Friday, December 13, 2013

We Need Fanfiction: An Analysis of Hitchups and More

Second post on fanfiction and partly an opinion piece inspired by this StoryDam prompt.

Most published authors will not read fanfiction of their work. They do not avoid fan works because of arrogant sentiments or feelings; authors have legal issues to worry about. Tamora Pierce, YA fantasy author and  puts it best on her website: 

"Sometimes in the heat of the battle with a book, we grab any idea that surfaces, without necessarily knowing where it came from. I've since gone back to find things I've fitted to my use in books and movies I read years ago. I can't take the chance that someone else's ideas might enter the stew where my creativity happens, to surface years later: that's how writers get sued for copyright infringement/theft. It's nothing against fanfics or their writers, and everything to do with me covering my behind."

Tamora Pierce also encourages young writers to write fanfiction to gain writing experience, but one can learn more than structuring a plot the way that I did. One can also learn how to ask the tough questions, to disrupt order in an established world.

One can make characters extremely imperfect and have them go through personal changes. That's what one epic, famous fanfiction did for the film How to Train Your Dragon.

What Hitchups Taught Me

Hitchups is an HTTYD fanfiction, an epic adventure of Tolkien length and Alternate Universe of what happened in the movie. Do not read past this line for spoilers of Hitchups, or for the movie How to Train Your Dragon. You have been warned.
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Fanfiction for particular works of fiction can have subcategories, variations of the same idea; HTTYD fanfiction is not exception. These subcategories do not define HTTYD fanfiction rigidly, and I know I haven't followed them, but they ask similar questions regarding the narrative. Hitchups follows one question that the movie couldn't have answered: "What if Hiccup had run away during the third act?"

My former screenwriting professor Tom Musca always talked about "tyranny of the narrative," a constraint upon the characters' actions and the consequences they face within two hours of screen time. The movie format imposes this "tyranny" by forcing the protagonists and antagonists to make decisions that will tell a story. Not all films follow such a format, and art films make a point of ignoring conventions, but most adventure stories have to conform.

Because HTTYD is an adventure story, it must conform to tyranny of the narrative. This creative obligation comes to full force in HTTYD's third act, when Hiccup nearly leaves his home, the island of Berk. His love interest Astrid comes in on the scene and grounds him, leading to one of the most hilarious Toothless moments and a romantic flight through a cloudy sky. The audience knows that he won't run off with his dragon Toothless because we have twenty minutes of film left, but fanfiction has explored what would have happened without that tyrannical narrative.

"Hitchups"was one of the first "what if Hiccup ran away" variations, and it remains the best that I have read so far. I will outline my reasons below, but these reasons are based on the following facts that writers can learn:

1) No story is perfect, especially a story that sacrifices characterization for plot necessities.

2) It is all right to acknowledge that a story is imperfect, while enjoying it thoroughly.

3)  Fanfiction can help us address a story's imperfections, and to correct them with the written word.

"Hitchups" first addresses one of the pressing issues in HTTYD: female character development. The movie has two notable females: Astrid Hofferson, Hiccup's rival and love interest in Dragon Training, and the Village Elder Gothi. Gothi only has a few minutes of screen time, but her decision to choose Hiccup to slay a dragon impacts the third act. Astrid also impacts the third act by changing her mind about dragons, after going on a wild ride with Hiccup and Toothless. Nevertheless, the characters exist in only how they determine Hiccup's subsequent actions.

The movie limits Astrid's character  by delegating her as the love interest who keeps Hiccup on Berk. Astrid, who at first surpasses Hiccup and the other teens when battling dragons, starts offering advice on how to save the island, so that Hiccup can be the hero in the climactic battle. Before, she was more concerned about competition and coming out on top in Dragon Training, and she loses that aggression after seeing Hiccup as a romantic partner. AvannaK has written numerous analyses on HTTYD and its characters; in a telling post about Astrid, she emphasizes that her dislike is that Miss Hofferson's "purpose is to better Hiccup, to act as a reward or punishment" as opposed to achieving personal growth on her own.This purpose persists through subsequent animation projects in the HTTYD franchise, except for one television episode where we witness the reason for Astrid's competitive spirit. 

In "Hitchups," both Gothi and Astrid receive more notable screen time; in Gothi's case, she helps shape Hiccup's path without him realizing for about thirty chapters. Mentors matter as much as love interests, and Gothi also guides Hiccup into understanding his bond with Toothless better, the price that boy and dragon pay to live together. Gothi sees hope for Berk, and for the Vikings in this unlikely pair, and thus serves as mediator and guide between them. Her presence helps the pair survive a few close calls; when Hiccup sacrifices himself to save Toothless from a lethal axe blow, Gothi's connection to Hiccup allows her to surpass the laws of life and death.  

