Today I was reading my copy of Writing, a magazine about writing and publishing I subscribe to. It’s a very UK-centred magazine which has quite a few useful articles and links. It has an online presence at https://www.writers-online.co.uk/ and is worth checking out even if you live elsewhere in the world.
Anyway, in one of the letters a subscriber who was generally in favour of fanfiction said they admitted it was ‘a lazy way to write’, saying that fan fic writers had the characters ready made for them and didn’t need to work hard to develop them.
I wanted to write back but I knew my thoughts would probably be too long for a letter to a magazine so I thought I’d explore them here. As you know, I read and write fanfiction – I sometimes jokingly call it my ‘other’ hobby – and I would take issue with the letter writer!
So the characters from films and TV shows (and from books, too) are ready made and therefore easy to write about? Would the letter writer say the same about historical figures? Characters such as Emperor Claudius, Napoleon, Henry VIII, the Borgia Popes, Jesus, are all ‘ready made’ in the same way but serious writers gain praise for their new explorations of these characters. It is perhaps harder, in some ways, to write something new and original about a character who has existed in history or on the screen. The fanfic writer (or the writer of tie-in novels for that matter) must be very observant and pay great attention to detail. The ‘voice’ of the character has to come across to readers who already have well-developed expectations and will pounce on errors. Dialogue needs to sound likely, and must not contain any errors e.g. Americanisms for Brit characters or vice versa. If the show is set in a particular era it is necessary to check small details such as finance (were Euros in use?), types of communication (computers? mobile phones?) and even things like the types of sweets or snacks available. Readers who are fans of the original will notice anachronisms.
The settings of TV shows and films are also ready made. This doesn’t mean the fanfic writer needn’t do any homework. The online information about the setting needs to be meticulously researched, and the good writer will look at all kinds of resources, not only the original screen works, to check that the backgrounds for their fics are acceptable. This involves just as much work as for an original novel, which might well be set in the author’s own home town and be less taxing. Besides, a new story about the same characters needs some new locations and these will also need research. I once ordered tourist publicity for a town in America to enable me to place my story accurately – I think the tourist board decided I was a likely visitor and ‘spammed’ me with invitations to book hotels or tours for ages. Wikipedia is my first stop, but its information needs to be independently checked; it isn’t always either correct or adequate.
There are also, of course, the minor characters who people the fics. Whilst many shows have a supporting or ensemble cast that can be utilised, there will always be a need for extras, for instance shopkeepers or villains, or simply new characters who form part of the plot, who will be invented by the writer but will need to fit seamlessly into the world the main characters already inhabit. This can be harder work than inventing a new group of characters from scratch.
For many excellent fanfic writers there is great pleasure in transposing characters from their original setting or period into another and asking how they would have behaved under very different circumstances. Some of the best stories I have read have put, for example, modern detectives (e.g. The Professionals) into Regency London, or a world of space ships or the film industry. The reader gets pleasure from the exploration of the essence of the character in what is known as an AU (alternative universe), whether it is fantasy, or merely historical or just different. In these cases the characters need close study that is far from lazy, and of course the alternative settings need research, too. There are also ‘crossovers’ where, for example, the heroes of a TV series (e.g. Supernatural) appear in a totally different setting such as Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, and have magic to contend with. Writers of crossovers have two sets of fans to satisfy!
Books can be harder to deal with in this way simply because the plot is often more thoroughly ‘closed’ at the end, though there are often minor characters whose stories have not been told to the complete satisfaction of readers, and of course the characters can also be placed in different settings. There are also series which allow for extra stories. Sometimes writers will ignore the ending of a novel; again, to take Harry Potter as an example, people write stories with the label EWE meaning Epilogue? What Epilogue? and take the characters beyond the book in all kinds of different directions, ignoring JKR’s vision of their later lives.
Of course there are fics written in a lazy fashion but then I have read many published original stories that are dull, derivative or otherwise badly written. The best fanfic avoids these problems; the worst is not much worse than the drivel some publishers offer. One reason for this is the instant feedback given to fanfic. If I write original fic and publish or self-publish it, I am unlikely to hear from readers for some time unless or until I gain fans on my website. The day I post fanfic on an archive I get feedback, some of it detailed, and not necessarily always friendly. There is room for discussion and indeed heated debate. Most sensible fanfic writers use beta readers who will save them from really bad mistakes in characterisation, plot, etc. as well as from mechanical problems with spellings and typos. But even the best beta group can’t guarantee there will be no problems at all. This keeps fanfic writers on their toes.
Some fanfic writers ‘file off the serial numbers’ and publish their work as original fiction. It is usually impossible to tell when this has been done unless one has read the fanfic version. This suggests that fanfic has more in common with original fic than the letter writer thinks.
I strongly suspect the letter writer has only read or written fics that fall into what some of us call the ‘episode’ category, in which an episode of a TV show is rewritten from another point of view, or with extra scenes inserted. This type of fanfic, which fills in the gaps we all notice in our favourite shows, is only one kind of fanfic. Some of it – and only some – can be so closely based on the original as to give the impression – and only the impression – of lazy writing. But there is plenty of fanfic out there that goes on to expand the original show or the original characters way beyond anything the producers intended. And even the ‘episode’ fic requires keen observation and a lot of imagination.
I write both fanfic and original fic. They are different in the sense that they are largely for different audiences and are posted or uploaded in different places, and in that only original work can hope for financial reward. They are also different in that they are in response to different stimuli. They both require hard work from the writer. The skills needed for both bleed into each other – work on plot, characterisation, locations, and language use. I think, on balance, fanfic is slightly harder work if it is to satisfy its audience, because it is more difficult to write convincingly in someone else’s universe than in one’s own. It has certainly never struck me as in any way a ‘lazy’ activity.
I know some of you read fan fiction. What do you think?