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It's all about character

Irecently finished the third volume of the graphic novel series "Locke & Key," written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez. "Locke & Key" is a fantastic supernatural horror series that would take too much of your time to properly explain, and that's not what I want to talk about. I simply want to say that I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I do want to talk about the introduction page for the volume, written by comic book and television writer Brian K. Vaughan. He says one of the things that makes the series is that the characters aren't merely characters, they are actual people who we actually care about. When bad things happen, we feel fear for them because we have connected with these people.

This got me thinking about fan culture, a huge part of the geek world. Fan culture is simply the culture that surrounds being a fan of something and includes fan-created art or fiction, conventions, discussion forums and just generally being annoying to people who don't share in your enthusiasm for that particular fandom.

If you want a crash-course in fan culture, take a trip to the Southern Oregon University student union or residence halls. You could create a bingo game based around merchandise or references to television shows like "Doctor Who," "Firefly," "Game of Thrones" or more.

So why do these bits of entertainment have such a wide reach? Why do people treat these things as more than entertainment?

It all comes back to what Vaughan said in the introduction to "Locke & Key." We relate to these characters and stories on a much deeper level.

Sure, many shows, movies, books and comics have great stories and relatable characters. Some go deeper, however, digging their grubby little hooks into your soul, daring you to say it's all just imaginary.

When I was a resident assistant at SOU, I put on an annual marathon program of the 2002 FOX science fiction show, "Firefly." I would corral as many residents as I could and we would watch all 14 episodes and the follow-up movie, "Serenity," in one day.

The TV show was short-lived, lasting only one season. I didn't discover this series until 2009, but it dug its hooks in to me. Every time I watch the series, even though I've seen it enough to quote most of it, I get to see my friends go on their adventures. I experience their pain. By the end of "Serenity," I am a sobbing nerd heap on the floor.

(Side note: If you ever want to see a Browncoat — the name for fans of "Firefly" — burst into tears, just say to them "I am a leaf on the wind.")

(Side-side note: That's the other major facet of fan culture, we give ourselves adorable nicknames based off of elements from that fandom. A fan of "Doctor Who" calls themselves a Whovian. Are you a fan of the Carol Danvers' incarnation of the "Captain Marvel" comic book? Congratulations, you are a member of The Carol Corps.)

How do characters become elevated to this level? It's really quite simple. When the writers create these characters, they create small intricacies that many characters don't have. Think about your friends for a moment. What is it that attracts you to them? Is it their sense of justice? Do you really like the mischief they get into? Maybe, but if you really think about it, it's probably because you can sit around the living room with them, drink a beer and gossip or watch TV. The characters that really stick with us do so because you can see yourself doing normal things with them.

Then, take a character like Kevin Bacon's Ryan Hardy on "The Following." Can you see yourself doing normal stuff with him? I can't. He's damaged severely and tracks serial killers regardless of his employment status with the FBI. Frankly, I don't see myself watching a soccer game or playing board games with this guy. He's too dark and damaged; I feel like he would bum me out.

But Wash, played by Alan Tudyk, on "Firefly" is someone that I could see fitting into my own friend group.

There are any number of reasons why a piece of entertainment gets elevated to a higher level. What elevates them for me is the connection I feel with the characters. And since this is my column, isn't that what really matters in the end?

Ian Hand is the assistant editor for Tempo. Reach him at ihand@mailtribune.com or 541-776-4464.