Fanfiction: it’s all about character

Neil Gaiman has done it, E.L. James got rich doing it, and Naomi Novik created a non-profit to support it, so what is stopping you?

As a teacher of creative writing at a boarding school for 15-17 year-olds, I can tell you that writing fanfiction is a fundamental step in the writing process for thousands of teenagers. I would even dare to suggest that the significance of fanfiction for young writers can be compared to the impact of Harry Potter on young readers. The same could be said of older members of both categories too. But it is the sheer volume of creativity among young writers of fanfiction that is of particular interest, and the careers – both amateur and professional – such discipline and enthusiasm will spawn.

I don’t intend to define fanfiction in this post, I wouldn’t know where to start. I confess to nodding and smiling when my students begin to tell me about their fanfiction interests, and guilty indulgences. The categories and crossovers are beyond me and my apparently limited range of literary tastes. I honestly used to think I was well-read across a broad range of genres, periods, styles and peculiarities. It is my library of peculiarities that has taken the greatest hit since beginning the creative writing course for teenagers. However, I stop nodding and start listening, and I mean really listening when my students describe what it is they like about reading fanfiction. Apparently, it is all about character.

Fanfiction, if I have grasped even a fraction of the concept, is ultimately about continuing the adventures of characters that have captured the readers’ imagination, and stolen their hearts. The world, the landscape and the technology are important, they might define the framework of a piece of fanfiction, allowing the reader to identify the world within which the story is set, but it is the characters that are essential, and what they do and with whom that counts.

Stephen King provides new authors with an essential prompt for a story in his book On Writing. He attributes the origins of many of his stories to the original question that triggered his imagination: What if…? What if a girl with telekinetic powers was bullied at school and her powers got out of control? I think the basis of many fanfiction stories originates from a similar question, but with far more emphasis on characters from one or more literary worlds. For example, what if Harry Potter and Hermione Granger got married? The chances are that that particular story has been fanficced a thousand times already.

Here at The Author Lab, we are primarily interested in becoming better writers, to learn more about the ingredients that make a story worth reading. If you take a moment to search the Internet for sites hosting fanfiction stories, Wattpad for example, it will quickly become apparent that writers of fanfiction have huge numbers of readers, commenting, liking and interacting with their favourite fanfiction authors. As emerging authors, we might be green with envy, or we might choose to raise an eyebrow and scoff at the blatant plagiarism and bastardisation, not to mention sex, that often dominates such stories. But we would be foolish to disregard the underlying foundations that are the secret to every fanficcer’s success: character.

The original authors that have created the characters that feature in fanfiction are the true artists, and we should take note of the characters that they have created, and be aware of what makes them special to the fanfiction community. Of course, once the character has been created and their story arc has been completed, it is the writer of fanfiction that breathes new life into beloved characters, taking them on new adventures, prequels, sequels and side stories and quests. It is the writers of fanfiction that often keep the reader satisfied while the original author slaves away on the next book in the series. Of course, some fanficcers even bring back the dead when authors have long since buried their literary heroes.

In the autumn of 2014 I was struggling to complete my thriller The Ice Star, the first five chapters of which were to be my submission piece for my final project on the MA in Professional Writing at Falmouth University. Based on feedback from my supervisors and peers, I must have written and rewritten The Ice Star seven times. It wasn’t violent enough – I ramped it up and was advised to tone it down. All my female characters were weak – I changed the main character to a woman and every single he to she and his to her. It was demoralising. I was beginning to hate my story, the characters, the plot, everything. I remember putting all the main characters into a car and writing a scene where the ice cracked beneath them and they sank, and they drowned, and a little part of me drowned with them. I sank alongside the car, looking up at the crack in the sea ice above me. I left all my characters in that car, on the bottom of the Greenland Sea, and then opened a YouTube page in my browser.

Based on my interests, Google had cunningly suggested I might be interested in a trailer for a videogame called The Division. Developed by Ubisoft, the game is set in New York following small teams of agents reacting to a pandemic that has brought the world to its knees. Finally, I thought, someone has it worse than me. I was intrigued, I clicked the link and after watching the trailer about four times, I started to write.

