Why Fanfiction, Part One

Hello folks! Hope you’re starting the week off with the biggest smile you can muster, whether that’s an ear-to-ear grin or just a shrug for you right now. I am the last person to tell you that everything in life can and should be an endless parade of positivity, but I’m also a firm believer in taking the little moments of joy when they come, no matter how hard life may be otherwise. If positivity isn’t in the cards for you right now, then I’ll hold out hope for you instead.

It has occurred to me over the weekend how much I’ve struggled to actually talk about this fanfiction thing that’s been eating up so much of my time and attention. Put plainly, I’ve never been good with sharing things near and dear to my heart, and that goes double for the occasions when my work puts me in touch with emotions that I haven’t reached for in decades. My work on Raphail’s story has pushed so many unexpected boundaries for me as a writer and as a person that I’m still struggling to come to terms with a lot of it even as I proceed. Still, I want to try to explain what I’m working on.

I’m going to do this in stages, since I’m also trying to, y’know, write the fanfiction itself. Without getting ahead of myself, there is a semi-hard deadline for some of the stuff I’m trying to write arriving in June or July, and I’m looking down the barrel of several lengthy pieces of work I want to finish by then!

Perhaps it’s best to start with who Raphail even is, and why I care so much about him. (I’m going to skip the discussion of what fanfiction is and why it matters for now.)

The simplest explanation is that Raphail is a character I created and play within the game world of Final Fantasy XIV. Unlike most previous Final Fantasy games, there is no set hero that you play along as, so you get the freedom to choose the face and body that you’ll be inhabiting during the game. People have tons of reasons to pick what they pick, and every person (and hero!) is different. Some choose heroes that resemble them. Some choose heroes that are silly, or sexy, or odd. Playing a gender that’s different from your own is somewhat common, for a host of reasons I’ll touch on in a moment.

Final Fantasy XIV is also a role-playing game, which means that like most games in this genre, you will be asked to make choices or speak “as” your character during the game. Many people have no division between themselves and their characters, and take actions and responses that fit the person they are in real life. Others immerse themselves in the chance to “pretend” to be someone else. Given that Final Fantasy XIV takes place in an imaginary world with the kind of depth and development normally mentioned in the same breath as Tolkien or Rowling, the game encourages you to do this (though many people can and do ignore all the story. We won’t discuss them here.)

I… am a writer and role-player. In addition to telling stories as an intended career, I spent most of my formative years “playing pretend” on the Internet with folks who enjoyed the same. It’s how I met my husband. I’m still happiest when I get to step into the shoes of someone else and experience life in ways that are not limited by what I would do in the real world. This usually leads me to prefer characters that live life in the gray area. Many have been or become villains over the years.

Raphail is many unusual things for me. The most notable is that he’s male. I am not typically the sort of person to swap genders when I play, though the old days always featured male heroes in games by default, and I was happy to play them anyway. In truth, I prefer games that allow me to choose female heroes. (In the year of our Lord 2020, this shouldn’t be as rare as it is, thank you very much.) There has always been a subset of women that choose male characters in online games to avoid harassment, but I’ve spent most of my life either admitting to being female in real life too (come hell or high water) or simply ignoring every assumed “he/him’ pronoun leveled at me to avoid conflict.

That said, I have never been what society deems a “typical” girl. That’s not to say I’m a tomboy. My interests, headspace, and habits just tend to skew more traditionally male, even if I don’t see a reason why the things I enjoy ought to be gendered. (I’ll skip that rant for now.) Because of the general assumption that online = male, and the fact that I don’t exhibit a lot of the things that get coded as female online, I’ve been able to “pass” as male on a screen with ease. I have no interest in using this for real-world purposes, but it’s a huge benefit as a writer not to struggle with crossing the gap.

Despite all this, it’s been a hot decade since I last had cause to “pretend” to be male. My last major online communities all fell into place around my female characters, and I was content with that. When I write, I typically do so with a female protagonist, and so I’ve only had to step into male shoes for brief periods over the last several years. So how did I get here?

I’ll be honest: like many folks that decide to swap genders for games, more than a little bit of Raph’s creation was tailored to my personal tastes in animated gentlemen. Consider the difference between a professional wrestler and a fencer and you’ll get the idea. Given my previous comments about gender assumptions, it also won’t surprise you that I prefer guys with both emotional intellect and vulnerability — hell, I married one for a reason! The Japanese have a particular ideal-male archetype that tends to suit these preferences, and Raph fits nicely into that because I wanted him to.

I also won the lottery when it came to character design. The particular selection of facial features I picked for him have resulted in the most expressive face I’ve ever seen on any character since, and I routinely run into other players that can’t seem to stop staring. He’s always been easy enough on the eyes in my not-so-humble opinion, but I’ve come to understand there’s something special about him that seems to extend to more than just my own ideals.

(I promise there’s more. Bear with me.)

Most of what I get from Raph has more to do with his personality and role in the game than his physical appearance. When it comes to the first of those, like most of the characters I’ve written and played over the years, Raph is equal parts familiar and strange. He is clever and sometimes wise, though his eagerness to help others often leads him to rush headlong into things he might otherwise be better off not touching. He wants to better the world and the people around him, even if he has to put in the extra work or challenge himself in new situations. When things get tough, he is the sort of person that will stand up and fight for what’s right, no matter how many times he is tested or how many times he fails.

He has many mental and emotional scars from his life before the game, and even more that he’s acquired along his journey, but they all serve to make him a stronger, braver person that is capable of carrying the weight of an entire fictional world’s hopes and dreams — because, of course, that’s his role. He’s the hero of this story, and it’s his job to do everything he can and must in order to save the world. It’s a tale as old as time. Though he is often overwhelmed by the things asked of him, he never fails to rise to the challenge, and each new day brings with it new experiences that shape who he becomes.

