The scene that (didn't) launch a thousand ships

I commissioned this delightful picture from Paige Paz, a/k/a Zamii070, of Vriska Serket and Sollux Captor from Homestuck hanging out.

When huge bitches & software developers meet on a meteor

It has all of Paz's little trademark touches - from the bouncy curves, so stylized they create an almost abstract interplay of appealing shapes, to the sense of who these characters are. (Homestuck fans can even spot the small details that place the picture at a specific point in the storyline.)

There isn't a lot of art of Vriska and Sollux out there - I know because I've been looking for a while. When Jake and I decided to do Homestuck troll costumes for GenCon a couple of years, he picked these two characters for the not-very-deep reason that he's a programmer and she's a huge bitch. I was unprepared for – well, a lot of things that happened as a result (a running tackle from a Gamzee cosplayer on my blind side, say), but when someone asked if I shipped Vriska and Sollux, I hadn't even considered the question.

Good night, America, and all the ships at sea

I'm not a shipper – but let me backtrack for anyone from other corners of fandom. What's shipping?

Shippers want two1 characters to get together. They might comb through canon, looking for evidence of romantic chemistry. They might write fanfiction or draw fanart. They might just muse on fan forums about how perfect those two would be for each other. Incessantly. To people who just don't see it. In other words, everyone.

I don't ship much of anyone; when I read books and watch movies, I rarely find myself thinking "Those two are perfect for each other, and I'd like to see that" when the story isn't building in that direction. (In contrast, characters with in-story romantic tension rarely seem to be shipped.)

One reason I commissioned the Vriska/Sollux picture in the first place is that there weren't many pictures, shipping or platonic, of the two of them together. And while that might seem like a simple math problem – there are twelve Alternian trolls, making (12 * 11 / 2) = 66 two-troll combinations – I think there's something else going on here; something about the way we experience stories without realizing it's even a factor.

Shippers may be indifferent to in-story romance, but they love to ship enemies. We could speculate about why – perhaps it's because enmity is, itself, a passionate feeling? Perhaps it's because humans, like our ape cousins the bonobos, transmute aggression into sex? Perhaps it's because we want to replace uncomfortable emotions with happy ones? Perhaps it's just a powerful dramatic contrast? Who knows? Who cares? All that matters is that it happens a lot.

In Homestuck, Vriska is entangled in a feud with several other Alternian trolls that leaves her an amputee and blind in one eye, Tavros in a wheelchair, Terezi blind, and Aradia dead – at the hands of her close friend Sollux, who Vriska mind-controlled into murdering her. Lots of characters have lots of reason to hate Vriska.

You know how I said that shippers turn hate into lust? Google will indeed find a ton of fanwork shipping Vriska with every one of her victims – except Sollux; I only found a handful of pictures before I commissioned one. (And even some of those were … let's call them "for a specialized audience", like this. It's SFW but might require some explaining and is decidedly non-canonical.)

I suppose you could come up with some reason for the disparity – dying is more dramatic than being forced to kill, being blind is more dramatic than living with causing the death of someone you cared about it, Sollux wasn't at fault so he shouldn't feel bad anyway2 – but how do you know any of those is actually the reason?

Or maybe people don't become shippers based on their experience reading the source material – they see other fans shipping something, they say "Yeah, that's good", and the more popular a pairing gets, the more it spreads. Vriska x Sollux just didn't happen to get popular as fast as other pairings.

But – as I said – I think there's something else going on.

Homestuck spends a lot of time on how the cycle of revenge affected Vriska and Aradia, Terezi, and Tavros. But Sollux never mentions it – much less gets a scene centered on it. Oh, you can infer that he was deeply hurt – he's initially described as "bipolar", for example, but he never seems to have an upswing; he's always depressed – but it's always offstage; it's always indirect.

How readers read

When someone tells you about a book they loved, they'll generally tell you what happened – who the characters are, what dangers they're facing. Perhaps they'll describe a particularly dramatic scene.

And coming up with those things is, obviously, an important part of writing. But it's not the whole job. Writers also make decisions about which character's point of view a scene is shown from, or where in the story a flashback is placed, or what the reader actually sees versus what's left offstage.

Readers won't mention those things – the staging – but that doesn't mean the staging doesn't shape the way readers experience stories. The same bit of backstory is more interesting when it answers a question a reader has than when it's cluttering up the introduction or tucked away in an appendix. If one character learns some key fact about another, and uses that fact to advance the plot, you get a more exciting book than if you stop the story for a flashback. (And yet stopping the story for a flashback can also provide a much-needed breather between high points that would otherwise exhaust a reader instead of exciting them.)

I think the lack of Sollux/Vriska shipping illustrates exactly this point: shippers might be drawn to conflict like fireflies to party lights, but they have to feel that conflict first – and conflict is as much a result of staging as of the simple facts of the plot.

1. Or more, I suppose. And the characters don’t even have to come from the same fictional universe. (back to article)

2. If every fictional character who angsted over something they weren't actually responsible for got over it, there'd be half as many words published per annum (back to article)

Written on February 13, 2016