As the world and its problems were already defined, I could concentrate on character. I created a brother and a sister, Mark and Gem Bradford. I put them in harm’s way, and I threw everything at them. I didn’t write a logline, I had no storybeats, I was free of any plot device or objective, I just had to make sure that at the end of each chapter I wanted to know what happened.

All of a sudden, I was a discovery writer, writing by the seat of my pants and churning out chapters of 3,000 words or more. I had cliffhanger endings, and, more importantly, I had an audience. After finishing chapter one, I found a forum for fans of Ubisoft games. Even though The Division was still a year from release, fans were talking about it. Expectations were high, and every new trailer was analysed for glimpses and reveals of game mechanics, weaponry and, not least, story. I posted my first chapter. A few days later, I posted one more. I would do a quick edit for spellings and grammar, read it through a few times, post and repeat.

By the end of October, I had written 10 chapters, just shy of 30,000 words. What’s more, I was getting feedback and encouragement. Since posting The Pandemic Jungle, the forum post has been viewed almost 4,000 times. I reposted the story on Wattpad and, despite a complete lack of understanding of the mechanics of Wattpad, The Pandemic Jungle has been read over 1,600 times. I have yet to achieve the same success with my own original stories.

The ultimate reward for me, however, was the fact that my characters drowning in the icy waters of Greenland, had started swimming for the surface. They were coming up for air. As they neared the surface, I thrust my hand into the sea, grabbed them by the wrists and pulled them back into my life and thrust them onto the page.

I earned a distinction for my final project at Falmouth, and I think some of that credit has to be given to writing fanfiction. When writing The Pandemic Jungle, I was free to concentrate on what mattered most, my characters, and what happened to them. I was encouraged by random people, fans of the videogame, strangers on a forum that I had never visited before and rarely have since. On Wattpad, my story has been added to a reader’s “Fanthology”, a wonderful word to describe a collection of stories written by fanficcers, in which I am pleased to be included. Google suggested that I watch the latest trailer for The Division in December 2015, three months prior to the game’s release. That trailer inspired a second diversion into fanfiction as I began the story Silent Night.

While I cannot take credit for the story itself, the characters in my fanfiction were my own. I decided what happened to them, and I created a story arc for each of them. Writing fanfiction allowed me to explore, experiment and create a story within a world defined by other people. While I will never profit financially from my fanfiction – to do so would be immoral and most likely criminal – what I gain is an exercise with which I can relax and grow as a writer. I would suggest to you, as a writer, that writing fanfiction can help you out of a literary bind, it can be the answer to writer’s block, it can be the route to better writing, better stories, and the development of your own better characters.

So here’s my advice, from one emerging writer to another – take a chance, go on, set yourself free, and spend an hour, a chapter, or more in another writer’s universe. Find out what makes them and their characters tick, and you will be all the richer for it.

Do you write fanfiction? Do you think it is an abomination or a tool in the writer’s toolkit? Let us know what you think by posting a reply below.

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6 thoughts on “Fanfiction: it’s all about character

  1. This is a fascinating exploration of a key element of story writing – creating characters who live and breathe and have lives of their own, outside of any plot, theme or setting. In any story world we need characters who take the story and run with it – and Chris’s description of some of the characters who populate fanfiction certainly seem to be in charge of their own destiny – and perhaps even the author’s destiny! Thanks Chris – a thought-provoking read.

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  2. I really enjoyed this post. It made me think back to a writing exercise in a workshop I attended years ago. We were given a passage from a famous work and told to insert characters from our own writing into the scene and see where it goes. As you say so well in this piece, Chris, having a structure to start with was liberating and a great way to get creativity flowing. Thanks for the ideas in this thoughtful piece!

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    1. Hi Lu Anne. Your comment about this exercise seeming familiar confirms my positive experience when trying out fanfiction as a means of experimentation and character development. Thanks!

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  3. Your post not only allowed me to enter the world of fanfiction, which I’d been very curious about, but made me laugh, too, and got me thinking about fanfiction as a writing exercise. Characters are everything, I agree!

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