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How Not to Not Write a Fanfic

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Trolling around Wattpad, I’ve run across a number of stories titled “How Not to Write a Fanfic,” or some variation thereof.

While some of these offer generally good tips about writing, many are simply recommendations based on the author’s particular likes and dislikes among the many, many tropes of fanfiction.

One of the most common is the admonition to “make it original” and not to use “overused plots.”

I have to disagree. The best advice I have about “originality” in fiction comes by way of author and humorist Fran Lebowitz, who once wrote (and I’m probably paraphrasing because I can’t put my fingers on the exact book in which she wrote it):

“Original thought is like original sin: both happened before you were born to people you couldn’t possibly have met.”

Fran Lebowitz

In other words, don’t worry about it.

I find it especially ironic to read advice to “be original” in regard to writing fanfic, which is, by its nature, smooshed full of “unoriginal” thoughts.

A particular pleasure of reading fanfic is its comforting familiarity. We know this world, these characters, and these situations. That’s what we’ve come here for. Unoriginality is a feature, not a bug.

All good stories start with the essential “what if?” Thing is, most of the good whats have already been iffed exactly eleventy billion times. It doesn’t matter a whit if your plot has been done before (spoiler alert: it has.) What matters is how you tell the story.

What makes a story interesting is how the author puts together all those “overused” elements—canon characters, familiar situations, familiar settings—and how she combines them with “original” elements to create something interesting.

Writing Fanfic Is Just Like Writing Original Fic

The rules for writing good fanfic are no different from the rules for writing good original fic. And no one really knows what they are.

All anyone knows for sure is that writing good fiction of any type is difficult, and writing great fiction is highly unlikely.

Nevertheless, there are a (very) few things that are necessary, if not sufficient, to writing adequate-or-better fiction, and these include:

  • The ability to communicate clearly
  • The ability to make deliberate choices about how you communicate
  • The ability to write characters and situations that don’t put the reader to sleep.

That’s it. That’s all I can come up with.

Now, if you can master voice, pacing, conflict, and stakes, and adroitly wield allusion, allegory, and other literary devices, plus acquire the cojones to tie it all to one or more themes that tell us something important about the Human Condition, so much the better for your readers.

Writing Fanfic Is Not at All Like Writing Original Fic

People read fanfic because something in the source material spoke to them, and because something in it left them wanting more, whether that’s simply more story set in the same universe or a deeper dive into the universe’s characters or themes. It behooves writers of fanfic to keep these two desires in mind.

To me, what this means is that you have to respect the source material, and you have to have something to say about it, even if that something is, “This bit sucked, Imma fix it,” or, “Nuh uh. Here’s what really happened.”

By “respecting the source material,” I mostly mean that you have to know your source material and the rules that govern its universe. This goes back to my whine about deliberate choices. You can choose to break the rules—and kudos if you can do it well—but you’d better be doing it on purpose.

If, for example, you don’t want to write Harry Potter as a wizard, don’t. But in writing him as a regular American kid going to high school in San Diego instead of Hogwarts, you’ll need to make something about the character or the situation reflect on the original—at least if you want to be writing Harry Potter fanfic. (This is what good AU fics do.) If you’re not doing that, you’re just writing derivative original fic. Which is just fine. But it may not appeal to people who want to read Harry Potter fanfic specifically.

Which brings me to another aspect of writing fanfic that is gloriously different from writing original fic: you can use the reader’s familiarity with the source story’s world and the characters to do interesting things. Perhaps the greatest gift fanfic gives the writer is the ability to skip a lot of the exposition—the parts of backstory that are too often a little boring but that a reader has to slog through to get to the good bits. In the world of dramatic literature, this is known as the “late point of attack,” and it’s wonderful.

The reader already knows that Harry lost his parents at a young age and has been raised in an abusive Muggle home, so if your story is about Harry falling in love with, say, Draco, you can use that known background to inform your characters’ thoughts, feelings, and actions without having to explain it to your readers first.This is incredibly freeing, in that the writer can easily slip the surly bonds of exposition, info-dumps, and “telling-not-showing,” and get to all the wonderful Drarry feelz, or whatever else makes him want to write his Drarry story.

A kissin’ cousin to this benefit is the opportunity for the fanfic author to subvert the reader’s expectations. GenderSwaps, WTF? pairings, and (deliberately written) OOCness are examples of this approach. So much can be said by simply changing a character or a situation in some crucial way that makes the reader think about the implications of the source material and, even better, the world around her.

Another unique aspect of reading and writing fanfic—especially fantasy- or sci-fi-based fanfic—is the great fun of filling in the corners of canon. So many missing moments to be explored! So much worldbuilding to … build on!

As a Harry Potter fanfic writer, one of my favorite challenges is to try to create a (ha, ha!) rational and consistent framework for the magic in my stories. Why do things in the Potterverse work the way they do? JKR may have known, but she couldn’t put it all in the stories (although there’s some in Pottermore-now-WizardingWorld.com), so I gleefully invent explanations that would likely make her roll her eyes in disgust.

TL;DR

I don’t hold much truck with the “how not to fanfic” crowd.

Are there things in stories that make me want to put my dainty fist through my computer screen and wail at the iniquity of the universe while vowing NEVER AGAIN to open AO3 and search for stories tagged “Minerva/Dobby/Giant Squid,” “AnimagusSex,” and “Bible Crossover?”

Sure.

It’s even odds that they’re some of the same things that make you put down your tea and back slowly away from the screen.

But I’d gladly wade through the terrible first paragraphs of a thousand bad stories to find a gem or two.

There are lots of different ways to write a story—any story, and there are few if any prescriptions for making it good.

That’s the agony and the ecstasy of writing.