liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,

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When Negative FB is Good FB

I honestly was pretty busy yesterday and didn't suffer the trauma from LJ outage that occured yesterday. I tried to sign on in the ayem, saw there was a power issue with SixApart, and then headed off to do erands.

Ahhhh, weekends. The only time when I can get crap done.

Which is why I'm posting this today instead of yesterday.

People, negative FB on a story is okay. No, really. It is. I don't take offense. As long as the FB is politely worded, you're not putting words in my mouth (i.e., seeing something that isn't there or claiming I said something when I didn't), trying to impose your fanon on my fanon, or dragging past wanks that have nothing to do with anything into the discussion, I'm perfectly cool with it.

The fact is, someone gave negative FB on Into the Desert the other day on the basis of Buffy's characterization. The negative FB was politely worded and the reader was clear about what s/he didn't like. While I didn't agree with it, I could see where s/he was coming from.

Unfortunately, the past few days have been crazy-making, so I didn't get a chance to compose a thoughtful response and explain where I agreed, where I disagreed, and to point out that this particular story isn't my usual. That, and I wanted to re-assure the correspondent that, no, I don't hate Buffy. There've been times I didn't like her, but right now she's very high on my "characters I like" list.

By the time I had 5 seconds to rub together to compose a response, the FB had been deleted by the correspondent.

I'm completely mystified by this. Obviously someone felt upset enough or felt negative enough about a story to give thoughtful feedback to it clearly stating their case and to make sure it was politely worded. Then it's gone within 24 hours before I have a chance to reply.

Why not let it stand? Or at least give the writer a chance to provide a thoughtful response.

It's your response to a story and it's as fair as any "OMIGAWD! Squeeeee!" response. Whether I agree with it or disagree with it should be an immaterial issue. My little snowflake feelings of speshulness are not at issue here, nor should they be.

Besides, I find thoughtful negative FB or at least FB pointing out issues with a story to be very helpful at times. There's almost always a nugget of something useful in there that can (and maybe should) be applied in the future.

Let me give you an example in my favorite trope of "unreliable narrators."

Unreliable Narrator Story One
I write my first unreliable narrator story: Dismay, in which a depressed, hungover Xander is speaking.

The reaction is...not good. Part of the issue there was structural. It was written as part of a round-robin. The first part was set-up and told from Buffy's point of view. This was the second part and it was set-up and told from Xander's point of view. This somehow got lost in the shuffle for a lot of people. Maybe they missed the fist part of the story (even though I did post a link to the first part). Maybe they wanted something different out of the second part. And maybe it was because I was new-ish on the fanfic writing front and people honestly didn't "know" me or what to expect.

Add on that it was a fairly dark view of Buffy, again, while Xander is both hung-over and depressed and posted on a Buffy/Xander fanfiction list, well...I honestly wonder what I was thinking at the time.

However, some of the negative FB was useful. I obviously had not put in enough clues that Xander's word was not to be trusted. Since the story is written in first person, readers didn't have any external clues (and they still don't even in the story's current form) that taking Xander's word as gospel is a very large mistake.

Right. So obviously lesson learned. Put in information that "tells" the reader that your narrator isn't reliable.

Unreliable Narrator Story Two
Some months later, I try again with unreliable narrator story number two: Mars Rising. This time it's a bitter, depressed Xander mulling his present circumstances.

This time, I don't write it in first person. I litter the story with hints that, once again, Xander's word is not to be trusted. I even follow it up with the baseball bat that is Faith. Their conversation reveals that Xander is not only lying to himself on several issues, he has also completely misread a few other things. And if he can't be trusted on the points where Faith directly contradicts him, then maybe he can't be trusted on anything he's said.

Structurally, the story is sound. It's a solid stand-alone, so I'm not reliant on another writer or additional chapters/stories to make the context work. The writing is also much better.

The reaction was better, although not necessarily in a way that made me happy. Once again, at least half the readers were taking Xander's word for gospel when they shouldn't.

Part of it, again, was the time and place this was posted. It was posted on a Xander-centric Het-Only Wank-Tastic Yahell Group where the opinion of most of the non-Xander characters was not high (to put it kindly). Part of it was that it was posted in the summer between the last season of Buffy and the last season of Angel, so negative feelings were still pretty high about where all the Buffy characters were left at the end of 'Chosen.' And poor Buffy was getting dragged through the mud in fanfic.

And again, part of it was me. While I look at that story and am still mystified by how I couldn have made it more clear that Xander was horribly unreliable on more than a few points, the writing could stand to be a little bit better. But I didn't think my writing skills (or the lack thereof), was the core problem.

Then it hit me: using a canon character as your unreliable narrator was probably a mistake in fanfic. People who associate strongly with that character are going to tend to take everything that character says as true, no matter how many red flags you wave in their faces. They'll also assume that you hold the same opinion and that you're using that character as a mouthpiece.

