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Why Do Non-Canon Ships Become So Popular? (And Why Should Writers Rethink When They Do?)

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(Damn, look who’s showing up ten years late to this discussion with Starbucks…)

Hey guys, just want to start with a preface here: I’ve recently been in several separate conversations about why certain ships become so popular, what leads people (and woman in particular) to ship so much, why certain fandoms become over-zealous in their shipping, and why so many slash ships manage to appeal to female viewers… And while I certainly don’t have scientific or even very thorough answers for most of these, I came across a line in a scholarly journal article recently that struck me like lightning, because it managed to express in just a few words a very complex idea that’s been slowly ruminating in my mind for months:

  • Many fans, particularly women, are disappointed by the contrived romantic story lines that are appended to ‘buddy’ series and movies in which the real emotional energy is between the heroic male leads (or between hero and villain) (McLelland 2006). [Source

Emotional energy. There it is, the exact phrase I’d been looking for when trying to talk about the extreme popularity of ships like Klance, Sheith, Soriku, NaruSasu, and even het ships like Zutara.

Why do so many ships that have minimal chance of becoming canon become so beloved in fandoms? Why are so many fans attracted to potential relationships between characters the creators never intended to write romantically (or at least never intended to deliver on)?

I’ve said it before and it bears repeating: there’s no one, simple answer for shipping. People ship for an uncountable number of personal, unique reasons, and any attempt at “explaining” shipping will always be reductive and over-simplified. Nevertheless, once this hit me, I couldn’t unthink it:

Look at where the “real emotional energy” is in a story… And that’s where you’re most likely to find the fandom’s most popular ships.

I want to begin by clarifying some terms so there’s no confusion. When I talk about “emotional energy,” I don’t necessarily mean romantic emotions (and in fact, in the case of most non-canon ships, I don’t mean romantic emotions at all!). Rather, what I mean is the weight, power, and dynamism of the myriad emotions characters express for one another, including friendship/camaraderie, trust, reliance, frustration, anger, hatred, sadness, etc. For the purposes of this discussion, emotional energy is any of the meaningful emotional interactions that two characters share–especially those which drive the main plot of a story.

In a narrative sense, I think “emotional energy” is nearly synonymous with the concept of tension between characters. (”Tension” not in the negative sense of “aggression” but the narrative sense of being “stretched tightly”–a state of push and pull between two characters, in which their interactions cause one or both of them to grow as characters, produce twists or revelations in the plot, and where their interactions provoke a sense of “friction,” either positive or negative.)  

So, in other words: popular ships often correspond with characters who exhibit the strongest and most well-written emotional tension–the strongest energy (positive or negative) that occurs in a story–and unfortunately, very often this well-written tension doesn’t occur between the protagonist and his designated love interest, but between the protagonist and another (frequently male) character who has a more significant impact on the plot’s events.

More on the slash element in a bit, but for now let’s take a look at an infamous het ship example: Zutara, the relationship practically synonymous with “ship war” in fandom history.

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I don’t have exact statistics on the gap in fanfics between Zutara and the now obviously canon Kataang because most FF.net fics were written before the character/pairing setting was available, but on AO3, Zutara fics outnumber Kataang fics more than two to one, and in terms of Google analytics, Zutara consistently registers above Kataang:

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Why? This is a series that ended ten years ago with a clear canon pairing… And yet a non-canon ship continues to largely dominate with fans. (Not that there aren’t plenty of Kataang shippers; don’t come after me with pitchforks, I did enough time in this war already.) What was it about this ship that captured so much fan attention?

I mean, okay, leaving aside the fact that it featured two teenagers rather than a teenage girl and a twelve-year-old boy and also ignoring the beloved “opposites attract” water/fire aesthetic, one of the most central facets of this ship is exactly what I just mentioned: a strong emotional energy.

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 “The Fire Nation took my mother away from me!”

“I’m sorry. That’s something we have in common.”

From their first meeting, these two characters were coded as having deeply-rooted tension. Katara views Zuko as a representative of the culture that devastated her people (because he is), and her interactions with him are colored not just by a personal dislike of him and his quest to capture the Avatar, but also by the weight of her very valid hatred of the Fire Nation as a whole and the grief she feels for her mother and lost way of life that is central to her character. 

The energy that suffuses her interactions with him is vivid–she demonstrates an extreme gamut of feelings that range from the seriously negative (hatred, pain, fear) to feelings that were received overwhelmingly positively by fans (determination, courage, self-worth), especially during the Season 1 finale in which she and Zuko dueled ferociously, and I think it’s notable and important that these feelings exist separate from a romance plot line. Her tensions with Zuko don’t arise from overtly romantic feelings on the part of either character, meaning that their emotional energy is a direct result of the series’ main plot, not a romantic subplot (which have been and continue to be notoriously poorly integrated with many series’ main plot lines).

As the series progresses, her feelings noticeably change and evolve, including empathy, understanding, and tentative forgiveness in season 2…

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All the way to humorous jesting, genuine trust, and close camaraderie in season 3.

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And this isn’t to say that she doesn’t have emotional energy with Aang, nor do I mean to imply that Kataang is in any way less valid of a ship (obviously the ship war happened for a reason, because many fans did feel a lot of emotional energy between Katara and Aang), but–and this might just because it’s been like 6+ years since I completely rewatched this series, cut me some slack–if I recall correctly, much of Katara’s emotional energy with Aang (besides those scenes that were deliberately “crush”-coded) was a more universal tension shared by the whole Aang gang: the pains of growing up from innocent kids to warriors, becoming strong benders/fighters, learning to rely on each other, showing courage in the face an overwhelming foe, bringing peace to the world–these are all emotional high-points in the story that are unforgettable to viewers… But they aren’t necessarily unique to Katara or her overall arc as a character, because they’re such shared experiences between the Gaang.   

