The Vengeful Polyglot

Culture, Location, and Characterization in the High School AU: Or, Why Harry Potter Doesn’t Hang Out in Home Room and Characters Can Still Be Emo in a T-Shirt and Jeans

Posted on: May 15, 2011

I’m here to talk about High School Alternate-Universe (AU) fics, and how to and how to deal with some of the common issues encountered while writing them. The High School AU is a very common AU – possibly even the most common. Most fans I’ve known have written one, and most of those have admitted to writing them really, exceedingly poorly. I’ve written them really, exceedingly poorly, for that matter, though no one alive will get their current location from me. I’m actually one of those fangirls who has the capability to truly enjoy a HS AU, assuming it’s well written.

That’s where we tend to run into problems, though, these fics and I. AUs are notoriously sophisticated and tricksy beasts; not only does the author have to think about all of the normal problems which crop up while writing fanfiction – such a characterization, diction, interpersonal relationships, plot – but they also have to deal with plopping the characters in a new locale, or possibly remaking the whole story in a new world entirely. This is a particularly daunting task.

What I’ve set out to do in this post is to come up with a couple of tips which (hopefully) will be helpful to new and old writers of the High School AU alike, and which can serve as a reference while writing. The three points I’m going to focus on are culture, location, and characterization, though they are quite interrelated so I won’t be segregating them entirely. I will start with what has to be one of the more obvious concerns in any AU, especially ones set in High School: location.

There are mainly two paths to consider when deciding on a location for a High School AU: whether the characters will be attending a school system as it is in the original, canon world (if one is ever described that the characters do not attend, such as Durmstrang in Harry Potter) or a school system somewhere else (I would consider making one up for an otherwise canon world to also fall under this category because of the originality of the school involved). This leads to another distinction, which may be more important to the progress of the story and characterization (which I’ll address later on). Have the characters simply gone abroad in order to get to this new school, or have they lived in the alternate world where the school is located their whole lives? In other words, has anything in the official canon occurred at all?

The most important thing to address, if the answer to the previous question is “yes,” is the reason why they are somewhere else. If “no,” then you have to address why they are characterized the way they are in your fic, given that the life-altering and character-developing events in the original work never occurred. As with all AU stories, you, as the author, have to convince the reader to suspend disbelief – if the character has been living in this new world all their life and is only in this school because, well, they are old enough to attend as of now, yet they still have amazing superpower A/B/C from canon, you have to explain how that happened in this new universe. If they just came over on a whim to go to school, you have to explain why and how they got there. To not address either of these questions can lead your readers to be intensely confused and unwilling to believe what you’re saying.

For instance, writing something like, “Oh yeah, the half-demon Inuyasha takes his sword, Tetsusaiga, with him to English class!” when he’s lived in 21st century all his life at Kagome’s house as an adopted brother is not really okay, at least not without a damn good reason for why A) he has the giant sword in the first place, B) why half-demons exist in this world, and C) why weapons are allowed in his school.

If you’re working from a school system already described, the task may be slightly easier or slightly harder, depending on the location – in Harry Potter, for instance, most of story takes place in school, and the school is well-developed and easy to talk about; we know that Harry Potter doesn’t sit around waiting for roll to be taken in homeroom because, based on canon, it just doesn’t happen. An AU where, perhaps, characters from a different story go to school at Hogwarts would be easier to write because of the wealth of information about the location in the canon books. A fic in which people go to school in Japan, though, will be harder to replicate for someone outside of Japan because the school system is quite different from ones in most other areas of the world.

There’s a relatively easy solution to this conundrum, though. It’s what they’re always telling you to do while you’re in school: research. Regardless of whether you’re switching the location for the AU and/or whether canon events have occurred, you have to do your research. Even if your characters are coming to Local High School A, which is right around the corner (though you’ve never gone there), do your research. It can be as easy as reading the canon book as source material, or the Wikipedia article on the school system. If you don’t do it, though, people who are familiar with the area will notice. It’s an extension of that “rule” that there will always be someone out there doing better than you, and someone doing worse – there is always going to be someone who is an obsessive fan of the place you’re setting your school, if it’s not completely fabricated. In the interest of being as correct as possible, it’s sometimes helpful to try and think, “If that person were to read my story, would they be completely put off?” If so, perhaps it’s time for more research.

Usually, people prefer to read stories which are immersive – to make your stories feel more realistic and vibrant, do research, know the area and the culture. In an AU, the setting itself is essentially a character, and developing its relationship to the characters and the world at large is important. If the setting is out of character, it can subtly bother the reader, perhaps even so much so that they click the “back” button. You don’t need to go overboard, but basic knowledge of the location and local customs can do a world of good for your fic. It’s an interesting and engaging bonus on top of good, in-character writing.

Speaking of local customs, let me bring up an important fact: culture and location go hand-in-hand. All locations have their own culture – even the place where you live (which might not seem to because you’ve been there so long) has a culture. Basically, anywhere people congregate and form groups develops an identity. That’s why research is so important and one of the reasons AUs can be so fun – they’re an opportunity to learn a new culture and show respect for the cultures of others. It would be exciting to get a comment on an AU I had written from someone who lives where I set the characters, saying how good and realistic is was. That can be a great idea to have in your head as a goal (though it does regrettably hold up much less if you’re setting the story in the past or in a fantasy world).

