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Character flattening rant - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Character flattening rant
For straussmonster.

I'd like a rant about what happens in fic when an author obviously loves and completely identifies with one character and thus absolutely hates and cannot treat fairly or even canonically another. Pick your poison in terms of specific examples of choice; I was thinking Snape/MWPP fans who wage bloody battles in fic with the ends always resulting in crap.


I'm going to be deadly honest here: Snape drives me berserk. I liked him up until OotP, when the "Worst Memory" scene and, even more, its follow-up when he's an adult dealing with a child who wasn't even there, made my brain explode. I enjoyed having Remus toss him into a brick wall in the last section of Shifts. I was a bullied child, but I don't use it as an excuse to toss one of the bullies' kids across a stone dungeon and start throwing things at him while he's obviously very upset. I take it personally.

As a person. Not as a writer.

As a writer, my job is to make the characters on the page real. Looking from inside my own head, Snape makes me crazy. Looking from inside Snape's head, the world has always hated him, and everyone is out to get him, and all he has is his pride, which was stolen from him that day in an incident now revealed to a boy he already considers arrogant and most definitely an enemy. He's humiliated and shamed, and the world is shades of red, shaking around the edges, and he explodes.

Meanwhile, while I like Remus a lot and Sirius more than I used to, and James and Peter as well as expected, that doesn't mean that I have to somehow twist the scene around to show how they're really in the right, or at least perfectly justified. Even Sirius admits that it was because they were arrogant berks, for heaven's sake. They weren't feeling anything especially noble, or avenging a great wrong done to an innocent by Snape--they were bullying him. Well, Sirius and James were bullying them while Peter cheered them on and Remus buried his nose in a book and pretended not to see it. These are boys behaving badly.

That said, that doesn't mean that the Marauders are a dysfunctional created family, or that they don't really love one another (and other people), or that they don't have moments where they're behaving well and nobly, even before James's sacrifice for Harry. Nor does accepting that Snape was an innocent victim here mean that he never, ever, ever did anything wrong or goaded them into attacking--we see as an adult that he does play at tweaking Sirius's temper, and I doubt that's a new behavior. It certainly fits with the description of the Whomping Willow prank, where Snape had been following them around and sticking his nose in where it didn't belong...

Oh, wait. No. Snape, being an innocent victim, must have really been trying to do a service for the school. He was trying to prove how dangerous a werewolf would be, and James only stopped him because James didn't want to get himself into trouble.

Or, no again. Wait. Snape was viciously trying to get Remus kicked out of school because he's just a git with a mean streak a mile wide. James stopped him, risking his life against the transformed Remus, because he was altruistically concerned for Snape's life as well as Remus's.

Or...

Snape was a dark wizard from day one and it was the responsibility of the Marauders to try and beat him.

No, wait--all we have is the word of Sirius and Remus that he even knew any curses, and you can't trust them to tell the truth! They probably were lying on him and he never learned that stuff until after they tormented him!

Oh, no... he was a Death Eater. Obviously, he never did a good thing.

But he was pushed into it by the cruelty of people pretending to be on the good side!

Hello? Muggle torture? Racist assholes? What's the matter with you????

Please. Stop putting the characters on an ironing board to flatten out all of their wrinkles. It's the wrinkles that make them interesting, all right?

It seems obvious that Snape was obsessed with the Dark Arts (for reasons we don't know), and that James hated the Dark Arts (for reasons we also don't know). Snape is a sour loner; James is a popular and charismatic people-person. These two things would be enough to make them hate each other without postulating a single other thing. Add in James's growing ego and Snape's probable connection with followers of Voldemort during his first rise, and you have a recipe for a an extremely volatile situation.

Snape is alone. We know from his memories in Harry's Occlumency lesson that he had an unhappy childhood, and we know his personality pretty well after five books--he would not make friends easily. He latches onto a group of other students, including at least three older students (Lucius Malfoy and the Lestranges), but of course they would leave school before he did, leaving him alone again. This gives him a source of pride--he may be from a bad home, but at least he's got pride of blood and takes pride in wizarding history as he understands it. And here are these class cut-ups, easing through life, disrespecting everything he values... he hates them.

Sirius is troubled. He comes from a home with values he rejects, and he is made to pay for it, at the very least by being shown that his more agreeable brother is loved while he is not (at least in his perception). He comes to Hogwarts and finds new brothers who share his ideals, and who aren't bound up in the gloomy world of the House of Black. He is handsome and brilliant, but he doesn't think things through deeply. He's careless. And he's arrogant. But his sixth year, he plays a deadly prank and he runs away from home. We don't know what precipitated the latter event and only have a vague idea about the former, but obviously, it was a major year for him.

