FanFic Discussion: Talent
So I felt like doing something a little different.
I don’t read fanfiction that much. I don’t know why. I certainly write a lot of it. Maybe I’m being hypocritical by trying to discuss writing stuff without having actually read what the community at large thinks but at the same time, I would argue that you don’t need to. Where would you go to read fanfiction? How would you prevent an article based on those experiences from becoming a commentary on the community you frequent? What I can’t do is endorse or condemn fanfiction written on any particular subject. What I can do is pick a topic and try to imagine how I would go about writing a story that I would read.
That aside, I felt like talking a bit about talent. It’s one of the many ways that you can try and make your character stand out. After all, that’s the nature of a story – you want your character to be worth telling a story about or you risk it not being interesting. Sometimes your character can be unique for their lack of talent. I actually find it a bit distressing that so many people want to tell stories about characters who are interesting in that they are not as capable as the people around them. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the prevalence of Mary Sue characters in fanfiction, that people try to make their characters “totally not a Sue at all”, and so do not give them any defining attributes. The problem with this is that without some kind of defining trait, how do you distinguish one character from another? How do you create someone who is interesting if they don’t have qualities that draw the audience to them? In the very worst case these characters can become as artifiical as the very Mary Sues they want to avoid becoming, especially if the author likes to accentuate their non-Mary Sue-ness.
I’m most distressed by the negative attitude towards talent that I see in the RPs I have joined and written, and I feel that because of this people cheat themselves of a great opportunity to develop their characters. It’s not so much having a particular talent or gimmick that develops them (this is often the problem with Mary Sue characters) but how they interact with the rest of the characters in the setting as a result. Say I have a character for a Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha fanfic that I’ve been writing. I want to distinguish her from the rest of the cast so I make her particularly good at a single thing…for this example, let’s just say that thing is statecraft. The art of politics, diplomacy, public speaking. Oh she’s a decent fighter and mage in a pinch but the Time-Space Administration Bureau has decided that her talent makes her far too useful to waste on the battlefield, as much as she would like to be there. So she gets stuck with a desk job, having to do paperwork and negotiating whatever contracts for equipment and personnel there is a need for. Makes sense, right?
But wait, the more I think about it, the more I kinda think Maya’s talent should have other consequences right? Let’s call her Maya for now, I can’t keep calling her ‘she’ forever, can I? (Incidentally this is an important skill for beginning writers to learn. Your characters have names, so use them.) If Maya was noticed within the ranks of the Time-Space Administration Bureau for her gift with politics and diplomacy they will have done everything they could to foster it, I think. After all, such individuals are probably pretty rare considering how few people actually become politicians by comparison to other jobs. So part of her backstory could include the kind of training she received. Maybe Maya originally wanted to become a field interpreter or a liason who helped communications between TSAB operatives and the local ground forces. Sure it’s not as glamourous as being a battle mage but at the same time she’s confident she can hold her own and at the end of the day it means she gets to be in the field doing stuff that she enjoys. If she even enjoys it; what if she likes her desk job? Either way we have a ready source of conflict between the life Maya has versus the life she’s always wanted. It’s a pretty classic conflict in stories as well as in real life.
This attempt to reconcile the two could be a driving force behind Maya’s personality. We’ve established a bit of info about how she came to be in the position she is today. The next step would be establishing how she’s going to use that talent in the future. There’s a variety of different good and evil paths depending on whether you decide that she loves or hates her current line of work. If she wants to go back into the field she may fight as hard as she can to escape but find herself constrained by red tape and a department that doesn’t want to let her go, because she’s just too good. The very qualities that Maya has honed in an effort to become a good field operative have served her in good stead with the general public and she finds herself slipping further and further away from the recognition and respect that her friends in the field are getting for saving lives and accomplishing death-defying feats of magic. With me so far?
Next we take that conflict even further. Suppose one of these incidents escalates into a massive conflict involving a plot by a mysterious and possibly evil scientist/mage/extra-dimensional entity to bring about destruction unheard of in the multiverse. After all, this is the bread and butter of the TSAB, or at least in the Nanoha series it is. If this is the centre of the story then Maya is definitely furthest from it. But it’s a definite opportunity – when she hears what’s going on she could use her oratory and political skills to rally support and finally convince the TSAB to cut all the red tape and send reinforcements to her beleaguered friends. If that doesn’t work she could try sneaking off on her own to appeal to the other forces in Midchilda – the army, for one. It’ll be a tough road and there’s little love lost between the TSAB and the army but if that’s what it takes then Maya would do it. Hell, it might even help bridge the gap between the two organisations and pave the way for greater future cooperation. If you really wanted to go for the dark and depressing route, you could have Maya use her accumulated bureaucratic connections to have her transferred to the front lines with her friends, only to find that life isn’t quite so awesome. She finds them suffering from broken limbs, severe burns from magical attacks, lacerations from shrapnel caused by exploding gadget drones, and so on.
Pretty horrible. But not as horrible as you could be. Going back to her friends who are becoming famous for their deeds and accomplishments. What if Maya secretly wants to be with them and have her own shot at glory? See, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and her charisma and diplomatic skill give Maya a great deal of influence over the TSAB. Now imagine our power-hungry evil mage wanted to corrupt the TSAB from within in preparation for its eventual downfall so that she could step over the rubble and claim all the Lost Logia they have stored on-site. Wouldn’t it be so wonderful to have a traitor working on the inside to convert other mages and key personnel to her cause? Maybe not everyone wants to be a superstar but there are surely people who are dissatisfied with the way things are going for them. No organisation is perfect. Even if all of her immediate coworkers are highly loyal and motivated, it would be a simple matter for Maya to fiddle with the relevant paperwork and skim resources off to support the forces of evil, or leave a chink in security that allows them to plant magical emitters attuned to the frequency of human brainwaves. The effect of these devices could be anything from crippling mental breakdowns to outright mind control. She would be forever remembered as the woman who brought the TSAB down. She may even receive her just reward in the form of enhancements that would allow her to tangle with the TSAB’s finest during the final conflict.
Let’s see Little Miss Takamachi try to befriend someone as vile and evil as that. Now this is where things start to get really tricky – having an original character defeat canon characters is a slippery slope and if your character doesn’t become a Mary Sue because of this, it is highly likely that readers will at least see her as one. That aside, this skeleton character is done. All that’s left now is to flesh it out with more details about her appearance and the kind of magic she can do, if she ever does it. Little flavour-related tidbits. However, the essential core of her personality and her role in the plot have all grown from a single seed and in this case, it was a talent. The funny thing is, Maya doesn’t even have to be a main character and she probably won’t be, in a Nanoha fic. However from that understated role she can still easily have an effect on the plot that is equal to or greater than any main character. If you wanted to go for the evil path, she could even become the villain’s right hand (wo)man with enough planning and forethought. Similarly talented enemies can work as a great counterpoint to a talented main character, showing the reader one possible road they could have taken earlier and how differently they would have ended up. This then paves the way for a grand speech ending with “we’re not so different, you and I.”
It’s amazing how easily a character’s backstory can come to you once you have an idea of some kind of trait you want them to have. Don’t worry too much about trying to be different. If you truly want to make a character who’s even more unique it will flow naturally from the narrative.