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Indirection - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
I'm not a big fan of realism in fics, at least not in the sense of thinking that fictional situations should resemble real life situations. Eg, the fact that in real life, high school romances rarely turn into life-long partnerships doesn't persuade me that it has any bearing whatsoever on the HP universe, where (a) things are different socially and (b) the author has chosen that point to tell us about, and therefore it is fair to assume that it is the important era of the characters' lives. I don't believe in randomness in fiction, though it's kind of hard to argue with in real life. I don't hold with perfectly natural dialogue, or with translating real people directly into fiction.

I do, however, favor a very strong verisimiltude with reality. Characters should act like reasonably recognizable human sorts of people. Situations should feel like, given the rest of the set up, they could reasonably occur, and people should react to them accordingly. Conversations shouldn't ramble on for hours and be punctuated by ers and ums every three words (I worked as a transcriptionist for a semester, and may I just say, urgh), but they should also be flexible and seem natural.

People rarely just get to the point. Which is kind of my point here.

A couple of months ago, I bemoaned my fear of writing. Not of just rambling on like this, but of letting writing stand when it was remotely possible that anyone might misinterpret it. Being a non R/S-shipper, I went into paroxysms of doubt about my ability to be clear when a line at the beginning of "Lines of Descent," in which six-year-old Remus stated that he wanted a dog--the reason for it was that he was about to get bitten by a werewolf because he wanted to pet the big dog in the cage to cheer it up--was interpreted as being R/S foreshadowing. In fact, I'd more-or-less forgotten about Sirius's dog shape and his dog name. It was purely a plot device to get Remus over onto the next farm, where he could be bitten. I was quite startled to discover that this had been interpreted as an R/S signifier. And my first thought was, Right, of course. I know that fan theory is out there, so I really should have paid more attention and been clearer and more direct, and called more attention to his caretaking side and...

This is a very bad way to think, not just because it's attempting to control things that can't be controlled (in a world where the walking-in-the-woods scene between Remus and Harry in movie!PoA was interpreted sexually, I have to concede that there is simply nothing that's immune), and probably shouldn't be.

It's a bad way to think because people are almost never that direct. And when they are that direct, I don't trust 'em.

Not getting to the point, while it may make it possible for misinterpretations to occur, makes your prose seem more reliable, because it makes it seem more real.

Just an example off the top of my head. Minerva McGonagall, a new prefect, observing firstie Tom Riddle:

Direct statment:
Minerva looked at the new boy, who was very smart. He was looking at a painting of Slytherin. He had a lot of books, with titles like, Boy, I Love Dark Arts and The Evil Overlord's Guide (the latter appeared to be unopened; he was clearly not studying it well).

So that was the heir of Slytherin?

Maybe she was overreacting, but he certainly seemed to be very evil.

Might as well be a direct statement:
The first year boy was looking up at the portrait of Slytherin. On the floor beside him were a lot of books from the Restricted Section of the library, and Minerva was a bit troubled by them. He had a reputation for being cruel and short-tempered, and he did have a habit of lying about his status as a half-blood.

But Minerva was certain it would all blow over.

No statement:
"Are you all right, Tom?"

The boy didn't look away from the portrait, and even in the shadows Minerva could see the way his jaw tightened. A pile of books lay forgotten at his feet. "I'm fine," he said.

"Professor Dumbledore was concerned and asked me to--"

"I said, I'm fine."

All right, then, Minerva thought testily. He's fine. I'll duly report it.

He looked over his shoulder impatiently. "Did you need something?"

Minerva shook her head and left. When she reached the end of the corridor, she looked back. Tom Riddle had pulled over a chair and was standing on it to look the painting of Salazar Slytherin in the eye. The boy touched the portrait's nose (to Minerva's shock, the miserable thing didn't start Cursing him), then touched his own.

She shook her head and went back to Dumbledore.