James is a teenaged kid, apparently from a nice family (they take Sirius in and he remembers them quite fondly), and he has found himself an odd kind of pater familias to his Hogwarts family. Unlike Harry, who functions as something of a son in his peer group (Ron and Hermione fretting over him), needing help more than offering it (except when he's actually saving someone's life), James is the one his friends look to when they need help. In his little circle, he has a nervous boy with low self-esteem, a werewolf trying to keep his secret hidden, and a rebellious and edgy boy who wants to spit on everything his family stands for. James is responsible for them, and here comes this miserable little dark-arts-obsessed little greaseball...

Now, I may be wrong about what's going through each individual head, but the point I'm trying to make is that each character in the story makes sense to himself, and does the things he does for a reason that's in tune with his personality and his history. That's what makes for good fiction. The point of view character may never know what those reasons are, but the writer's job is to convey that they exist, even when s/he can't be clear about it because of the narrative style of the text. Heck, even the POV character may not be aware of why he does what he does. Does Sirius need "new" brothers because the older he and Regulus get, the more he feels that he's lost the brother he started with? If so, I doubt he would ever, ever formulate the thought in his mind, but it would still come out in the things he says and does. Even if Snape, who hates Sirius and mentally flattens him, is the point of view character, the writer behind Snape has to be able to convey the depths that Snape refuses to acknowledge.

I wish it were just the single question of MWPP vs. Snape, but it's not. People decide to hate Molly Weasley for having an opinion different from Sirius's. They hate Ron because he's "competition" for Harry on Hermione. If one likes Draco, then one must hate Harry (unless one writes H/D, of course). And so on.

And it's not just in HP--I came from Star Wars fandom, and my first experience with this was Obi-Wan vs. Anakin. Sure, Anakin grows up to kill Obi-Wan--that's a given--but it's a complex relationship, and Obi-Wan isn't a plaster saint who is always right. He doesn't understand Anakin's conflicts. Nor is Anakin a saint, rebelling against a vicious and repressive Order. He loves the Order and Obi-Wan, who he refers to as a father to him. The choice he makes isn't easy, which is why it ends up tearing him in two. If he hadn't loved Obi-Wan and the Jedi, he could have just left. So why, Anakin fans, would we villainize the Jedi? Not only is it an unlikely stance canonically, it's also--a much worse fictional crime--far less interesting than the actual question.

Sadly, particularly when it comes to deciding to like the villain rather than the hero, this sort of thing is passed off as "looking more deeply" and not being "slavish" to author intentions. Quick summary of this rant: Making a negative image does not add depth. It just makes a negative image. You add depth by understanding all of the characters.

Tags:
I feel a bit...: awake Insomniac

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zoepaleologa From: zoepaleologa Date: February 3rd, 2005 10:18 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm a huge Snape fan, but quite honestly this: "If Snape is good, then everyone else must be just, well, evil" is very silly.

People get much more outraged about the bullying of Snape, than, it seems to me, they would if they saw a real incidence of bullying. No, I am not trying to excuse the bullying, but it seems to me, that neither were Remus and Sirius when Harry spoke to them in OOTP. Essentially, as you said, they were teenage berks, and teenage boys do that sort of thing.

It seems odd in any case to say about a bunch of fictional characters that they should not have done something, because clearly they did. That's the point.

Sirius and James may also be pitied. Generally, bullying behaviour is not the work of well balanced kids. So maybe there were traumas on both sides (we pretty much know that to be the case with Sirius, if he left home at 16).

I like flawed characters, fun to read, and fun to write, and certainly fun to argue over! Enjoyable and timely rant.
absurdwords From: absurdwords Date: February 3rd, 2005 10:45 am (UTC) (Link)
WORD.

I read mostly Snapefic, and even I was thinking 'for God's sake, grow up, Harry is not James!' when I read OotP.

I wish it were just the single question of MWPP vs. Snape, but it's not. People decide to hate Molly Weasley for having an opinion different from Sirius's. They hate Ron because he's "competition" for Harry on Hermione. If one likes Draco, then one must hate Harry (unless one writes H/D, of course). And so on.

Oh yes, I've seen lots of irrational Marauder hate, and Ron and Harry hate, because the Marauders must be the reason that Snape was going to the death eaters or Ron is competition for Snape on Hermione. I've read fics in which Ron was Hermione's oafish boyfriend, whom she ditches later on after which she's hooking up with Snape and has lots of mind-blowing orgasms. I'm not saying that making Harry or Ron stupid or evil can't be done. I've read very plausible evil bastard!Harrys, but authors must always try to make their readers buy it.

