The AUness of it All
by James Walkswithwind
As always, someone eventually gets around to saying "all Spike/Xander" (or insert your own slash pairing here) is AU in characterisation, so making the characters more AU is no big deal.
But for me it is, and I wonder if I can articulate why in a way that will
convince everyone make sense.
I think it comes down to the Two Steps Theory. Lots of people (at last three) have discussed how believability of characterisation (or plot, for that matter) comes down to being no more than two steps away from canon. I'll explain how it works, then I'll talk about whether or not we should care.
Start with the canonical character. Not "your interpretation of Xander" but the actual Xander which appears on the screen. We don't look at motivation, inner thoughts, or feelings beyond which are actually demonstrated on the show. (Interviews by Joss actually don't count, because he isn't writing and directing every episode.) We know Xander was afraid of clowns, because he had a nightmare about clowns and explained its origin.
Once you begin with this character -- and everyone will be starting with the exact same character -- you take your first step. You interpret what isn't explicitly stated, or you say things like "well, Spike said he was willing to torture Dru until she loved him again, but he was just posturing for his audience." The evidence for these interpretations comes from a) other canonical evidence, b) real world common sense, and c) reasonable wishful thinking.
Obviously these are all very subjective things, but this is how we get so many different fanfic stories that seem accurately characterised. Everyone who watches the show sees the way Spike whaps Xander on the head when Xander has just forgot again that Ben is Glory. One person will say "see, this is proof that Spike is annoyed by Xander" and another will say "that was a very light head slap! See how Spike really does want to be friends/they really are friends."
Each of these interpretations is based on what is actually there, and you just take one step in different directions.
From this first step, you can then take another step. This encompasses the "what if" scenarios. What if Xander were bisexual/homosexual? What if Spike hadn't left with Drusilla way back when? What if Angel used to hit Spike and now Spike wants a replacement Abusive!Daddy!Figure?
You introduce a non-canonical twist to the background or personality, then you say "ok, given this, the character I see on the screen would behave thusly." It's like picking the character up out of the show and dropping him in one of the alternate dimensions, or on a reality show set where he has to adapt to the new circumstance in order to survive. The idea, though, is that whatever the character does from that point on, comes from what is already inside the character before any steps are taken. The second step doesn't have to be consistent with canon -- you can say "what if Buffy refused to accept being a Slayer, back in season one?" or "what if Xander had let Larry out him in the school paper?" But the character still has the same foundation. We're taking Canon!Buffy and giving her a new script. Even in Wishverse, the bitter, Watcherless Slayer Buffy was recognisably our Buffy. She'd just never come to Sunnydale, and never had her friends help or Giles' particular brand of Watcherosity.
Arguably, historical AUs and futuristic AUs and alternate setting AUS can fit into this second step. What if Spike was a 22st century computer hacker? What if Xander was a 9th century castle lord? If the character still has the same foundation, the same beginning, then these AUs can still be written with accurate portrayals. (Although some people say that as soon as you put the characters in a different setting, you've already necessarily taken a third step or more.)
Where many people start whining about bad characterisation is when the fundamental character is changed beyond these two steps, or where these two steps aren't shown. Spike may indeed be a lisping, wrist-swishing interior decorator in a story -- but without showing "Spike was suppressing his true nature" or "Spike was spelled" or however it is that Spike became something other than what we see on the show -- then people are going to say "this isn't Spike". Asking "what would it be like if, instead of being a tough guy, Spike were an effeminate nancyboy?" is a change in his basic personality, given everything we've seen on the show. Saying that Buffy is so disgusted by vampires that she would never ever sleep with one is something we have to be convinced to believe -- because she's slept with two in canon, of her own free will, after knowing they were vampires.
So, why do we care? If slashing two characters is already a step away from their canonical selves, why do we need or want to put limits on what we see in fanfic?
The simplest answer is -- because we're here to see Spike and Xander. Those guys on the show are the ones we fell in love with. If I want to read someone acting like Pollyana, I'll go read Pollyana. I don't expect to find Pollyanna in my Spike/Xander fic. (But, hey, if I'm in the mood and you show me how the guy gets there, I'm all for it.)
But we're all different with what other characters/characterisations we enjoy reading. Some people don't want any original characters in their fanfic -- new characters or "new versions" of the canon characters. Some people might read Spike/Xander when they want snark, and Spike/Angel if they want dark, and Willow/Tara if they want schmoop, and they don't want schmoopy Spike/Angel because it makes them break out into hives. Other people want Spike and Xander any way and anyhow, and it doesn't matter if they're space pirates in the year 2587 or so barely out of canon that it might be a real missing scene from an episode.
So, yes, there are readers who love the AUs that twist the characters as far away from canon as is humanly possible. There are readers who like historical AUs but not futuristic ones. Readers who like schmoopy Spike and Xander, but not dark!fic Spike and Xander. And on and on.
But we all like Spike, and Xander -- the guys from canon, and the guys that are one step away from canon -- or we wouldn't be here.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't write AUs. Variety is good, and there is always an audience for practically every kind of story. But a lot fewer people whine about why there are no "Spike gets turned into a Slayer after getting his soul" stories, than whine about bad characterisation. The moral, therefore, of my story is that if your story can be written taking only those two steps away from canon -- you will make more people happy than if you take more steps. And for every step away from canon you take, your target audience will shrink.