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Merlin AUs (and why I don't like them)

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Sep. 3rd, 2010 | 12:05 am
posted by: jane_elliot in epic_rants

Since the latest Merlin Big Bang is coming to a conclusion (with no central website, which means more than half of the stories are only being posted on LJ in a bazillion parts) the Merlin fandom has been on my mind a lot lately.  Especially its utter fascination with AUs.  Which, I have to admit, I find baffling as I have not found a single Merlin AU that I found even remotely interesting (and this includes all of those AU classics that everyone keeps recommending).  As it's clear that I'm in the very, very, very tiny minority with this opinion, I've been trying to pinpoint exactly why I don't like Merlin AUs.

First, and most important, are the characters.  Merlin and Arthur are interesting characters, at least to me, because of the contradiction within their situations and personalities.  Merlin is submissive (almost painfully so) and a servant, but he's also the most powerful character on the show by a mile.  Arthur is an entitled bully and a prince, but at the same time he's honorable and, well, also submissive (think about it -- the only person who hasn't successfully told Arthur what to do is Merlin) and he's continually put down by his father.  Watching Merlin and Arthur navigate their own internal conflicts is utterly fascinating for me to watch. 

Unfortunately, those internal conflicts almost never carry through into AUs.  Often Merlin doesn't have any magic at all in AUs (or, if he does, the magic is essentially meaningless to the plot) and thus he's nothing more than a submissive guy who gets pushed around a lot.  Arthur is even more boring, since most authors aren't willing to make him an actual bully and thus he's nothing more than a supposedly good guy who occasionally treats his eventual boyfriend like shit for no good reason and who complains.  Endlessly.  And boringly.

(I should note that Gwen and Morgana usually come out far better, probably because their characters are simpler in canon -- women who kick ass -- and thus are much easier to write.)

Then you have the relationships between the characters.  The master/servant relationship between two submissives is actually quite interesting to watch (except in those first few episodes of each season when the show creators try to make Arthur dominant and end up with epic fail instead) -- and while there are times when I want to hit Arthur (a lot), the entitled bully bits mostly serve to emphasize his affection for Merlin.  Relationships with Uther and Morgana (and to a lesser extent, Gwen -- sorry, but she hasn't been written consistently and as a result her relationships are inconsistent from week to week) are also fascinating -- Uther is evil and yet he honestly loves his son; Morgana is a million years ahead of her time and is the alpha person in her kingdom and yet has no official power because she is a woman.  All of this is absolutely fascinating stuff, even if the show doesn't take full advantage of what it has.

In AUs, however, there's no reason for Morgana not to take over the world, and Uther simply can't be very evil when the worst thing he ever does is berate Arthur for not being good enough.  Instead of being a legitimate, layered villain, Uther becomes nothing more than a heavy-handed stereotype who rarely makes much of an appearance because, let's face it, it's not even an interesting stereotype.  Morgana, in turn, usually plays the decision maker and planner and while the role suits her, it's not nearly as interesting as being a powerful woman who knows she can do better than the men around her and is nearly self-combusting with her impotence.  Meanwhile, Merlin and Arthur are essentially equals in AUs, with any difference in their social status de-emphasized, which makes Arthur's shitty behavior eight hundred times less acceptable and Merlin's acceptance of same eight hundred times more unforgivably spineless.

Finally, you have the universes themselves.  Merlin's world, while only addressed on the candy colored surface in canon, has great wells of potential.  Genocide.  Power struggles.  The question of equality.  The meaning of honor.  The dangers of a bad king.  A prince trying to create himself.  Impending, inevitable warfare.  A surprisingly effective comparison to life in England during the time of Henry the VIII and his daughters, when official religions changed at a ruler's whim and refusing to change with him or her meant potential death.  All of these are deep, fascinating subjects that are rarely available to fanfic authors and thus have enormous potential for unique, fascinating stories.

Most of the AUs I've read, however, have had utterly banal worlds: movie rip-offs, university rom-coms, fusions (usually with popular shows that have huge fandoms and thus more than enough stories in those worlds).  Nothing that hasn't been seen a million times before and nothing that can show off the characters and their relationships to any interesting advantage.  Frankly, these AUs seem to be designed to bury all of the interesting parts of Merlin canon under the weight of mundane plots that have been reused so many times that even putting a new twist on them (a rarely used sport!  a not-often mentioned corporate entity!) just emphasizes how utterly done the storyline actually is.