In a sense, Katara’s most significant emotional arc was entwined with the Fire Nation itself. Her goal to become a strong bender was driven in part by her desire to be seen as “useful” in the quest to save the world, and utilizing her strength to fight Zuko after training at the North Pole helped her to recognize herself as a true waterbending master who had achieved one of her personal dreams. Coming to see Zuko an as individual separate from “the Fire Nation” helped her to recognize the complexity of the world as a whole, the war, and all the people trapped up within it, while increasing her ability to empathize with those who were different from herself. Her quest to discover and then overcome the loss of her mother is inextricably tied up in the tensions between herself and the Fire Nation–and, by extension, Zuko (and later the rest of Zuko’s family via her battle(s) with Azula).

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Why does Zuko look like Nicholas Cage in this screencap lol

Positioning Katara in the pivotal, emotional fight between Zuko and Azula also further enforced the entanglement of their character growth arcs–like their missing mothers, Azula was a figure they both jointly needed to overcome in order to complete their personal character development: Katara by finally defeating her own spectre of the Fire Nation, and Zuko by formally and totally rejecting the system that previously shaped his entire life.

If you examine the “real emotional energy” of Katara’s story line–not just romantic feelings but her individual journey from proud but untrained young woman to savior of the world–the story’s main drive and tension continually pits her against and then puts her beside Zuko.

It’s little wonder that this ship remains so popular even in the face of canon. Fan artists and writers don’t just pick up on romantic tension (although they’ve certainly got a bloodhound’s nose for it)–they also pick up on other emotions, emotional work, and tension between characters, and moments in which characters spark each other’s growth, particularly when they are positioned as equals (and opposites), appeal directly to fans’ innate sense of narrative coherency.

(Oops, that’s another weird term–by narrative coherency I mean the sort of ingrained sense of “proper” storytelling that is nursed by life-long exposure to stories across various media, from children’s books and shows all the way up to classic literature and arthouse movies–the expectations we develop for plots to adhere to logical and fully-fleshed out paths with characters matching or riffing off ancient archetypes… This is by no means a universal understanding though.)

Mega-popular ships spawn in part from the fans’ ability to identify characters whose interactions are well-written, well-developed, and directly meaningful to their individual character growth, and non-canon ships exceed canon ships in popularity, at least in part, when fans’ perceive this difference in the depth/quality of emotional energy invested in the characters’ interactions, especially when those interactions occur outside of an obligated romance plot line.

In (not-so-)short, as I have said before: for works that aren’t strictly romances, if you put all romance subplots completely aside, then look at your plot and discover your best written, most dynamic, and most “emotional” pair isn’t the canon couple, that’s when you get shipping that clashes dramatically with canon.

In essence, “fan-preferred couples” are often–although of course not always–a direct result of a show’s writing and the characterizations promoted by the show’s writers themselves. It doesn’t help when you get people like the Avatar writers who deliberately fanned the flames of the ship war; god I’m getting traumatic flashbacks just thinking about it…

Sooooo! A thought I’ll flesh out more fully in a bit, but something I want to put on the table now:

If you are a writer and a significant majority of the fan artists and fan writers for your show ship one pairing over what you have written in canon or what you have planned in canon, you need to rethink the way you are writing your characters. Not because the fans are entitled to the ship they prefer–but because they’ve noticed depth, quality, and meaningful tension/emotional energy between other characters in your series that may not be present between your planned romantic leads. And that’s a problem you should want to address!

It’s this point–-the idea that there are a lot of under-developed romantic leads out there–-that slips right into my next point:

 

Why are slash pairings so popular, especially among female fans?

 This time my victim of choice example is Klance (and Allurance and Lotura too).

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In a previous post, I established the premise that shippers focus their efforts and attention on ships between characters who exhibit the most compelling dynamism, the greatest amount of emotional energy–good feelings or bad–that directly relates to one or more of the characters’ growth arcs… or the two characters whose emotional interactions most significantly affect a story’s main plot.

This idea (that shippers are looking for strong, dynamic emotional interactions that are directly tied to plot) feeds directly into my second premise: part of the popularity of slash ships comes from the fact that, very often, the strongest and most plot-relevant emotional events don’t occur between male characters and female characters, but between male protagonists and other male characters–due to a combination of 1) a much smaller number of female characters, 2) a majority of writers for anime/manga and American shows being male; 3) under-developed or poorly written female characters, and 4) the tendency to situate males in the hero, sidekick, and villain positions, increasing the chance that their actions will have greater importance in the story’s main plot.

In short, writers can unintentionally cause fans to prefer non-canon slash ships by writing more dynamic, better developed, and more plot-relevant interactions between their male leads than between the main character and his designated female love interest.  

Now hang on. Before you get all up in arms, yes, I’m perfectly aware there are plenty of other reasons slash ships are popular, including:

  • A huge desire among LGBT+ fans for positive representation
  • The fact that m/m interactions appeal to straight women/others the same way w/w interactions are sexy to straight men/others
  • The tendency of shows, particularly from Japan, to deliberately queer-bait
  • The fact that many women vicariously ship male characters together because it allows them to imagine a relationship of “genuine equals,” particularly in areas where women feel they are still not treated equally to men
  • The tendency for “pair the spares” to result in m/m ships simply due to a lower number of available female characters
  • And so on

This isn’t written to negate any of those reasons or to imply that they aren’t major factors in the popularity of slash ships, not at all, but it has always, always struck me as reductive when I hear things like “Slash ships are only popular because girls think two dudes together is hot” (the fetish argument) or “Girls will ship any two good-looking male characters together regardless of canon. They just hate het ships” (the fetish argument with a side dish of misogyny).

