Shipping and the Role of Interpretation

Ah, to ship something. To fall in love with the love – or the possible journey towards that love – of two fictional characters. To see yourself on screen and project your desires onto the story you’re seeing develop. It happens to the best of us. In fact, I’m even willing to say it happens to all of us, though, of course, for some people, shipping is an incidental thing, and for others it’s a way of life.

But I’m not here to talk about shipping, at least, not directly. That’s too broad a subject and there are frankly too many ways to approach it, but in the end it all boils down to …interpretation.

So, allow me to ramble a bit about the role that interpretation plays in how we all watch and how much we enjoy a TV show.

This is not a show specific issue, of course not. Every fandom has its ups and downs, its ship wars, its different ways of looking at the same situation. So feel free to take these words with a grain of salt, and apply them to any and all fandoms. I, after all, remember the days of long arguments about whether Harry was meant to be with Hermione or Ginny. People are passionate about fictional characters, and that’s a good thing, that’s what all writers want. If you care enough to argue, then the writer has done its job.

Writers write for themselves. Most of us really, really appreciate the passion coming from outside, but fact of the matter is, you start writing because there’s a story inside you that you just can’t keep in. Characters talk in your head and the only way to shut them up is to make them real. And once you put those words to paper, once you flesh out the characters and send them off into the world, just like you’d do a kid, then, they don’t belong to you.  You don’t control them.

It’s the harsh truth of writing, and something some people have a hard time accepting. We might mean something, and that meaning might be crystal clear to us, but somehow, someway, there might be a person reading our book, watching our TV show who manages to get the exact opposite message that we wanted to send. It’s both baffling, and a bit worrying. Because, no, that’s not what you wanted to say. Harry and Hermione were not meant to be together! They’re like brother and sister! It was obvious.

Except, maybe it was only obvious to you.

The truth of the matter is, interpretation is, well …subjective. What is obvious for one person might not be obvious for another. We all put parts of ourselves in the stories we engage in. We might like a character because we see something of ourselves in them, and we might desire a relationship because what those two fictional characters share very much resembles what we want, what we have or even what we dream of. Likewise, we might reject a specific character, or a specific relationship because he/she exhibits behaviors we’ve experienced and that we’ve been hurt by.

It’s a double edged sword, interpretation.

Because, who are you to tell your readers/viewers how to engage with a character? Who are you to tell them who to love and who to hate? Sometimes writers lose sight of the fact that we don’t want to be told who to love; we want to be shown why we should love that character. And even that is subjective. We love who we love, and yes, we might love different people for the exact same reasons. We’re not the same, after all.

This, of course, goes both ways. I’m perfectly free to interpret the character in a way that’s completely opposite to the story the writers seem to be telling, yes. But it’s also more than okay to interpret it just the way they meant it. The viewer who looks at a TV, ships the canon couples, gets excited when the show-runners expect him to, and cries just when they mean to break his heart has as much of a right to their interpretation as the person who doesn’t.

I did say interpretation was a double-edged sword.

Basically, it’s putting twenty people in a room and telling them that they all love pasta, but in order to get out they need to agree to just ONE way to eat pasta for the rest of their lives. Hard? Try impossible.

All of this, however, is the viewers/readers point of view. Now comes time to talk about the writer’s point of view. Yes, accepting that everyone is going to have their interpretation is hard, but we all get there. We are, after all, in charge of the story. People can continue to interpret things the way they want to, because those people are not in charge of the story, writers are.

That’s where this gets messy. Yes, interpretation is all fine and good. Interpret away! Ship whomever you want. Hate whomever you want. Criticize the plot points you disagree with. Hold the writers accountable for their mistakes. Point out that there's, in your opinion, a better story to tell. But don’t demand that they change their vision just to satisfy yours. If they’re not asking you to see it their way, don’t ask them to write it your way.

Enjoy your story, the way you want to enjoy it. Write fic, create art, be loud. Celebrate what you love – and the people who created the characters that made you feel. But don’t harass the writers to try to change what they feel, what they plan. As writers, we can’t always send the exact message we want to get across, and as viewers we can’t always get the story we want. That’s just the way it is. You can’t always get what you want.

Not unless you write it.

Lawyer. Dreamer. Geek. Eternal optimist. Fangirl since the dawn of time. Hates the color yellow, olives and cigarettes. Has a recurring nightmare where she’s forced to choose between sports and books. Falls in love with fictional characters.