[Excuse the title, I’m not insulting shippers, I just couldn’t resist that title]
Fandoms are a subject that we are only just starting to delve as an anthropological and psychological construct, but they’ve been around since the first instance in which two Cro-Magnons or homo habilis had an opinion on the same non-survival related thing.
They have always been there with us, and we might be tempted to believe that only in this age of information where people from around the world can come together and declare that Dr. Who is awesome, has it come to the attention of creators.
This would be incorrect. In the mid-nineties, when my school’s amazing new capability was Telnet, the creators of Tiny Toon Adventures were already menaced by an incredibly creepy and disturbing fan in a time when 4Chan was only a distant chill down people’s spines. Going back further, you find that there were actual clubs and societies dedicated to Sherlock Holmes. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided to kill the character off, the fandom rebelled in a way we associate with the internet today and flooded Doyle with so many letters imploring him to continue (and fan fiction) that he was forced to resurrect Holmes. So yeah, the whole deal with fan pressure getting Family Guy or Arrested Development back? Not new.
It is my belief that paying attention to how fandoms work and what they react to can help a writer hone their craft as an entertainer by teaching them how to better please their audiences. That’s where this article and others like it come in: showing writers just how to do that.
We’ll be starting with one of the most basic and prevalent aspects of fandoms: shipping.
As I’ve explained before, ‘shipping’ is a term that essentially means supporting one or more (usually) romantic relationships within a work. If we’re honest, we can admit we’ve all done it from time to time and to different degrees. If you ever rooted for two characters to get together or idly speculated that two characters who aren’t together might work better than the ones who are, you’ve shipped and probably enjoyed it.
Full disclosure: I’m a huge shipper. There are very few long form (TV, comics, and other franchises with multiple installments) where I don’t have some level of investment in one relationship or another. Like I’ve said before, I love a love story, even if the people writing the story I’m reading don’t. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you don’t go overboard and start sending death threats to the writers for not agreeing with you or something. Accepting that sometimes your ship just ain’t gon’ sail is part of being a grown-ass person.
At the same time, I find other shippers and their habits fascinating. It’s almost a sociological experiment going into fandoms I’m not even invested in an just watching things develop. That’s what we’re going to examine in this article: the different reasons for the various ships you see and what we can learn from them. I’ll be roughly going from most basic to most esoteric. Let’s dig in…
It doesn’t get more simple than this. Here, the relationship being supported is the same as the one presented in canon. This isn’t usually from a lack of creativity as much as the writers doing their jobs and making this couple believable.
The take-away from this is one of knowing what to research. If you find a body of work where the canon pairings are especially prevalent with little deviation, then someone there is doing something right and you would do well to see exactly what they’re doing well.
Related to this is…
Sometimes a series or even a standalone work becomes a franchise and sometimes that franchise ends up having multiple continuities. And when the fandom of that franchise takes a relationship from one of those continuities and transplants it to another where it doesn’t (or can’t) exist, this is a cross-canon ship.
For an extreme example, take X-men, a franchise with more than a dozen separate alternate realities, four animated series, and a movie-verse. In one (I want to say Days of Future Past, but please feel free to correct me), Wolverine and Storm get together and have a pretty sweet love story. Because of this, Wolverine/Storm shipping stories show up in every other instance of the franchise, from X-men: Evolution to Wolverine and the X-men.
Again, an entire episode because Youtube is wonderful.
Another example would be Teen Titans. In the comics, the characters of Beast Boy and Raven had a relationship, however when the animated series came out and was meant for a younger audience, they opted just to develop (very, very slowly) the Robin/Starfire romance and left only subtle nods to the relationship between the former two. This in no way stopped the fandom (like this hack) from making this the second most prevalent ship in the fandom.
Again, this phenomenon tells you that someone did something right and that you should backtrack it to the originating work to see what that was.
The core of the matchmaker ship is finding the commonalities between two characters and using that as the basis for supporting a relationship between them. We’re not starting to move into unofficial territory, but often this can also be used as a reason to support a canon ship.
It obviously has its roots in the old saw that the more a couple has in common with one another, the more ‘compatible’ they are for each other. Personally, I don’t buy into this, as I imagine some one who is just like you would both get boring and work on your nerves after a while.
At the same time, there is something to it: two people have to have some commonalities to build their relationship on, and this is something a lot of fictional couples fail on. The typical ‘good, sweet girl likes horrible asshole’ trope is built on it. Sure, teenagers do this stuff, but that’s because they’re still discovering who they are. When actual adults do it… it’s pretty stupid.