In my case, neither point is ever true. I may empathize with a character, but that doesn't mean I agree with them. As a writer, my job is to understand character motivations and to transmit those motivations to the reader. There's no rule saying that I have to like the motivations, that the motivations have to be at all good, or that only one motivation is behind it all.

Real people often have contradictory motivations for doing or saying something. Some of those motivations are rooted in good or selfless impulses. At the same time, those same motivations can also be rooted in negative or selfish impulses. In addition, a person's thoughts on an issue evolves and changes over the time. People change their minds all the time. People contradict themselves all the time. People can also be delusional even though the truth is right under their noses. People trip and fall. Some stay down, some get back up. Sometimes they need help getting back up.

In short, being human is a messy business. Nothing is ever neat and clear-cut. If it was, we'd be Cylons (the toaster version, not so much the Humolons), and I don't think anyone wants that.

A fully rounded character should be the same. They can be wrong. They can lie. They can screw up. They can change their minds. They can have conflicting motivations for what they do, even if what they do is ultimately "good." They can fall. They can wallow in the muck. Sometimes they need a kick in the ass to get right with the world. A fully rounded character is fucking messy (as opposed to just "a mess") with good and bad points. That's how you make a character jump off a page and seem real, as opposed to a one-dimensional paper doll.

In original fiction, I think, writers have a little bit more leeway on this point. Very few people assume that characters in original fiction represent the author's opinions or are an avatar for the author.

In fanfiction, too many readers think the opposite. If Xander is my favorite character, he must by definition agree with me or represent my worldview. Xander is no more an avatar for me than Faith, Buffy, Spike, Willow, Dawn, or Giles is. Nor would I want him to be. The character of Xander is interesting to me for a lot of reasons, but areas of agreement (what few there are) doesn't happen to be on that list.

I've run into the buzzsaw of "if you like Xander, you must agree with Xander" too many times to count. I still run into it, even though at this point quite a few people who read my Buffy fanfic have twigged to the idea that it is about as far from true as you can imagine.

Even when I point up instances where Xander (or any other character) might be wrong about something or are maybe looking at an issue or a situation while wearing blinders — even if on the whole the character is being honest, at least from their point of view — and decorate that with flashing lights and waving flags, some people will still assume Xander (or any other character) is 100% in the right.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say in my long-winded way is that Mars Rising taught me an important lesson: if you're telling a story from the point of view of a unreliable narrator, using a canon character is not a good idea.

Unreliable Narrator Story Three
The next time I tell a story with an unreliable narrator is what really locks my point of view in place: Cuckoo in the Nest.

Tony is a canon character, true. However, he's not a canon character that anyone sympathizes with or even knows. At most, we get hints to his character over seven years and only see him on screen once in 'Hell's Bells' (I fanwank that the 'Restless' version of Tony represented Xander's view of his father, and is not necessarily reflective of reality...even if it pointed to the dynamic of that relationship).

While I'd love to sit here and say that it was my awesome writing skills that pulled it off, what helped me to a very large extent was the structure of the story. The first half is Tony's view of canon events. Since (presumably) people reading a fanfiction story about Tony would already be aware of "the story behind the story," so to speak, I actually don't have to work all that hard to show that Tony is so full of shit that his eyes are a squishy brown.

So, when the second half of the story comes in, the part that's post-'Chosen,' it's already established that Tony is wholly unreliable. What he observes maybe true, but how he translates those observations are so far off the mark that it's breath-taking.

And everyone who read the story, I mean everyone, knew two things: 1) Tony's word was not to be trusted; 2) Tony's opinions don't reflect any that I happen to hold.

At long last, success!

The question was, could I do it again? Lord knows I wanted to see if I could.

Unreliable Narrator Story Four
Now I'm in the middle of finishing up the latest (and most complicated) unreliable narrator I've ever tried my hand at: Eva Swithin in Facing the Heart in Darkness.

This time I went back on my "no first person point of view for unreliable narrators" and wrote the whole thing in first person. That poses a whole host of problems and challenges, many of which actually have nothing to do with the unreliable narrator issue. The FB (good and bad) for that has been extremely helpful on that front. While I'm not sure whether I'll try the fist person point of view in writing again, what I've learned from writing it, and what I've learned from people giving feedback on it, will stand me in good stead for the future.

The unrelaible narrator issue in Facing the Heart of Darkness is slightly more complex than in the past. Maybe it's because the story is more complex, or maybe it's because Eva is designed to be a more complex character. I had (obviously) a lot more leeway in designing Eva's character than I did Xander or even Tony. She doesn't have a canon template that she needs to match, so what's "in character" and "out of character" is almost entirely up to me (British cultural quirks aside, which my British correspondents have been very good at pointing out when I go off-the-beam).

On the one hand, people do know she's unreliable on a lot of issues, even if she has moments of being dead-on about a lot of others. However, I've run into an interesting issue where sometimes people are rooting for Eva even to the detriment of Xander. On the one hand, that thrills me to pieces. On the other, it's taken me by complete surprise.

