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David Hines [userpic]

thoughts on the fannish AU

March 18th, 2010 (11:20 pm)
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It's funny, but my SPARTACUS office AU, which I wrote pretty deliberately as badfic, reminds me just how much I really dislike fanfic AUs. Part of this is because it turned out worse than I intended, looking at it, but part of it has to do with the nature of fanfic AUs in general.

I don't like AUs for a lot of reasons, but I think the chief one has to do with one of the reasons I don't like porn fic. About ten years ago, I was of the theory that fans wrote porn when the actual material didn't sufficiently capture their interest -- ie, if you really liked THE X-FILES, you wouldn't be writing dumb porn about Scully doing Mulder, you'd be writing casefic in an attempt to emulate the actual show. I don't know if that was true then, but it certainly isn't true now; for a lot of people, porn is the entire point of fandom. But AUs often give me that feeling: if you like these characters so much, why are you putting them in weird scenarios where they're so far removed from what made you fond of them in the first place?

And putting existing characters and dynamics into an AU often is clumsy as hell. Consider mine -- I like the idea of Varro as the guy who won't leave you alone at work, the guy who steals his buddy's coffee cup, but my god, the shit that comes out of his mouth, and Crixus's in that scene. It's the most hostile work environment imaginable. Especially since there's not a scene with Lucretia and Ilythia in Lucretia's big-ass office where they're talking about the employees as pieces of meat. There's a fine line between characters saying appalling things that you laugh at (see: everything that comes out of Crixus's mouth, on the actual show) and characters saying appalling things that make you go, "Whoa. Dude."

For me, I think it's the lines about "intern pussy" that do it. Not that you can't laugh at it, but I think it could have been a hell of a lot softer and kept the funny without being so off-putting for potential readers. If they'd just said "interns," it wouldn't have nearly been as bad. I think even if I'd taken it a step back and tried to make it sound more archaic in flavor -- "the rule when you tup an intern's cunt" or something -- it wouldn't be as offputting, or feel as misogynist as it does in the version as it stands. The more familiar things look and sound, the more we put them into familiar emotional context; one reason that it's possible for SPARTACUS to be as batshit as it is is that it's set in a very *unfamiliar* world and emotional context. The dynamics are all different from the things we're used to, so we're willing to like characters we would ordinarily find repugnant. (Barca, for example, *murdered a child.* And yet he was one of the show's lights.) But these guys in a modern office saying these things in words we're used to hits buttons surprisingly hard, so if you move this back into an office setting, you really have to ratchet back to keep the dynamic from being horrifying. I didn't ratchet it back nearly enough, so it comes off like SPARTACUS by way of Neil LaBute.

And then there's the little stuff. Like Varro's bit about interns being like whores. Well, wait, whores are all over the place in SPARTACUS; does that mean that prostitution is legal and widespread in this officeverse? What kind of place is this? It's modern, clearly, because it's got computers and Al Gore and such; what the hell is going on here? Basically, I dumped a bunch of characters into a setting that doesn't fit them, and didn't make any sense out of it. That's a badfic AU for you: it's the fanfic equivalent of an SNL skit. Nothing happens, and the funny isn't really worth it.

I do really like the running gag with Spartacus's coffee cup, though. That's funny.


Posted by: Seperis (seperis)
Posted at: March 19th, 2010 03:32 am (UTC)

Just a point of curiosity (I marked your Spartacus AU for reading tomorrow at work when the servers inevitably go down again; trust me, that may be the only good thing about my day)--AU in the sense of transporting everyone to becoming like, gardeners, or timeline variation changes or role changes? The reason I'm curious is my own tolerance is in direct proportion to how long I've been in a fandom and the source material itself. In this order, actually: crossovers, timeline changes, role changes, fusion, completely different time/place, then the ones where someone is an ice cube or a girl scout cookie. And how fast I move through those (anywhere from three weeks to a full year) depends less on the amount of fic available than how the show has been explored in fic and how the source itself explores the characters.

Also, I downloaded Spartacus. I don't even judge myself at this point. I read Colleen McCullough with a distinct lack of irony and have read her Rome series since I was like, twelve.