All of this is not to say that it's impossible for there to be an interesting Merlin AU.  If authors are willing to really get into the meat of the characters and their relationships and to make an effort to carry that level of detail into a (hopefully interesting and original) alternate universe, there could be a lot of potential for exploration.  Unfortunately, however, that doesn't seem to be the choice that most Merlin AU authors are making. *sigh*

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Comments {44}

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Andy

(no subject)

from: calliglad
date: Sep. 3rd, 2010 12:36 pm (UTC)
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*holds up hand*

I, as a writer of a poor AU that I try to ignore as often as I can, second this with fervour.

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jane_elliot

(no subject)

from: jane_elliot
date: Sep. 4th, 2010 02:17 am (UTC)
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Speaking from experience, AUs are *hard* when done right (and, I'll be honest, I don't think I've managed a good one yet).

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Atalanta

(no subject)

from: lothy
date: Sep. 3rd, 2010 03:53 pm (UTC)
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This has reminded me that Merlin's back on TV soon. YAY.

I agree with you though, the "Modern AUs" have no appeal to me and I don't really understand the point of them. More minor AUs that are at least partially based in the canon world are far more interesting but I haven't seen them very often. That said, I've yet to actually find any Merlin fanfiction that I've liked enough to bother bookmarking. Then again, I haven't really looked into the fandom, only read a few that were linked on my f-list or similar.

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jane_elliot

(no subject)

from: jane_elliot
date: Sep. 4th, 2010 02:18 am (UTC)
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I have yet to find a single Merlin fic for my reread folder -- I think the overwhelming percentage of total AUs in the fandom are the reason why. *sigh*

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Amalthia

(no subject)

from: amothea
date: Sep. 4th, 2010 03:41 am (UTC)
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I really wish this Merlin Big Bang had a website like last year's BB it made it so much easier to find the fic and download it. Some people are posting their stories to the A03 archive and there is a challenge tag for them which was really neat. I also find it confusing to have the art and fic posts separately posted.

I rarely like Modern AUs myself of Merlin but I can think of two that did a rather good job at it. :)

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jane_elliot

(no subject)

from: jane_elliot
date: Sep. 4th, 2010 02:33 pm (UTC)
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Fortunately I'm not big on the art, because I can barely keep track of the stories that are inexplicably being posted over a ten day period. *sigh*

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Pren.

(no subject)

from: slyprentice
date: Sep. 4th, 2010 08:02 am (UTC)
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I generally think of any movie rip-offs as the candy floss of any fandom -- they're sweet, you enjoy them while you have them, and you're completely done with them once you've finished.

Getting more on topic, however, the problem as I see it isn't so much that the writers aren't willing to go into the untapped potential, it's that they don't know how without completely re-writing the characters -- can you really see canon!Arthur and canon!Merlin tackling the issues that you mentioned? I can't, not really. Not without something major shaking them to their very foundations and causing them to grow as characters and individuals (which I don't see happening because the head writers can't write character growth without making me think the character has turned into a pod person).

Now, if an author were to write that story and then start a sequel that explored those issues? I'd be sold. I'd also congratulate them for taking on such an epic task because epic it would have to be -- power struggles, equality, and genocide? That'll take more than three pages and a 'Arthur and Merlin are BFFs' moment for sure.

Also? Series 2 Gwen made me want to weep. They ruined her for me. :(

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jane_elliot

(no subject)

from: jane_elliot
date: Sep. 4th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC)
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For me, fanfiction is a chance to explore those things that the show creators can't or won't explore (hence, slash:) Thus it kills me to see so many fics that are even *more* shallow than canon.

There are a lot of fandoms I read where authors have produced fics that are so much better than the canon could ever hope to be. Which just makes it so much worse that in a fandom with so much potential the vast majority of the fics (even the well-written ones) have even less character growth, relationship development, or depth of plot than the show itself.

That said, authors don't have to delve deeply into any or all of those potential issues to make me happy (though, man would it make me happy:) My biggest kink in his fandom is "Arthur finds out", because the idea of Arthur -- with his thin veneer of self-confidence -- finding out that the one person who consistently followed his orders and still liked him is, in reality, so much more powerful than Arthur could ever hope to be... well, that's addictive to me, even when it's done poorly. And when it's done *well*, it's brilliant.

(I totally agree with you re: Gwen, BTW -- I think the show writers would have been better off if they just decided that all of the Arthur/Gwen/Lancelot stuff would happen post-series.)

