As you know from my March reviews, I read virtually no fanfic last month but that didn’t stop me from thinking about it, and about my own tendency to write both fanfic and original work.
Over the last twelve months I’ve published two novels, a couple of short stories and three fanfics. (For details, see previous posts.) The fanfics were longer than the original short stories, and took more research. It occurred to me you might like to know some of the differences between original and fanfic writing from the point of view of the author.
First of all, when writing fanfic, it’s important to know the ‘canon’ or original book, show or film. There’s no need to stick to it. As soon as my story starts, I’m veering away from the original, whether my tale takes place during the canon, before or after, or in an alternate universe. However, it’s important to know what the characters were originally up to. If, for example, one of them died in canon but I want them alive in my story (my The Paths of the Living which is LotR fanfic)has Boromir survive the attack of the orcs) I have to explain, credibly, why my version differs. Other fans are unlikely to read or enjoy something that ignores canon and drives a coach and horses through it. My novel SGX has original characters set against the concept of the Stargate – it has failed to attract any attention from SG fans and cannot, of course, be published as anything other than fanfiction. I’m still quite proud of it but I can understand that fans of SG1 want ‘their’ heroes. In a completely alternate universe (The Morning Gift has Bodie and Doyle of The Professionals in eleventh century Oxfordshire) the core character traits need to be maintained or there is no point using the character or trying to appeal to other fans.
Obviously when writing original fiction there’s a need to know the ‘backstory’ of each character but at least I’m responsible for that backstory and readers can’t contradict me. I do, however, have to be careful not to contradict myself!
Most of us don’t recall every detail of the shows we have seen. Books are easy, because it’s always possible to re-read. Happily, TV shows are easy, too, because the episode scripts are online and can be read and referred to. In this way, if I missed an episode I can still get its full impact provided I know the context, and if I can’t remember e.g. a minor character’s name, well, there it is on iMDB. There are also trailers and so on (on YouTube) to help the writer become reacquainted with movements, voices, etc. Sometimes, as with two of the auction fics I wrote, there’s a need to binge watch a new show. For The ballad of o guerreiro I had to watch Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard and for The fault…is not in our stars I had to finish watching the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. The watching is not pure pleasure; it’s important to concentrate and notice details that can be incorporated into a story. Having said that there has to be some pleasure involved or the stories won’t arrive in the author’s brain.
When writing original fiction, once I have created the characters I feel as though I know them in much the same way as I ‘know’ characters in books or on screen.
Most fans talk about needing to get the voices right. It’s essential to listen carefully to characters in a show. Listening gets the writer closer to their patterns of speech, vocabulary they frequently use, mannerisms such as pauses, and so on. I try to use a beta reader who is also familiar with the canon so that they can spot where I’ve deviated from any particular character’s norm. I usually write Brit characters but if I ever write e.g. American ones, I look for a beta who is also familiar with the speech patterns and vocabulary of the country. I once wrote a story in The West Wing (Campaign) and my beta saved me from calling a sweater a jumper…
In much the same way it’s important to keep original characters ‘in character’. Many writers (I’m one of them) use extensive notes and glossaries, some of which they share with their readers but the primary purpose is to keep the writing consistent. Not to mention details like eye colour or favourite drinks!
Some critics and authors sneer at fanfiction, calling it derivative and lacking in imagination. This should not need to be countered, but here we go.
All art is in some sense derivative. The creator is inspired by other art or by events in real life. Many artists begin by trying to recreate well known works. An original writer who is using historical fact or current scientific research to underpin their story is no less derivative. Similarly, much original work relies on traditional tropes and we all know there are very few original plots. A book or show introduces characters to readers and viewers. If these characters are sufficiently well developed and likeable fans will inevitably weave further stories about them. Writers create new stories about Arthur and his knights, about vampires and about elves; artists and architects such as Gaudi (see header picture) are inspired by the natural world. When I wrote Lord of Shalott I had to be careful about ‘canon’, particularly Tennyson’s poem, and the only reason my work could be published was that the ‘canon’ was out of copyright.
All writing requires imagination. (Even the writer of non-fiction has to imagine how their words will come across to the reader.) Imagining a story or scene involving someone else’s characters is not much different from imagining a story or scene involving invented characters. Nobody accuses the creators of the modern BBC Sherlock of lacking imagination but this is fanfiction all through.
Another common misconception about fanfiction is that it inevitably revolves around sex. Admittedly there is some erotica. After all, readers like it! But a great deal of fanfiction is either ‘gen’ or only brings in erotic elements as part of a complex plot whereas I have read a great deal of original fiction that is more sex than story. Obviously, mainstream commentary will highlight anything that titillates the public. I have personally included explicit sex in some of my work, such as The Paths of the Living, and The Morning Gift, but I have written other fanfiction where sex barely rates a mention. As with original work it really does depend on the story.
Some people seem to regard writing fanfiction as a kind of apprenticeship to what they call proper writing. As I began writing both at about the same time I have never subscribed to this idea. Also, the words ‘proper writing’ tend to assign a higher value to things that are made for sale rather than given out of love. Much fanfiction is written and posted freely for the pleasure of other fans and the resultant fan community is itself a reward.
I enjoy the fanfic community and I enjoy the company of other original writers. Sometimes the two sets overlap, possibly more often than people think. I don’t feel my writing is really different in either genre. I do know both give me pleasure and I hope they offer something to my readers too.
For anyone who wants to find my fanfiction, it’s all (96 works) on AO3 (Archive Of Our Own) under the pseudonym moth2fic. You don’t have to be a member to read, to download, or to comment. And most of it is, I hope, accessible to non-fans who have no idea of the canon.
The picture shows details on Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. We visited before construction was finished.
A really interesting piece. As someone who wrote fanfiction back in the day I still struggle to put in enough backstory on my characters – you tend to get out of the habit!
I’ve always added backstory – I’ve always been so multi-fandom that I’ve known the need to make things clear to readers who aren’t familiar with canon. But yes, there are some aspects of characters that are ‘known’ and don’t need to be stated, and there’s a temptation to do that with original characters too. My betas have been known to accuse of expecting my readers to be mind readers!
I suspect I do the same re mind-reading. It always seems so obvious to me why a character acts that way, or loves the person they love…!
Well quite. And since I know, and the character knows…