Monday, April 29, 2013

Ship it like FedEx--What Writers Can Learn from the Fandoms

SHIP, noun, derived from the word "relationship", is a general term for fans' emotional and/or intellectual involvement with the ongoing development of romance [I rudely interject here to expand definition to any relationship, not just romantic] in a work of fiction.
(according to Wiki Answers, anyway) 

 From John/Sherlock to Doctor/Rose, Hermione/Ron to Edward/Bella, Katara/Zuko to Rapunzel/Jack Frost, ships are as varied as the fans who exist to create them. The term was coined from the word relationship, and is used as in "I totally ship Elena and Damon in The Vampire Diaries" or "do you get the whole Mericcup ship? Because I don't." (but seriously I do--because ADORBZZ)

Though these terms are relatively new, we've been falling in love with couples for as long as we've  been telling stories. And in my opinion (and for the sake of this post) ships don't have to just apply to romantic relationships--they can also include platonic but nevertheless compelling bromances and friendships (John/Sherlock or Merlin/Arthur) or even rivalries (Sherlock/Moriarty). 

Anyway, this wasn't meant to be a lecture on fandom subculture, but rather a look at what we as writers can learn from the emotional investment inspired by ships. First, I want to note--as a writer of an original piece of fiction, you'll have pretty much no control over the ships fans might create with your characters, so be prepared: anything (and anyone) can happen. So I'm not talking about ways to create ships that fans will carry on--no, quite the opposite. What I want us to do is look at our works with our own ships in mind.

Who do you ship in your current WIP? Have you thought about it? See, I think what defines a ship isn't the individuals involved in it--but the new character their interaction creates. A ship is a like a whole new character in and of itself; it's the hybridization of the characters' personalities. The inside jokes, the shared looks, the history between them--all that drama and interaction that makes their relationship a living, breathing character of its own.

John Watson and Sherlock Holmes have one of the oldest bromances in history (Sherlockians have been around for over a hundred years!) because their relationship is so compelling (even without being romantic, which brings us to one of my greatest pet peeves--the wholly unnecessary romanticization of friendships like Holmes/Sherlock or Harry/Hermione--friendship is powerful enough without having to be romantic!--but for your sake I'll nip this rant before it buds but don't be surprised if you come back to this blog at some future time and see my opinions on this topic blathered all over the place with vehement abandon). 

Eccentric Holmes is brilliant and aloof, but what makes him relatable is his need for a friend--Watson--who humanizes him and keeps him anchored. Obversely, haunted by the ghosts of the war he's fought in, Watson presents a character struggling to reintegrate himself into normal life but in desperate need of someone who will inspire him with a new purpose. Two compelling characters brought together like this create an even more compelling relationship, and the appeal of the Sherlock Holmes stories revolves on their quirky friendship (which does NOT need to be romantic--oh, wait, sorry, I promised I wouldn't go into this rant).

Anyway. Ships are something we writers can look at when creating our stories. We ought to develop relationships with the same care and forethought as we do our characters and worlds. Don't just think about who your characters are individually--but who are they when they're together? How do they change each other? How is their interaction special and compelling?

You can use this lens to view not only the romantic pairings in your story, but also the friendships and even the rivalries. Almost as compelling as Holmes/Watson is Holmes/Moriarty, the hero vs. his arch nemesis. Their rivalry is fascinating--the contest between two ingenius masterminds, one for evil, one for good, transcends the ordinary hero/villain relationship. Each is fascinated by the other and their verbal battles are as interesting as their physical ones.

Stories take on whole new levels of meaning and intrigue when characters are defined by their relationships to other characters--and this adds a certain realistic bent as well. Think about yourself: what matters most to you? Most of us would answer in terms of our relationships, the people we love (not, probably, so much the people we hate--the real world seems to be regrettably lacking in arch nemeses these days, wouldn't you say? Thank God for fiction!) We tend to define ourselves in terms of the people around us, by our parents, our friends, our significant others. You are not an island and neither should your characters be. 

Maybe the general rule in writing characters should be this: Where two are gathered, three are present. Character A, Character B, and the Relationship Between Them. As the fandoms have zealously shown, it's relationships above all else that readers and fans will connect to and love. It's the relationships which are most human and most intriguing that we love most. They are the source of the greatest drama, the deepest emotion, and the strongest motivation. So use them to their fullest! Don't just create characters--create the links between them with equal care.

And be creative in the kinds of relationships your story can include or center on. Here are some examples of my favorite pairings and their dynamics:

Sherlock Holmes/John Watson
Shawn Spencer/Burton Guster, from Psych
Elphaba/Galinda, from Wicked
Claus Valca/Lavie Head, from Last Exile

Jeeves/Wooster, from the books by P. G. Wodehouse
Merlin/Arthur, from the BBC show Merlin

Tenth Doctor/Rose, from Doctor Who
Clark Kent/Lois Lane, from Smallville
Aang/Katara, from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Sherlock Holmes/James Moriarty
Superman/Lex Luthor
Harry Potter/Voldemort

Katara/Sokka, from Avatar: The Last Airbender
Meg/Charles Wallace, from A Wrinkle in Time
Fred/George Weasley, from Harry Potter
Frank/ Joe Hardy, (I'll always love those Hardy Boys!)