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Ender

Nothing that hasn't been seen a million times before

from: enderwiggin24
date: Sep. 4th, 2010 07:05 pm (UTC)
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I am not going into all your other points you mentioned, because well, every person has differents reasons and motivations or preferences what they want from fics.
each to their own :)

but the above statement , I had to smile a bit, when reading that, because my overall impression of merlin fandom was, it attracted a HUGE fellowship of fans, for whom Merlin was the first fandom. ergo, that chunk of readers probably had not seen in a "million times before", whatever cliches you were counting.
thus, for them, its all shiny and new XD

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jane_elliot

Re: Nothing that hasn&#39;t been seen a million times before

from: jane_elliot
date: Sep. 4th, 2010 07:22 pm (UTC)
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That would explain a lot:)

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Rat Creature

(no subject)

from: ratcreature
date: Sep. 8th, 2010 09:54 pm (UTC)
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I like Merlin AUs, but not the Modern AU type that transfer them elsewhere, but only the "branching" type of AU.

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jane_elliot

(no subject)

from: jane_elliot
date: Sep. 8th, 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
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I like anything in the canon era (to be honest, as long as it's set somewhat in that time frame, I don't really consider stories to be AUs, even if everything else in the story is different from canon -- probably because I know so little about Arthurian legend that if it doesn't sound like Merlin canon, I just assume that it's canon somewhere in the mythology), but even AUs set in non-modern but not-canon time don't appeal to me. There's just so few ways to replicate the relationships from the show and those relationships are what make the show (and characters) work for me.

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feikoi

(no subject)

from: feikoi
date: Sep. 11th, 2010 06:10 am (UTC)
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It's funny that you bring this up -- in Merlin fandom, I actively search out modern!AUs over period pieces if I have to go looking for fic myself (as opposed to reading recs lists). Granted, many of them are candyfloss/crack, with fratboy!Arthur or figureskater!Merlin, but there have been a few that I really enjoyed outside of that niche. (Drastically Redefining Protocol comes to mind.) But I've never really watched the series, so canon and characterization issues likely fly right over my head.

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jane_elliot

(no subject)

from: jane_elliot
date: Sep. 11th, 2010 09:42 pm (UTC)
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Trust me, you are not alone -- sometimes I feel like the number of folks who actually like canon!Merlin fic can be counted on one hand:)

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if it is too good to be true, it is

(no subject)

from: solookup
date: Sep. 23rd, 2010 08:20 am (UTC)
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It's funny because I disagree with your opinion of AU!Merlin fic. Maybe I don't read a lot of AU in different fandoms, but it seems like these characters have more opportunities to be put into different situation (AU, Modern!AU, etc) than other fandoms I've encountered. Plus, I just look for AUs because they do end up being like rom-coms. (Though I think it might be because of the characters' age that permits that.)

I guess canon-wise, there are only so many plots you can use before you get sick of 'wow Arthur finds out about Merlin's magic' again and again.

And one of the few fandoms where you can have reincarnation!fics for real! And prince/royalty set in current time!

(Either way, I've been on a huge Merlin fic kick for the past week or two. /random side-note)

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kawasakininja

(no subject)

from: kawasakininja
date: Sep. 23rd, 2010 12:19 pm (UTC)
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And one of the few fandoms where you can have reincarnation!fics for real! And prince/royalty set in current time!

This is one of my favorite things about Merlin fandom too :D

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kawasakininja

(no subject)

from: kawasakininja
date: Sep. 23rd, 2010 12:17 pm (UTC)
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This is a very interesting subject for me because Merlin AUs are the things I read the most since I started exploring this fandom. I'm a total newbie, I haven't watched first two seasons, just jumped onto the bandwagon with the beginning of the third and tried to read as much fics as I could in my free time. I'm saying this as a sort of disclaimer just in case I make a huge blunder because I am far from being familiar with all the canon facts.

Personally, the reason why I read Merlin AUs is because they are free from the implications of the Arthurian legend. I'm a slash fangirl with a really weak spot for the happiness of my favorite characters. In AUs I don't have to dread Gwen getting married to Arthur in the end, Morgana isn't evil and hellbent on destroying the people who she cared about at some point in her life, Uther can be cold and distant and flawed and still have redeeming qualities in the end. I guess, the main point here would be that I'm a huge sap and I want everybody happy in the end. And AUs give me exactly that.

When I read modern AUs I don't expect to see the exact same dynamics that are present in the show, Merlin isn't Arthur's servant in the AU, but from the fics I've read the authors usually try to put them in somewhat similar positions so the dynamics is not that far off from the show for me. The magic, sometimes it is present and sometimes it is even made an issue but it hardly can present the exact issue like it does in canon where everyone who has magic abilities is prosecuted and in AU where Merlin is just a quirk of nature so to speak (and I don't mean this in any kind of degrading or offensive way, just have trouble finding better words to express what I want to say).