Sometimes this will be waved off as ‘they went through the plot together!’ but that doesn’t work because eventually, they’re going to be alone together with the plot and will have nothing to talk about.
So yes, we should strive to give our couples things to connect over—but we should not make them clones.
These pairings are based on how well the characters complement each other, usually in terms of personality, but also some times in battle or role in the ensemble. Again, this is often used to explain canon ships.
This one is the tact I tend enjoy, matching people based on personalities: Giving someone who is too serious someone to coax the lightness out of them, pairing the shy with the outgoing, etc. The reason I like this is that it makes the romance subplot double as character development as one brings out better qualities in their SO.
Complementary ships also encourage us, the writers to think about deeper aspects of the characters when we develop them and pair them off.
Where complementary ships fall down is when writers make this too superficial. The fandom for one of my favorite anime series of all all time, Slayers does this with the characters Zelgadis and Amelia. Now, I’m not even against the ship, but the emphasis most fans make is in how Zel is impossible broody and seemingly incapable of snapping out of it with out Amelia. Which actually drains the character of his established snarky nature from the canon to set that up.
While there are elements of it there in canon, there’s no reason to make it overt. An good complementary couple doesn’t have to bash you over the head with it.
And now we start to go way meta. A person who engages in dynamic shipping pairs characters together not because they would work well as a couple, but because of how interesting and/or entertaining linking those two romantically would be.
A personal favorite of mine (that was actually canon for a while) was the relationship between Xander Harris and Cordelia Chase in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For those of you not familiar with the series, Xander as a smart-ass every-dork while Cordy was pretty much my inspiration for both Lily and the redemption character arc she’s going through right now.
While the relationship wasn’t as horrifically unhealthy as those from Twilight, 50 Shades, or any of their successors, it… wasn’t a nice one. The two had a sort of affection and protectiveness for each other, but they never really earned one another’s respect and they usually devolved from childish sniping to making out with great vigor.
It might just have been that Xander is awesome.
…And they were fun as hell to watch. Maybe people will disagree with me on this, but those two had absolutely no business being together, but god help me, I would have preferred they stayed together for the whole series. Maybe Xander is a magnet for this, because his later love interest, Anya is the same way, and as a friend of mine pointed out: even though I’m not a fan of switching up the character’s sexualities just to serve a ship, I would love to see an in-character ship of Spike and Xander because their characters bounce so awesomely off each other.
So all in all, a dynamic ship is all about entertainment and not much about romance. There’s nothing wrong with that either. For extreme long-form stories (like, say, superhero webserials…), I feel they can be a diversion that is well worth it.
Using the TVTropes name for this one. Foe Yay is the tendency of fans to ship heroes with, if not their most deadly enemy, the villain with the greatest amount of development.
While there is some sense to this; there must be a high level of emotions between two people to make them iconic adversaries; I don’t fully understand this. To me, it almost invariably devalues the villain, demoting their actual motives to those of your standard clingy jealous girl and gives the fights a creepy domestic violence air. As an aside, there really is a villain out there whose motives are that they’re jealous and possessive of the hero: the Venom symbiote.
And I make a distinction between this and (to borrow another TVTropes term) Dating Catwoman in that in those situations, the ‘Catwoman’ portion of the equation isn’t trying to murder the hero. So in my opinion: Dating Selina Kyle = Good; Dating Pamela Isley = Bad (Dating Harley Quinn= Best, but that’s going under ‘Crack Ship’, below).
The lesson here is one of preventative maintenance. There are some clear and present triggers for this kind of shipping. I’ve noticed that pet names for the hero (Shego from Kim Possible; Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation) are a big one. Some people might point out that most examples of Foe Yay are same sex couples, but I think that has less to do with that and more to do with the premier villains in most works being the same sex as the hero.
Superheroes and often other types of adventuring parties usually some in odd numbers, often 3, 5 or 7 (The Descendants started with 7, LSI was 3, Descendants: LA started with 5, etc) and often round that off with an extra late arrival. When romance is on the table, there are usually no more than two canon couples drawn from the main cast, leaving the ‘extra’ members without relationships.
Unsurprisingly, given the addictive nature of love stories, fandoms abhor this void. Characters unpaired by canon or other methods of shipping will be paired off with whoever happens to be lying around, be they major, minor or even deceased. In the event an existing character can’t be found, one will be invented.
