Everyone wants to see themselves in the fiction they consume, and people get a buzz when they do. Relating strongly to a character warms a certain little compartment of the heart and can make a reader or viewer feel at home, which is why wide representation is so important and also why we often end up with these weird and cringe-worthy cut-out ‘geek’ or ‘book loving’ heroes that fans are meant to empathise with.
Because writers/showrunners/creators of fictional things for mass consumption are acutely aware of the cockles-warming nature of relatable heroes it’s understandable they jump on this and try to create one that will connect with their audience, who they think they also acutely know. This can go one of two ways and, I’m afraid to say, does not always end well. The internet has given rise to a new generation of TV writer, for example, that is able to have much more contact with and a better look at the people consuming their shows, whether it’s through chatting with them on Twitter or delving into the fandom circles of journals and blog sites or even, dare they, the world of fan works like art and writing. This exposure can give them an idea of the kind of people that are fans of their series, and that can spark inspiration for a character, be they a cameo or the hero of a new venture, that the audience is sure to see themselves in.
Here’s the thing: while this is ultimately well-meaning (most of the time?), representation of geek culture in media is a world of hits and misses. One only needs to look at the horror that is The Big Bang theory to know that this is how the enthusiastic and nerdy are best perceived on TV. To be fair, they have their fun with pop culture references and there are probably elements of the characters that viewers can see themselves in or be sympathetic with, but for the most part the show stars a pile of stereotypical caricatures with story driven by making fun of fans while masquerading as being relatable to them. Do you see why that’s a problem?
Maybe it’s not always entirely malicious. The jury’s still out on the cameo character of Becky in Supernatural who appears in the episode where the Winchesters discover that their lives are being documented and sold as fiction and they’ve gained their own cult fan following. The entire thing was an amiable nod to the fandom and how it behaves, much in the same way that the Ember Island Players episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender was (best filler episode ever). Becky was an avatar for the quintessential Supernatural fangirl, yet for the most part the fans couldn’t stand her. What went wrong, exactly?
Maybe the elements of fan-iness that writers pick up on and place in their desirably relatable characters are the elements of fandom that people cringe away from, at least in their extremes. Like slash (or not) shipping, ogling pretty actors or squealing over things in general—all things that fans do, but do not necessarily want to see blazing exaggerated across a screen. Fandoms are communities, and trying to jam the traits and behaviours of multitudes of people into one character that you hope they’ll relate to can create a bit of a mess, especially if the behaviours you pick are the ones that can warp into negative stereotypes really quickly. People just aren’t sure what to think of fandoms just yet, or the fact that they exist or are becoming so vocal and present in The Internet Age. And if they aren’t part of that world, they’re not going to ‘get’ what the would-be fan-insert is trying to convey and will end up feeling shut out as a viewer.
Geek portrayal gone awry is not just limited to our network TV, of course—it exists in all mediums, and I can tell anime has a big problem with it too. Quintessential ‘otaku’ characters show up all the time in slice of life shows, whether they’re the protagonist and the entire show revolves around being a vessel of empathy for fans or they’re the strange side character that the true heroes get the chance to be shocked by for everyone’s entertainment. Which was a problem I had with Servant x Service, for example, which contains a side character that appears to be perfectly bland and serious until we discover she’s a huge geek and cosplayer in her spare time. I liked her, but I really wasn’t sure what the source of humour was meant to be here: the juxtaposition of stoic office worker and her colourful, obsessive hobby, or the hobby itself.
This is a problem that a lot of these fandom-nod characters run into. Whether the fans see themselves in them or not, we’re never quite sure if we’re meant to be laughing with them or at them. Coming back to The Big Bang Theory, the show is set up as the former but anyone with half an eye can see that most of the humour comes from the latter. Even geek characters that are meant to be endearing often end up in that bucket as a matter of course, since to be fair, there’s a lot about being a fan that is hilarious and ridiculous. Still, the amount of times these meant-to-be-relatable characters either end up as the butt of jokes or horribly unlikeable is awkward. Fans are willing to admit that there’s an element of silliness to their hobby, but rubbing it in their face is no way to respond to that.
Or, it can go the opposite direction entirely, and instead of being acknowledged as (lovable) losers the characters written in to be relatable to fans end up weirdly pretentious. If they don’t come with a cloud of comedy, they come with an air of elitism, like those ‘girls who read’ archetypes who inhale old book smell and highlight poetry and drink tea while sighing about how they Don’t Fit In, which, to be fair, a lot of real people do, but all of these individual traits end up bundled into a stereotype that comes to comfort the reader that people like them are their own special breed… and ends up falling flat.
There are plenty of geeky and bookish characters out there that lots of people can relate to, Abed Nadir for instance, or Peter Parker, or Hermione Granger… mostly because while yeah, they may be intended to be relatable heroes and yeah, they have these traits that fans can see mirrored in themselves, those two concepts are not the only aspects of them, and they weren’t combined awkwardly to be the avatar of all nerds come to save them and be worshipped. If people are going to see themselves in a character, it will come naturally, and from them seeing that character written as, well, a character before they’re written as a fan-insert. Don’t force it. Fans are, as well as mostly being quiet creatures that thrive within their own circles, sceptical beings that will dodge around botched attempts to get them into the spotlight, and the characters made with the sole intent of being their heroes will often end up snarked at or forgotten about. Not very heroic at all.