Another thing that makes me very partial to Merlin AUs is the fact that in my main fandom everything is full of bad fics lately and 90% of them are AUs, high school AUs (no other ideas seriously), where characters are so OOC that it hurts. (And nobody even labels them as AUs and I don't even expect it not to be an AU anymore). So coming from that into Merlin where there is this world of AUs (Circus!AU, Prince of Wales!AU, superheroes!AU, stripper!AU and yeah emo kids and frat boys AUs) I feel like a kid in a candy store and everything is so wonderful and new and exciting. I don't find them repetitive because even if there are a couple of Prince of Wales AUs I am mind blown by the idea itself and I can't get enough of that world and see for myself which way the authors will find the tackle the whole issue of having a gay royalty in this day and age. It makes me fantasize that some day things like these will happen in real life too. Not that I want any particular member of royalty to be gay, but just the possibility of people being able to be themselves no matter who they are or what their sexual orientation might be and for other people to be able to except it as a perfectly normal thing.

That said I do realize that not everybody is looking for the same things in fanfiction, I like AUs and clean slates and never was a particular history enthusiast, while other people want the historical context and all the conflicts that the show canon and the legend raises explored in more depth.

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jane_elliot

(no subject)

from: jane_elliot
date: Nov. 7th, 2010 11:20 pm (UTC)
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Never fear, the Merlin fandom is with you in this regard:) And I have enjoyed AUs in the past (I liked them in the SGA fandom until the characters started getting so OOC that the stories were more original fiction than fanfiction). In the Merlin fandom, however, I just don't get any emotional resonance at all out of AUs. Much of this probably has to do with the characterization of Merlin (nearly always completely OOC -- in the show Merlin kills people on a regular basis and is almost completely fearless (due to the fact that he's the most powerful person in his world) and none of this ever makes its way into an AU) and Arthur (sanitized out of being a bully and thus out of being interesting). Then again, I suspect most people aren't reading AUs for the characterizations, but for the alternate universes themselves; unfortunately I'm very much a character reader.

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Holly

(no subject)

from: hollyxu
date: Sep. 23rd, 2010 02:56 pm (UTC)
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It's almost the opposite for me, in that I prefer AUs to in-universe fic (though not always!) For me, the frustrations of having to deal with canon material that alternate between 'YAY OMG' to 'this sucks' (Gwen and her continuity problems, Morgana - well, just Morgana's whole characterization in S2, all those reset button moments, etc) overrule my enjoyment of in-universe fic - it's hard to find something that addresses and truly fixes all these problems. Often Morgana is shunted off to the side for a sickeningly sweet romance with Gwen and all the crap from canon is handwaved away.

And a whole ton of otherwise excellent fic have Arthur and Merlin go through these issues and solve them, get together, and then Merlin somehow forgets to tell Arthur, 'Oh, by the way, I have magic'. It seems like setting myself up, really. D:

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jane_elliot

(no subject)

from: jane_elliot
date: Nov. 7th, 2010 11:25 pm (UTC)
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I have to admit, I'm a sucker for crappy canon, because I think it gives authors more opportunity to go their own way with an in-universe story and make it work (hence the reason why I used to write X-Files fic:) Of course, that presupposes an author being interested in doing so, which few Merlin authors seem to be. It's a pity, though, because I do think the Merlin universe has a lot of potential that the show is squandering.

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(Deleted comment)

jane_elliot

Re: Here via Metafandom

from: jane_elliot
date: Nov. 7th, 2010 11:33 pm (UTC)
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Exactly. Which, unfortunately, is why I rarely read Merlin fic these days (usually only if it's been recced and is set in canon-times, even if not necessary in canon-universe).

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The Glitter Kitten

Also here via Metafandom

from: aeslis
date: Sep. 24th, 2010 01:41 pm (UTC)
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This is a subject that resonates with me, and something I've thought on a lot, and yet I'm not in Merlin fandom and know honestly nothing about it. Yet many of the reasons that you don't like Merlin AU are exactly the same as why I don't like AUs in most fandoms.