MWPP vs Snape is a rather complex matter on the books: on the one hand there are those four boys who are one the one hand likable, on the other hand can behave as utter bastards, each in his own way. And then there is their 'victim', who probably can be as bad and who has made a very stupid choice in his youth, but must have seen that he's wrong. This does not necessarily make him nice, but I think he's interesting. The Marauders are also interesting, though. If an author wants to write something about the antagonism between Snape and the Marauders, this can only work when both parties are given depth. It's the only way the reader can understand and believe their motives.

It's a bit ironic that many writers who like Snape's shade of gray very often get this wrong.
katinka31 From: katinka31 Date: February 3rd, 2005 02:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
People decide to hate Molly Weasley for having an opinion different from Sirius's.

Oh, definitely. Perhaps it's a case of homemaker-identification, but it really does bother me when Molly is villified for her behavior toward Sirius. Granted, she does say some horrid things to him, but...EVERYONE is saying horrid things. And if we're going to cut them some slack because of the stress of the circumstances, I think Molly deserves some too. I'm not saying that I agree with all her opinions or condone all that she does, but I do think she has some valid reasons for acting in that way.

I mean, she's trying to care for her family in an unfamiliar home (never fun), her husband is Dumbledore's point man at the Ministry (obviously dangerous), her two eldest sons are doing work for the Order (again, dangerous), Percy had made his split with the family only a few weeks before, the twins are conducting dangerous and illegal experiments, Ron has already come to all sorts of harm while being Harry's friend, and her daughter has already been possessed by Voldemort. And to be stuck inside ANY house cleaning all day, is a rotten job. Imagine how enjoyable it must have been in Grimmauld Place. Still, Molly did it, to provide a place where the Order could meet. And really, I think it's admirable that she never once tried to keep anyone in her family away from Harry, regardless of how much that association puts them in harms' way.

Er, yeah. Sorry for going off there. ;) Let's just say that I'm agreeing with this:

Now, I may be wrong about what's going through each individual head, but the point I'm trying to make is that each character in the story makes sense to himself, and does the things he does for a reason that's in tune with his personality and his history. That's what makes for good fiction.

Thanks for saying it more articulately than I would ever be able to. :)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 3rd, 2005 06:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
I thought the book was pretty clear that Molly was terrified and insecure. It came out on Sirius (who she'd be unlikely to get along with in any circumstance), but it was a function of the situation and her unfamiliarity with it.
From: inyron Date: February 3rd, 2005 04:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sadly, particularly when it comes to deciding to like the villain rather than the hero, this sort of thing is passed off as "looking more deeply" and not being "slavish" to author intentions.

Word. To everything, really, but the above actively bothers me sometimes. Great rant. I especially like analyses of James that look closely at MWP- their shaping, the whole social shaping effect on him has been one of my favorite things to mull over since OotP.
(no subject) - feylin17 - Expand
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 3rd, 2005 06:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sure. Thanks. :)
jesspallas From: jesspallas Date: February 3rd, 2005 05:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
That pretty much hits the nail on the head. :) I hate it when you get people villifying either side in these various conflicts - there is no such thing as a character who is whiter than white or blacker than black. In a story I'm writing with hopes to publish I had a villian character who was practically twirling his moustache in the first draft who has evolved into someone who's motives I like to think are understandable if not excusable and I much prefer him and find him more realistic that way. :)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 3rd, 2005 06:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
You know what sort of makes me scratch my head? The attitude that "Well, Tom Riddle was interesting, but Voldemort is a cardboard cutout."

Heh?

Voldemort is what Tom solidified into. He's still Tom Riddle, and the choices he made landed him in the role he's in. Everything Voldemort does, he does because he's Tom.

I don't get it.
straussmonster From: straussmonster Date: February 3rd, 2005 06:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
That is one lovely rant. Thank you very much--pretty much says it all!
lazypadawan From: lazypadawan Date: February 3rd, 2005 07:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Anakin grows up to kill Obi-Wan--that's a given--but it's a complex relationship, and Obi-Wan isn't a plaster saint who is always right. He doesn't understand Anakin's conflicts. Nor is Anakin a saint, rebelling against a vicious and repressive Order.

