Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about moe, the Japanese word for the feeling of excitement, love or fannishness that you get towards a certain character or trope. There isn’t really an English word for it, though in the fanfiction community I’ve heard the similar-but-different “id-tastic” or “that’s iddy to me”, the idea being that your id resonates with certain universal archetypes, which you will always find appealing when they appear in subtly different forms across books, films, comics, games and television.
In the last couple of years, at least on the internet, there’s also been the slang term “the feels”, and the character or trope that “gives you the feels,” which means a wave of emotion that cannot be adequately explained, that you feel towards the story, with fannishness (frequently) implied as a component.
Because we don’t have a word for moe, it’s an underexplored narrative idea. Western creative writing discourse spends a lot of time talking about character, theme and structure, but there isn’t a lot of time devoted to moe, to how to make your characters or tropes sparkly in the way that inspires fannish devotion. In Japan, by contrast, commentators like Brad Rice note that “moe has literally become an economic force” saying that more products use some element of moe in order to sell better.
I can’t approach moe that coldly, partly because I have to feel the moe myself in order to write it, with the strange outcome in which my using moe cannot be cynical: I am “in” the feelings of moe too, therefore they can only be genuine. But I am interested in the power of moe, and how it can be generated in a story.
Although different people find different things “iddy” or get “the feels” from different tropes or characters, these moe characters have elements of universality–if one person finds them iddy, a subset of people will find them iddy, and they will recur throughout media, and particularly in fandom. In fanfiction, characters with moe elements are taken up, then subtly evolved until they become the most universal version of themselves, a process with simultaneously de-individuates them, as it transforms them into high id archetypes. Thus, characters in fandom exist alongside their “fanon” versions–Draco and fanon!Draco–and the same series of fanon archetypes reappear, the asshole with the heart of gold, the super-competent overachiever, the broken hurt character who needs care.
In my own writing, I want to harness the power of id archetypes, and I start by asking myself what do I find sparkly? What am I drawn to, over and over again? I’ve found that once I enter this space and get a first idea, it’s also necessary to take some imaginative time to ask–what is the best version of this idea? And by best I mean, how do I make this idea both the iddiest, and the most true version of itself?
One of my friends Vanessa has a writing technique that we both use during brainstorming sessions and while writing scenes, which is to pause and ask, “What is the hottest version of this?” In this case, hottest doesn’t always mean sexiest–what it means is the sparkliest, most id-tastic, the version with the most moe, that is electric to the writer and to the reader.
C.S. Pacat is the author of the best-selling Captive Prince trilogy. Born in Australia and educated at the University of Melbourne, she has since lived in a number of cities, including Tokyo and Perugia. She currently resides and writes in Melbourne.
Her first series began its life as an original-fiction web serial, which attracted viral attention before being acquired by Penguin USA. The Captive Prince trilogy went on to become a USA Today bestseller after being published to commercial success and critical acclaim.