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: March 22nd, 2010 04:04 pm (UTC)

I don't think that timeline variation or minor role changes is much of an AU -- it's the same characters in mostly the same situation. The ones where they're all working in fast food puzzle the bejesus out of me.

I think a lot of this stuff comes about the longer a fandom goes on, and fans search for novelty. People write the same stories over and over and over (hey look another Tim/Kon story!), but at a certain point they try new things, like everybody working in a coffeeshop.

Posted by: HJ (hjcallipygian)
Posted at: March 19th, 2010 12:24 pm (UTC)

I like AUs when they do one of three things: put the characters in a situation that allows the writer to explore some different aspect of the characters that standard canon doesn't; take a character and provide that one character with a fundamental change, then see how that ripples outwards affecting everyone else; just fuck around and make zany stuff (and nine times out of ten, the writer totally fucks this up and it's horrible). But, if you delve through the AU pile, usually it's written by someone who likes a character who doesn't come out on top much and the story makes it so s/he does. (Xander is the first character to come to mind here.)

On something of a dare (much like your Sparticus AU, I imagine) I once wrote a Harry Potter Marauders-era AU in which the Marauders were a mid-70s punk band in England.

Posted by: leftarrow (leftarrow)
Posted at: March 19th, 2010 08:46 pm (UTC)

(First, I haven't watched any Spartacus whatsoever, although you're going to convince me eventually, so if there are Spartacus-specific things I'm overlooking here, sorry)

However. With respect to AUs in general: I'm intrigued to see somebody write out a clear explanation of disliking them, and why, because AUs are some of my favorites! I rarely make it more than a sentence or two into something I don't absolutely love, so it's possible that I've only read really GOOD AUs? But I think I enjoy the premise, too, and that really seems to be what you DON'T like. I won't go into a huge annoying AU love manifesto, but creatively speaking, I will say this: writing an AU is sort of an exercise in creative investigation, to me. If I can take a story/other fictional arrangement apart and re-assemble it recognizably elsewhere, then I feel like I've engaged it very thoroughly, both as a consumer and a producer. I like to analyze something by playing with it really hard, and an AU is sort of an ultimate test of conceptual and character durability. (also, I'm asses at plot, so screwing with characters in an already established storyline/environment is narrative HEAVEN for my lazy self.)

But AUs often give me that feeling: if you like these characters so much, why are you putting them in weird scenarios where they're so far removed from what made you fond of them in the first place?
One answer is that it's interesting to see how a new environment will affect my favorite characters: will they still be as awesome if they have more/less/different stuff going for them, circumstances-wise? But I think that's worth turning around, too: how will characters impact a new environment? Would Roman gladiator characters turn a horrible corporate office work environment into something even more misogynist and dude-centric? Yeah, I'm gonna go with "probably." So, even if you're classifying the office AU as badfic (which I dispute, somewhat, but anyway) it has revealed some character and social information.

Maybe what I'm trying to get at is that badfic≠fail!fic in all cases, and that self-awareness on the part of the writer is sort of critical in this distinction.

But . . . I think I've used up my meta-ramble comment allotment for the week, now. As usual, you've made me THINK a bunch, oh damn. ;)

Posted by: tried to eat the safe banana (thefourthvine)
Posted at: March 20th, 2010 06:33 am (UTC)
Little City

I'm not surprised to hear that you don't like AUs, but I think there's a selection bias at work there. If you look at your favorite fandoms, most of them are the definition of "bad AU fandoms." (I mean, who is Batman if he's not, you know, Batman? Either a lunatic or a sane guy, and either way, he's no longer very interesting.) The elements that make a fandom great for AUs are elements that will actively drive you away.

You seem, for one thing, to be drawn to - I don't know how to put it. Interlocking canons? Canons where the people are who they are because of the (interesting) world they're in. That is exactly what makes a fandom bad for AUs.

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: March 22nd, 2010 04:51 am (UTC)

This is a really remarkable comment, because it make me think about my fandoms and the kind of thing I like. (I would really love a good Disney Princess AU, and have actually talked a friend's ear off on the concept in chat, but I think that's mainly because I want the Disney Princesses hanging out with and talking to each other, and an AU makes that readily possible. Though I'd probably enjoy a straight-up crossover more.)