Ah yes, our friend St. Obi The Blameless. You are right though about some Anakin fans who portray him as the victim of a meanie Jedi Order. As a child, he didn't have much of a choice. What was he going to do, go back to Tatooine and live as a slave? But as an adult, he does have a choice and if the Jedi were as horrible as some fans make them out to be, as you said, he could have left. But he didn't want to leave. Part of it is because he loved Obi-Wan and I'm sure he came to love many things about the Order. After all he kept rambling about the Jedi and the Force as Darth Vader. But I also think that Anakin believed being a Jedi was his destiny, what he was absolutely meant to be. Padmé reinforced that when she said things like "I will not let you give up your future for me." She believed it too; she never gave him an ultimatum like, "It's the lightsaber or me, baby." It's also not a stretch to believe that he might have liked the power and prestige (plus the fun of piloting and "aggressive negotiations") that came with the job.

I guess what it comes down to is fan prejudice and preferences triumphing over canon.
eir_de_scania From: eir_de_scania Date: February 3rd, 2005 08:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
Not to mention all those who were shocked by Harrys behaviour in OotP. Screaming at his friends, asking nosy questions, not just smiling and trusting that the adults would fix everything - oh dear, bad Harry.

JKR:s characters are acting like RL characters, not like role models. Surprisingly, several readers seem to prefer role models.
vytresna From: vytresna Date: February 3rd, 2005 10:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
What bugs me is that his common sense suddenly flew out of head. Granted, he did have severe procrastination issues in GoF, but forgetting that there were six months of visions before the History exam... not only enraging, but also too stupid for Harry.

And it wasn't pleasant to read from the point of view of someone having minor tantrums either, but that's mainly because I've had them.
rikibeth From: rikibeth Date: February 4th, 2005 02:56 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm a huge Snape fan, and I still say WORD.

I didn't feel any need to construct elaborate apologia for him with the MWPP opposition. I put in a little introductory scene setting up the Snape/Black rivalry, first year, and I made it petty and childish and pointless on BOTH sides, because so often that's how these things start.

So, WORD!
funwithrage From: funwithrage Date: February 5th, 2005 05:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yep. That's...pretty much high school, honestly.
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 4th, 2005 04:55 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm a Snape fan with some provisions since the Worst Memory. I have a mental picture of what I HOPED happened after Snape completely lost it with Harry. If it did, I'm ultimately OK with him. If not, well . . . .

I see Snape, after Harry's left, as realizing what he's done and reacting with horror. He has lines he won't cross, and this is one of them. Hagrid's said (very strongly) that Snape would never harm a student. I see this as being something very central not to Snape's character but to his identity. He's been on the Dark Side and left it. Part of being able to tell himself that he's not the same person (or telling himself that he has a chance of someday not being the same person [I see Snape as having redemption issues]) is in not physically harming a child, especially one he's supposed to protect as a teacher.

I see him as crawling (metaphorically) to Dumbledore and confessing he lost it, confessing he can only see James when he looks at Harry, and downplaying or leaving out entirely what Harry was doing when Snape lost it (this is the only point I have proof on [and I admit it's weak]. What Dumbledore said about it, even given Harry's pain over Sirius' death, seemed a little uneven if he was aware of Harry going into the memory). I also see him as being afraid of what he'll do if he starts going into Harry's mind again.

If this is so, then liking Snape is not a bad thinng. If it's not, well, I've been wrong before.

Ellynne
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 5th, 2005 02:43 pm (UTC) (Link)

Here via DS

I'm not sure that Snape's loss of control is supposed to shock us as much as it would in a Muggle context. The WW is a very violent place, with little respect for children's physical integrity. Mr. Weasley "still bears the marks" of his punishment by Pringle. Corporal punishment has been abolished at Hogwarts, but wizarding teachers still seem to have few scruples about manhandling the students. McGonagall hauls Draco around by the ear in PS/SS. The brutal ferret-bouncing incident had no consequences that we know of for Fake!Moody. Snape acted badly, and hopefully regretted it afterwards, but he was under extreme provocation. Harry had just violated his privacy and, for all Snape knew, had a great time seeing his most hated teacher humiliated.
Re: Here via DS - (Anonymous) - Expand
angua9 From: angua9 Date: February 4th, 2005 06:27 am (UTC) (Link)
Excellent rant!
mediumajaxwench From: mediumajaxwench Date: February 5th, 2005 01:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
Here via ds.

Your first essay that I read, the one comparing werewolves to deaf people, I hated.

That said, my first impression was completely off, because I really enjoyed reading this essay and I completely agree with you. You also said something somewhere about genfic that I had the same reaction to.

