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The old adage about "writing what you know" is a pretty good one. The little details added by someone who has visited the place, done the job, mastered the craft, or just done some darn good research can be an enormous asset to a fan fiction story.

But, just as there's the potential for an author to include a little too much of her nifty experience or research in a story, there's also the potential for an author to be blinded to other possibilities by her own personal experiences and preferences. In particular, what I'd like to address is the practice of automatically assuming that one's own personal experience has any revelance whatsoever to the experiences of the characters one is writing.

Before I start, though, I'd like to make the very important caveat that I also know that the way in which an author writes a character will inevitably be influenced by the way in which she interprets that character, and that interpretation will in turn be influenced by her own experiences. This is in itself mostly a Very Good Thing, and ensures that the fan fiction world will be treated to a lovely broad range of possibilities. The downside, though, is what happens when an author's interpretation, instead of being influenced by her experiences, is based on those experiences to the exclusion of how the character actually behaves.

One amazingly trivial example is the use of nicknames. In at least half a dozen completely separate forums over the years, I've seen discussions where authors justify their use of nicknames for a character because they themselves have or use nicknames. To me, this completely misses the rather important point that it's not relevant whether or not random people all over the world use nicknames, it's whether or not that particular character would use one. If a character has never used a nickname, then citing oneself or one's friends as examples is, for the most part, meaningless. It's not about the author, it's about the character.

Another potential pitfall is that an author's projection can cause her to close off any potential responses other than her own. If she is convinced, for instance, that a particular incident would scar a character for life based on the fact that she was deeply affected by a similar experience, it apparently becomes very easy to ignore the fact that said character doesn't appear to be either emotionally scarred or traumatized. Now, she could argue that the character, in that case, isn't portrayed realistically by the orginal creator, but even then there are usually others who've had real-life experiences that contradict hers and validate the original portrayal. This doesn't make that author's own responses any less valid or real, but it does make it less realistic in terms of a fan story if she grafts them onto a character who doesn't seem to share them.

Two of the distinguishing traits of writing fan fiction are that not only is the author writing about characters that she did not create, she's writing about characters whom her audience has also seen or read about, and about whom they already have their own notions. Obviously, it's impossible to write a character in such a way that will satisfy each of the hundreds of individuals who've seen the show or read the books (even the original creators rarely manage it), but in general the less the author projects, the better chance she'll have of creating a portrait of the character that has more to do with the source and less to do with her own life.

Date: 2004-07-15 09:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] coreopsis.livejournal.com
Oh man, yes. YES! You probably know how much I hate the "but I do it!" defense of mischaracterization because it may have come up a time or twelve in conversation. *g*

Date: 2004-07-16 10:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] janegraddell.livejournal.com
I think this is our "what would we do if we were sitting in a living room together" meme. :)

Date: 2004-07-15 11:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gmth.livejournal.com
Interesting essay, and something I struggle with from time to time, especially when I'm writing Lucius Malfoy. My interpretation of how Lucius acts toward (for example) Draco are often influenced by the way I feel about Draco, in that I hate that little snot and as a result my version of Lucius is not exactly Father of the Year material.

If a character has never used a nickname, then citing oneself or one's friends as examples is, for the most part, meaningless. It's not about the author, it's about the character.

But allow me to play Devil's advocate for a moment. There is no character in HP canon who comes right out and says, "I would *never* use a nickname." Yes, we haven't seen them do it in canon, but canon is presented from a very narrow point of view. We don't know what 95% of the characters are doing most of the time. So the question then becomes, is it a logical extrapolation of what we *do* see in canon to imagine that a particular character uses a nickname, or to characterize Lucius Malfoy as an uncaring father, or whatever other characterization one is trying to defend? I submit that in that case, writing what you know rather than what you see is a valid way to interpret canon and construct a characterization. So long as it's not contrary to firmly established canon facts, I don't see how you can do anything else.

Date: 2004-07-16 10:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] janegraddell.livejournal.com
So the question then becomes, is it a logical extrapolation of what we *do* see in canon to imagine that a particular character uses a nickname, or to characterize Lucius Malfoy as an uncaring father, or whatever other characterization one is trying to defend? I submit that in that case, writing what you know rather than what you see is a valid way to interpret canon and construct a characterization. So long as it's not contrary to firmly established canon facts, I don't see how you can do anything else.

This is a good point, and I agree. When canon is silent, there's really nothing to do but try to extrapolate and, as you say, not contradict what's been established. Even on the nickname thing, which is a personal pet peeve of mine, I can understand that some writers *will* look at the canon characters and say, "Yes, I can see them doing that." My (very narrow) point in this essay is to argue against doing it *only* because the writer has a nickname.

I think that's what it really comes down to, not arguing against an author ever using her own experiences--especially when there's not much else to go on--but rather arguing against letting those experiences get in the way of what is in canon.

Date: 2004-07-16 11:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gmth.livejournal.com
...and man, did I ever get pretentious in my first comment. Holy cow. And I'm usually so working class. ;-)

I think that's what it really comes down to, not arguing against an author ever using her own experiences--especially when there's not much else to go on--but rather arguing against letting those experiences get in the way of what is in canon.

Agreed. Absolutely.

Date: 2004-07-16 05:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anatomiste.livejournal.com
Great points!

I have dealt with this in beta-reading. It's often quite clear that the author has chosen to make her main character, for example, deal physically with her emotional relations with other people by hugging them, not because she has thought about this logically as a point of characterisation, but because this is how she, the author, behaves in her own life and it hasn't occurred to her that others might act differently.

Even if the results of self-projection work for a character, it is still best for the author to realise what she's doing and make such characterisation a conscious choice.

Date: 2004-07-16 06:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] puppy-tenchan.livejournal.com
Here via Daily Snitch, and agreeing.

This is also a very important point in characterisation in general. Look at discussions about the infamous prank of the Marauders for example, and what it meant and means for the characters involved (especially Sirius, Remus and Severus). It quickly gets down to Person A: "I have been bullied in my schooltime, it was horrible, now I am scarred for life, so Severus must be scarred too!" against Person B: "I've been bullied in my schooltime, couldn't care less these days, why should he?".
The same thing goes for discussion about how to write a fic 'logical', or how to 'deal with consequences' or whatever you want to call it. Especially when it comes to the more squicky things like chan or rape. I rarely ever see someone discuss this from a detached, objective point of view. It always comes back to personal experiences, that are of course the only valid ones.

I don't find anything bad about an author using personal experience to liven up a fic. But if that personal experience is turned into a "You are stupid, I am the only one who knows the truth!" hammer, I can only turn away and search myself someone else.

Date: 2004-07-16 07:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] blacksatinrose.livejournal.com
Oh yes, yes, yes!

Here also from the Daily Snitch.

And this is so very, very true. It's also very frustrating! You can't have a real discussion with someone who insists that a character must be thinking/feeling a certain way because they, the debater, does/would in that situation. It's entirely emotional, and has nothing to do with the character, but generally they don't see it, or believe it.

Interpretation is, of course, based on POV, which is based on experience, but there's interpretation of the text and then there's ignoring the text based on what one thinks "should" happen, and the latter is, IMO, a flaw.

I'm not entirely sure people know when they're doing it, though? So then I have to wonder if I'd know if I did it, haha.

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