Characterization (1998 essay by torch)

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Title: Characterization
Creator: torch
Date(s): August 5, 1998
Medium: online
External Links: Rant table of contents; Characterization
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Characterization is a 1998 essay by torch.

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts from the Essay

[all that she wants] Is the heart of fan fiction the desire to create *more*, to extend what we see onscreen into further adventures? Or is it to create something *different*, to let the characters do things they would never do in the show? Gee, I don't know. As always, my answer is 'both.' I'm a slash writer, so everything I write pushes its way outside the canon envelope on some levels. At the same time, I value character integrity--I want to slash these particular characters, because they are who they are, so they have to remain recognizably themselves or I lose interest in the proceedings.

When I read stories where the characters act in ways I find implausible, I always wonder whether the writer thinks she's writing them in character, or if she doesn't care. The latter is more easily understandable, to me. 'I want to write a Blair who's a sniveling traumatized wreck and jumps every time Jim speaks to him' makes more sense, in the world according to torch, than 'the Blair I see on Sentinel is a sniveling traumatized wreck and jumps every time Jim speaks to him.' If people want to twist the characters a certain way because that's the way their tastes run, that's fine by me. I'll probably have stopped thinking of it as fan fiction by then, if I'm still reading, but that shouldn't bother the writer. (If people appear to believe that the twist they're writing is canon, I get this urge to sit them down in front of a VCR and hold a two hour lecture, with visual aids.)

Despite this live and let live attitude, I will, given half a chance, rant about poor characterization in slash. I just can't help myself. Yes, people have every right to write the characters any way they please, and yes, I don't have to read it if I don't like it. But if I do a little ranting now and then, it makes me feel better, and maybe someone will read it and reconsider, or at least explain things to me. Because when it comes to characterization so radically different that all the guys on the show and the guys in the story share is name and physical appearance*, I have to admit that I Just Don't Get It.

*And not always that, either--I've read Blairs and Tom Parises who appear to have lost several inches and pounds in making the transition from screen to fiction. Although Paris usually gains some hair in the process.

[visual feast] There's peculiar characterization, and then there's what I think of as no characterization, or the 'wouldn't these two guys be hot together' type of story. This is fairly prevalent in crossovers, especially improbable crossovers. Two sexy characters break free of the constraints of their particular universes and get it on for no particular reason. Actually a lot of PWP's can be categorized as 'no characterization' stories, given the usual range of dialogue during sex scenes.

Character A: 'I want you.'

Character B: 'Ooh baby.'

Character A: *grunt*

Character B: 'Fuck me.'

Character A: 'You're my precious little love bunny.'

Character B: 'I was so lonely before I met you.'

Add names to taste.

Okay, theoretically I get it. Two gorgeous guys in interesting positions, and all that. But if that's all you want, why call it slash? Is it because the slash community is such a great place to hang out?

No, I'm not being evil and sarcastic here. At least, no more than usual. I'm in no way trying to stop people from writing crossovers and PWP's with whatever degree of characterization, of any kind, that they please. This is Liberty Hall. (I should have a sign made, to hold up as an anti-flame shield in case of emergency.) Heaven knows I've written my own share of PWP's, after all, and enjoyed other people's. I just don't understand the appeal of only ever writing PWP's that never go below the surface of 'A and B together? Yowza!'

Besides, I maintain that it's possible to write PWP's that are in character, hot *and* believable. (And what a joy it is to find these stories.) The guys may switch off rational thought until the lube runs out, but their subconscious minds will still be online and churning away...

[going to extremes] Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I'm going to say that I have loved some stories where the characters have done things I would never have believed if they'd just been stated bluntly without the supporting framework of a solid, persuasive narrative. There is a considerable difference between 'Mulder and Langly eloped to the North Pole' and 'Mulder couldn't stop thinking about it--the glimpse of sudden passion as Langly had looked at him over the top of those geek-and-proud glasses. Something about the other man made him choke up with heat, a heat so intense it felt like a threat to civilization, a heat not even a glacier could leech of its fury... or could it?' Provide me with the characters' motivation, plausible or not, and I'll be a lot more willing to help out. Basically, I'll believe anything for the length of a story if the writer makes me want to.

Unless it happens to be a major anti-kink of mine, of course, in which case all agreements about suspension of disbelief are null and void. Turn the guys into squeaking little wimps and I am *so* out of there; I refuse to have Mulder weeping on Langly's shoulder as they trudge across the ice together.

[the meaning of liff] So what is this elusive thing, characterization, then? The art of making the readers want to believe that the people they read about in the story are the same ones they see on the screen every week, or at least that those guys could be these guys, these guys could be those guys, given the right circumstances. It's easy to get factual details right (at least you would think so...): Mulder eats sunflower seeds, Ellison has hyperactive senses, Methos likes to wear shapeless sweaters and wriggles appealingly when you put a sword to his neck. It's a bit more difficult to get the words right, but usually we all agree that if a character has said something once, s/he can do it again. (The words 'I'm fine' are definitely part of Scully's vocabulary, for instance.)

When it comes to thoughts, dreams, inner motivations, we see things differently. We interpret statements, dismiss some lines as jokes, see hidden meanings in others. We want different things for the characters and so we guide them in our stories towards the kind of behavior that will bring about the desired result, and sometimes we're a bit too heavy-handed. 'But I *want* Skinner to marry Frohike, damn it! He would too get on his knees and propose in the middle of the lobby!'

Would Jim call Blair 'snookums'? Does Mulder really sniffle at the drop of a hat? Is Krycek a psychopath or a misunderstood angel? What does it take to give Methos a nervous breakdown, *really*?

Everyone has her own take on it. Sometimes I find it brilliant. Sometimes I find it funny. Sometimes I find it mind-bogglingly peculiar. Most of the time I celebrate the glory and diversity that is slash fandom, but just occasionally, I'll come over here and whine quietly in my own little corner.

Fan Comments


I enjoyed reading your thoughts on differences in characterization. It's always been an intriguing topic for me, ever since the days of Tom Paris sniveling in the corner while Chakotay protected him from all the outside world and his own demons. As you well know. ;-)

But sometimes I get lulled into a false sense of security, I forget how awful it can be, and then I read something like this Starsky and Hutch zine I just finished. I didn't even realize that I had set ideas about these characters, I've read so little in this fandom. But as soon as I started reading about Starsky's self-hatred, his nervous breakdowns, and his cruelty to Hutch, my walls started going up . . . and by the emotional climax of the story, I was almost laughing at it.

But I bet there are people out there who thought it was a great story, just exactly their take on the characters. Well, the writer did, didn't she?

Anyway, thank you for bringing it up. It's amazing. And I find it interesting how we see fandoms breaking into factions, and how people make friends with the ones who see (somewhat) eye to eye with them . . . and so much of it really does seem to be based in how we view the characters. Hm.

I only have one more thing to say. Tom Paris is taller than Chakotay. Taller! You hear me out there??? ;-) [1]


  1. guestbook comment, August 5, 1999