Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fanfic Apologia - Part 1

Author's Note: This was originally posted at the Twisting the Hellmouth site. Unfortunately, the essay option has not done anything for them. Almost no one ever uses it. So, in an effort to make the site a little more streamlined, the Powers That Be decided to remove all essays. They very kindly suggested I move my two essays over to my blog.

Here's the first one:

Fanfiction Apologia

Let's say you're hanging out with a new person, having that 'get to know one another' conversation, and you're asked, "so, any hobbies?"

Did you just hunch your shoulders in a defensive posture? Did you take a deep breath and give an apologetic smile before offering your answer?

"I write fanfic" generally gets one of two responses. The first is from someone who hasn't run into it before. Perhaps they don't have an Internet connection. Perhaps they've only ever watched five minutes of Firefly and never pursued it past that. Maybe they think Star Wars is fun movie for kids, but nothing for grown ups to get excited over.

"Okay….what's fanfic?"

And you get to be the first person to explain the concept to them. More on that in another essay.

The second response is a bit more discouraging. Whether it's a repressed snicker, a smirk that indicates 10,000 points are about to be taken from Gryffindor for you being an utter geek, or a cringe followed by the muttered "oh, one of them," it can be difficult to rally a defense.

You should.

After all, unless your partner in conversation is a published author who sprang fully formed from the brow of their MS Word program, you are ahead in creativity, resourcefulness, and diligence.

Now, let's not kid ourselves. If Sturgeon's Law dictates that 90% of everything is crap, it can surely be applied to fanfiction. Twice. Make it kind of a Sturgeon's Law Squared. There is a lot of bad, bad fanfic out there. There is fanfic so bad, it gives off the squiggly stench fumes usually reserved for Snuffy Smith comicstrips. There is fanfic so very bad, it makes the Baby Jesus cry.

But there's good stuff out there too. There's some stuff so good, you wish you could grab the original creators by the collar, shove it in their face and say "Bad creator! Read this! This is what Season 6 should have been!" There is some fanfic out there so very good, you chew your nails down to little nubs as you read. There is some fanfic out there that is so very good, you find yourself hoping – even praying – that the author gets published, because you know that you'll put down the $8 for a paperback and even spring the $25 for a hardback if it has their name on it.

Fanfiction, whatever else it is, is an opportunity for great writing to shine through, and there are some great writers whose primary form is fanfiction. Here's why:

Poetry is partly defined by what form it takes. Form refers to what type of poetry it is. Is it a limerick? A haiku? Free verse? How many lines? What rhythm is used? What type of rhyme? Sonnets are known for their hellish restrictions in form. Sixteen lines of iambic pentameter with two possible rhyme schemes make the writing a poem in that form a kind of torture.

Yet, Shakespeare wrote over 150 of them.

Cinquains are even more strict. And ghazals? Don't even get me started on ghazals. The whole 'hiding my name in the last line' makes my head hurt. Yet, for all the immense difficulty of each form, there is no shortage of beauty, eloquence, or profundity. Because, as strange as it may sound, the more restrictions we put on a form, the more we guide our own creativity.

Or, as Robert Frost once said, "writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down."

Everyone needs a set of rules to begin with, and the stricter the rules are, the farther they can take you. The stricter the rules are, the more of a challenge the writing becomes. Writers thrive on honest challenge.

And now you're looking at me, one eyebrow raised, about to clobber me for talking about poetry when I'm supposed to be explaining fanfiction. That's okay. Just hang in there a bit longer, and it will be made clear.

Poetry lends itself to an easy parallel, but I'll come back to prose. Fiction, to be specific, and "fan fiction" to point at the singular minutia. If poetry has elements, then so does fiction. They are:

- Setting
- Character
- Plot
- Theme
- Tone
- Point of View

The details on each of these are yet another essay or a series of them. For now, I'm going to concentrate on Setting, Character, and Theme.

Authors working in a completely original story have the luxury of picking and choosing each of their elements, though genre often determines some of the elements before the writer does. Science Fiction writers work primarily in a future setting, though the plot may be something recycled since Euripedes. Romance novelists have one basic theme – true love conquers all. Regency romance novelists take on the extra challenge of writing in the specific setting of Regency England and the social milieu of the ton. The more specific restrictions that are chosen, the more challenged the writers is, and the greater their writing can become.

The whole point of fan fiction is to explore an already created, commonly known universe. It has existed as long as story has –or did you think all those little extra add-ons to Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, and African mythology just happened? Since the advent of writing, and especially of the printing press, stories have frozen, never to be changed again. Previously, they were living things, and each teller could bend the story in a new direction, adding or subtracting as they felt worked best.

An author of fan fiction begins with a known and defined setting – time, place, and social milieu. Sunnydale is a town on the coast of California between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It has a corrupt police department, a university, a high school, a port, and any number of other geographical elements that lend themselves to plot complications. The time is present day, though that is usually only important in addressing culture and technology. The social milieu is middle class, with occasional forays into the wrong side of the tracks.

They have a specific cast of characters to direct. Buffy Summers, Rupert Giles, Willow Rosenberg, Xander Harris. All of these characters have seven years' writing behind them. They are well established, three dimensional, and dynamic. A writer who understands these characters will be able to put them in a situation and predict reactions consistent with their history, temperament, and experience.

The theme, save for some who prefer radical experimentation, remains the same (yes, high school, then college, and finally life in general, is still Hell on Earth. Why do you ask?). The bonds of friendship are what make this world worth saving and living in. Experience is often a bitter master, but it teaches better than almost anything else out there. Every character in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is bound by these things. Every episode harkens back to these ideas.

So, the challenges to writing a fanfic are far greater than any casual fiction writer will encounter, and if a fanfic writer lives up to them, the potential for great writing is just as great.

Crossover fanfictions are even more of a challenge, as the strictures for setting, character, and theme are more confining. Crossing time, place, and social milieu means you can't take the characters' reactions for granted. Crossing themes means the match of characters may even come off as ludicrious.

If there is a parallel to this challenge, then look at the writers who join the staff of any popular television series. The change in writers is supposed to be seamless (unless, of course, you're getting rid of bad writers in an effort to improve the series), and the writers must be invisible.

Even then, a good writer, fanfic or otherwise, will leave their mark on a story – a new and fascinating interpretation of a character, a question of consequence that hasn't been addressed before, a shift of theme, a break in tone, and a never seen point of view – that brings the readers back to the story and leaves them satisfied. Before the writer can accomplish that, they must master the elements of the universe so that what they present is believable, plausible, and accepted.

That is a challenge no regular fiction writer has to face.

So, here is my challenge to you:

Consider the universe you wish to explore. Before changing Sunnydale to the Caribbean inhabited by Davy Jones, master Sunnydale and its environs. Before writing Buffy and Angel meet Captain Jack Sparrow, make sure you can write them believably in Sunnydale.

Even in the process of working these challenges, you should face the dismay or supercilious reactions of your acquaintances with justifiable pride. After all, it's not every person out there brave enough to attempt the work. Say it loud. Say it proud. You write fanfic!

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