In particular, this last one–an argument I’ve heard from a lot of male fandom members (but of course not all)–has always gotten under my skin, because it implies that girls who ship aren’t capable of critically analyzing the media we consume and identifying characters who have meaningful interactions and interesting potential. That we, unlike those viewers who adhere to the canon (typically heterosexual) relationships, are somehow reading these stories wrong, blind to “real” romance (namely the one between the male hero and his best girl/waifu), and/or misusing male characters with zero regard for their personalities–worse, this argument also implies that female fans deliberately hate or under-appreciate oh-so-perfectly written female characters whose romantic subplots are totally natural and not at all an unfortunate side effect of their position as the token chick on the team…

At its best, the statement: “Girls will ship any two good-looking male characters” is demeaning in its dismissal of a majority of slash shippers and their ability to read characters. At its worse, it’s this exact dismissal that continues to allow so many (primarily male) authors to write under-developed, unimportant, token female love interests: “It’s the girls [or the slash shippers] who are weird; there’s nothing wrong with the way we’re doing things.”

But guess what happens when well-written female characters whose actions are central to a story’s main plot are introduced and highlighted? Guess what happens when the emotional energy between a female lead and her male counterpart is the most compelling and dynamic in the series?

The (often canon) het ship suddenly–somehow–magically becomes well-liked by fans!

Zutara and Kataang vastly out-strip any slash Avatar pairings in popularity. Noragami’s Yatori commands a staggering following in the fandom. Is there anyone in their right mind who thinks Alucard/Integra wasn’t the best pairing to end Hellsing with? No one debates whether or not Ahiru and Fakir from Princess Tutu are true love. In Doctor Who, Rose and the Doctor reign so far supreme in the fandom that none of the other ships even need to exist though I actually prefer River. Terra and Aqua from Kingdom Hearts beat out every other Terra or Aqua ship by a mile (and this is in a series notorious for hating and under-shipping its female characters). Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun has no problem juggling three very well-accepted het ships–even while having a scene in which two male characters sit down and draw a gay manga together. Ain’t nobody suggesting Mr. Bates and Anna from Downton Abbey should be with anyone else, right? And this is just in the handful of shows I personally have time to watch. Anyone who reads or watches a series with well-written female characters can play this exact same game!

The obvious conclusion? Female fans are perfectly willing to ship heterosexual pairings–if they’re well-written.

It’s the same story all over again: when the real emotional energy, the dynamic core, the most plot-relevant interactions occur between a male and female character, they too can become the fan-preferred couple. (Shocking!)

Yes, yes, I hear you saying “B-But wait, sometimes the m/m ship is more popular even though the het love interest is well-written!” or “Sometimes girls ship guy characters who have never even met!” or “So what you’re saying is female fans wouldn’t ship slash if there were better het options available?”

1) Don’t get me wrong–there are certainly always exceptions. I’m pointing out a trend, not a rule. Sometimes a fandom has a separate, specific reason for elevating a non-canon slash ship above a well-written canon het ship. (Someone who is actually in the Fullmetal Alchemist fandom might be able to explain why Ed/Roy is more popular than Roy/Riza, probably?) And in situations where a slash ship and a het ship in a series both have equally strong emotional energy, my bet is that the slash ship will always come out on top because it gets the added benefit of people liking LGBT+ rep and straight girls (and anyone else) who just think m/m is hot.

2) Crack ships definitely do exist. But usually when a crack ship actually manages to become popular, it’s because fans have recognized the potential for a strong emotional energy between two characters. If the two characters could reasonably have strong tension because of similarities, differences, or other elements of their characters, then crack ships are still following the trend of aligning with emotional energy, even if that energy is only anticipated at the moment.

3) Also, I definitely don’t mean to suggest that slash ships are shoddy seconds to fans who would “naturally” prefer het ships if good het ships were available. What I’m suggesting is only that it’s no surprise slash ships are so extremely and consistently popular across so many fandoms, because in terms of plot relevance, depth of writing, and meaningful interactions with each other, male characters so rarely have any real competition. A desire for LGBT+ representation and people living out power or equality fantasies through slash are certainly motivating factors and good and worthy reasons to write slash. But one unfortunate contributor to the popularity of slash ships is that male characters continue to occupy a place of privilege in modern narratives. Our heroes remain overwhelmingly male. Our sidekick/lancer/buddy characters remain overwhelmingly male. Our villain characters remain overwhelmingly male. That is to say: male characters continue to dominate all the most “plot relevant” roles in our narratives, and so long as male leads continue to be placed in roles where their most compelling emotional interactions and greatest sources of character growth are other male characters, slash ships will continue to dominate fandoms’ online presences.

(Hilarious: the dude bros who complain about the number of slash ships in their favorite series are often the very same ones supporting and becoming the writers whose shallow portrayals of female characters further bolster the popularity of said slash ships in the first place…)

Okay, I’ve made you wait long enough.

What does all of this have to do with Voltron?

Well, you’ve probably figured that part out already, actually.

If we consider the “emotional energy” and tension among Voltron’s main characters, there’s absolutely no question who is at the core, where the most plot relevant and meaningful emotional interactions have occurred, where the “heart” of the story is, in essence…

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Hint: It’s Keith.

(Just a heads up: I’m going to use Klance as the example because it’s the most popular Voltron pairing according to the numbers, but any Sheith fan worth their salt could obviously very, very easily apply these ideas one-for-one to that ship, because clearly Shiro’s interactions with Keith are some of the most emotionally tense and compelling in the entire Voltron series–they are a consistent core of feeling energy for the show which naturally leads many people to support this ship, and this theory and post in no way seek to invalidate the Shiro/Keith ship. So please stop sending me waspish messages already, Sheith fans.)

Keith (and his relation with other characters) is the core of Voltron’s main plot, both in that he is positioned as the leader/the hero/the protagonist, and because, obviously, almost all of the series’ emotional high points (with the exception of “Crystal Venom” and Pidge’s search for Matt) somehow feature him. 

Keith isn’t just central in the main plot though; he’s also central in the individual arcs of two other characters: Lance and Shiro. He’s a motivating and driving factor in both of these characters’ stories and change throughout the series, affecting their actions, attitudes, and self-worth, and so it should come as absolutely no surprise that Sheith and Klance are the series’ most popular ships.

But since Klance is the most popular pairing, the person I really want to talk about is Lance.