I don't think I "went wrong" anywhere, because most of the time the people reading react to her just the way I expect them to. It's when their reaction isn't what I expect that it draws me up short and sends me scurrying back to my notes and previous chapters to see what seed I planted to get that reaction.

By the way, I want to stress that this is not a bad thing. Not at all. In fact, it makes the experience a lot more interesting to me. And because I love tearing apart and analyzing things, it gives me an excuse to do that. I've just as often ended up agreeing with readers as I have disagreeing, once I've reviewed the "evidence," so to speak.

That's when you've got to accept some things: writing is not a solitary sport. You can put something out there with one intention. But just as you're writing from a certain mindset, people are reading with their own mindsets. Those mindsets may overlap, but there are points where they simply don't. Furthermore, the reader doesn't have ESP. You can intend one thing, but for a lot of reasons a reader simply see it differently.

Maybe it's lack of skill on the writer's part that causes the disconnect. Maybe it's just that when viewed from the outside a story, character, or sitution just looks different and the writer isn't at fault.

Notice I'm not blaming the reader here. In most cases, I simply won't do it. Especially when so many of them are on the same page when it comes to their reactions.

So, lessons learned? A few, but so far nothing on the unreliable narrator front. A lot of my theories got confirmed. A some of my theories got shot to hell. That's going to take some mulling over the story iteself, as well as the FB, before I come up with any solid conclusions on that front.

As I demonstrated above, negative FB, or even positive FB that isn't exactly pleasing to you, is very, very helpful if you're looking to improve as a writer. It doesn't matter how good you are (or think you are), the checks and balances readers put on writers is (I think) invaluable. Good FB (even if it's less-than-glowing) is an invaluable service. It may piss me off, it may make me want to pull my hair out, I may not agree with it at all. That said, I can usually find something, even it's a throw-away comment, that I can use.

Although, I've recently learned that sometimes you have to discrimate between negative FB to a story's structure/construction and writing issues vs. reaction to an idea that's expressed in a story that someone doesn't like. Those are two very different issues.

Criticizing an idea (such as the point the story's trying to make, or the fact you're saying something about a character's state of mind) falls into much fuzzier area where, I think, I'd be hard-pressed to find middle ground. Part of it is because it falls within the realm where our views on canon characters disconnect, part of it is because an idea I don't find repellent is repellent to someone else (and visa versa).

What I find intriguing, however, is that the line between negative FB on a writing issue vs. an idea is just as fuzzy. I think that's where my disagreements sometimes come in with negative FB. Someone my think the "idea" being explored is a writing issue, when from my point of view it isn't. It could be beause that wasn't the issue I was exploring when I wrote the story. It could be that I personally didn't think it was important. It could be that I think you're missing the entire point of what the story's trying to say about the characters enmeshed in it.

Now, with a WiP, you can discuss this issue and engage in a meaningful conversation.

However, what do you do with an older story like Into the Desert? The woman who wrote that story is (in some ways) not the same woman who's writing Facing the Heart of Darkness. That's one issue. The other is that I conceed right up front that the writing isn't the best I can do, even if it was the best I could do at the time. I can clearly see the good points and bad points of the story. Furthmore, my view of all the characters (yes, including Spike) have changed and evolved over time, in large part because I've written them more (or in Spike's case, really thought deeply about his characterization for the first time).

Yet, I reposted it, leaving it as-is. While I'd love to go back and re-write the Buffy parts of that story, doing so (in my mind) is somewhat dishonest. I find it instructive to go back to older stories and critically look at them. I like tearing them apart down to the component elements. It helps me see areas where I have improved, but also where I've failed to improve. It also shows the new bad habits I've picked up over time.

So, when you get negative FB on an older story, how do you respond? How can you respond? It's an old photograph, and may not necessarily represent your current output. How do you explain that this one story does not represent your "usual" or that what's in this story is not at all what exists in the rest of your portfolio? Worse, how do you do it without sounding defensive?

It's a puzzle, one that's made harder when the FB you want to respond to disappears before you get a chance to respond. While I'm tempted to try a direct email, I'm not sure if it would be considered rude and intrusive.

I know, I've raised far more questions than I've answered in this tl;dr musing on "good" vs. "negative" FB.

On the whole, I think the issue of FB is a delicate balancing act. I don't just mean in giving appropriate FB, but in appropriately responding to it.

Anyone out there have any thoughts on the matter? I'd love to hear from you and what you think about this issue.
Tags: fanfiction: 2002, fanfiction: 2003, fanfiction: 2005, fanfiction: 2006, fanfiction: cuckoo in the nest, fanfiction: dismay, fanfiction: facing the heart in darkness, fanfiction: into the desert, fanfiction: mars rising, fanfiction: meta, writing: meta
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