Writing Fan Characters: the Stereotype Examined by T Campbell
Say, did you know science-fiction fans like Star Trek more than they probably should?
Not only that, but Republicans are unconcerned about the poor, gay men are stylish, and Italian men are good lovers! It's true! And those are only the first few revelations you can get from sampling our pop culture!
Thing is, all of the above statements are true, at least in a general, majority-rules sort of way. They're far truer than the stereotypes that lead directly to social injustice â€“ "black men are savages," "women are passive," "Jews are evil." This second kind of stereotype is reductive and dismissive, and has no place in a civilized world.
The first kind, however, is more benign, and has its uses. Without it, we'd have no frame of reference when meeting new people, and stumble unawares over sore points. With it, we can anticipate social needs. It's worth knowing that "pre-menstrual women are moody," that "lower-income people don't like to hear all the details of your Caribbean vacation," and that "the best way to draw a fan out of his shell is to talk about fannish subjects."
But after a certain level of contact, the usefulness of stereotypes diminishes, even as their use increases. People can surprise you. The 50something man you married at 22 who has always been nice, safe and predictable could get himself a Beemer, a new girlfriend and a hang-gliding habit. An emo raver can join a program to feed the homeless. And the quiet nerd you always picked on in school could grow to become a millionaire, or a school shooter.
The problem doesn't come when we use stereotypes. The problem comes when we leave them around so long that they become part of the scenery.
I began writing comics partly out of outrage. I was frustrated beyond belief at seeing the same default "fan stereotype" trotted out again and again in the mainstream media, with no effort to think beyond it. Fans were fat ugly male virgins obsessed with twenty-plus-year-old TV shows and movies and barely capable of holding coherent conversation with each other, painfully awkward around their male peers and terrified of girls. Saturday-morning cartoon shows, allegedly adult novels and allegedly hip indie comics were equally dismissive. Even the much-lauded Simpsons didn't see fit to give its "Comic Book Guy" character a real name.
There were some comic-book portrayals of fans that were making progress when I joined the field, most notably Rich Koslowski's The 3 Geeks and Jolly Blackburn's Knights of the Dinner Table. But even these characters were almost all male and hopeless with women and everything else. Meanwhile, my actual college science-fiction club was not like that whatsoever. Members were as likely to be male as female, and the virgins were in the minority. They gamed and watched movies, but their lives were rich with a variety of experiences, and they were rich with a variety of emotions.
Comics stereotype. It's their nature. The first impression you have of a character is informed by his or her looks. What's more, because of comics' iconic drawing style, the main characters need to look different from one another in significant ways or the reader will confuse who they are.
I quickly learned that I could not present a plump woman with glasses or a thin boy with parted hair without creating an instant response in the reader: "he/she looks like THIS so he/she must be THIS." Whether it's useful or not, the impulse to stereotype is part of our natures.
But that's okay, because usually the more benign stereotypes are not totally wrong. Most plump women do feel unattractive, most boys with parts are a little bit momma's boys. Stereotypes reduce people to one-line descriptions, just as soft focus reduces a face to an oval or circle. But when learning to draw faces, ovals are always where you begin.
So the plump woman feels unattractive. But if she's surrounded by other people who also feel unattractive, maybe she's learned to conceal that feeling. Maybe she's even engaged in a desperate form of compensation, projecting an aggressive, dominating persona onto her peer group, somewhere between sex symbol and mother figure but unambiguously in charge.
Now we're closer to an actual character, but we're not there yet. For characters to really come alive â€“ for you to treat them, and readers to read them, as real people â€“ they must have persistent problems, lasting conflict. Conflict within themselves, with others, with the way the world works, or some or all of the above. Most of the really juicy ones have conflict with all.
Where do ideas for conflict come from? Where do ideas from anything come from? All over. From your experience, from that of your friends, from that of your relatives, from that of your enemies, from that of people you overhear or observe in the mall, from journals, newspaper articles, interviewsâ€¦ and even from other fiction, in moderation.
This character, who has now become Katherine from Fans, has conflict within her â€“ because she recognizes that some of the things she does to maintain her social place are not moral, and Katherine does have a set of morals, even if she isn't strong enough to follow it. She has conflict with the group because one wisecracker refuses to take her seriously, her boyfriend is feeling smothered and a loudmouthed idealist is challenging her authority. And she has conflict with the world, because she's getting too old to keep doing this: she's hanging around college-age people when she graduated years ago. Yet it's only in the social sphere of fandom that she has the respect and attention she craves.
All this from the rough sketch of "plump girl with glasses."
David Willis' Joe from Roomies and It's Walky, on the other hand, approached fandom from the outside in. Joe was a horndog with a phenomenal track record, and an amusing irresponsibility. When asked "Don't you ever think of the consequences?", he paused, cradled his chin and replied honestly, "What are consequences?" Joe was a simple enough variation on the "jock" stereotype, until the day he brought home Optimus Prime.
Little by little, Joe's fannish side deepened. He attended a toy fair and got a job designing Transformer-like robots for the government. But it's impossible to chart all his growth without charting the parts of him that have nothing to do with fandom.
The first year of Roomies strips was gag-driven, and the second one driven by themes of responsibility and consequence. In both, Joe chiefly stood apart as a seeming exception to Newton's Third Law: he never got a girl pregnant, caught an STD or acquired a stalker. Danny, his mostly abstinent best friend, got the stalker.
That stalker, Joyce, irritated Joe like a kid sister, and when tragedy touched Danny's life, Joe did struggle a bit to deal with it. But his conflicts weren't anything next to those of any other major character in the series. Conflict was not a big part of Joe's life, and this kept him from developing too far beyond his early template.
Until his reappearance in It's Walky.
Drafted into an alien-resistance movement with a quintet of colorful personalities, Joe quickly found plenty of conflict, mostly with his fellow freedom fighters but also within himself and with his world. His seductive powers were undiminished, but for the first time he encountered an attractive woman he didn't want to seduceâ€¦ Joyce, the only link to his past and the only one who knew about his fannish side.
Joyce was doing some character development of her own, shedding some of her childishness. But she wasn't growing fast enough to handle Joe's style of one-night standâ€¦ and of them both, only Joe could recognize that fact. In a single strip, the man who once couldn't spell "consequences" clearly spelled out the inevitable cost of giving in to his temptation. In a single strip, Joe grew up.
See how little of the above description is dependent on fandom? But Joe was a fan, from the third month of his publication until his final scene. Writing fans is the same as writing people.
Compassion is the foundation stone upon which all good fiction rests. No matter who you're writing about, no matter how noble or how repulsive they are, you must climb inside their heads and hearts, think as they think, feel as they feel. Only then are you writing fan characters, and not just stock pieces of scenery. Not just ovals.
Only then are you disproving the stereotype most people have. The one that says "cartoonists are nerdy shut-ins who understand nothing of the real people they claim to exaggerate."
That's what they say about us, you know.
Are you going to let them get away with that?
T Campbell is a staff contributor for Comixpedia.