The kinks: stories and our emotional response to them

A friend and I were discussing some of the more “interesting” fannish speculation we’ve encountered while out and about on the interwebs for various reasons re: Once Upon A Time. We both agreed we have no plans to participate in general fandom again. It is a hairy quagmire of divergent points of view and divisive passions, and we have both been there, done that with the bruises to prove it. Best to stick to the discussions we can have with our immediate internet friends.

But that got me thinking about why fandom is the way it is. Anything that makes us equally passionate–hobbies, areas of expertise, particular people, things of beauty–can lead to divergent points of view and divisiveness. We form strong opinions about those things, then the realities of internet communication exaggerate them: a degree of anonymity makes us bolder, ruder, rasher. The visual and aural cues that come with face-to-face or telephone communication are not there, which leads to unintended ambiguity and misunderstanding.

But there’s an additional element to fannishness about fictional books, films, or television shows that also contributes to the potential turbulence of the fan experience: our human response to stories. The ability to tell stories and interpret and respond to stories is one of the unique traits of human beings. But that response, more often then not, comes from the lizard brain. Or at least the mammalian brain. We don’t just absorb stories as whole pieces, we respond to particular elements in them that have a deep emotional resonance.

Some of these resonances are universal: the hero we have been rooting for wins in the end, a child dies tragically–these are the things any of us with a heart would respond to. And our common emotional response to such story elements is part of what creates bonding and cohesiveness between fans of a story.

But there are other elements that we respond to as individuals, that other fans seem oblivious to, or at least, not moved to the same degree we are. These can be plot tropes, character tics, character types, settings, etc, that recur in different stories, that we, as individuals, zoom in on again and again because something about them moves us. The charming, morally ambiguous bad boy, unrequited love, the overlooked but secretly powerful underdog, dystopian alternate universes–whatever floats your particular boat.

In fannish parlance, these are often called “story kinks,” where kink is understood broadly to be any element that has this kind of intense individual appeal. My “kinks” for example, include parent/child relationships where the parent and child share some kind of supernatural heritage in common, and/or are lost to each other and reunited. I love Messiah stories about destined saviors. I am drawn to wounded, hostile young women characters with chips on their shoulders a mile wide.

Why? Hell if I know. I would venture to say these kinks are learned, not innate, and have some childhood or youthful origin. I cannot say what these experiences were for me. My relationship with my own parents, for example, was pretty normal, loving, but not particularly remarkable for anything like the tropes I respond to and the level to which I respond to them.

Because that level is not rational in the least. The part of our brain those experiences got written on is primal and ancient. Which means our response to the story elements that move us is not anything we can control. Of course, we are still nevertheless rational beings who can choose to walk away from the story–shut the book, turn off the television–but we don’t control the emotional response itself. Its bubble is only burst through time and further experience, if it is ever burst. The same goes for story elements that repulse us as individuals: not rational, and not chosen.

And it is very, very hard to see around the lens they create in our vision, our interpretation of the story. We are tied, deeply and emotionally, on an animal level, to the parts of the story that move us. And so we merrily engage other fans, speaking through that lens, and run smack into others who see the story through their own lens. If people see what we see, we bond. If people see things differently, it raises our hackles. Or our awareness.

Which means in some ways, it’s good. One thing I learned in fandom is to appreciate points of view I would have never seen. My experience of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, was expanded about a billion times its original size by the friends I met on the All Things Philosophical board. But I am beginning to suspect that the ATPo board was an exceptional sector of fandom. We knew, more often than I think is generally the case, that we were seeing the story through a glass, darkly, and that it might help to pop on someone else’s glasses for a while. Because when you do, you see more.

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