Usually, when I really fall for a source material, it's not only the characters I fall in love with, but the world they're in. After all, the world usually shapes the characters, doesn't it? I don't know if you've ever read Rurouni Kenshin. It's a Japanese comic about a perfect assassin during the Bakumatsu who suffers because of all the lives he takes, and vows never to kill again. Yet people continue to come after him for revenge, and he must defeat them all without killing them. The world, time period, and culture that surround him are essential, because without them, how could he have come to be who he is? And I'm not saying that being an assassin is all there is to his character, but it leaves such a mark on his psyche that if you take it away from him he'll be... not him.

And yet when I go looking for fic, I find so much modern AU that I'm positively baffled. None of the characters I read about sound even remotely like him.

So I thought about it some more, and I realized that when the source material is already an alternate world from our own, I really don't like the setting to be changed. It just takes away too much.

Conversely, I'm also in a fandom for a Japanese boyband, and I LOVE AU fic for them. It's entirely different. They're not dependent upon their setting. Writing 'canon' fic is actually very limited, and what's appealing about them isn't necessarily the fact that they're a boyband, so taking them out of that frame of reference and testing their personalities and bond with each other in new, alternate situations is fascinating.

tl;dr: Don't like AUs for most fictional settings, love AU for RPS.

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jane_elliot

Re: Also here via Metafandom

from: jane_elliot
date: Nov. 7th, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC)
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Oh, man, I do so dislike Kenshin AUs. Which is a pity, because I really, really liked the manga and the anime and would like to read fic in the universe. Unfortunately, there's almost nothing there but modern AUs and those nearly always feature a) a woobie Kaoru and/or b) are shallow as a puddle. *sigh*

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Cooper

(no subject)

from: proba_cooper
date: Sep. 26th, 2010 05:47 am (UTC)
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Considering SGA fandom is practically thriving on AUs that have nothing to do with actual characters and their canon characterizations, I understand where you're coming from. 85% of time it's not McKay/Sheppard pairing but awesome Gary Stu and very angsty John/author's self-insert veiled as Rodney storyline that pisses me off.

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jane_elliot

(no subject)

from: jane_elliot
date: Nov. 7th, 2010 11:26 pm (UTC)
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Heh. I used to write SGA AUs. That said, I rarely read them anymore, since the fandom as a whole has taken the characters in a direction that I just am not interested in.

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freed_wings

(no subject)

from: freed_wings
date: Oct. 24th, 2010 05:30 pm (UTC)
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For me, it's a matter of the actual cannon being uninteresting. The simplest form of the premise is, I think, what interests most watchers, writers, and readers: prickish prince with a good heart (very deep down) and bumbling, super powerful sorcerer all undercover and bad ass. The characters are archetypes. They exist all over the place. We are familiar with them before the show even starts. But to be honest, the writing for the show is disappointing. There isn’t a whole lot of interesting stuff going on. The characters are pretty shallow, and therefore the actions they take are one dimensional. Transporting them to a different time and place, then, is both easy, and can get rid of some of the unpleasant stuff that might dampen the happy bantering, and isn’t really important or interesting enough for people to want to deal with (like Morgana going evil). It allows the story to just focus on what people want to see: Authur and Merlin. Or Gwen. Or Morgana. In other words, it's not an issue of not carrying meat, it's an issue of there not being any meat to begin with. ...Although I've only watched season 1 and a bit of 2, so that could have changed by now.

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jane_elliot

(no subject)

from: jane_elliot
date: Nov. 7th, 2010 11:28 pm (UTC)
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See, to me, uninteresting canon is the best fodder for fanfic. If the canon rocks (like, say, Jane Austen) then I don't see a need for fanfic, because it'll always be worse than canon. If the canon sucks, however, then there's a huge opportunity to take the potential of the show, cast off everything that doesn't work, and make something amazing. Which, theoretically, can be done in AUs, but I've never encountered a single Merlin AU where the characters were remotely as interesting as they were in the show. As someone who ranks characterization as the most important part of a given story, that's unfortunate.

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Sarah

(no subject)

from: ologist
date: Oct. 31st, 2010 10:23 am (UTC)
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This is exactly how I feel - I honestly don't understand why some of these modern AUs aren't just published as original fiction, since none of the conflicts and motivations of the original characters seem to be present. It especially frustrates me when Merlin has no magic. This is just about the most important thing about his character: he has magic, and it's illegal, but he needs to use it, but it's just overlooked and forgotten.

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jane_elliot

(no subject)

from: jane_elliot
date: Nov. 7th, 2010 11:29 pm (UTC)
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Amen! Seriously, so many of the stories read like original fiction (with original characters!) that the author just slapped familiar names on. Which doesn't interest me at all -- if I'm going to read original fiction, I'm going to turn to the library, not to fandom.

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