The Fandom of the Archetype
by Rana Eros
Lo, these many moons ago, I wrote a
rant essay rant entitled Travel Size For Your Convenience. In it, I posited that certain types of physical distortion in fanfic often correspond to certain types of psychological distortion, i.e. the smallness of one character in relation to another is emphasized in order to underscore that character's vulnerability to the other. If you've read that rant, you'll already know I dislike such character distortion. I tend to visualize as I read, and nothing can kill the visualization quite so effectively as details like one character hulking over another when I know there's maybe half an inch height difference between them on a flat hair day. Also, and more importantly, my focus in fandom is the characters. I don't like mischaracterization in general, and I don't like wimpification in specific.
You can sense the "however" coming, can't you?
However, since writing said rant, my continued reading and interactions in fandom have led me to conclude that "good" characterization is not always the point. By which I mean, matching up the character as well as you can to the available canon isn't always the point. Sometimes, the point is to grab certain aspects of the character and to graft them onto an archetypal template which has its own fans and fulfills its own needs. In shipfic, it's often not just the character, but the character, the character's relationship with another character, and the other character.
Hence, you have the Sex God who shows the Hidden Treasure his own surprising (and astonishing) beauty. You have the Dark Lord who seduces the Feisty Innocent into a passionate and (at least nominally) forbidden relationship. You have the Shining Knight who shows the Secretly Romantic Slut that he is indeed worthy of a relationship that is more than just sex (though you better believe sex still figures into it). I could go on, but you get the idea.
Generally speaking, characters are not arbitrarily matched to archetypes. There is usually at least one trait which prompts the match, though that trait can be as superficial as hair or eye color. And even authors whose focus and aim is more canon-based characterization will often play with archetypes and the expectations derived from them. It's just that for one type of author, canon personality traits are privileged over the totality of the archetype. Whereas for the other type of author, canon is only useful insofar as it serves the archetype. The parts of it that don't are discarded.
Now this, of course, leads to the inevitable question of why the author bothers with the media fandom at all. Why not just write original characters with which there is no concern about contradicting existing canon? I used to believe the only explanation was that the authors in question want the audience nominally writing in a media fandom will bring them, and they could live with "cheating" said audience if it got them readers. I've come to learn this is not always, or possibly even usually, the case. There's a level of illicit thrill missing from the tale of the Dark Lord seducing the Feisty Innocent, for example, unless the Dark Lord is Qui-Gon Jinn and the Feisty Innocent is Obi-Wan Kenobi, whom you know usually share a mentor-student relationship in canon. The "romance" of the Sex God drawing out the Hidden Treasure is all the more poignant for the canon isolation of the Hidden Treasure when the Hidden Treasure is Harry Potter. To borrow a concept I've encountered from my recent forays into RPF, it's the archetype "as played by" the character. Or the character "as played by" the archetype, depending on whether you personally privilege the actor over the role or the role over the actor. Either way, in these stories, the archetype is the important thing.
This is usually where the trouble starts.
One of the more consistent criteria I've encountered for defining "good" fanfic is characterization that draws heavily from the canon source(s). This is because of the admittedly logical expectation that if you're writing in a fandom, you like that fandom and intend to explore it. However, what you like about that fandom, and how you intend to explore it, is a lot more open to interpretation than I think a lot of us consciously realize. A lot of our interactions and judgments are based on the assumption that the majority of fans we encounter want approximately the same thing out of the fannish experience as we do. And of course it's all complicated by the fact that what we want changes. Sometimes I want a story as close to canon as I can get. Sometimes I really, really want Dark Lord Roy Mustang seducing Feisty Innocent Edward Elric.
Oh, wait. That is canon. Well, you get the idea anyway.
I think expanding my RPF horizons helped solidify a lot of this stuff in my head, because there seems to be a lot more tolerance in the RPF community for archetypal narratives (I could be wrong, my knowledge base remains very limited). I wonder if this is because the canon of RPF is...well, rather tricky. There are a lot of sources, including interviews, articles, DVD commentaries (for movie RPF), "making of" documentaries, albums (for popslash), autobiographies, and biographies, to name a few. Often, the sources can be difficult to get hold of, and when you do get hold of them, the time investment required can be a little daunting. There's also at least as much room for contradictions in various sources as there is in comics fandom, or fandoms based on both a book series and a movie series. Whatever the reasoning, the fandom of the archetype seems to meet with less overt criticism in the RPF arena, perhaps because of the difficulty involved in getting familiar with the canon. Or maybe it's just that I haven't encountered the critical communities yet, because I have been involved in comics fandom in the past, and certainly archetypal narratives came under as much criticism there as in one-source fandoms.
Anyway, some authors are aware of when they're writing this type of archetypal narrative (and will even include things in their Authors' Notes like "deliberate OOCness"), and get understandably peeved when it's continually pointed out to them. However, there are other authors who have confused and conflated their preferred archetype with the canon character. Sometimes, those authors have significant readerships who do the same thing, and the end result can be an entire segment of a given fandom in which one author's preferred archetype is held as the standard for judging the characterization of that particular character in any story, whether the story is meant to be an archetypal narrative or not. Again, authors and readers who aren't invested in that particular archetype are understandably peeved about this situation, and I think this is another reason why the frustrated cry of, "Why not just write original characters?" comes into play. If those with a yen for the archetypal narrative were to "cast unknowns" in the roles, as it were, it would be a whole lot easier to tell the archetypal narratives from the source canon narratives at first glance. As I've already mentioned, though, a lot of fans read/write both, and the source canon is of significance. It's just not the thing of the most significance, and I'm not quite sure how allowances can be made for this difference.
I ran this whole idea by Gwyn, and she pointed out another part of the equation that could explain some of the conflict with the archetypal narrative over the source canon narrative. Namely, pretty much every source that inspires fannishness is already riffing off of archetypes. Some deliberately turn those archetypes on their ears, some faithfully follow them, and others sort of stumble around and occasionally hit the archetypal mark and occasionally don't. In any case, if you as a fan are invested in the archetypes TPTB are deliberately invoking (or if you are invested in the archetypes you think are being invoked), and another fan comes along and blithely grafts the characters onto new archetypes, well...I know from experience that tends to make you tense. And even archetypal narratives that run with the archetypes TPTB have explicitly stated they are playing with are not welcomed with open arms by every fan. Maybe you feel such narratives flatten out an interesting character, or you feel this particular author doesn't have a good grasp on the archetypes involved, or you feel TPTB don't know what they're talking about when it comes to archetypes. *coff* At any rate, "canon" archetypal narratives may be more welcome to some fans than "non-canon" archetypal narratives, but that's not always the case.