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Fans & Fantasy: Shipping As... Creativity

(So sorry that this column was delayed a week. It's been a bit crazy here on the non-Internet front. I hope this is a read worth the wait.)

“Let there be light” was the original act of creation from nothing. Everything since has been derivative.

That's perhaps the most expansive definition of fanwork there can possibly be. Every act of creation since before the Big Bang has come from what's already there. A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but a good metaphor for how pervasive the concept of the fanwork already is.

After all, the earliest fanworks that still hold resonance today are based on the Bible. Paradise Lost. The Talmud (a case of fanon made canon, considering how many Jewish laws are based on these rabbinical works rather than the actual words of the Old Testament). Hell, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is fanfic. And so are so many sermons and interpretations told on pulpits throughout the world.

Fanworks are both praise and expansion, both correction and homage. Though there's been a lot of brouhaha over the past several years about the existence of fan fiction, and the ethics of taking copyrighted characters and going one's own way with them, it's not a new phenomenon, nor is it likely to go away anytime soon.

But this column isn't about fanworks writ large, it's about shipping, and how shipping in particular is a creative springboard. How the re-imagining of how characters fit together, in their worlds or others, is a particularly poignant and inspiring launching point for creativity.

The search for love is universal, and romance is one of the great genres of fiction. It's only natural that romance would take up some percentage of the world of fanworks just as it does the world of original fiction. But there's a uniqueness, I think, to shipping, because not only does it re-imagine a world that other hands have created, but it re-imagines a better world. A world in which people find happiness and completion, in which love is organic and unfettered.

Kika, who writes fan fiction and makes fan videos, says, “When I find myself falling in love with a character, I want them to have everything good in the world, including love. Oftentimes this doesn't happen in the space of a show, movie, or book, so the only way for me to help make them happy is to create that myself. So many of these characters have been through so much heartache; writing them a little bit of happiness makes me happy as well. “

Wanting two characters to get together who are unlikely to do so onscreen evokes the old adage, "If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself." If you're the only person who can make Character A and Character B fall in love, then you start spinning your own tales to achieve some satisfaction in your own mind. And for many who otherwise lack a creative impulse, or have been discouraged from stretching their creative muscles, this can become a freeing and exciting way of exploring another aspect of their own capabilities.

Kassie Parrott, who writes fan fiction and meta analyses, says: “I would say writing shippy 'fic -- for a couple of fandoms -- has been one of my major creative outlets for a number of years and my only one connected with writing. I got discouraged writing 'original' creative fiction really early on... but I kept fanfic as a kind of 'guilty pleasure' and never got discouraged with it, partly because I never opened it up to an audience until very recently and then only when I was relatively sure of a good reception.”

Similarly, Rustypeopleskillz says, “Before I started shipping, I had never written a finished a story in my life. I used to start something and then give up halfway through. Shipping gives me that extra motivation required to figure out how to end a story in a good way, it inspires me to write more whenever I watch my ship interact on screen, and it gives me an enthusiastic audience for my work.”

But for those who are already creatively minded, fanworks can provide a place to hone those skills. Fanartist jukebox-head says: “I get a lot of anatomical practice out of it … but also it drives me thematically. I think about "how do I want to present this image? Is it going to be angsty or sexy, sad or sweet?" As a communication/design student that aspect is a really important one to develop for my school and professional work.”

Fanfiction author Hull says, "Fanfiction is a great way to learn about the mechanics of writing, the fiddly nuts-and-bolts "whattya mean 'pick a tense and stick with it', why's THAT important?" kind of stuff. It's a great way to learn about what makes a story tick, what makes a story *work*, about story structure in general. Writing case-fic (for, say, a story in the Sherlock or Supernatural fandoms) is a fabulous way to explore the structure of a mystery or an action-adventure kind of story; it will likely introduce new writers to the wonderful (and usually distracting) world of Researching Weird Stuff For My Story."

One of the more interesting aspects of shipping and fanworks, to my mind, is the AU. Because fandom is all about working from a set of established parameters, it can seem counterintuitive that one of the most common and popular forms of fiction completely reinvents the world in which the characters live, and reinvents the characters to fit those times. But AUs fill a very specific need with regards to shipping: it allows the characters to exist in a time and place where they can find each other. Placing Merlin and Arthur as college students in modern times, for example, allows them to be completely comfortable with alternative sexualities in a way that the characters in canon clearly aren't, due to the times and to the world around them. Still, they are clearly still Merlin and Arthur -- the dynamics between them are the same, their motivations and characterizations are recognizable, but the world in which they're placed allows them to get together as canon never could.

Kassie Parrott elaborates, “Shipping is a chance to look at stories laterally and sometimes upside down which is always fun.”

