If you’re following pop culture on the Internet, you’ve probably heard this story by now. Marvel Comics has made Captain America an agent of HYDRA in his latest series. Emotions are running high, and much virtual ink has been spilled over the decision already. Before we go any further, I’ll tell you what I’m not going to say:
- I’m not going to say I like this idea, or agree with the decision to pursue this storyline. I don’t. But I’m also not reading comics right now.
- I won’t say “don’t be upset” or advise people to “calm down.” Feeling upset about this is justified. Sending death threats to the writer is not okay, but feeling angry and betrayed is perfectly natural.
- I’m not going to assure you it’s all fine because comic book storylines are inherently ephemeral and impermanent, even though that’s true. Impermanent or not — if we don’t have feelings about stories, then they’re not doing their work.
- I’m not going to expound on whether I feel this move is anti-Semitic, racist, or misogynist. I feel the best I can do is to understand why others feel these things, and exercise compassion.
Instead I want to talk about how and why we hold characters sacred, and what that means to writers and readers.
As readers, I think it’s safe to say many of us come to fiction to experience emotion. We want to be engaged with the story, to feel something toward the characters — whether it’s positive or negative. We want villains we can dislike and protagonists we can root for, with all the levels of complexity that exist inside those boundaries. Our villains might be sympathetic, tragic, broken, or flatly despicable; our heroes can be four-color paragons or morally gray scoundrels. The richness of stories lies in the variety.
As writers, we want people to identify with our characters. We want readers to cheer their successes and dread their setbacks. If we’ve done our job well, our story will carry enough tension and surprise that the outcome remains in doubt. The reader will fear for the welfare of a character who doesn’t exist. Read any negative review of a book or movie, and the words “I just didn’t care” are likely to appear. A story that doesn’t move us will soon be forgotten.
Books on writing advice tell us narrative decisions that don’t affect anything are textbook bad writing. They’re filler. A story in which a character just hangs out and sees everything work out fine, in most cases, isn’t very compelling. That’s the domain of wish-fulfillment and fanfic, and while there’s nothing wrong with either of those things, they tend to be stories without consequences, and so without weight. I’ll say again, just in case it seems like I’m bagging on fanfic: that’s a fine thing to enjoy!
Fans often tend to feel ownership of characters. The more iconic and broadly appealing the character, the greater the collective sense of ownership. Sometimes this relationship can go too far (such as when fans send death threats to creators, or assert they know the characters better than those creators). But in general it’s a natural and valuable thing. When we grow up with a story or a character, we carry that story or character with us. It transcends the boundaries of narrative and maybe even shapes our viewpoint or morality.
So when a story doesn’t meet (or openly contradicts) our idea of a character, we get upset. Our attachment is threatened. Whatever morals, ideals, or viewpoints we think the characters represented feel undermined and betrayed. We have a strong emotional reaction — which, in many cases, is a sign the story is working as intended. Indifference is not a response any author works to cultivate.
As writers, most of us will probably spend more time playing in our own sandboxes than in those of others. Writing a story about a beloved character like Captain America carries a totally different set of perils than writing about your own character. A writer must be mindful of the fandom, tradition, and history of the character, while bringing their own perspective and voice to the work. Otherwise, why bother? Meticulously copying someone else’s idea of a character doesn’t bring new life or new insight to that character. (Whether that insight is valuable is a different and altogether trickier question.)
I’ll pull a more historical example from pop-culture memory: Star Wars. Between the end of the original trilogy and the release of the prequels, many fans cultivated an idea of what the prequels should look like. Because fans love detail, these ideas were often granular and specific. In some cases, novels, games, and fan fiction developed these ideas; in others, fans cultivated their own vision and held it close to their hearts.
Then the prequels came, and failed to meet those expectations. I’m not talking about the “objective” quality of the prequels here; that’s a different debate and one I’m uninterested in having. I’m talking about the divide between expectation and reality. Fans, particularly older fans, had an idea of how the story should be. The story defied the idea; fans felt betrayed and angry.
For younger fans, and those for whom the original trilogy carried little weight, there was no such expectation, and thus no sense of betrayal. Fifteen years later, many fans are still lamenting that their love was tarnished, that Star Wars was ruined, that the original was “destroyed” by the emergence of new story. It wasn’t, but people felt like it did, because the original story became sacred to them.
This happens over and over. A lot of fans feel The Force Awakens betrayed the defining virtues of Star Wars, and have pre-emptively decided Rogue One is guilty of the same. All this despite not having seen the movie. I won’t even get into the furor over the new Ghostbusters.
On the writer’s side, desecrating this ground is almost inevitable. Create something beloved enough, and you will eventually let someone down. Every writer who gains an audience must face this fact.
It’s much the same with Hydra Cap, with the added impact of Cap’s symbolism. Ask most Star Wars fans which character they like best, and most might say Han Solo or Darth Vader. Relatively few fans I’ve ever met have waxed poetic about the moral character of Obi-Wan or Luke Skywalker (mostly because those characters are hot messes morally, which is what I like about them… but anyway).