One of my pet peeves, pre-Ootp, was how Cho was handled. The way her and Harry's relationship dissolved was one of my favorite things in that book. I don't think I've seen a fanfic handle it where they break up for any of the normal reasons that teenagers break up, it was always she was really evil, or spent all her time trying to be pretty, or too much of a slut, ect. Even with the angst factor after GoF no one really gave her a chance, she was just in the way. One of the most solid things in Ootp was the way Harry's lack of awareness kept screwing things up and she couldn't telepathically tell that Hermione and Harry were just friends. JKR didn't make her evil, she just set it up so that bad timing would kill the relationship.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 5th, 2005 08:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Your first essay that I read, the one comparing werewolves to deaf people, I hated.

Hmmm. I think you might have me mixed up with someone else... I think I'd remember writing such a thing! I did one comparing werewolves to the mentally ill awhile back, but not to deaf people, that I recall.
_inbetween_ From: _inbetween_ Date: February 5th, 2005 04:03 pm (UTC) (Link)

understanding all of the characters

I'm going to be deadly honest here: Snape drives me berserk. I liked him up until OotP, when the "Worst Memory" scene and, even more, its follow-up when he's an adult dealing with a child who wasn't even there, made my brain explode.

omg, finally!
i entered lj liking snape and ended up hating the character for exactly the reasons you outlined. i could not stand a single word or drawing more depicting him that way. i've been meaning to write those thoughts down forever and am so very glad you put it much better than i might have (see this incoherent sentence).
*goes to reread your post*
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 8th, 2005 04:54 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: understanding all of the characters

I feel the same way. OotP lowered my opinion of Snape considerably.

To be blunt though, Snape's treatment of Harry and Neville in particular has always bothered me. Not surprising now that we know that both boys are the ones referred to in the prophecy about whom could defeat Voldemort, but despicable.

I was bullied too by both students and teachers. It was every single day of grades 3-6 (or maybe it just seemed that way, lol), and parts of grade 7 and 8. I rarely think about the students unless the topic of bullying comes up, and it stirs no emotions when it does. When the topic comes up and I think of teachers, though...wow. I still get angry.

I've been on the Harry Potter side of the equation (I know you're talented in something I wish I was, so I'll make this class miserable for you, and bring you down to my size) and the Neville Longbottom side(So what if you've got a learning disability? Not my problem. I'll make you feel 2 inches tall. Maybe that'll inspire you. By the way, if a popular kid actually does physical harm to you in class, I'll blame you even if you weren't even looking at the kid. You shouldn't have yelled in pain. It disturbs the class.) Both are miserable places to be, and the result is the same.

Bullying by peers sucks, but bullying by teachers is worse because it lends authority to bullies in general. They start to make up excuses to justify WHY you deserve it. It codifies the behavior, and spreads it to people who might not otherwise have had the nerve to indulge themselves.

Anyway, that's why I really don't like Snape as a teacher. He's an interesting character, but I'm damned sure glad that I don't have to deal with his real life counterparts very often.

I don't like stories in which he's made worse than he is, though. It belittles just how bad what he does do in canon is. I hate stories in which he's made better than he is just because he was bullied as a child. It doesn't excuse his behavior at his age. I loathe it when a Snape fan writes a story in which NEVILLE is demonized for not being able to do well in potions! Yes, I've read ones in which that author makes plain that Neville deserves his ill treatment because he can't do the work, and is a danger to the class, never mind that Snape should have told Dumbledore to get the kid a tutor, or had Hermione tutor Neville after class for points, and screw the house system.

I know children can be holy terrors, and teachers will rise up to say this, but these particular children he bullies are NOT. He even bullies Hermione Granger, for God's sake.

Okay, so an author wants to show that Snape's a nice guy underneath it all, or at least he's a lot better than he seems. I don't believe he's a nice guy, but I've read some well-done stories that I can believe that don't have him out of character, and portray him as someone who isn't evil, and fights hard for what's right.

An author can't effectively do that by justifying Snape's behavior in class, though. There is no justification for it. The children don't even have to misbehave to get thoroughly humiliated. In my opinion, if an author can justify that, it just shows a dark side to the author. Why not show Snape's better side in his actions out of class? Or his actions toward people he likes other than his students? Or his willingness to do whatever Dumbledore asks, no matter what the risks to himself?
sistermagpie From: sistermagpie Date: February 6th, 2005 12:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Trying to think of something intelligent to add besides "word."

Honestly, I think the thing is the books so carefully usually give you things to knock out the idea that one side was just right--or even acting honorably if they were basically right. And who acts out of honor all the time anyway? Usually the characters all act out of their personal needs-sometimes that means doing what they consider the right thing, sometimes it doesn't.

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