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.