I think most of us would agree that non-romantic relationships can often be as endearing as romantic ones, so don't be afraid to develop your characters' friendships and rivalries as much as their romances.

Writing exercise:
1) Make a list of your favorite pairings; try to find one for each category. Then describe their relationship--not the individual characters, but who they are together. 

2) Do the same with characters in your current WIP. Here are some questions to get you started:

- what does each character in my pairing love most/hate most about the other?

- what would each character's response be if the other died?

- how would another character, not in the pairing, describe the two characters when they're together?

- what would each character change about the other's personality?

- what does each character envy most about the other?

These are just to get you started. Be creative! Explore the relationships of your story as you would the characters, the world, the plot. Don't just assume that because you throw two individuals together, a relationship will just happen. It takes care and intentional work on your part, just as it would if you were building a relationship in real life.

What do you think?
I'd love to hear some of your favorite ships and character pairings! Sound off in the comments, and share why you love those pairings in particular.


  1. Wow, great post! I'll definitely be doing that little exercise for my WIP. I have to admit that one of my favourite kinds of "ships" is of the rivalry sort. Professor Xavier and Magneto are one of my all-time favs in that category. They love each other, and respect each other, but want different things. Similarly, the Wolverine and Sabretooth brothers-turned-enemies storyline was about the only good part of Wolverine's Origins storyline.

    1. great examples, Nicki! I am such a fan of Xavier/Magneto, and was so thrilled with how that was portrayed in the last film. Great example of both friendship and rivalry--such a deep and layered relationship, lots to learn from there. =)

    2. OH, and I totally forgot about Kirk and Spock! More like enemies turned friends, but still golden. Love how their relationship was portrayed in the new movie. AND THE SEQUEL COMES SOON :) :) :)


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  2. This was an awesome post! Thank you! :)

    And I TOTALLY AGREE WITH YOUR VIEW ON JOHNLOCK! XD It gets me going whenever people pair them romantically... I see them as great friends and anyone who has a best friend can see that! THANK YOU! (and feel free to vent about it any time cause I will listen!)

    I think a great ship that is not romantic is Amy and The Doctor and Donna and the Doctor, while a great romantic one is Amy & Rory (my OTP right there). I also like Merry and Pippin :) Their friendship is just wonderful. They stick together through everything, even when they are apart.

    1. Yay! So happy you agree on Johnlock!! And yes--pretty much every Doctor/Companion relationship is fantastic, and Amy/Rory is such a magnificent OTP. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I love how as soon as I saw 'ship it' in your blog title I knew exactly what the post was going to be about. It proves how much the shipping in fandoms transcends into other areas of interest for us.

    So much of the ships you mentioned I love or know. Especially the bromances. I find those a lot more compelling than romances most of the time, because the friendships last longer than the romances and are built on something deeper than physical attraction.

    You have so many excellent points. Great post!

    1. Favorite bromances are JohnLock (LOVE), Shawn/Gus, Merlin/Arthur, and even D'argo/John Crichton from Farscape. There are lots I haven't mentioned.

    2. So true--friendship is such a powerful force, often as strong as or even stronger than romantic attraction. And they can come with just as much drama! =)

  4. LOVE all of this. I especially agree with Smallville and Pysch. Two of my faves. And Rose and 10. And Johnlock. :)

    1. thank you! So much love for all these shows--they make shipping so easy!! =)

  5. Oh, gosh, I've been waiting for someone to write a post like this! BRILLIANCE. Especially the part about relationships don't have to be romantic to be powerful. I just finished Scarlet (by Marissa Meyer), so I'm all for Wolf/Scarlet (romantic) and Cinder/Thorne (antagonistic/friendship...yeah, it works).

    1. So true, Cait! So many of my favorite ships have nothing to do with romance--but plenty to do with love. =)

  6. Calvin/Hobbes is the sweetest thing ever! I love them to death. Susie/Calvin may be one of my favorites, though. The rivalry that buds from six year old boys bothering their crushes is so endearing, especially since it's one of the only times neither is aware or interested in developing the crush, the disgusted girl in particular. I'll admit I ship a romantic Harry/Hermione, but only because in third grade, when I read through book six and waited for 7, I imagined myself as Hermione, and spent endless hours daydreaming myself into her place, with the assumption she and Harry would marry. I thought Ron was an excellent friend, but I was always baffled that I (er,Hermione) would ever fall for him. But the friendship is so valuable to society I know it was the best choice. Kristin Cashore's books have some of the best relationships I have ever seen. The friendships, rivalries, romances, and master/servant bonds are all so complex and rich and deep and just every positive adjective I can possibly think of. Purple! Shiny! Energetic! I probably need sleep...

    1. Yes! Kristin's books are such great examples of organic and interesting relationships--I love them so hard! Fire/Brigan is my favorite for sure.