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You can say a lot of things about Lance and the raging debates that occurred over whether or not Lance is a straight loverboy trope or not, but I don’t think any viewer of Voltron would deny that, if we consider the main cast members (Team Voltron plus Lotor), the core of Lance’s emotional energy and tension is Keith. His interactions with Keith–not even in a romantic sense, simply in a storytelling sense–are more important and dynamic than his on-screen interactions with any other main character.

From his laser focus on Keith at Garrison that caused him to invent a rivalry (this word is basically just a synonym for “emotional energy” at this point):

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To comedic banter:

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To the infamous bonding moment:

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To a fledgling “right hand man” partnership:

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To Lance’s insecurities:

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The story of Voltron itself continuously reiterates that Lance’s interactions with Keith are more dynamic, more intense (even if we’re talking about “Rawr, I hate you, we’re rivals!” emotions instead of lovey-dovey stuff), and more plot relevant than Lance’s interactions with other characters in the series. Lance’s emotional arc is irrevocably centered on Keith until very, very late in the series.

More importantly: Lance’s motivation and personal plot line as a whole are centered on Keith. At it’s most basic, Lance’s character arc seems like it was supposed to center on Lance’s sense of self-worth–despite acting confident, Lance was actually insecure about his ability to help save the universe. Theoretically, his narrative should have focused on him becoming confident about his place on the team and his value as both a friend and fellow paladin to the other main characters. His arc should have been (and I guess theoretically still is? It’s just not… ever given much attention?) about him overcoming his insecurity by learning to recognize his own unique talents and discovering the things that only he can do to help Team Voltron succeed. (Hell, the entire Allurance thing could have been framed as “She’s completely out of my league” —> “Whoa, originally I was putting Allura on a pedestal but actually she’s as much a member of this team as me–we’re in this together, side-by-side.”)

Whether or not the semi-incoherent narrative of Voltron actually delivered on this promise is iffy, but the set up in season 1-3ish is all there and all Keith:

At Garrison, Lance viewed Keith as a road block in his quest to becoming a fighter class student. Keith’s achievements and talent became a measuring stick for Lance’s own capabilities. He imagined a rivalry to make himself feel better/less insecure. His drive not to lose out to Keith is what dragged Hunk and Pidge along to Shiro’s rescue and ultimately led to the discovery of the Blue Lion. Lance comparing himself unfavorably to Keith as a paladin and pilot contributed to (mostly) one-sided animosity throughout the early seasons that gave way to a scene of Lance attempting to step down from the team because he didn’t see himself worthy of the position in comparison to Keith:

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The logical conclusion that I think most fans would draw from these many scenes is that, as part of Lance’s overall character growth across the whole series, he needed to have a moment in which he recognized that he isn’t–and has never been–inferior to Keith.

Ultimately, the first five seasons continually reiterate the idea that, in terms of interactions, energy, and dynamic character growth, the most important main character in Lance’s story (other than Lance) is Keith.

Keith’s interactions with Lance are directly and immediately tied to Lance’s individual character arc/growth, and Keith is definitely the focus of Lance’s most meaningful emotional tension throughout seasons 1-5 at least.

Which means it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Klance is the most popular Lance ship, particularly when you set it side-by-side with the (increasingly canon) Allurance.

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I just want to make this abundantly clear before I begin: I have absolutely nothing against Allurance shippers and, until it was done so poorly in season 5-6 (and potentially 7 and 8--to be honest, I stopped watching after season 6), I actually was okay with the possibility of Allurance being endgame because I thought there was potential for it to be done well. After what we’ve been given, I actually feel the Allurance shippers have been horribly shortchanged by the show’s real writing, and that I can’t personally support the ship the way it’s being written, but that’s not the fault of the characters themselves or anything inherently “wrong” with the ship. So please don’t take the rest of what I say here as ship hate–this is just observations from a literary analysis standpoint.

What has prevented Lance and Allura from gaining significant traction with the fans despite the fact that it’s edging close to canon territory if it isn’t canon already?

Well, one problem might be that Lance’s emotional energy has no bearing on Allura’s individual character development–and Allura’s emotional peaks have no bearing on Lance’s personal arc either (at least as far as it was established in early seasons and then left essentially unresolved).

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Allura’s arc has, throughout the course of the show, centered on her ability to defeat her family’s foes, her grief for her lost people and planet, and her desire to follow in her father’s footsteps as a leader and in the Altean traditions as well. None of this has much of anything to do with Lance. Her growth as a character occurs–with the exception of the single shining scene on Naxela–completely independently of Lance. She lets her father’s memory go on her own in “Crystal Venom.” She faces Zarkon head-to-head by herself after rescuing Shiro. It’s Shiro who stops her from over-working herself to aid the coalition, not Lance. It’s Keith’s whose Galra blood forces her to re-examine and overcome some of her universal hatred for the Galra. It’s Lotor who helps her reach Oriande, and her own ingenuity that allows her to tame the White Lion and learn the secrets of Altean alchemy.

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With the exception of the scene on Naxela where it was specifically Lance’s speech that motivated Allura to save the day, virtually all of her most charged emotions occurred elsewhere and with other characters, and there’s nothing in her personal goals–to be a strong leader, to revive her culture, to save the universe–that is intrinsically tied with Lance. He can encourage and aid her in those pursuits, but so can Shiro, Keith, Pidge, Hunk, and Coran. The role of fellow paladin and supporting ally isn’t unique to Lance. His interactions with her don’t fill a niche that drives her personal plot lines outside of the romance subplot.

And the same thing is true in reverse.