The first version leaves no room for interpretation. Tom is evil, evil, evil. There's no reason to doubt Minerva, because there's nothing to contradict her. I don't know about you all, but my first reaction to that is to lose faith in the author. If Tom is actually evil, isn't he going to do something to suggest it other than having a pile of books? And if he's going to do something, why does Minerva need to tell us ahead of time?

The second version has most of the same elements, with the only difference being that Minerva herself ignores it, and the reader, knowing canon, would at best see this as ironic. The third version allows a lot more interpretive space, including the idea that Tom was fascinated by his ancestry long before he actually became evil... but that bit of realism isn't what makes that scenelet work better (imho; none of them are exactly great). What makes it work better is that I didn't pronounce a conclusion right out. It could also have been done with an ironic twist of McGonagall thinking that it was good to see someone taking an interest in history, though I didn't go there.

The same is true in shipping, I think. Not just holding back on the heavy sex scenes, but also just letting some things lie. And it does get through. I had Dora buy Remus a work desk in Shifts, and sprite6 commented that "[i]t's like Dora is moving him into her apartment, bit by bit, without him realizing it." Mm-hmmm. That made me very happy. Especially because I specifically fought with an urge to have Remus say something along the lines of, "The desk made him very uncomfortable. It seemed almost like she was making him part owner of the flat..."

6 comments or Leave a comment
liwy From: liwy Date: December 6th, 2004 10:09 am (UTC) (Link)

(the latter appeared to be unopened; he was clearly not studying it well)

idleleaves From: idleleaves Date: December 6th, 2004 10:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes, yes, and yes. I love subtle that becomes obvious over time, and only because the pieces start to fit together. Takes talent to do that, to write things so that people will come to conclusions (even interpretative ones) without you having to beat them over the head with a Meaning Stick.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: December 6th, 2004 12:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
See, I get annoyed with certain arguments people make against certain ships because things they think are improbable really do happen. My grandmother was the little sister of one of my grandfather's guy friends. My parents dated through high school and got married in college and are still together.

Hm. So high-school-relationships-can't-last and nobody-in-real-life-marries-best-friend's-little-sister people are actually denying that I exist. *g*
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: December 6th, 2004 01:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's very much a case of having observed such things happening, I think. Growing up in a world where my peers go through three boyfriends in a year and the average age of marriage is nearing thirty makes me sceptical about the longevity of teenage relationships. But knowing that one of my teachers has been married for over twenty years to a boy she started going out with when she was fourteen tells me, despite what I see, these things do happen. People believe what they've seen.
chthonya From: chthonya Date: December 6th, 2004 05:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hope you don't mind me dropping in!

That issue of directness is one I've struggled with - the fics I love reading are those that either leave me thinking or that build up the characterisation in subtle layers. I'd like to give my readers that pleasure (and sometimes PoV makes it impossible to be direct anyhow), but there's always the fear that people won't get it.

And some of them won't. Some of them might get the feel of it but never clearly enough to articulate it in feedback. But that makes the occasional review from reviewers who get it all the more pleasurable. If everyone spotted every element of subtext, I'd start to worry I was being too unsubtle.

Still, there are times when I think 'I wish someone would get...' I feel a bit better about that now having heard Alan Garner state that 'some things are put in just for the author'; perhaps it's not necessary for other people to get everything.

Misinterpretation is slightly different, perhaps. People are always going to bring their own assumptions to a story - especially when shipping is concerned - which can skew the interpretation, but as long as the context and the characterisation is built up consistently your intention should be clear. And sometimes I find that those misinterpretations are closer than they look at first glance - perceptive reviewers have taught me a lot about my own thought processes. :)
leelastarsky From: leelastarsky Date: December 6th, 2004 07:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
Personally I think I prefer realism in fics. I have less trouble believing in teen romances that blossom into life partnerships than perfect, mind-blowing sex every time. ;~P
And I hate being hit over the head with the moral of the story or plot points. Half the joy of reading is in the subtle hints.
6 comments or Leave a comment