Abuse (1998 essay by torch)

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Title: Abuse
Creator: torch
Date(s): November 5, 1998
Medium: online
Fandom: mentions of Highlander, The X-Files, The Sentinel, Star Trek: Voyager
Topic:
External Links: Rant table of contents; Abuse
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Abuse is a 1998 essay by torch.

Some Topics Discussed

  • character rape
  • character bashing
  • while the word is not used: woobies
  • fanfiction characterization cliches
  • "If you're going to be nasty to a character (or really, really, *really* nice), it should at least be a conscious choice."

Excerpts from the Essay

[hate him, wouldn't want to date him]

I have been meditating for some time on the subject of character abuse. This comes up occasionally in discussions with friends as well as discussions on mailing lists: why do people do *this* to *that* character, why does writer X keep putting character Y in her stories when she plainly doesn't like him, why does everyone pick on character Z? Okay, not *everyone*, but some characters get abused a lot more than others.

Now, I really hate it when this happens. There I am, innocently reading along enjoying myself, when suddenly the author takes a vicious swipe at one of my favorite guys or girls. The whole story is ruined for me, regardless of whether I like what I've read up until that point. Wah. I spend the rest of the day sulking and gnashing my teeth... okay, no, let's not exaggerate *too* much here...

I know some people aren't disturbed by this; they can read selectively. More power to them. I can't, and I was all set to rant and gripe about this phenomenon. "If you don't like a character, leave her *out* and we'll all be much happier!" But then I thought again. Who am I, I thought, to try to dictate what people should and shouldn't write? Didn't I decide several rants ago that I was for freedom of expression? Well, I did, so here I am, expressing myself freely.

When I get the impression that the writer really dislikes a certain character and is gleefully punishing him for being who he is, usually I think it's time to bail. But there are other, subtler forms of character abuse than putting a rattlesnake down the character's shorts, and I haven't been able to stop wondering about the appeal of all the various things that make me go 'huh?'

So what *is* character abuse?

[sadomulderism]

There is, obviously, a market for torture, gratuitous or otherwise. Otherwise we wouldn't have a MulderTorture archive; otherwise people wouldn't suggest that the B in BSO stands for 'battered.' Fan fiction writers have always hurt the ones they love. A story must have a plot, plot means conflict, conflict leads to some measure of physical or emotional suffering; and we're dealing with characters in relatively violent universes, who do canonically get hurt.

I'm not a stranger to character torture, and I've been known to practise it myself. Tom Paris and Fox Mulder *do* suffer beautifully. A character who is suffering is experiencing an intense emotion, and it seems to me that this intensity is a lot of what draws a reader into a story and holds her there, whether we're talking about heartache or physical suffering. (I suppose a combination is ideal.) Part of the appeal of putting the characters through the wringer physically and mentally is to give the writer and reader a second-hand thrill, a visceral 'oh my god' moment. We can hurt with the characters, but at one remove.

So how much is too much? I don't know. It's been suggested that the measure of comfort must be equal to the measure of hurt... but that's not the way the world is. And it doesn't work for everyone, either. If you hurt them a little and comfort them a lot, someone's going to like it. If you hurt them a lot and comfort them a lot, someone's going to like it. If you hurt them a lot and then let them die, someone's going to like that, too.

When does torture turn into abuse? I guess one way of measuring it, for me, is by seeing if the writer appears to have *respect* for the characters, regardless of what she puts them through. Once again, we're back to subjective intangibles--it's a question of tone, word choice, sequence of events. Plausibility. Anyone can be reduced to a quivering wreck, even our most stalwart heroes, but there's more to life than making the tough guys cry.

[adorable widdle noselet]

There are some forms of character abuse that I personally find more difficult to cope with than others. Tie the characters up and beat them, let the other characters pick on them, let them be bitchy, self-important and unreasonable, make them shop for curtains--but please let their mental faculties remain intact. Too much love will kill you; the urge to Take Care of Poor Little X can lead to regressing the character to the mental state of a five-year-old, putting him in nappies and having everyone coo over him. To me, this concept has horrible overtones of Stephen King's Misery.