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We get this nice scene of Allura encouraging Lance and helping him work on his insecurity… And then it is promptly never mentioned again. (Where did the sword go, guys? Where???) Lance gives up Blue to Allura and she’s almost immediately gifted at piloting the Blue Lion, while Lance is shown struggling with Red (once more in Keith’s shadow) and still hadn’t, as of the end of season 6, seemed to have mastered it to the same extent as Keith. It’s Keith, Laika (an alien dog–not Allura guys, an alien dog) and the SPACE MICE that Lance expresses his insecurities to, and it’s Coran who is there for Lance’s touching scene expressing his longing to return to Earth. Lance’s personal arc about growing into the paladin role and becoming a selfless person who puts the team before his own desire for glory once again occurs independently of Allura, with little to no interaction, and even fewer emotional high points between them, in the entire first half of the show.

For both of these characters, their “real emotional energy”–their tension both positive and negative–occurs with other characters. The “believability” and energy of this ship is diminished by the fact that it simply isn’t the most well-written of character pairs in the series. The romance subplot isn’t organically tied to either of their personal plot lines, and the depth of their one-on-one interactions pales in comparison to their, particularly Lance’s, interactions with other characters.

But huh… would you look at that… When a potential romantic interest came along whose interactions with Allura were both directly tied to her personal arc, her central character motivations, and her emotional high points…

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Isn’t it amazing how well it was received by the fandom–despite the fact that no one was really sure whether Lotor was evil or not? Now of course, I’m not going to ignore the fact that Lotura was probably helped along by leaving Keith, Lance, and Shiro free to ship elsewhere, but I don’t think the actual chemistry in the series’ writing itself should be ignored.

There was significantly, significantly more tension and nuance to Allura and Lotor’s interactions that any of Allura’s interactions with any of the other main cast, and their interactions operated not just in a romantic capacity, but also as a vehicle for Allura’s personal character growth:

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The push and pull of these two characters and their scenes together sparked change in both of them, which augmented and increased the quality of their romantic arc while also furthering both of their own individual goals as characters.

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The story painted them as equals with mutual interests, a shared interest in Altean culture, both victims (at least initially) of their parents’ war, both distrusting but ultimately lonely people who were longing for connection to, in Allura’s case, what had been lost, and in Lotor’s case, what he theoretically had never been able to have (except the writers did him dirty so jk).

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I just don’t think there are many people who would argue that Allurance–-or Allura’s interactions with any other male character-–have been written with near as much depth, engagement, and integration with her motivations as Lotor and Allura’s were. Their plot literally got more screen time one-on-one in a single seven episode season than Allura and Lance did in the 43+ other episodes…

And for the the short time that it lasted, this pairing was embraced by many fans. I might be biased because I immediately went out and followed every Lotura blog I could find, but to me it seems like it was well-liked and generally well-regarded among shippers until the colony reveal (and by many still after). I was very excited by the writing of this ship and definitely wanted something meaningful to come out of it. Part of the fandom’s immense outrage at Lotor’s reveal was, I think, linked to the fact that this ship had been so convincingly written into the series before it.

This, to me, is a perfect example of a situation in which the emotional exchange between two characters exceeds the strength and depth of their interactions with others, leading to immediate adoption and approval as a ship by the fandom. Where the real energy is, there are the shippers.

 

PHEW! Let me take a deep breath and come up for air. There’s a lot going on here, but boiling it down to the basic point I’m trying to make, and which I’ll address in a lot more depth in the third and final part of this: the way that a story is written profoundly affects what ships will or will not become popular with fans. Shipping isn’t an unpredictable beast that grows completely independently of its source material. The ways writers craft interactions between their characters–and the places where they invest the most and infuse the most life–are powerful tools that impact how fans view and come to love seeing characters both separately and in romantic relationships.

To that end, while there are numerous reasons slash ships are popular and continue to grow in popularity, one reason that should be considered seriously by all creative writers–fanfiction authors or aspiring original novelists–is the notion that shipping often aligns with the core of a story’s or character’s emotional energy, the pairs with the highest tension, the electric pulse of the story’s most meaningful moments. Non-canon ships of any sexuality swell to mega-popularity when fans perceive more depth and significance in the interactions of characters outside the canon pair, when the emotional work of the story is happening somewhere outside the intentional romantic plot line. Sometimes this is fine. But more often, this is a bad sign for creators–a sign that you’ve fumbled in the writing of your main romantic leads.

As writers, questions we rarely ask ourselves but often should are: “Where is the core of the tension in my story? Whose interactions are deepest and most central to the development of my main character?”

In other words: Where is the real emotional energy in my story?

 

I’m going to end this discussion with a case-in-point comparing the mega-popularity of non-canon ships against semi-canon ships, and then discuss what this all means for writers, and how examining the popularity of ships in media can actually improve the way you write romance plot lines in your own works.

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Pictures taken seconds before disaster

Although I’ve been reading My Hero Academia for a while, I haven’t been an active part of the fandom until recently and so there might be meta and other essays surrounding the series' most popular ships that I’m not familiar with. But I want to talk about this series because it’s the absolute perfect model for the points I’ve been making in this whole discussion: shippers target pairs of characters with high emotional energy/tension, and the “canon” ship will always lag behind non-canon ships in popularity when the emotional energy between the romantic leads is not as strong as the tension between the male lead and another character.

My Hero Academia has the somewhat rare situation of having two almost equally popular non-canon ships for its main character: TodoDeku and BakuDeku. Technically, given what I can find using filters on AO3 and Google Trends, TodoDeku is the more popular of the two (at least in the U.S. except in Indiana; I have no idea what’s going on over there, but man they love BakuDeku) by a fair margin…

Which would actually make this a series that disproves the trend–-because you can say what you want about Bakugou and his notorious assholeishness, but at the end of the day, I don’t think there are any readers who would really argue that the pair of students with the strongest emotional energy, the greatest degree of push and pull and the most effort, meaning, and time invested in their interactions-–is Bakugou and Midoriya.

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As I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t matter that much of the emotional energy/tension between these two characters is negative in nature (in fact, for a lot of fans that probably just sweetens the deal because it increases the potential for progress and growth so much)–rather, what matters is the depth and intensity of the emotional interactions between the two characters. There’s certainly no short supply of–at times–almost nonsensically powerful emotions between Bakugou and Midoriya. They’re Extra™ in every meaning of the word, and the manga drums that message in fairly consistently, especially in arcs in which heavily feature the class.

