Let me be honest, here: I write fanfiction.
Not a lot, or even primarily. Most of the work I do is on my own original material. But there is one fandom in particular that left me, when the story was done, simultaneously fascinated by the characters and asking myself a number of idea-spawning questions about where these people came from to make them this way, and what they could possibly do now. I’m quite often left with questions after consuming media, and I usually spin these questions into fuel for my own stories. Something about these characters, though…
But to the point. Some weeks ago, I received a rare review on one of my pieces of fanfiction. Rare, because my stories aren’t written to satisfy anyone’s prurient appetites, so they generally get passed over in the community. It’s a matter of some excitement to me when I see that email alert informing me that another human being bothered not just to read my flights of fancy, but liked (or hated) it enough to communicate with me about it.
This review, however, turned out to be maybe the weirdest piece of feedback I have ever garnered. And even though I’ve sat with it for the last few weeks, glad of the attention, it has finally become impossible to ignore the fact that a certain accusation/observation in this review has been wriggling at the back of my mind this whole time.
As the individual began by nervously wishing I had the anonymous review function turned on, I will not make with the naming of names. And as I so rarely hear back from the void I’m constantly pouring my words into, I told myself repeatedly that I was simply glad that someone had taken the time to comment. It’s even true. I really am glad, even if what this person said made me scratch my head and reread the review several times to be certain I was getting the right idea from it. Because on a first read-through, it wasn’t at all clear whether this person was congratulating me on a story very well-written, or informing me that I had done the single worst job of capturing these characters’ essences of all time. That’s a pretty big dichotomy, I think.
A sample to illustrate my confusion:
“I was into it more than I thought I would. A little jarring. For… you injected everyone with a kind of normalcy that was almost TOO normal. Or was it realism? Maybe a mix. It's just weird for me. I’m only familiar with awkward.”
Now, let me be clear. I don’t mind if this person hated my story. Hate is a strong reaction and I’d be happy to have inspired it, because it would mean I made that person feel something. The purpose of this rant, the thing that upsets me, is the claim that I wrote the characters as too normal. I mean, is that a thing? Too normal? Like I should be upset when a movie makes an effect seem too real, or when a pastry chef bakes a cake that is too delicious? Isn't that the idea? Because let’s be clear here: it’s not that I wrote these people as boring or flat or lacking dynamism. The review later confirms this while complaining that I made them too extreme in some cases. So what I have to think is that the substance of the complaint lies in my having made the characters too much like actual people.
What? Is that a thing? Am I losing my mind? Isn’t the goal of character creation to make people that feel real enough to connect to? Isn’t the point of fanfiction to explore the inner workings of someone else’s creation and see if you can discover anything new about them that you didn’t get from the original material? What kind of person goes into a story expecting – wanting! – to read about characters with alien motives and un-relatable emotions, doing things that make no sense and have no value outside of their badassery or sex-quotient?
This rant has been building because over these past few weeks, as I’ve been working on my novel in earnest, I’ve been devoting quite a lot of my attention to making my characters into something a reader can really bond with. In fact, on the days when I’m willing to admit that I have any talent at all, I have to say that my greatest strength as a writer lies in my ability to make realistic empathetic characters.
And this is now a flaw?
My apologies, non-anonymous reviewer whose identity I am nevertheless protecting, but what? I really do appreciate that you screwed up your courage to express your opinion of my work. I just wish, while you were taking that leap, you could have said something that made any sense.
Let me be honest, here: I write fanfiction.