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We Always Hurt the Ones We Love
by Lucy Gillam

I know what you're thinking: doesn't that girl ever shut up?

Well, no, but this time it's not my fault.  I tried, I really did: I begged, I pleaded, I inflicted guilt, I bribed, I even asked someone for a column on this particular topic.  No dice.  So you're stuck with me.

Hang around fanfic writers long enough, and you'll learn a few things about the way of life that is Fan Fiction:

  • Many, many fans and writers have a favorite/preferred guy in the pairing.  Now, this is not surprising, since most pairings involve two men of fairly significant differences, and we all have our "types."  This preference can range from a mild "guy A is more my type, but guy B's pretty nifty, too," to utter disinterest or even dislike of the non-favorite character.  I'll confess I don't quite get the latter, but, then, there's lot's of things I don't quite get.  Pokemon, for example.  Basketball.  English departments.
  • Fans and writers do so love stories that involve characters getting hurt, whether it be physical injury or emotional turmoil.  Hurt and then comforted, of course.  The h/c phenom even transcends the slash/gen boundary, although naturally the "c" part is a little different depending on which side of that boundary you're on.
  • Which leads me to the real topic of this opus: it seems that preferring a character and wanting to see him suffer go hand-in-hand.  It seems the more we prefer one character over the other, the more we want the preferred character to be the "owwie" recipient.
Now, this is so common in fandom that I'm not sure we ever really stop to think about it.  Because once you do stop to think about it, you realize that on the surface, it makes no sense.  Sure, fictional characters aren't real people, so what we mean by "liking" or even "loving" them is not the same as liking or loving real people.  But still, why would we prefer to see the character we like better suffer?

A simple answer could simply be that we want our prefered character be the center of the action.  However, this doesn't really hold.  The owwie recipient is often far less in the story - the focus is frequently on the other character's attempts to help his partner/friend/beloved cope with bodily injury, emotional trauma, sexual abuse, etc.

So why do we hurt the ones we love?  Allow me to preset a few theories.

Theory #1: The George Syndrome

Years ago, a friend and I came up with a term for a certain kind of guy: guys who were not only attractive, but who inspired a certain maternal, "awww, I'll make it better" reaction.  We called them "Georges," from the old Bugs Bunny/Abominable Snowman cartoon ("oh, I have found a little bunny rabbit.  I will hug him and pet him and call him George" - you get the idea).

Women are socialized to be caregivers.  We like guys who need us, whom we can take care of.  At the same time, we want men who are strong, capable, etc.How to reconcile these two contradictory desires?  Take a strong, capable man,and hurt 'im (in the fictional sense, of course <g>).  This allows us to be vicarious caregivers (through the non-favorite character). We get our George "awwws" without compromising the character's strength (at least in-IMHO-good fic. There's certainly a lot of fic that seems to like turning strong, capable characters into weepy, whiny, helpless children, but I can't even begin to figure out what that's about, so we'll leave that alone).

Theory #2: The Angst-Boy Syndrome

A (male) friend recently asked me why so many female Buffy fans liked to see Angel in perpetual angst. It got me thinking.

Yet again, we have conflicting desires. Women are socialized to like "strong, silent types."  At the same time, we have a deep desire for our beloveds to actually talk to us about their feelings, to show affection.  How to reconcile this?  Again: hurt 'em (in fic).  Throw them into a  crisis where talking about their feelings and  showing affection is realistic.

Theory #3: The Puzzle Box Syndrome

Most fans, hell, most people, are drawn to characters who are emotionally complex.  This complexity may be what draws us to a character on a tv show or in a movie, or, if the character is not shown as particularly complex but appeals to us anyway, what leads us to write fanfic about that character.

With a character who does display complexity in the original text, pain, suffering, etc can serve as a key to bring that complexity to the forefront in ways that often do not occur on screen (since, let's face it, most of our favorite shows tend to focus on things other than emotional complexity).  Take, say, either Casey McCall or Dan Rydell from Sports Night.  Obviously, both have quite a bit going on under the surface, but in a half-hour "dramedy" with a fairly large ensemble cast

More often, tho' (I would argue), the character isn't necessarily shown to be particularly emotionally deep or complex, even if the potential for it is there.  Two examples that spring to mind are Tom Paris and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Paris was made for emotional complexity, but somehow (bad writers, anyone?) it never materialized.  Obi-Wan, whatever complexity he got from external sources (the books) or good acting, just didn't have enough screen time.  Both these scenarios present the temptation (need, even) to create depths to plumb.

And, let's face it: pain is more complex than happiness.  Very few people spend hours in therapy of buy books on the many different ways in which we are happy, or the complication of happiness.

Of course, like all theories, these are reductive.  The truth is probably a muddle of all three, or something else entirely.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go read some fic.  Blair's being stalked, Obi-Wan is angsting again, and Casey's still recovering from that bone marrow transplant....

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