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Get out of my school

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Bakugou’s inferiority-superiority complex is fixated on Midoriya (whom, deep-down, he recognizes as a “better” hero than himself, despite the fact that everyone is constantly praising him and his powerful quirk), which means that even the most inadvertent of Midoriya’s actions triggers a reaction in Bakugou and Bakugou’s character.

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Likewise, many of Midoriya’s significant plots are driven by Bakugou-–sometimes as a motivating factor (Deku is just as concerned about beating Bakugou as Bakugou is about beating him) and sometimes because the plot, rather hilariously, positions Bakugou in the role of Midoriya’s “damsel” in almost equal (actually it may even be more) proportion to the number of times Uraraka plays that role.

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Bakugou and Midoriya’s combined progress is the emotional core of the student/class storyline, and they operate, in some ways, as joint protagonists whose play off each other drives the plot of the early sections of the manga, and whose rivalry fans can readily anticipate continuing to advance the main story in significant and meaningful ways. Bakugou, for example, still has plenty of growth to go through before he can really call himself a hero, and it’s only natural to assume that Midoriya, our premiere hero archetype, is going to be part of that growth–however grudgingly on Bakugou’s part.

Someone who actually ships this pairing (please don’t follow me for BakuDeku content, I got nothing guys!!) could probably go into much more detail on this and find much more support for it as a whole, but I brought it up to demonstrate that, once again, the pattern holds true: the greatest degree of emotional intensity, the core of these characters’ tensions and motivations, is another male character–and, equally on par with the pattern, they become an extremely popular ship.

But if Bakugou and Midoriya are the undisputed kings of emotional interaction energy among the students in My Hero Academia, why is TodoDeku the most popular Midoriya ship?

Well, besides the fact that Bakugou’s a grade-A asshole whose bullying crossed the lines for some fans, you can probably pretty safely blame Kirishima Eijirou.

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My sunshine boy, where are the rest of your eyebrows???

In Kirishima’s emotional arc throughout the story, again, few people would argue that there’s any character more central than Bakugou.

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This creates a viable ship that–importantly–plays well with others. Pairing Bakugou off with Kirishima leaves the series’ main hero free for shipping with anyone else, whether you prefer the semi-canon Deku/Uraraka or Deku/Literally-anyone-else-I’ve-even-seen-people-who-unironically-ship-him-with-Toga. In fact, this might be a little too much speculation on my part, but I almost feel like the degree of deliberate baiting this ship gets from actual staff (namely the anime and movie teams) is not only a ploy to appeal to female fans, but also an intentional way of deflecting some of the over-investment that’s gone into Bakugou and Midoriya’s storyline. Giving Bakugou someone else to focus on adds more variety to his scenes and provides Uraraka (or anyone else) a little more breathing room to interact with Midoriya.

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The official media has to go this hard just so that Uraraka has any reasonable chance with Deku… Also god Bakugou, why are you so ugly in the anime…

Really, what I mean by all this is that part of TodoDeku’s popularity stems from it playing well with KiriBaku. Fans who want Midoriya with Todoroki are happy to ship KiriBaku on the side to get Bakugou out of the way, while even fans who don’t care much about Midoriya or Todoroki are happy to pair them together to free up Bakugou for their preferred Bakugou ship. It’s a symbiotic relationship, so to say, that helps elevate TodoDeku above BakuDeku in terms of popularity, even though without the presence of Kirishima, the stats would probably be skewed the other way.

That’s not to say that TodoDeku isn’t a perfectly valid ship or that it lacks the support or basis that BakuDeku has, because of course it doesn’t. It fits the pattern the same as all the other mega-popular ships do: if I were to ask “Who is the most important fellow student in Todoroki’s story?”, the answer would inevitably be Midoriya.

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Todoroki is an ice prince prior to being beaten with the Friendship stick, and his choice to open up to Midoriya in a way that he hadn’t with any of his other classmates becomes the catalyst that allows him to–quite literally–thaw out and begin to have positive experiences with his fellow students.

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His fight with Midoriya allows him to remember his resolve and his mother’s words that he has the power to be an individual separate from the looming shadow of his abusive father, which becomes a profound turning point in his character. In his clash with Midoriya, he opens up access to his fire side which he had previously repressed, a move which is tantamount to embracing who he is as a person, bolstering his sense of self-worth and autonomy and helping him to begin moving out from under his father’s thumb. His experience with Midoriya is, in short, utterly life-changing, and Todoroki’s character has never been the same since (for the better)–to the point that characters nowadays are teasing Todoroki about how uptight and icy he used to be.

There’s plenty of, to use the phrase again, emotional energy between Midoriya and Todoroki attracting fan attention and serving as the spark for the mega-popularity of the ship.

Bakugou is the most important fellow student in Midoriya’s storyline. Midoriya is the most important fellow student in Todoroki’s storyline. The interactions of these characters, however you choose to ship, is rich, meaningful, full of intense emotions (positive and negative), and–most importantly–strongly relevant to these characters’ individual arcs and even to the main plot overall.

But where does that leave Deku/Uraraka, the story’s semi-canon pairing and the (highly likely) endgame ship? Why is a pairing in which one of the characters has confirmed feelings for the other so far below non-canon ships in popularity?

Well, the premise holds true here-–in reverse.

Say it with me, guys: the “real emotional energy” of Midoriya’s storyline has frustratingly little to do with Uraraka Ochako. She’s just not that important in his story.