What are the elements that make a fandom great for AUs? And what are fandoms that are great for AUs? I would think, for example, that shows like STARGATE wouldn't invite them (why would you *want* to hear about those folks being baristas, rather than universe-hoppers?) but apparently they did...

Posted by: tried to eat the safe banana (thefourthvine)
Posted at: March 22nd, 2010 06:06 am (UTC)
Fan service

Okay, I'm hugely sick, so let's see if I can make any sense at all.

Fandoms that make for great AUs are fandoms where the characters appear in front of backdrops rather than integrated in complex, believable worlds, where who they are is relatively irrelevant to where they are. Ideally, you should be able to describe them as archetypes or using just a few key phrases - the Sarcastic Reluctant Hero with Issues, or the Mouthy Genius Scientist.

So. Oz makes for terrible AUs - who are these people if they aren't in prison? Not the people we know; almost the only way you can get them into the roles they have now and the relationships they have with each other is by locking them in a hole together. And then, even worse, the characters change over time - so now, if you write an AU, you have to do a snapshot, or you have to find some miraculous way for the characters to develop in your AU the same way they did in canon (which, wow, good luck, because like I said, prison is key to who they've become), or you have to say fuck it and have them develop totally differently, but then you're dicing with the line between OOC and OC. You know what would work as an epic Oz AU? A galley slave AU, or a gladiator AU, maybe. I'm having a hard time thinking of anything else. And then you haven't changed much but the clothes. (Obviously, a coin flip AU still works here; my favorite Oz story makes one major change to the canon. But they're still, you know, fucked-up prisoners, and they still have most of the same history.)

So let's consider SGA instead, and McKay/Sheppard because it's what I know and what there's the most of. First, these are not complex characters, relatively speaking; we know little of their backgrounds, histories, goals, fears, whatever - we have bits, but just enough to salt through an AU; not enough to make it hard to do. And they have point-by-point characterizations rather than three-dimensional characterizations. Is he sarcastic? Does he talk too much and too fast? Is he smart? Kind of not so up on the social niceties? It doesn't matter if he's a computer repairman or an alchemist or a flower: we know that's Rodney McKay. (If you can make his dialog sound like McKay, you're golden, basically.) Second, it doesn't matter if they're in Atlantis. They change a little over the seasons, but in standard arcs that are easy to mimic in any story. And what does Atlantis make them, really? Adventurers? Not exactly, and anyway, that's not unique to the setting. Um - interested in Ancient technology? Substitute another word for "Ancient" and you're golden. A team? Absolutely, but you can get that in almost any story. And so on.

The thing is, the SGA people are in Pegasus, but - I don't need to tell you that they aren't, really. Imagine how you would write a story about a small group of people who travel to a distant, populated galaxy to explore a dangerous and mysterious artifact. Would it look anything like SGA? Not unless you were totally phoning it in. That crappiness makes for fantastic (and extensive) fan fiction, leagues better than the show, and it also makes for great AUs. When the canon writers suck, we can take what they do and do it anywhere. And usually it works better.

So, like, I have two mostly-complete SGA AUs based on movies: Desk Set and Romancing the Stone. They work; I mean, I'm saying so myself, but still. They do. You can take almost any movie and sub in John and Rodney for the main roles. Try that with Beecher and Keller from Oz. Or with Batman and Robin. (Or Joker and Harley - oh god no don't NEVER MIND.)

If we read the same books, I could make a couple of other points, but we mostly don't, I don't think. And, anyway, this comment is getting above itself. But, yeah, I think about this a lot, because I read enough ff that I can usually recognize on sight a fandom that will produce great AUs and a fandom that really, really won't.

Next in the long-running TFV's Thoughts on Yaoi series: why some fandoms make incredible fusions and crossovers, and how that is relatively irrelevant to what kind of true AU they make.

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: March 22nd, 2010 07:09 pm (UTC)

I love these comments so much, and you should really make them a post on your own LJ. Failing that, I'm gonna point people here.

