On fan-facilitating modularity

by look i have opinions

“While Homestuck is not ‘formulaic’ in the sense that we use the term (predictable and dull because it follows a familiar story formula), there is an element of ‘formula’ in its structure, a sort of algorithm that governs things, that I think encourages readers with certain obsessive tendencies.

“This is what I mean. There are four kids who each have a musical talent, a strange guardian, a screenname, a weapon specialty, and unique hobbies. There are twelve trolls who each have Zodiac signs as well as the other traits. There are four ‘agents’ with their own specific traits that recur, and then you have the Felt, who each have a power and a color and … everything is regimented, compartmentalized. Characters are unique, but you can array them on a spreadsheet. The act of ‘prototyping,’ a plot-important action in the story, has its own specific rules that can be codified and numbered. There are processes. On a structural level, there’s a certain fascinating mathematic to it. And to a certain kind of fan, that is appealing on a level that is independent of the comic’s quality.

“Of course, the thing about having these divisions is that you can A) draw divisions (Favorites, and also separately ones you can identify with) and B) cycle through an infinite number of possible romantic permutations … if you’re into that sort of thing, which some fans certainly are.

“Manga and anime might not be like Homestuck in its method of storytelling, but they frequently utilize this sort of calculation. This is why Fruits Basket had its array of calendar animals, and why Death Note had its specific list of rules that drove the machinations of its dual (and dueling) protagonists. Tetsuya Nomura reached the exact same audiences with ‘Organization XIII’ in the Kingdom Hearts series.”

—an essay titled “Homestuck for Dummies” (Wayback page), by Michael Peterson, quoted via this

Another selling point for this type of modularity is that it invites the audience to come up with their own variants. Fans even have names for formula-made self-insertion characters: trollsonas, ponysonas, gemsonas. And even as the formula becomes familiar and ordinary, it still somehow emphasizes the uniqueness and specialness of each individual. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic invites its audience to have their own special-sounding names and colors and symbols. Steven Universe invites its audience to have their own gem names and colors and body types and weapons.

Notably, both those shows focus on female characters. There’s a longstanding tendency in our culture to treat girls’ and women’s fantasies as sillier and less interesting than those of boys and men—self-insert fantasies especially. And it seems like female fantasies tend to revolve more around personal identity and beauty than around actions (whether this tendency is innate or cultural, I will refrain from speculating). So fan-facilitating character modularity is especially welcoming to the female part of the audience. (It’s worth noting that while Homestuck is far from true gender parity, it makes a point of having a 1:1 male:female ratio in most character groups, in keeping with the formula.)