The culture a character is in tends to be developed through interactions with local characters, and how they behave. If they have lived in that area their whole lives in the universe of the fic, they will know and follow cultural norms, most likely (if not, be prepared to explain why!); if they are in unfamiliar territory, the customs will stand out to them as foreign and interesting, and will generally make their way into the story through the characters who have lived in that area their whole lives. Do your research and you will be improving the quality of your story by describing that culture in all of its intricacies. They’re exciting and interesting things, and their well-written inclusion can do wonders for stories, especially AUs.

Dealing with cultural changes is not the only thing to consider in terms of characterization – AUs are particularly and infamously hard to write in character. It is particularly difficult in full AUs, and I think largely a function of writers being nervous about providing too much back-story. However, how the characters got to be who they are in the new universe is exactly what a reader has to know in order to suspend disbelief.

For instance, many AUs choose to have certain relationships between the characters that are exactly like, or similar, to the ones displayed in the canon material (including romantic relationships, familial relationships, and friendships). Most relationships between characters would be very different without defining moments in the original work, and in a full AU you must, must, must explain how the characters came to feel how they feel about each other in this new world. If the characters are suddenly abroad together, why did they come with each other? Interpersonal relationships are defining for characters; you can judge a man by the way he treats others. Interactions between characters helps develop and reveal their individual personalities.

This brings me to another common trend in “characterization” in High School AUs: the incredibly verbose physical character description which often works in place of taking the time to show a character’s personality. Please, don’t spend 5 paragraphs describing the character’s amazing clothing, hair, and ambiance. A short description is fine, and usually necessary and fun, but consider the habits of your main character – in the original work, is it characteristic of them to notice clothing that specifically? Or do they just think, “Some girl walked over to hand me a flyer; she had some sort of colorful picture on her top, but I was too busy boggling over the amount of homework that had just been assigned to pay much attention”?

I know it’s drilled into our heads all during high school how important clothes are as a means of self-expression, but don’t take it too far; as I mentioned in the heading, a character wearing a nondescript hoodie can be just as emo as if he were wearing tight black pants, a gothic top, and eyeliner. The only change is that his actions and thoughts do the talking about his personality in the former, not just his clothing.

This leads to the old adage of writing teachers everywhere: show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me the main character is happy-go-lucky by spending half the fic exploring how she doesn’t care that her clothes don’t match (though she looks cute anyway). Mention it sparsely, and then focus on how she acts to put that across – if she really didn’t care, she wouldn’t be thinking about it anymore, anyway. Your readers are smart cookies, they’ll get it even if you don’t serve it to them on the silver platter. Your High School AU should not just be a chance for you to give your favorite character an “Insert Location Here”-style makeover; this is one situation where the clothes certainly do not make the man.

One of the hardest parts of writing an AU is making sure your character isn’t out of character in the new environment. It’s hard to do, but do try to keep them in character. Something which can really help to achieve this is making sure they are consistent in the way they think and talk – characters should talk more or less in the way they normally do, though some allowances should be made for cultural differences in speaking. If you stick a character in Japan, they’re going to have to deal with honorifics, but they can do so in a realistic, in-character manner. Rude characters, perhaps, might misuse them on purpose, defending their actions with their unfamiliarity with the culture, while other characters might just plain make mistakes.

Remember to use the canon to look for clues as to how the characters would act within a new culture – it sounds like a no-brainer, but truthfully it can make a lot of difference. Speech and thought patterns are one thing that set characters apart: the way they speak to people and think about them is something that shows us who they are as characters. Don’t let that fade away when you do a High School AU, otherwise you’ll be charged with being out of character. Minor characters, too, should be speaking correctly and consistently based on their characterization and background, even OCs, so don’t forget the little guys when following this principle!

The only other tip I have to offer is this, though I wish it didn’t need to be said: if you do wind up putting the characters into your local high school, please, resist the temptation to make the characters into representations of you and your friends. If the characters are you, then they can’t be themselves; be careful not to over-associate yourself with the main character in your fic. Otherwise, readers might cry, “Mary Sue!” and possibly rightfully so. Part of what makes a good character is their personality flaws, which are often unique to that character. “Mary Sue” is a term for a character who seems to lack any such flaws – or, if they have flaws, those flaws are minor or easily surpassed – and who often are given powers beyond the scope of the canon. Unfortunately, in many cases, when an author identifies strongly with one of their characters, they describe an idealized version of themselves, leading to a somewhat unrealistic character and possibly approaching the level of “Mary Sue.”

Self-insertion is one thing, which can have a time and place, but straining the characterization of an existing character to match your personality is crossing the line from making a yourself into a character and making a character into you – at the point where you’re doing the latter, you would probably be better off simply writing original fiction without the pretense of that character being consistent with canon. The reason why people write about characters is usually because they are attached to them in some manner; so show off that character in all of the greatness that is their own personality, the personality that drew you to them in the first place!

Good luck, and happy writing!


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Blog by a programmer cum linguist cum writer cum total geek. One who pretentiously uses "cum" in place of any other logical connectives. Direct questions to the Ask Lauren page!

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