  7. Great post! and I always wanted Katara and Zuko to be together.....!
    Not in a book but I love the friendship between Meredith and Christina in Grey's. I think that's a really solidly build friendship. It may be a 'pushing the limits' friendship but I love it.
    My problem in my current WIP... I wanted my two main characters to be together, but at the moment they're both kind of saying they'd rather be friends. It's driving me nuts... but I can't push them! Waah!

    1. Honestly, I wanted Katara/Zuko to happen too!! It was hard to see little cute Aang as a serious love interest. Puppy love, maybe. Don't push your characters! It has to happen! Maybe they're friends for a while, and it turns into love later, like sneaks up on them? =)

  8. For the longest time I also wanted Katara and Zuko to be together...I was even kind of angry when May stepped into the picture on occasion. But then, after I saw how both relationships (Katara/Aang and May/Zuko) flowered and expanded, it was a no-brainer that the writers made the right choice.

    Anyway, I digress...

    I really enjoy the platonic master/servant/friend ship between Frodo and Sam because together, they never give up. Neither Frodo nor Sam would've made it very far without the other. Their reliance upon one another expressed in simple demonstrations of trust is beautiful. Hard to pick a favorite favorite ship, though!! So many loves...

    1. Frodo and Sam are such a great example! I should have put them on my list too. I love the master/servant relationships like that one, which are actually friendship stories at their heart.

  9. This is a really brilliant post--thank you so much!
    Though as a hard-core shipper of all the things (romantic,and friendship), I'm slightly disappointed you didn't include the Winchesters from Supernatural as The Perfect Siblings.
    Great post. Bookmarked! :)

  10. I'm glad this was the first post I read from your blog. I've been saying for a while that it is characters that keep people coming back even if they make fun of the story. Look at the back story for Alice and Jasper in Twilight. You could create a entire series off that. Or going back to Harry Potter, how many people would read more about the adventures and friendship of the Marauders? I know I would pick that up faster than a taking my hand off a hot plate.
    As far as one of my favorite ships (beyond Professor X and Magneto--thank you for mentioning that), has anyone seen White Collar? Although I haven't watched Psych, I haven't fangirled over a TV show like White Collar since I was 5 and Chip n'Dale Rescue Rangers came on every morning.
    Neal and Peter have the best bromance on television hands down. Neal wants what Peter has, and Peter is the surrogate father Neal never had. It isn't perfect, but they wouldn't achieve as much without each other. They take each other out of their comfort zones, and that is where you learn what really matters. And as an added bonus, they are intellectually hilarious.

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  14. Wow, I love this. I literally shouted for joy, saying "I love this person!", when I got to the 5th paragraph (but I won't get started on that). One of my favorite pairs is Elliot & Leo from Pandora Hearts; their personalities are polar opposites and they're from two different of the social spectrum, yet they're probably one of the most inspiring friendships that I've ever seen in fiction, as well as tragic. Their friendship and character personified one of the unifying themes of the entire manga. I really love the friendships of total opposites, because those usually are the deepest, and most emotionally relatable.

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  16. Great post! I completely agree that relationships can be platonic and still wonderful. Merlin/Arthur is one of my favorite bromances - also Burke and Caffrey from White Collar. Great bromance.

    I definitely think there need to be more books with female relationships like this. It's so easy to think of bromances, but it's harder to think of really rich female relationships. It seems like most female relationships in books are background to the romantic relationships. Which is really too bad. I'd love to see a Holmes/Watson-esque pairing that's two women. Now THAT would be something. Only gender-bending one character (Elementary) is just weird. Switching both might be fun. I think people have the incorrect perception that no woman would behave like Holmes, but that's not true. Bromance is great, but where are the girls?

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  18. Amazing and inspiring post, Jessica! I'm completely on the same page as you with ships and/or fan fiction. They can be opportunities to really delve into the deeper parts of a character both individually and as a whole, and yet why romanticize completely platonic friendships that are strong just the way they are? But I won't rant here in the comments either. I love the starting exercise you gave us to examine our own favorite relationships; I'll most definitely be using that soon.
    Some of my favorite pairings, certainly not all, and many you mentioned:
    Dean/Sam from the TV show Supernatural
    Tony Stark/Pepper Potts

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  20. Thanks for the post!!! Ooh a few of my favorite romantic ships are Mai x Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender, Ahiru x Fakir from Princess Tutu, and River x Eleven from Doctor Who. <3 But one of my favorite friend-ships is Mayuri and Okabe from Steins Gate. Sooooo cute!

  21. I have a question about *1) Make a list of your favorite pairings; try to find one for each category. Then describe their relationship--not the individual characters, but who they are together.*

    The question is, what if you ship a crossover pairing? What if you ship a heroine with a villain or a hero with a villainess? On the grounds that the villain(ess) gradually and eventually go back to the light side or at least become an Anti-Hero(ine). Of course, that's if the writers chose or choose to go that route with the villain(ess).

    In other words, what if you ship a non-canon ship that has ZERO chance of becoming canon? How would you write who they are together if they've never met or are enemies in canon?

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