Imagine how you would write a story about a small group of people who travel to a distant, populated galaxy to explore a dangerous and mysterious artifact. Would it look anything like SGA? Not unless you were totally phoning it in. That crappiness makes for fantastic (and extensive) fan fiction, leagues better than the show, and it also makes for great AUs.

Okay, so my comment about sucky stuff making for more AUs wasn't too far off the mark? It's odd, considering that the show I'm the most fannishly active about is a show that is mostly crap, but your comments about my brand of fandom are really interesting. You're right; I tend to really go for characters tied into their setting and dynamic, and am not that interested by source materials that don't have a strong, all-pervading, intrinsic sense of place and purpose.

Posted by: tried to eat the safe banana (thefourthvine)
Posted at: March 23rd, 2010 02:32 am (UTC)

I tend to really go for characters tied into their setting and dynamic, and am not that interested by source materials that don't have a strong, all-pervading, intrinsic sense of place and purpose.

This is it, yeah. And I'm not saying backdrop canons have to be kind of sucky - I am just not familiar enough with TV and movies to know for sure. But I do think that backdrop canons are more likely to be.

And that drives the fandom, too. Most fans, as far as I can tell, are looking for characters, not settings. Great characters in interlocked settings with great plots and great writing tend not to be fandom's babies, in part because they're hard to write and in part because slash fandom, at least, does best with great, or at least beloved, characters, full stop. Ideally played by actors who give you something to work with. So, like, Life on Mars (UK) - a perfect example of a great canon with great characters destined to be a small fandom. It's too hard to write in the world, and this is a canon almost wholly resistant to AUs, so - what can you do? Rewatch the source, mostly.

The fandom-eating fandoms - Smallville, Popslash, SGA, probably SPN - are all about characters in front of backdrops. (Popslash and bandom and J2 and Lotrips and AIRPS all count for this; I can't read RPF involving living people, because I am tragically allergic to celebrities, but I bet these fandoms are FILLED with great AUs. They're the ultimate AU fandoms, or should be: just characters. No real setting at all. Make 'em baristas! Make 'em magicians! Make 'em dragons or robots or pirates or ninjas or high school students or Pokemon! You can do anything with them, or you should be able to.)

Oh, and you said you couldn't understand why I (or, okay, anyone, but I count!) would want to read the Atlantis crew as baristas rather than, you know, on Atlantis, but this should make it obvious: as long as the characters are there, that's all that matters. So if the story is good, and it reveals something about the characters, and especially if it integrates them into the new setting better than the old one, I am sold. That is exactly what I want! (And if it does all those same things, but in Atlantis, I'm still sold. My point is, in these fandoms, AUs are just as good as non-AUs - and they are more likely to be long and detailed and plotty, which is a good thing for me.)

Posted by: tried to eat the safe banana (thefourthvine)
Posted at: March 22nd, 2010 06:13 am (UTC)

And a point I should have made, but didn't - the Disney Princess AU is a perfect example of this. I am not so totally up on my princesses, but - who is Belle? The one with the knowledge and the book-learning and very little real-world experience. Who is Mulan? The one who goes out and gets the real-world experience, with skills the other girls don't have. Who is Jasmine? The sheltered wealthy girl who longs for more. And so on. (Does Cinderella have a personality at all? I honestly can't think of what it would be.)

So you can take Belle and Mulan and Jasmine and put them somewhere else - medical examiner's office, a girl's school in 1941 England, the Belle Epoch, Mars - and they will still be recognizable. And if you do it well (especially if you do it on Mars), they will probably be more interesting, because of the interaction between them, yes, but also because they are underexplored characters who are typically archetypes, and whose personalities and arcs are independent of the worlds in which they've been placed.

You will actually learn far more about those characters if you break them out of their worlds. But they will still be who they are. The same cannot be said of Legolas or Tobias Beecher or Harley Quinn.

Posted by: Drooling Fan Girl (droolfangrrl)
Posted at: March 20th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC)

I still liked it. I have a fondness for crack fic. Bad fic, in my opinion, is above all else poorly written. Yours was well written, so I count it as crack fic.

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