I’m in your universe, breaking your headcanon: Ennui and purism

Posted: January 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

Anyone who has spent any time on any sort of fandom knows that there is a dark side to fans that emerges whenever people come around to try and breathe new life into any given genre or universe.

We’ll call one side of this fandom Ennui, also known as the “OMG-another-one-we’ve-seen-this-done-a-million-times!” faction. These are the people whose resounding battle cry is, “Let it DIE ALREADY.” They are the ones who say, “Ugh, another MMO? We already have WoW, why are you even trying to compete?” They bitch about tired character archetypes and recycled level design maps.

Lest I seem too scathing of this side of the house, let me be the first to say that as soul-sucking as some of this criticism can seem, it serves a valuable purpose in the creation of fictional worlds. Storytelling is a sort of enchantment, really one of the only spell bindings modern man has left (I’d nominate good cooking as a distant second).

One of the reasons that tired writing is dangerous and draws the attention of the Ennui hordes is because it destroys suspension of disbelief. On the one hand, character archetypes are extremely useful for writers – they touch something subconscious in our psyches, if you believe the likes of Jung and Joseph Campbell. Take, for example, the orphan/bastard king (think Alistair Theirin, Aragorn of Arathorn, and Luke Skywalker, to name a few). If it wasn’t a well-loved trope, the theme of everyman rising from obscurity to celebrity would never have survived as long as it has. But in order for it to work, any writer striving to use an archetype or an established setting/character must seek ways to make his character archetypes into real people.

Alistair, Aragorn, and Luke don’t resonate with people because they’re bastard kings – I mean, who can actually relate to that particular life experience? – but because they have been shaped into people who are as real to fans as many of the people who are walking around alive. Luke is the son of an Imperial overlord, but he’s also just a bored teenager who feels trapped in the boondocks of the galaxy – every too-smart kid from BFE, Montana or One-Horse-Town, Alabama can relate. Aragorn is afraid to turn into his father. This strikes a chord with anyone who has ever had a parent who failed them in some vital way, everyone from children of divorce to children of drug addicts. Alistair is afraid of the responsibility that is being asked of him, and doesn’t feel like he is good enough to shoulder the roles that he is expected to uptake. Speaking from personal experience, every English major who has spent years walking in the shadows of the likes of Hemingway and Faulkner and is then thrust into a world after graduation where they may or may not spend the next few years living in a cardboard box or working at Target to pay rent can relate to a heavy legacy that one may or may not be able to take on.

In short, the best antidote for fan ennui is realism. Your characters cannot feel like cardboard standups and your settings cannot feel like Hollywood sets. They must have backstory, historical significance, favorite foods, popular culture, and – most importantly – a universe-specific conflict which drives them to continue the hero’s journey through whatever landscape they happen to be traversing, preferably with some moral ambiguity thrown in for good measure. Every hero must have moments of weakness, every villain moments of grace. These are the things that turn good stories into legendary ones.

The other side of this fandom equation is the people who believe that the universe was just fine the way it was, thankyouverymuch, and any attempts to extrapolate are akin to heresy. We’ll call these folks Purists, for lack of a more politically correct term. For these people, every Star Wars movie past the first three are blasphemy, no Lord of the Rings movie should ever have been made without mention of Tom Bombadil, and heaven forbid you ever write a sentence which might be either scientifically unsound or unbacked by wheelbarrows of lore-based research, because if you publish that sentence you’re getting a letter about it, by-gods.

These people also have their purpose, because for better or worse, these are your Die Hard Fans(tm). The folks who will stand outside a theater for days to get tickets, the ones who can give you the planetary specs of every sky-ball Shepard ever visited in Mass Effect, and could give an hour lecture on the genealogy of Westeros nobility. These folks will be buying your story when Ennui kids have already gotten bored and went home to play Call of Duty.

Purists are the antidotes to your plot holes and your deux ex machinas. Purists will not let you cheat, you dirty bird, and in that regard, they will make your writing better if you let them. They force you to go back to your backstory, searching for ways that you can make it deeper, and as a result, bring even more emotional resonance and realism to your story. They are the driving force behind worldbuilding. And if you spellbind them, they will be reading your stories and preaching – at length – about the glories of the world you built long after those driven by novelty have forgotten what made your world so great in the first place.

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