Metawriting #3 – Dominance and Submission

The “Me” versus “Them” pattern set up in the last installment is understandably simplistic. While it might be true that most readers and writers fall into one camp or the other, it by no means defines the extent of a story’s appeal, nor would we want it to, because that would yield a genre quite boring and incapable of much variation. So what other variables are there which might play a role in what makes a MC/TF story “good?” Or put in a better way, what other sorts of expectations are readers bringing to the table that we can manipulate in a story, which will make them respond positively?

One sizable issue which I haven’t broached yet is the question of dominant and submissive attitudes in MC/TF stories, in part, because the issue can be approached from many different directions. For the moment, I want to argue against what I think to be a prevalent assumption about this genre, and one I run into fairly often. One common question people ask when they message or write me about my stories is whether I see myself as the transformer or the transformee in my work. The assumption at work here is that, depending on whether we prefer a dominant or submissive role in our fantasies, this then determines who we identify with in a story. I’m never entirely sure how to answer this question, mostly because I think it’s the wrong question. Here’s why.

When we read a story, who do we usually identify with? Let’s take a common, well known tale like “The Wizard of Oz.” The easy answer, and the right answer, would be to say Dorothy and her companions. Now, why do we identify with those characters? Well, there are lots of possible reasons, like, “because they’re the protagonist,” or what have you. Now, take a different story, “Wicked” (Note: I have neither seen the musical nor read the book, but I don’t think I need to for the sake of this commentary) and the question is the same: which character do we identify with? I believe the answer would be the Wicked Witch of the West, but then why? If she too is a protagonist, why not also root for her in “The Wizard of Oz?” The issue here, is that often, who we identify with isn’t determined by the character’s qualities, but by the author, and how the author tells the story. So tying character identification to qualities of the reader seems fundamentally misguided, because the same character has to potential to be presented in a wide variety of ways depending on how the story is written.

Here’s another problem, sticking with the same examples. Now, let’s assume that readers do identify with the characters who are in the roles most like them in a story. Then, if we take a survey of everyone who’s seen The Wizard of Oz, then the only characters people should identify with are those who share their qualities or flaws. While this notion might be understandable, in practice, I think it undervalues people’s capacity for empathy. Part of what stories do is make us identify with and understand people who aren’t like us. While it might be, in a sense, easier for us to identify with the characters we most resemble, that doesn’t mean that the goal of a story has to be to fit readers into those particular roles they feel most comfortable in.

Alright, it might be apparent I have an axe to grind here, so I’ll leave my issues there. As a caveat, I do think there are lots of stories where the focus is ambiguous, where either the dominant or the submissive characters can be fully identified with. The larger point I want to make is that writers have the power to determine who our readers identify with and why they identify with them. Bringing this back around to a discussion about dominance and submission, choosing as our protagonist a dominant or submissive character can create very different kinds of stories suited for different reader experiences. (Some authors manage to play with this by telling the same story from both dominant and submissive perspectives, like the first two parts of this story from Peircedskin or this three part tale from Schrijver). If I choose a dominant character as my protagonist, most often the result is going to be a power fantasy of some sort. I’m not a huge fan of writing these kinds of stories, but they are popular with many people. On the other hand, choosing a submissive character as a protagonist will usually generate something more akin to a horror or suspense tale (I often tell people I write horror porn–they think I’m joking but I’m not.)

Now, if we put this second duality in the context of “Me” or “Them” stories, we end up with a 2×2 grid:

|1. Dominant/“Me”   |2. Submissive/“Me”    |

|3. Dominant/“Them |4. Submissive/"Them”|

Stories in (1) are personal power fantasies. A character is given a MacGuffin which they use to change themselves into their ideal image, hopefully with some potentially funny/tragic consequences. Stories in (2) are self-torture fantasies. A character is taken by another and forcefully manipulated into being whatever that dominant antagonist wants them to be. Stories in (3) are those of vengeful retribution. A weak character is given a MacGuffin which allows them to take revenge and manipulate others for the sake of their own pleasure. Stories in (4) are tales of vengeance as well, but focus on the various changes made to the victims, rather than the pleasure derived by the changer at their expense, indeed, the changer need not even be present at all.

Of course, plenty of stories drift between categories or sit on the boundaries. This isn’t to say either that a particular reader will only like stories from one category. The point, rather, is to be aware of what kind of story you’re writing, so as to better anticipate how a reader will respond to it, and to keep in mind how to structure and develop your main character to make him welcoming to a wide variety of readers even if your story is targeting a specific section of the audience.

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