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The tension of Midoriya’s plot lines consistently has no personal connection to Uraraka, and all his most intense emotions and emotional scenes occur between him and other male characters. The problem I outlined in part two of this essay is in full effect here: female characters, especially in hero stories, are typically positioned in roles outside those which have major plot relevance. Uraraka might be “a hero,” but she’s not “The Hero.” She’s not the deuteragonist. She’s not the villain. She might qualify as a sidekick, except for the fact that the manga consistently prefers to pair Deku up with other male characters–such as Todoroki and Mirio–in the supporting roles. Uraraka, as a girl, simply wasn’t designed to serve in the same plot-mover-and-shaker capacity as the male characters. It’s the classic failure to write romantic female leads whose actions are central to the story, at it again.

I don’t mean that Uraraka has no impact on the plot–she did great against Kurogiri in the USJ arc, for example–nor to suggest that Uraraka isn’t a strong fighter (although of course, as a girl, she’ll never really measure up to the plot’s central males–sorry, can you feel my eyes rolling yet?). Her martial arts skills, clever use of her quirk, and, far more than that, her acumen for understanding people’s feelings mark her as a character with great potential… that’s just never really allowed to shine as much as it could be.

In her under-utilized position, Uraraka has less power and freedom to effect major changes to the main story compared to characters such as Bakugou. So far in the plot, she simply hasn’t occupied a position of importance or even enough individual screen time to put her personal arc in the spotlight heavily, at least in comparison to other characters like Todoroki, who, between himself and his family, now star in two whole arcs of their own. To quote Uraraka’s own bio, she has no “hidden side” or “ulterior motives”–two terms which might as well be synonymous with “fertile ground for creative fans to play with.” Being a simple and straightforward character is not the stuff of fan writer favorites, unfortunately.

More than that, Uraraka’s primary goal is no different than her classmates’–although she started with a somewhat interesting and unique reason for pursuing heroism (to help her parents financially), throughout the course of the series she evolves more into a character who embraces heroism for heroism’s sake. This is billed as progress, because the series comes down hard on those who seek to become heroes for their own gain. The only problem is… half the class at this point wants to become a hero because they believe in the merit of heroism itself. By growing into someone who wants to become a hero to genuinely help people and make a difference in the world, Uraraka actually becomes less unique and therefore more similar to just about everyone else in the class.

As time wears on, this problem of under-investment in Uraraka’s personal emotional journey becomes even more telling, as numerous battles for Uraraka devolve into little more than moments to reflect on her crush on Deku.

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These are two separate occasions. Like are you kidding me???

If we were to remove Uraraka’s crush on Midoriya, she’d have absolutely zero tension between herself and other major characters. Literally no deeper emotional investment than “supporting friend.” It’s isn’t bad for a background character–but for what should be the main female character and romantic lead, it’s god awful. If we discount her newfound desire to punch herself in the face for jealous thoughts over Deku, Uraraka’s character hasn’t seen a lick of unique emotional growth since the Sports Festival. Worse, with her repeated entanglements with Toga, who also supposedly has a crush on Deku, I feel as if we’re almost inevitably going to get a chick fight scene in which they squabble over him. PLEASE MISS ME WITH THAT NONSENSE.

I like Uraraka. Or rather, I like what I think Uraraka could be. I want to root for her and I want to be impressed by her. But it’s hard when the writing of the story repeatedly tells me that she is less important than the male characters in her class, and that her own personal journey and motivations as a character could be reduced to “admiring the protagonist” and wanting to be like and be with him.

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(“If I push down my feelings instead of accepting them, I can draw out our awkward romantic plotline for at least ten more volumes.”)

Who, at this point, isn’t motivated to greater heights of heroism by Midoriya? Even his role in her life isn’t unique to her… I almost feel bad for Horikoshi, in a way. Using other characters to inform the female lead of her romantic feelings for the hero is a classic trope that indicates a lack of experience writing and developing believable romantic plot lines. I guess when he said he wasn’t good at it, he really wasn’t lying.

The limited popularity of Deku/Uraraka plays word-for-word into the quote that sparked this entire discussion for me:

Many fans, particularly women, are disappointed by the contrived romantic story lines that are appended to ‘buddy’ series and movies in which the real emotional energy is between the heroic male leads (or between hero and villain) (McLelland 2006). [Source]  

This is a classic scenario of a semi-canon het ship that, by virtue of its own under-developed female character, will never achieve the same level of support and interest among fanwork-producing members of the fandom as more emotionally invested and intense relationships such as those between the starring male characters. (Of note here: Kacchako’s number of vocal fans isn’t surprising, given that Bakugou’s refusal to treat Uraraka with kid gloves was the most respect the series itself has ever given her…)

All right, all right, I’ll stop. (By the way, if you’re a Deku/Uraraka shipper, more power to you, my friends. I really feel bad that your ship isn’t getting the meaningful development and depth it deserves. There’s nothing wrong with this ship in theory for me… just in practice. T_T)

 

SO! FINALLY! AT LAST! Speaking of practice!

What’s the lesson? What is the take-away?

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I didn’t write this monster of a rant because I wanted to shit on canon ships, het ships, or (often male) writers failing to write believable women. I didn’t write it to justify my favorite slash ships.

I wrote because as I was mulling over my answers to recent conversations and after I stumbled on the quote I’ve shared repeatedly now, I had a bit of a heart attack.

I’m writer. Many of my friends are writers. I have a Masters degree in creative writing. I took seven years of creative writing in school. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words of both original work and fanfiction.

But never once have I sat down and consciously mapped out the “emotional energy” in my stories. Never once have I spent time actually examining the interactions of pairs of my characters and actively comparing them to really gauge where the core tensions and intensities in my stories really are.

I trusted in the notion that, as the author, I knew my own characters better than anyone else. If I wrote two characters in love, well then, surely it’s because they were meant to be in love.

In today’s discourse, the words “fan entitlement” are increasingly bandied around and often applied when fans get aggressive over their favorite ships not becoming canon. It’s easy to dismiss the frustrations of readers and viewers “as demanding something writers don’t owe them.” But this dismissal hinges on a central notion:

The original writer always knows best.

Whatever story the writers have written–whatever canon romances they have chosen–those are the “right ones,” and fans who piss and moan about that just “aren’t appreciating what they’ve been given.”