But Captain America means a lot to people. He represents strong ideals with which readers (or movie audiences) relate. He’s the kid from Brooklyn who hates bullies. Seeing the character deliberately undone, even within the impermanent boundaries of a comic story, feels like a betrayal not just of the character, but of all the ideals he represents. It becomes personal.
This is where things get tricky, because I have a lot of conflicted feelings about the perceived sacredness of characters and how we, as writers, are obligated not to hold them sacred. I think fans (including myself) tend to buy into a notion of timelessness or permanence when it comes to iconic characters.
But that permanence is illusory. Few stories are genuinely timeless; almost all will inevitably date themselves and be seen in retrospect as “products of their time.” The Captain America stories of today reflect the hopes, ideals, and anxieties of today, not of 1940. The character endures because what he represents has broad and far-reaching appeal, but those are not the character. We create the ideal and hold onto it, but the character itself doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to everyone… including writers who tell stories we hate about that character.
In short, headcanon is the only secure canon, when it comes to characters who are not our own. All else is fluid, ever-shifting, and ultimately up for grabs. For good or ill, we all have to share. (For example, I’m totally in favor of a story featuring a bisexual Captain America who gets in a relationship with Bucky or Sam Wilson. This emphatically violates ideas some consider sacred. But that’s a story I want.)
I’ll relate a story from my own experience. I’ve been working on Etheric, the sequel to Orison, for the last year. A few months ago, I got to the point where I sent the draft out to beta readers to see what they thought. As so often happens in the beta-reading process, opinions could not have been more diverse. Everyone loved (and hated) something different. “More of X and less of Y,” they said. But everyone wanted something different.
The end result is clear and eternal: I can’t please everyone. No matter what, I will make a decision someone will disagree with. Someone’s favorite character won’t get enough time, or they’ll meet a fate a reader will dislike. The work will contradict their idea of how it “should” have been. This is inevitable, and to some degree, desirable. A story that fulfills a reader’s every expectation will lack surprise and quickly grow dull. That’s what fanfic is for — which I say completely without rancor. I craft my stories to facilitate shipping, because I think fans making characters their own, especially to make things Work Out Just Fine for them, is a great thing.
I treat one of my favorite characters pretty badly in the sequel. Some beta readers expressed concern, even upset, over how hard I was on them. I can’t confirm, but I’m pretty sure one beta reader quit over it.
There are characters in my books I’ve absolutely loved, characters who meant something to myself and others, who vanished into the ether upon a second draft. It absolutely hurt to lose them, just as it hurts to see characters I love frustrated, hurt, killed. But that’s storytelling.
Writers perform a thousand casual desecrations in any given draft. We create characters, give them imaginary life, then snuff them out or force them to endure hardship and terror. We walk a line between making things too easy for them, and making it so brutally difficult that the reader checks out. This isn’t a fixed point a writer can spot and aim for. It’s literally different for every reader.
This is the delicate dance you have to dance as a writer: at the core of it, you’re toying with people’s emotions. You have to walk a line between respectful and irreverent, between suspenseful and just plain cruel. For a writer, it’s almost impossible to hold characters sacred and get anything done. They might get put through the ringer, get killed off, endure terrible tragedy, or get written out entirely. You might undo that all later. (If you’re a comics writer, someone else is going to if you don’t.)
It’s a hazardous, stressful line to walk, and every one of us will plunge right off it at some point. We’ll make a choice we won’t know is ill-advised or careless until someone points it out, whether it’s a watchful editor or a wrathful fan.
Did Nick Spencer fall off? Personally, I don’t know. I want to find out how that story ends before I judge. Having experienced this process from within, it would feel unfair for me to do otherwise. Suspecting a beta reader, whose opinion I really valued, quit before they reached the end — that stings. It creates doubt. But if I try to undo the hurt, that’s a different kind of disrespect — to myself, to the story, to other readers, and to my idea of the character.
This stuff is all deeply untidy, and all the answers are unsatisfactory. As a writer, one of the first things you must make peace with is that your story will rarely be truly finished, only abandoned. It will never be perfect. If you’re lucky, it will be good enough, either for you or the readers you’re lucky enough to find.
The flip side of all this: you can’t afford to hold story sacred either. When faced with a controversy like the one surrounding Hydra Cap, writers tend to fire back with something like “that’s the story I wanted to tell.” This answer rarely satisfies readers, nor should it. The arguments often polarize into two hypothetical futures: a politically correct nursery where all fiction is sanitized to protect feelings, or a crapulent dystopia where racism and sexism seep from every narrative like a poison. We live in a more complex world than that.
As a writer, it’s important to remember that story doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has to interface with people, and if you’re going to toy with their emotions (as you must), it’s important to do so with integrity and purpose. When we write, we enter into a relationship with our readers. It’s up to us not to abuse them.
What you write may hurt people, and it’s up to you to reflect on whether that hurt is justified. The answer won’t always be an easy yes or no. It’s up to you to “do better” (whatever that ends up meaning for you), or stick to your guns and continue on the path you think is right. And it’s up to you, especially when you think you’re right, to question your assumptions. You can’t afford to hold anything sacred, least of all yourself.
If we’re to be successful, we must act out of love: love of characters, love of story, and love for the readers who give our stories meaning.