These qualities are things that I share in my own life when I am at my best, though the tale of my journey through this life will, of course, be significantly less dramatic and fantastical in nature! But we are all the heroes of our own stories, are we not?

He also has things in his psyche that I don’t. He’s an emotional guy, and his emotions often get the better of him when he least expects it. (I instinctively lock so much of myself away to prevent this, often to the detriment of forming attachments with others.) He is the sort to wear his heart on his sleeve, no matter how often he gets hurt. (I am not. You can look to my social anxiety for proof.) He’s much more romantically adventurous than I was at his age. (I never had the need or the body for it, though it often seems so fun through the eyes of others.) He has far less shame about everything, and takes far more risks. Despite the burden he carries, he is a lot more wild and free than I’ve ever been in my life.

These qualities are things I want, even if I don’t have them yet, and I may never. (I have no wish to be an emotional firehose, but learning to stop hiding so much of my feelings is one of my goals.) Because I use my characters to experiment with choices and behaviors that may not reflect my own, I have the power to explore what I would be if I could. He isn’t perfect — I write flawed characters and always have — but the things that make him special are the things I want to work on in my own life.

It’s perhaps easiest to think of him as the sort of hero I like to imagine I would be, if the heavens parted and I suddenly found myself the savior of some magical world somewhere. (I’m still waiting, y’all.)

As for his role in the game… it is also rare for me to choose to play a character that’s this… traditionally good. As I said, I tend to skew much more heavily toward the moral gray area when I am writing. Exploring choices I’d never make myself is one of my stated aims.

But this time, things are a little different. The story of FFXIV shines brightest when it makes you the hero of the freaking universe — and then turns around and reminds you of the personal cost to that role. This isn’t a world where you are too powerful and awesome to fail. Like our real world, sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes the world needs to be saved… and you simply aren’t good enough. Sometimes people you were meant to save die.

This is a theme I haven’t seen enough of in the fantasy worlds I’ve seen. I’m used to the hero getting the magic power, saving the world, and living happily ever after with very little negative impact to his life. Some people enjoy that kind of power fantasy, but I much prefer the idea that even morally correct choices and outcomes have costs. Sometimes your best intentions aren’t enough.

FFXIV is beloved because it asks so many hard questions about what it means to be a hero, and tests the limits of what phenomenal cosmic powers can do to change the minds and hearts of the world’s people. Stopping the villain of the week is rarely enough; society, expectations, arguments between people, and religions and governments all play their part in the healing and the chaos both.

It feels so true to life sometimes that it hurts.

I believe the creators know this. This has never been anything but a game with a message, and it’s a message that resonates with me on a level that I haven’t seen outside of the Suikoden, Persona, and Fire Emblem game franchises. And because of that, I’m willing to push my own limits and risk trying to play the classic hero archetype. I know full well that they are going to make it interesting, dramatic, and poignant by using it against me in order to ask questions about the meaning of life itself.

So far I’ve struggled to find good answers to more than a few of them, and there is nothing I love more than a game that a) respects my intelligence and b) challenges me to think.

When Raph started out, he was a plucky adventurer in over his head, fleeing from the aftermath of tragedy and the result of a particular choice he made that was not consistent with his own moral compass or his expectations for himself. Becoming a hero was the last thing on his mind. And yet somehow, the world he found himself in needed a hero, and so he hoisted himself up by his bootstraps and tried his best to answer the call, even if he feared he could never live up to its demands.

What he has become over the years is a true hero in his own right — but at the cost of so very much, and he knows it as well as everyone else does. He also knows it can’t last. A perfect world, for him, would need no heroes at all. People would look out for each other, think of the big picture, and educate themselves on kindness and decency. They could be the true heroes.

We’ll see if he ever gets there. I know that if he does, it will be only after countless future falls from grace; after countless losses of friends and acquaintances he can’t imagine living without. It will take its toll on him, leaving him more broken than ever before — and yet stronger and more determined to ease the suffering of others. Heroes, after all, stand for hope above all else.

I hope to follow in his footsteps. I hope I can be brave and face whatever lies ahead of me in the real world. I hope I can learn to be fearless, though my heart may break in the process. I hope I can bring joy and hope to others through his story, both the parts that are mine and the parts that belong entirely to Square-Enix. And I hope that I can still hold onto those parts of me that I do share with him by putting them into practice every day, even in a fictional context. So many of them are not used enough in reality these days because of how hard it is for me to reach out to others.

I may take the first step online — but I want them to translate into my real life, someday.

Future topics: why I’m writing this long backstory for him, given that none of it has any impact on the game itself, and an attempt at explaining the Big Thing that happened to him (and me) back in September/October 2019 that threw a wrecking ball into my plans for him, my expectations in writing/playing him, and what it all means for the future. It has spawned most of my sudden fervor in writing so much, though I fear I’m quite embarrassed about it still.

I am not the sort to get this invested in a fictional romance plot. Most romantic plots make me want to claw my eyes out. But this is, as the kids say, wrecking my shit both in and out of game. I thought I was too old for this, and discovering I am not has been glorious — and really, really emotionally exhausting.

I said I wanted to learn how to be fearless, I guess. Should’ve kept my mouth shut.

A note in parting, lest we worry overmuch about consent. I spent most of my teenage role-playing years trying to teach teenage boys the difference between writing a character in love and actually being in love. My someone-crossed-the-line radar is pretty good. If I ever get the slightest hint that a player’s interest in Raph/me goes beyond the game, they’ll have the truth at once. I am not here to trick anyone or betray anyone’s trust by choosing to play a male character. Assuming too much about the person behind the screen without lots of conversation has never been a good idea for anyone.


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