I catch myself at it quite frequently nowadays :-))
Fanfiction and Shipping
The whole fanfiction phenomenon is closely tied to the who-will-end-up-with-whom question, at least for the romance genre. I must confess that I haven’t actually read much fanfic that wasn’t romance yet (I’m hoping to get around to some adventure and mystery soon). It’s not only I who prefer the romance genre though: at fanfiction.net, there are about 135,000 stories in English. About 67,000, or a little more than 50% are classed as romances. This is to be compared to e.g. “Humour” (29,900, 22%), “Adventure/Action” (14,900, 11%), “Poetry” (2,700, 2%), Mystery (4,000, 3%) and “Drama” (26,500, 19.6%—keeping in mind that a lot of the stories listed under “drama” have “romance” as their secondary genre, which—together with the humour stories with the same sub-classification—would bring the “romance” percentage up to probably about 70-75%). And this is only at fanfiction.net. There are entire archives that are dedicated entirely to romance writing (like Ashwinder). It’s obviously a big thing.
Which brings us back to the good old question of “shipping.” The way I understand the word, “shipping” basically means that you’re rooting for a specific couple to happen. Example: if you want and think that Harry and Ginny will get together in the series, youre a Harry/Ginny-shipper. Correct me if I’m wrong. Since I started at MuggleNet, I’ve gotten quite a few owls either asking me what kind of shipper I am or telling me how pleased/angry they are because I’m a that-or-that shipper. It’s very interesting. People have me pinned down as a Harry/Hermione-shipper most frequently, but I’ve also been told that I’m a Ron/Hermione-shipper, a Harry/Ginny-shipper and—this one was funny—a Sirius/Harry-shipper. Well, hate to tell you this, but you’re all wrong…
When it comes to canon (i.e. the actual books), I’m a no-shipper. I simply don’t care what people will “get together” in books 6 and 7. Sure, it might be cute, but I’m not reading Harry Potter for the romances. The books are marketed for children after all, and therefore all romances will be in the background. The Trio’s potential love life is not the raison d’être of the series (thank god).
Now, romances might not play a very big part in canon, but it sure does in fanon—including the fanon created and signed by Hollywood, as we all could see in the third movie. 🙂 When JKR doesn’t focus on love, the readers simply take it onto themselves to fill the romantic gap. There is every possible pairing to be found, both “het” (heterosexual) and “slash” (homosexual). The “classic” ones are e.g. every possible combination of the fabulous 7—Harry, Ron, Neville, Hermione, Ginny, Luna and Draco Malfoy (and I mean every possible combination)—Dumbledore/McGonagall, Lupin/Sirius and—of course—my all-time favourite: Snape/Hermione (more on that further on). More original attempts include e.g. Voldemort/Harry, Moody/Fleur Delacour and Hagrid/Dobby (eww!!!). With this in mind, let’s go back to the subject of codified romance writing.
Three shades of red
As I pointed out before, classical romance writing is a very codified and stylised genre with already-defined parts that need to be filled. To do this with e.g. a Ron/Hermione-pairing, you need Ron to become a lot more forward than he has been so far in the books and introduce an arch-villain (usually Draco Malfoy). This is not very simple to do while keeping the characters chiefly in character, though it’s definitely possible.
One way to avoid the difficulties and restraints of this genre, however, is to go in a slightly different direction. Ok, so you might not be playing soccer anymore, but you’ll be playing something fairly similar, like football or rugby (ok, so not that close but way closer than, say, badminton). Classic romance writing is not the only romantic genre—you have a lot of drama, you have fairy tales, you have humour/parody and you have plain old porn. From what I’ve seen so far, the “Romance” category seems to have 3 sub-genres: Romance (usually PG-13 – NC-17), Fluff/Fairy tale (G – PG-13) and Porn (NC-17). Then you also have Parody, which can be attached to any of the other three.
Romance follows the basic pattern of romance novel writing (see above). The ideal pairing is Snape/Hermione, where you can fulfill the traditional criteria with fairly little meddling as to the characters’ personalities. I’ve also seen successful Lupin/Ginny and Ron/Hermione stories in this genre.
Fluff/Fairy tale is a gentler version, more appropriate for younger readers. Idealised love and romantic shimmer take over. People are in love and unsure of the other’s feelings. Harry/Ginny, James/Lily and any Neville pairing are pretty easy to pull off. I’ve also seen very touching Lily/Young-Snape and Sirius/Lupin stories in this genre. This is romantic drama and not classic romance writing though. Any kind of future canon romance will undoubtedly be of this type.
Porn is exactly what it sounds like, with or without a plot. This is even further from the classic romance genre than the fluff, often without realising it. There have been quite a few times when I’ve started to read a story, found it a promising romance fanfic, only to be thrown into pure porn all of a sudden and without warning. Very disappointing. The difference between Romance and Porn is not the amount of sex—it’s how the sex is described, which I think confuses quite a few writers (and readers). I’ve seen quite a few fics that are classed under PWP (Porn without Plot) at Ashwinder that display classic romance sex, and I’ve also seen fics classed under Drama or Romance that displayed pure porn sex. Simple example as to the difference: Romance sex is never pervertly graphic. Neither are the sounds the couple make articulated (definitely no “Yesssssssssssssssss!!!”‘s, and what’s with all the s’s anyway?). Romance sex is idealised, perfect, unrealistic and uses loads of euphemisms. Porn is straight-forward, crude and uses vulgar language, like the three C-words. Not the same thing. Romance leaves things up to the imagination, even when it’s very graphic (there’s nothing stopping Romance from being blow-by-blow or very graphic, it’s the attitude that makes the difference). Porn shows everything, lets you “hear” everything. I’ve still to read a porn fic where everybody isn’t wildly OoC, and frankly, I find it quite tasteless as well as pointless. Simply not my thing, I guess.
What I find interesting with regards to Harry Potter is how well people usually follow the “rules” of each genre when they choose their characters. The canon characters that don’t fit the frame requested are substituted for a fanon version which is more pliable. Take Draco Malfoy for example. He has become a whole group of people in fanon, each version created to fit a specific purpose. There’s, for example, Supervillain-Draco (to play the role of the Evil guy and/or Rival), there’s Gay-sexy-Draco (usually cast as the hero in Draco/Harry fics) and there’s Gay-understanding-Draco (cast as Hermione’s confidante in some fics). None of these Draco’s have much in common with the canon version, though this, of course, varies with the skill of the writer.
Another example is Prince-Charming-Snape, who sometimes appears in Fluff fics. He’s basically canon-Snape’s good twin: sensitive, charming, in love, romantic, totally OoC. Prince-Charming-Snape is a good example of trying to squeeze a size 10 into a size 6.
I was planning on making some case-studies (at least one) here, to really make the connection HP-fanfiction-romance writing, to illustrate some of my points. I’ve just realised that this article is already over-long though (sorry about that ), so I’ll just put that into next weeks article. Stay tuned…
See you next time.