Twistedsardonic, who writes meta and enjoys reading fan fiction, says, "There is literally no limit to what you can conjure up, argue, or write about in shipping. We are not limited by the confines of what appeals to the broadest section of viewers, what can make money, what's 'in' at the moment, what can or can't be done based on budgetary or trademarking concerns, the age of the actors, the death of the writers, the obscurity of source material. There is NOTHING that comes between you and a great idea or, at the very least, the exploration of an idea. "

But the opposite is also true. Some people enjoy the challenge of working within canon constraints. Ren, for example, says, “I like to stick close to the canon of a fandom's official publications. So, if I like a ship that has some serious roadblocks to it (like a character's dead or evil and I don't want either), then I have to be really creative to figure out how to overcome that to my satisfaction without too much handwaving.” Fanworks can be theses on how to bridge that gap between what's happening on screen right now and what could potentially happen.

This has political and social implications as well. Anna Cook says, “I think shipping kicks my creativity into gear in part because it pushes my political buttons as a bisexual woman and as a feminist: I experience shipping as a direct intervention in mainstream narratives. It is a form of critically interacting with books, movies, television series that depict human sexuality and human relationships in certain ways, challenging the stereotypes, assumptions, or erasures I see there and re-working the source within the fanwork to tell a different version of events.”

In other words, the creativity shown through fanworks may not directly affect what's onscreen at this moment, but it begins the process of challenging the dominant narratives, and that can be a step toward changing the nature of what's represented on our TV screens and how our lives are reflected back at us through the commercial media. Creativity blows the lid off limits, and within the world of shipping, there are very few self-imposed limits. You can write anything, you can rearrange anything, and as long as you are sensitive to the needs of the community you're in, you can indulge almost any sort of fantasy.

The community itself is not without limits, though, and it's not without inhibiting forces. Many of the respondents to the survey pointed out the concept of “ship wars,” which is something I'd like to explore in more detail next week. But beyond this most egregious of difficulties, there are also issues that can inhibit, or at least discourage, the full potential of creativity.

Some of them disguise themselves as assets. You will never find a more enthusiastic and vocal audience for any sort of fiction than you will find for fan fiction regarding a beloved “ship.” But in the world of social media, where hits and kudos and comments and reblogs and recommendations, not to mention friends and followers, are an ultra-easy way to quantify one's talent or worth, it can be easy to become so attached to the numbers that creativity will become secondary to popularity.

Anna Cook says the following:

"I have sometimes found myself as frustrated by the tropes of certain fandoms, and the imbalance of having an endless supply of fic along certain themes, for certain fandoms, and then radio silence along other lines, in other fandoms. Obviously people are inspired to write what they're inspired to write. But fan works, like original works, are not created in a vacuum. So I think it's legitimate to note that there are relatively few sexually explicit fan works featuring female couples (compared with the huge pool of m/m slash out there). This can be a self-perpetuating cycle as fan communities reinforce excitement over certain pairings and fans who create in collaboration or through inspiration from one another gather around certain fandoms or pairings and not others.

"I will include myself in this indictment: I write both female and male pairings, but in latter days I've been working on male pairings in part because that's where the community reinforcement comes from. My two Supernatural fics have far and away the most views, kudos, and comments on AO3 of all my fic. The next-highest story in terms of exposure and praise is a female pairing for Downton Abbey that's been up for almost two years, and is still only half the views as the Supernatural piece that's been up for five months.

"So I think that even though the fan community often pushes back against canon, and the limitations of mainstream media in terms of human sexual diversity and other types of diversity, they are still often constrained by the "givens" of particular fandoms, and by the pressures of "the market" -- even though it's not a financial economy, but more of a social economy."

But that's very similar to the rest of the creative world. Conmmercial crowd-pleasers always outdo artistic risk takers. And it's as hard for shippers to take creative risks as it is for the actual shows to do so. Because it's always about what the audience will and won't accept.

it's very rare to receive an honest critique or review in the world of fan fiction. And that, too, can be a draw – write something, and you'll get positive feedback, or nothing at all, unless you go out in search of it. And that doesn't necessarily lead to creative growth. But, as Rustypeopleskillz points out, that's often the point: "As a consumer, I am much more forgiving of fanworks than I am of non-fan creative works. While I prefer well-written, spell checked and well-rounded stories, I understand that fan authors are doing this in their spare time, that they might be new to writing, that the work was created for fun and not profit."

The constructive self-affirming nature of the community provides a wide safety net for encouraging creative thinking. And that safety net can extend to a personal level as well – it's a place for people who are like-minded to reach each other, and thus shipping becomes not just an activity, but a community.

Next week's article will focus on “Shipping As... Community.” If you'd like to participate in the survey, please click this link. Thanks for your input.

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