This is an easy mindset to understand in the face of fans who take their grievances to the extreme and harass creators. Harassment is obviously never acceptable.

But I don’t feel comfortable with the other side of the spectrum either. Blindly defending canon by completely ignoring cases where the fandom vastly prefers a non-canon ship to any canon alternatives… In the end, isn’t that the same as saying “It’s always the fans who are mistaken, never the authors”? Or, by extension: “As the author of this story, I can do no wrong.”

To me, authors who choose to simply dismiss their fans’ preferences-–especially when the fans reject a canon relationship–-are doing themselves a terrible disservice.

As a writer, I have never had nor wanted to have the thought that I’m perfect at what I’m doing. I am always keenly aware of the fact that my ability to write is limited. There are always things I felt I could have captured better. And more than that, I’m always trying to grow and improve my writing. I don’t want to be right all the time!

So why should I expect that my planned romances are always right?

Fans are not entitled to the ship they prefer. But if the fans prefer a ship you didn’t intend, that’s a good sign that something has gone wrong, and you might want to rethink the way you write romances, character interactions, character motivations, and potentially female characters in your next project.

A non-canon ship reaching mega-popularity in a fandom should provoke thought–not dismissal–from the series’ writers. And I don’t mean the kind of thought like “Would we have made more money if we’d caved to fan demands?” I mean things like “Where did I go wrong in writing my romance that led the fans to prefer something else? How can I fix that in the future?

The take-away isn’t “I should give my fans what they want” but “How can I get my fans to want the same things I do?”

In order to align your fandom’s interest with the canon romance you’re writing, the canon main pair has to have meaningful, intense emotional interactions that are entwined with the central plot line or at least their own personal character development arcs–to greater or at least equal extent with any other potential pairing of characters in the story. Your romantic leads need to have interactions that are as compelling, as personal, as plot relevant as the hero and his (or her!) villain. As the hero and his or her sidekick/best friend/brother-or-sister-in-arms. It’s not enough for your main character’s romance to be “pretty interesting”–it’s got to be as interesting as his or her relationship with every other character in the story.

Now of course there are ways around this. A father-and-son story with a romance on the side doesn’t necessarily need to elevate the romance above the father-and-son dynamic. A hero and villain story where the villain is a complete monster that no one in their right mind would ship is probably safe, etc.  

But I guess the basic baseline is this: If you’re bothering to write in a romance for your main character… don’t you–shouldn’t you–want it to be as compelling, intense, and believable as the relationships you write for any other characters?

If you want fans to love the love you’re written into your stories, you’ve got to give that love the same attention and effort as everything else in your plot.

How do you do this? What actual actions can you take in your writing to apply this idea? I don’t have a definitive answer that will magically make everyone’s romances perfect, and really, none of this is particularly revolutionary, but I think these are all good reminders that even when we’re writing our own original stories, there’s stuff we can do to check if we’re “doing it right”:

  • Make a single chart of all major character interactions in your story, especially those which provoke strong emotional responses in your characters and those which are relevant to the story’s main plot. You can mark positive emotional interactions in one color, negative emotional interactions in another. Do something to indicate the level of intensity for these interactions. Then, step back and look at the big picture. Which characters really have the most interactions? The most intense interactions? The most plot relevant interactions? If the canon romance you’re planning doesn’t have as many, as much intensity, or as much plot relevance as the relationship between your main lead and another character, think about how you can change that.

  • Ask yourself the important questions: Where is the real emotional energy in my story? Which characters have the most tension (positive or negative)? Which characters promote the most growth in each other through their interactions? Which characters are the real “movers and shakers” of the main plots? How do interactions with other characters help to advance Character B’s individual character growth? Spend time consciously thinking about the flow and cores of emotion in your story. Who really makes the biggest difference in your hero’s life?

  • Remove the romance and look at the story again. If romance is not the main point of your story, go back to your character interaction chart and remove all the romance and romantically-led plot points. What does the interaction chart look like now? Do your romantic leads still have compelling interactions even with the romance removed? Do they still motivate and help each other grow as characters even if they’re not romantic partners? Are their remaining actions relevant to the main plot? And, most importantly: with the romance removed, do they still have intensity? Are they still part of the story’s “emotional core”? Is there still as much or more energy between them than between the main character and others? If the answer is no, that’s a good sign that you can probably develop your romantic lead and his/her relationship to the hero more fully–or better integrate it into the main story and their personal stories–in order to improve the depth and quality of their relationship in the eyes of fans.

  • Take another look at your female characters. Even if you’re a female writer yourself, that doesn’t mean you automatically write great women. In fact, we’re often so conditioned to see males as the drivers of narratives that even series by female authors, with female protagonists sometimes fall into the trap of having a male character doing all the real heavy-lifting in the plot. Check your girls again. Do they have as much meaningful influence on the main plot as your male characters? Do they have as much meaningful influence on other characters’ personal arcs? If you remove all the romance, do they still have these influences? Are your female characters allowed to have as much diversity in their emotional interactions with others as your male characters are? Do the intensities of these women’s feelings match the intensities of the men’s feelings, even (especially) when romance is removed from the equation?

And I’m sure there are many more things you can try along the same lines.

Really, the idea I want other writers–-professional, amateur original writers, or even just fan writers-–to take away from this is the notion that we should never rest on our laurels and assume we know what’s what. We should never just expect our fans to agree with us as writers.

And, more than that, when the fans prefer something other than what we intended, we should always, always use that gap as motivation to rethink our writing, to discover where we might have fumbled in our plotting and character creation.

Fans don’t (usually) ship randomly. Most of the time, there’s a logic and pattern to this “madness.” If a non-canon ship becomes mega-popular, it’s usually because the fans saw something the creators missed.

And that is always–always–an opportunity to reflect and grow for future projects.

 

PHEW. I’M DONE! I did it! Man, this was such a labor of love… I hope some people actually read it…