I personally blame the inexplicable insinuations that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (a brother and sister) most prominently featured in The Avengers on this. I also blame attempts to escape this for the… actually interesting and enjoyable relationship between Scarlet Witch and The Vision (a robot who is not her brother) on this. Unfortunately, pretty much every horrible thing about Marvel Comics’s main universe not relating to Spider-man (Decimation, Civil War, Secret Invasion, Siege...) spawned from that relationship being retconned by idiots, so there you go.
I think this particular phenomena should encourage us to give some thought to why some of our characters seem perpetually dateless. Often the answer boils down to ‘the author didn’t want to write a love interest’, but for readers who care about such things, this is obviously not good enough. You don’t have to create new characters and pairings for this, you just have to explain why you’re not, even if it’s just ‘this person is comfortable on their own’, or ‘this person is a sci-fi writer and therefore abhorrent to all thinking creatures’.
This is a catchall category admittedly, but the list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the kinds of shipping that land in it, even if I don’t feel there’s not a lot to be learned from it. Meta ships are those that really have nothing to do with the characters specifically.
Here we have the ships that are about the shipper’s own personal likes, dislikes and fetishes as well as those composed to ‘block’ or ‘enable’ another pairing that the like or dislike. In the fandom for the anime Bleach, there isn’t even an official couple (…at least up to the point in the manga and TV series that I’ve read) but everyone is so bent on hooking up the main character, Ichigo that they all feel the need to pair off his (perceived) love interest Rukia to get her out of the way.
You’ll also find pairings that exist purely for aesthetic choices, for good or for ill. I’ve seen couples put together purely because they were the only male/female pair in the story where the guy was taller. And let’s not forget that annoying old chestnut ‘they’re the same race, therefore they should be together’. As a mixed race guy, I want to slap people whenever this comes up. Race isn’t alone anymore because now people of the same orientation get paired literally just because they’re gay. I’m pretty sure gay people will have preferences and standards, guys.
As I said at the outset of this group, there’s not a lot you can learn as a writer from this as it has nothing to do with stories or characters. However, it is a bit of a cautionary tale. When creating pairings, it’s probably a good idea to sit back and ask oneself why you want those two together. Is it because it enriches the story and breeds character development? Or is it because they look cute standing next to each other?
A crack ship is exactly what the name says: a relationship idea on crack. Most of the time, the people who describe and write about these kinds of pairings know exactly what they’re doing and they’re doing it because it’s funny or just plain something that hasn’t been done.
Most of the time, they involve characters who the fandom itself can agree should not be paired. Given the nature of fandom and shipping itself, one may often have to roam pretty far afield to find a pairing that can even be considered crack.
Take the Harry Potter series in which we have the character of Snape, who despite being cruel, oily and just plain terrible, was played by the ever-charismatic Alan Rickman (you may remember him from when I wanted him to play Ru from Rune Breaker, or much more likely, Die Hard.) and given a semi-sympathetic back story. Through the magic of Rickman, it is common to see this character paired with every single member of the staff, plus any one of his (totally not legal in most stories) students. This is just a given in Harry Potter fandom and no one bats an eye anymore. No, to reach ‘crack’ levels in HP fandom, you need to get esoteric… like the sorting hat; a magical artifact that decides what group the students are put in that happens to talk.
Yes, fics paring it with people exist. No, I will not link you. Seriously?
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Sluggy Freelance, one of the most ancient ongoing webcomics (and the origin of Isp and Osp’s names both in and out of universe), where there are talking small animals, aliens, time travelers, demons, etc. I have not seen this fandom blink an eye at pairing the homicidal rabbit with anyone, or the Alien-inspired alien, but if you want a big laugh, you pair people with… Sam, who is admittedly a vampire, but it’s his personality that gives people pause and makes shipping him so cracky.
Crack ships are fun, weird and mostly harmless, but the time to sit up and take notice is when you come across that rare breed of crack-shipper who actually tries to make their bizarre pairing choice work and succeeds. I firmly believe that the mark of any good writer is the ability to take an admittedly dumb idea and make it work as a story. And there is often no more pure example than crack-ship fic done right and played straight.
If you come across one of these, no matter how many mistakes they might make, no matter how often they use ‘orb’ for eyes, or whatever, you are in the presence of a master in potentia. It takes skill to get story gold from dross. And if you don’t find one, shoot the link to me.
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You can check in on what Vaal’s working on or just what’s on his mind by following @ParadoxOmni on Twitter, or using the hashtags #TheDescendants or #RuneBreaker. You can also browse books by Vaal by visiting his Author Page on Amazon.com.
Vaal’s latest book, The Path of Destruction (Rune Breaker, #3) is now available on Amazon.com.