Writing fan fiction is not the same as writing regular fiction, even for professional fanfic writers (think the books based off TV shows). Fanfic in general is very different for two very specific reasons.
Fanfic authors have complete editorial control over their work. This does not happen in the publishing world. Both the literary agent, and the publisher who eventually picks up the novel will have much of the editorial control. Also, titles are very often changed.
Fanfic authors can’t make money off their work. We’re paid in reviews, not cash. This is great for the people reading, but I don’t imagine many of my fellow writers would turn down the opportunity to be paid for their work.
This applies to professional fanfic writers as well. These are the people who write books for Criminal Minds, Star Trek, Buffy TVS, Supernatural, Glee, CSI, Dune, Battlestar Galatica and what I imagine is many, many others. They get to make money, and are subject to the same rules as the rest of the publishing world. A side note on these to enthusiastic writers, you do not write a fanfic book and send it to a publisher/literary agent. If a network wants someone to write novels based on their show, they’ll pick an already established author and commission them to do it.
Moving onto the writing. The primary differences in writing fanfic versus original fiction are that you’ve already have characters, setting, and generally tone set for you. Tone and setting are flexible to an extent, but the characters are the reason you’re writing the story in the first place. You want to keep those characters, though you do have the freedom to choose which to focus on in your writing and how you want to develop them.
Already having characters removes a considerable chunk of the work you have to do, and if you don’t believe that, try writing a novel. I’ve done it, and trust me, developing characters is not easy and takes a considerable amount of work. By having characters already written, you know what they look like, what they sound like, how they act, nervous tics and odd mannerisms, and an entire history on which to build. Often you have a few seasons of a show, or several books or comics that have given you a clear, very distinct impression and an opportunity to sort to integrate that characters in your head. With original work, you’re starting fresh, and it’s hard to keep track of every character in a book, and make all your central players stand-out when you haven’t been with them very long.
The flipside of that though, is that you have to know someone else’s characters and do your best to stay true to those characters. I reread the X Files novels a few years ago (yes, I’m a nerd), and I was disappointed to realize that that author could have been writing about anyone. It said Mulder and Scully, but there was very little distinct about the characters in the novel, and certainly nothing that said they were Mulder and Scully. That is your challenge as a fanfic writer, to get to know someone else’s characters so well you can put them to paper in your own voice and words.
Like I said, setting can be flexible depending on the show, book or comic. Obviously if you’re writing for Star Wars, you need to set it an their universe, but you can pick which planet and even what location on which planet. In some series, like Criminal Minds, the X Files and Supernatural, the characters often travel, so you’ve got a lot of freedom. In other series, like Grey’s Anatomy, Law & Order, and Charmed, the location is more static, and you need to have good reason to move the story out of their city.
Tone is a little less concrete, and it often changes (and should) even within the show, book or comic, but there’s still sort of a central tone, a general feeling to it that remains the same throughout. Think of the feel of Bones or NCIS versus that of Criminal Minds or Law & Order. The former two shows have more of a fun, humorous tone to them, and while the latter both have moments of humor, they’re darker and more serious. Likewise, Bones and NCIS both have their darker, more serious moments. Fanfic writers have to stay true to this tone. Of course, like in the original work, the tone should be fluid in a story, but still hold to that overall feel.
What do you think are the major differences with fanfic and original fic? What do you think are strengths and weaknesses of fanfic?
This is based partly off my own observations and partly off some minor research.
According to Wikipedia, fanfic started with Stark Trek, which I think will surprise no one. “The first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia, was published in 1967 and contained some fan fiction,” says Wikipedia.
Fanzines were magazines of fanfic and artwork put together by a group of fans and distributed to other fans generally for nothing more than the cost of the materials. I’ve seen and read two, which I believe my sister still possesses. The first was a bit raw, but the second was actually quite nice-looking. The interesting thing about Fanzine fic, was that not everything written was published. The people doing the publishing picked the best fics, just like a publishing house.
Similarly, before the advent of fanfiction.net, fanfic was posted on one of two types of websites: fandom specific or writer specific. Often these fandom specific websites were as selective as the Fanzines, posting only the best. This means that you had to work hard, and turn out good writing if you wanted people to be able to read it. I actually remember working very hard to try and get something posted on one of these sites, and fortunately I was successful.
http://fluky.gossamer.org/ (X Files fanfic site, not selective)
http://trekfanfiction.net/ (Star Trek, not selective)
http://www.ldynwaitin.com/naorhfanzine/storypage.html (The New Adventures of Robin Hood, selective)
Many people write in different fandoms, and it was easier for many of these people to post all their fiction in one place than on several different fandom specific sites. These people created their own websites with individual pages for each fandom.
It was in 1993 when The X Files became the first show in which the writers actually communicated with/responded to viewers’ criticisms. It started around the time the internet was first available to the public, and these viewers communicated were actively communicating with each other. The episode in the first season called “Beyond the Sea” was written to make Scully seem less cold and more human. Viewers had commented on this, so the writers wrote this episode (in which Scully deals with her father’s death) to humanize her. While this isn’t explicitly fanfic-related, this shows the expansion of fandoms beyond the web, and in fact to the creators of the original work.
Now, after the 1990s the internet exploded as most people know and eventually Fanfiction.net emerged as the forerunner in online fanfiction. Much like the writer-generated sites of the 1990s, fanfiction.net relies on the writers to handle all editorial control over their work. Anyone can post anything. It also gives readers an easy way to submit feedback. A reader can simply click a button, type a few words, and let the writer know what they think of the story. Before the advent of ff.net, readers had to actually email their thoughts to the writers. This meant that it was harder to get reviews (or maybe I just sucked back then). Fanfiction.net is, I believe, the only website to bring together all types of fanfic, including video games, books, manga, anime, comics, films, and TV shows.
At the same time, Livejournal was popping up as a place for posting fanfic, and an easy way for writers to create their own mini websites with blogs attached. That’s one feature fanfiction.net doesn’t offer. LJ also became a venue for communities and hosting for challenges, awards, contests and most recently, charity auctions.
And that is fanfic in a nutshell.
Fun side note: While researching this, I looked around for a couple websites I remembered from back in the day. I found a fanfic that I remembered starting, but until today, had thought I’d never finished. It was completed on the website. I also found a story I apparently wrote on a Dawnson’s Creek site, and I have absolutely no memory of writing it. None. Nada. Zilch.
What was your first encounter with fanfic? Tell me in the comments.
Thanks for reading!