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Although Astrid remains competitive and aloof in "Hitchups," she remains an independent character who undergoing necessary development. Instead of a focus on Hiccup, AvannaK focuses on Astrid's loyalty to Berk and commitment to Viking war tradition, while inside she feels empty and unfocused. After revealing Hiccup's secret to the village, and becoming the temporary hero for a few weeks, Astrid pushes herself to fight against dragons harder, to prove herself and serve Berk. She quickly rises to the top of the village pecking order, able to choose a betrothed if she wishes, but soon doesn't know what she desires when the dragons may wipe them out. As Avanna writes in "Without a Hitch," "Astrid wanted her wants to matter, but they didn't. Only Berk mattered." 

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 Because Astrid has time to realize her lack of purpose, and her fears of not living to the war's end, she thus can handle Hiccup's return with more realistic, conflicted emotions. Two years also makes a difference when the two have an argument:

"Hiccup bared a passion in his expression that Astrid was unprepared for, and the first wisps of guilt began to fester. She stamped them out, holding onto her arguments, refusing to play the bad guy to his choices. Her own righteous anger was no longer enough to fuel her belligerence, so Astrid thought of Stoick, of the defeat and grief that poisoned the rest of their village. She thought of the way Hiccup hurt the classmates that looked up to him—Fishlegs, especially." 

Astrid's commitment to tradition conflicts with her desire to help Berk by using unconventional, almost treacherous means to end the war between dragons and Vikings. She hates Hiccup for choosing a dragon over the village, for violating tradition, while ignoring her part in his departure, her unwillingness to listen. Hiccup only convinces her to ride Toothless when, after their argument, he pursues her and asks for her help. He does not force her to get on, and Toothless does not intimidate her into an apology; Hiccup merely sits on his dragon and lets Astrid make the choice, treating her with respect. Astrid after the ride understands what he had protected, her full role in his exile, and how she can help the village change. As they utilize dragons to protect Berk from the raids, and they have a chance to end the war, Astrid sees herself fulfilling the leadership role that Hiccup never wants, to become chief of Berk, and regains her purpose. Hiccup spends too much time traveling to spread knowledge about training dragons or to lead the village, Snotlout and the twins are too grounded on Berk to become proper teachers, and Fishlegs concerns himself more with dragon-related statistics than with practical application. Astrid not only has the courage to face such creatures, but also the willingness to seek them out and explore uncharted waters.

I must emphasize, however, that Astrid does NOT take that role out of guilt for getting Hiccup exiled. She takes Hiccup's place to both improve Berk and to ground herself within changing world, to gain a solid footing as Vikings befriend dragons. She explains in "Without a Hitch" why she decides to leave Berk and assist dragon expert Fishlegs with gathering more knowledge: "She had to separate herself from her nearly crippling desire to please her village and find a solid understand of what she wanted. She experienced too much war in too little time and not enough of life." Astrid recognizes that she wants to have control over her destiny, and managing Berk ensures that control till the end of her days, even at the cost of civil war with the heir Snotlout.

"Hitchups" thus far is the only HTTYD fanfiction that explores such character depth, especially for the two most significant women in the story. I do not include Ruffnut, the female twin who serves as comic relief, because she does not impact the plot despite having more than a few lines. Nor do I include Phelgma, Stoick's second in command, because while she serves best in battle with STOICK, she has few interactions with Hiccup. Very few "what if Hiccup left" fanfiction focuses on empathy for those left behind on Berk, and thesecond-best contender, "Truth and Reconciliation," features too much Stoick hatred for my taste, and not enough sympathy for the characters on Berk. That's a rant of Tumblr worth, however, and we are not talking about variation fics.

I have to confess one thing, however: it took me months to get into "Hitchups," because the opening chapters made me cry when showing Hiccup's departure and the consequences that result on Berk. One consequence, all the Kill Ring dragons getting executed, was a punch in the gut because we get to know those dragons better in the show and cartoon shorts, but it was also necessary to drive home how Hiccup hurt his village by leaving. I dived into the story in the middle, when Hiccup was recovering from a near-death experience. Then I read backwards, so that I could handle the sad bits and enjoy the adventure in full. It's only by reading Avanna's Tumblr posts and analyses on Astrid that I can see the value behind such a story, that it needed to be written.

HTTYD is a boy and dragon story depicting a boy's world, but that does not mean that we have to drop in a new female character to make it a girl's world. A woman wrote the original book series, after all, with strong women featured within it. "Hitchups" takes the same approach; despite focusing on Hiccup and Toothless's travels returns to the two most important women in the plot and define them as people, not love interests. We do not need to accept the limitations that canon imposes, and we should play with such limits. That way, when we write our original stories, we can learn to surpass those limits and write sympathetic, powerful characters.


HiccstridFan said...

This fanfic would be perfect if it had more Hicctrid.

Priya Sridhar said...

Nah, I think that what AvannaK did with the Hiccstrid ship was reasonable. I just hope she writes the sequel where Astrid becomes determined to become chief of Berk, and the consequences that follow.

Priya Sridhar said...
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