I suppose turning a character into an incoherent mess by means of injury or sorcery can be a plot like any other, but I don't understand the entertainment value--after all, as a fan of character X, I want to read about character X, preferably speaking in complete sentences. (And I find many of the InjuredBrainDamagedandCute characterizations really offensive. People who have been injured and brain damaged have had their self-awareness and dignity stripped from them by circumstances beyond their control; they are not *cute*.) Mentally regressing the character to a childish state *without* injury or sorcery is even stranger. When grown men suddenly act like little kids scared of the dark for no apparent reason, I become rather frightened myself.

Some people who commit this kind of character abuse say that they do it out of love. "Mulder is so pretty when he's in pain!" "Tom Paris really needs someone to take care of him!" Personally I am convinced that both these men are intelligent adults who have survived on their own for years and are quite capable of tying their own shoelaces, and I find them considerably less appealing when they drool from their sickbeds, or timidly ask their BigDaddyLover what to cook for dinner. I'm sure they are vulnerable to injury, but that doesn't mean they're not allowed to be conscious now and then. I'm sure they want to be loved, but that doesn't mean they'll undergo a complete personality change when they get a boyfriend.

[who's next?]

Character abuse can be fashionable, too. 'It's pick on Scully week!' If one person does it, others will join in--there's nothing like finding out that others hate whoever you hate and that they will cheer you on when you throw in the occasional gratuitous slam at the character. And there's the peer pressure thing to consider. If everyone is writing Richie as a dweeb, maybe they're right, maybe it's uncool to actually like him.

No, I don't think that people aren't capable of making up their own minds about things, or that they will slavishly write whatever other people are writing. But I *do* think that some things become fanon because they're *partially* based on canon, because there's enough truth in the characterization that other people accept it and build on it, and suddenly you have reduced a TV character, who by his nature isn't *that* complex, to an even smaller set of stereotypes and cliches. We often say that fan fiction is about adding what we don't get to see, but I think it's just as often about taking things away, about reducing the characters to cardboard, fixing on one character trait and making it the default setting. (If you like, you can go back and read the characterization button now.) And if you fix on the things you don't like, the odds are pretty good people will assume you don't like the character, and also pretty good that they might think you're indulging in character abuse.

[wishful thinking]

There are a lot of familiar-sounding explanations for why we write fan fiction, although they are frequently different sides of the same basic idea. We write fan fiction because something has sparked our imagination. We write fan fiction because we love the show, because we love the characters, because we want *more* of our favorite characters and situations. We write it because we want the characters to have our favorite kinds of adventures; we write it because we think the show itself didn't give us enough of something, or gave us the wrong thing. Because we want to fix things, or because we want to play with what-ifs.

We write fan fiction because there are characters that grab us by the throat and won't let go, so we have to make our own explorations along with them. But I think there may be other motivations lurking behind the arras like masked assassins.

When I was young and innocent, I would marvel at the concept of character abuse. "But we love the characters," I'd say, "why else write about them? Where's the fun in just taking someone to pieces and stomping on him with hobnailed boots?"

Well... think about it. Where else do you get such total power over someone? Where else can you get people to act the way you really think they *ought* to act? Where else can you get back at character A for the way he behaved towards character B in episode C? Yes, I do think some people write fan fiction to get back at the characters for perceived flaws. After all, Duncan is such a prig, Scully is such a bitch, Mulder is such an asshole, Krycek is such a rat, Amanda is such a ditz, and that repressed anal uptight annoying SOB Jim Ellison, well... he totally deserves what's coming to him.

Fan fiction is about writing things we'd like to see happen, that don't actually happen on the screen. And some of those things may fall into categories that others will think of as character abuse. If you want to see Macleod grovel at Methos' feet and say that he's not worthy, if you want to see Wesley Crusher die painfully, if you feel that only by becoming a couple will Neelix and B'Elanna be as miserable as they ought to be, you're going through pretty much the same process as when you decide that Blair and Jim need to take things to the next stage. 'I want this to happen; I'm going to make it happen. Mulder really *needs* to spend some time in traction.' Whether the writer puts him there out of love or out of hate, someone is going to scream 'Abuse!'

And it just might be me.

References