Monday, June 3, 2013

100 Things I Learned By Writing Fanfic #6: Give Me The Background

I just want to start out by saying that the "me" in the title is "me, the reader of your story."  I'm using myself as an example because I've been reading fanfiction for a long time, and there are some things that will consistently turn me off.

One of the biggest objections I hear about fanfiction is that fanfic authors ought to just make up their own stories.  In some cases, I agree.  I have a post planned in this series called [When It's Better As Original Fiction].  It's about a story of mine that started as fanfiction and, over time, became so divergent from its source material that I decided to make it an original novel instead.  In most cases, I think the problem is that authors need to give their audience a familiar place to start, and then take the audience along with the characters as they experience events that change them.  I see a lot of fic where the author just announces in the description or the author's notes that HUGE changes have occurred in the background or that the canon characters are somehow different-- "OOC"-- with no explanation as to what changed everything around.

You may think that's "innovative" and "different."  You'll probably find an audience who likes what you're doing too.  You'll absolutely lose me though.  There are some things (like one or two specific events) that you can just say are different and go forward, but if you've made drastic changes to a lot of things and people are behaving in weird, unusual ways, I'll feel cheated and stop reading.  Here's why.

When I go in search of fanfiction, what I'm looking for is a new story about a familiar place and familiar people.  I want to feel like I'm in that universe again, interacting with the characters and settings that I've come to love.

So, you think it would be cool to cross Star Wars with Stargate: SG-1.  So do I.  So, you think the relationship between Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker is unhealthy and implausible.  So do I.  That doesn't mean I can just click on an established relationship story about Padmé and another character and find it believable because the author declares it to be.  Nor can I click on poorly conceived crossover story and accept that two franchises with vastly different settings, written to exist in different time periods, with characters who can't possibly know each other, have come into contact by some vague accident involving the Stargate or Force-related time travel, and believe what I'm reading.

In the SG-1 crossover example, the problem is physics.  A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away means just what it says.  It's not enough for me to read a note at the top of the story and see that a 'gate accident sent so-and-so hurtling through time and space to wind up in the middle of the GFFA.  I need to see the 'gate accident.  I need to know something about what was being done to the 'gate that could have caused a malfunction on that magnitude.  I'm not a physicist.  I know very little about any branch of science that could contribute to the existence of a controlled artificial wormhole.  I do know what the established canon of the Stargate franchise says about the way the 'gates function and the limitations they have.

In the second example about Star Wars, I know who  Padmé is.  I've seen her develop as a person through three films.  I think she makes some horrible choices in those films, but if those choices are going to be different in your story, I need to know why.  The choices that characters make change who they are.  The choices they make are also changed by who they are and changed by the events around them.

In both examples, the storylines encompassed by the franchises I'm reading about are going to change.  The plots, the responses and developments of other characters, the outcomes, are going to be different in some way.  The nature of fanfiction makes it transformative.  When we write in another person's world, we are going to change things.  All fanfiction is to some degree an "alternate universe" or "alternate reality," even if the author is expressly writing in canon events and with canon pairings.  Otherwise it's just a novelization.

Fanfiction is also affected by the subjective nature of art.  My interpretation of  Padmé  Amidala may be vastly different from someone else's.  My "explanations" and "insights" into her behaviors in the film saga are my opinions.  My reasoning for the way in which certain events might have occurred differently (or for how certain events might have occurred "off screen") are not necessarily going to be apparent my audience.

I learned this the hard way when I wrote a story called Taking The Long Way.  In it, I didn't do a good job of explaining an important aspect of the plot that made perfect sense in my head. I thought it would be "common sense," but there were multiple readers who commented to either ask me about it or to assume I had goofed.  My mistake weakened the effectiveness of the story for my readers. (Leave It Online talks some about why I let the story stand even though I knew I could take it down and try to fix it.)

Fan culture is centered around the concept of mutual enjoyment of a franchise.  Sometimes I write fanfiction because I just want to write it for myself, but most of the time my fanfiction is meant to be shared with others.  An effective piece of fanfiction is one that allows the audience to return to a place they've been before, interact with old friends, and maybe take a new journey with them.

I've written fanfiction for more than 20 years.  I've been involved in a number of fandoms, and I've "lurked" in more of them than I can even count.  I haven't met anyone over the age of 14 who has recommended to me or listed in their favorites a story that essentially takes the characters and settings,  mangles them beyond recognition, and leaves all the names, events, and recognizable objects the same. It's fine to change things around, but please start the story at a point before everything changes.

Why don't I just write my own story?

Well, I do.  And I would if my only reason for writing the story was that I thought it would be cool to mix 'gate technology and dualistic mysticism or something.  I wouldn't use lightsabers or Obi-Wan Kenobi or Jack O'Neill if I did that.  I wouldn't rip my plot straight out of someone else's show or movie, either.

On the other hand, if I had some reason that I thought Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jack O'Neill would benefit from meeting each other, and I had an interesting story about what happened when they met, I might try it.  The deciding factor would be whether I could tell that story in such a way that it still "felt" like Star Wars and like Stargate at the same time.  If I could, it would be a pretty darn awesome story.  If I couldn't, I would be disappointing myself and anyone else who came looking to read about O'Neill and Kenobi.

I have a lot of plot bunnies that never get past the "wouldn't it be cool" stage.  The ones that do are the ones that resonate with me as both a fan and an author.  Take Padmé as an example.  I care about her as a character.  I want her to make healthier decisions.  I am also a Star Wars fan.  I can't tell a story about Padmé at the expense of the elements that mean the most to me as a fan of Star Wars.  The spirit of the story has to be true to the franchise.  The background of my story--which includes everything from the characters' pasts to the scientific, procedural, or magical rules that govern the franchise--has to be plausible within the established canon.  If I want something to change, I have to be able to trace that change for my audience.

That's what I mean when I say "give me the background." There are some things in fanfiction that you don't need to explain.  There are some things in ANY story that you can leave to the imagination of the audience.  Character development, relationship development, and anything that bends or changes the underlying rules of the franchise don't belong "off screen."

It's great that you have a vision in your mind of what it would look like to put Jack O'Neill and Obi-Wan in the same story (or Harry Potter and Dean Winchester or the Tenth Doctor or whoever.)  As a reader, I need to understand how the characters GET to where you want them to be, and I need to see it happen in order to understand who your characters are going to become.   

It's a lot of work to write fanfiction that way, and that's why I don't pick up every idea.  I get about four chapters into most of the "AU" or crossover stories that I try to read because I don't feel like I understand what's changing and I don't feel like I'm connecting with the characters.  

I expect that some people are going to read this post and think, "Why would you put that much work into writing someone else's world or characters?"  The only answer I can give is that if a fanfiction idea gets that far out of the "wouldn't it be cool" stage, it's because there is something I love so much about the place and it's characters that if I don't tell the story, I'm going to feel cheated, and I'm going to feel like I cheated the other fans who would've liked to read it.

Fanfiction is a fantastic way to express your enjoyment of a franchise and to share that with like-minded people that you might otherwise never get to know.  It's a great way to explore possibilities and develop your talents as an author. Just don't forget to tell the whole story.  Start at the beginning, with the important change in your characters' lives, and go forward from there.  It may take longer, but it will be a better journey for everyone involved.

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