Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Some of the most popular pieces of art in our lives are fan fiction. From movies based on ancient myths to classic literary characters reimagined in the modern day, there’s no shortage of top-quality, mass-appeal fan fiction in the zeitgeist.
And yet often the label ‘fan fiction’ is used derisively, as a synonym for ‘low quality’. At Standoutbooks we know that’s not the case, so in this article I’ll be discussing what makes great fan fiction and some of the traps that can trip up fan authors.
Acknowledging source legacy
To write great fan fiction you have to understand that no matter how good it is, it is always a ‘reply’ to the original work. No matter how far you stray from the original you are still connected, and so you are always inviting a comparison from your readers.
Because of this, it’s important to acknowledge the strengths of your source material. You must either equal them or deal with them in another way, by trading them for new strengths, but if you don’t address them then your audience will notice. Fair or not fan fiction is never judged solely on its own quality, but with how it compares to the original.
Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk is a Sherlock Holmes novel intended as a continuation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, written with permission and endorsement from the Conan Doyle estate. Great novel or not, the most prominent question will always be how it compares to Doyle’s own work, as shown in The Guardian’s review:
So, all of the elements are there: the data, the data, the data. Nothing of consequence overlooked. And yet can Horowitz, like Holmes, make from these drops of water the possibilities of an Atlantic or a Niagara? Can he astonish us? Can he thrill us? Are there “the rapid deductions, as swift as intuitions, and yet always founded on a logical basis” that we yearn for?
Emphatically, yes… Dorothy L Sayers understood the rules of the Holmesian game when she remarked that “it must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s: the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere”. Horowitz plays a perfectly straight bat. This is a no-shit Sherlock.
– Ian Sansom, ‘The House of Silk – Review’
Had Horowitz written a brilliant detective story which did not capture the Holmesian atmosphere, the failure would have eclipsed the success in all reviews. Horowitz addressed the relationship between his own work and the source texts head on, writing in the same style and setting. This invites a total comparison, his work either lives up to its source or not, but in any fiction which uses pre-existing elements there is an invitation to compare source and offshoot, and it’s one you have to live up to.
This is most important when writing about pre-existing characters. It’s not enough to take a character with an established personality and backstory, and have them act however you like to fit into your own narrative. Those characters will always carry the influence of the source material, and so your writing must either be consistent with their personalities or offer good reasons to stray from them.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to stray, and many readers will happily accept deviations from the source so long as you offer something they didn’t get from the original.
The legal decision regarding a fan fiction’s validity as a piece of art is whether it is ‘transformative’ or ‘derivative’, and this is a helpful distinction to use for giving your work that something extra. Derivative works recycle existing ideas into different variations of what was already there, whereas transformative works use existing ideas to help create something new.
An obvious example is Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Grahame-Smith takes the famous characters and settings from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but adds a new twist which results in a transformed work with something original to say.
This can also be seen in Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James’ popular erotica famously based on fan fiction about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight fantasy series. Whether you like either work, it is telling that James was able to remove all copyrighted references to sell her work in its own right. As much as you love and are purposefully engaging with the source material, being able to remove copyrighted elements and still have a working story is a good sign that you’ve created something new.
Playing to your strengths
The best way to be truly transformative is to approach the source material in a way which is actually about your own strengths.
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens can be described as a mix of horror movie The Omen and various biblical stories. In The Omen, a diplomat’s son is replaced with the antichrist who slowly reveals his true nature as harbinger of the apocalypse. In Good Omens, a comic novel which is often parodic without being easily classified as a parody, the exchange is bungled and the antichrist is accidentally given to a pleasant family of no influence who raise him to be a nice, albeit suspiciously gifted, young man.
Pratchett and Gaiman’s take on the biblical story uses plot elements from The Omen to critique the black-and-white nature of good and evil as suggested by aspects of organized religion. In the first chapter, an angel and the demonic serpent discuss the angel’s decision to give Adam and Eve his flaming sword as they left Eden.
‘That was the best course, wasn’t it?’
‘I’m not sure it’s actually possible for you to do evil,’ said Crawly sarcastically. Aziraphale didn’t notice the tone.
‘Oh I do hope so,’ he said. ‘I really do hope so. It’s been worrying me all afternoon.’
They watched the rain for a while.
‘Funny thing is,’ said Crawly, ‘I keep wondering whether the apple thing wasn’t the right thing to do, as well. A demon can get into real trouble, doing the right thing.’ He nudged the angel. ‘Funny if we both got it wrong, eh? Funny if I did the good thing and you did the bad one, eh?’
‘Not really,’ said Aziraphale.
Crawly looked at the rain.
‘No,’ he said, sobering up. ‘I suppose not.’
– Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
Here Pratchett and Gaiman reimagine a biblical event, critiquing the absolute idea of morality in the source text. The rest of the story humanizes similar biblical characters and events in a humorous style which plays to both authors’ strengths.
Though using characters and plot events from previous works, Pratchett and Gaiman offer a unique viewpoint. What’s more, by using humor, they write the story which they are best suited to tell. This is a completely valid way to ‘reply’ to your source; fan fiction can be celebration, critique, reimagining, or a combination of all three.
In writing fan fiction it is important to acknowledge not just the quality of the source material, but your own skills as a writer. These two factors should come together to form something which is related to the source, but also new for the reader. Even for those writing in the same style as the original, it’s important to do or provide something the original doesn’t, or else you’re competing rather than engaging with the original work. For Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk this involved not just a new mystery, but a glimpse into the eventual fate of Holmes and Watson.
This is often the case with a large faction of fan fiction which takes character relationships further, often placing secondary characters in the spotlight or furthering relationships which are possible but unexplored in the source. There is a real desire from fans to see the ‘might have been’ moments of characters whose personal lives they care a great deal about, as can be confirmed by searching for ‘Neville Longbottom fan fiction’ – the secondary character from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has libraries dedicated to his potential futures and relationships.
Producing the best art possible
In the end, as with any writing, the goal is to produce the best product for your readers. As I have described above, the best way to do that is usually to write the story you are best suited to tell, producing something undeniably new while never forgetting what it is about the source material that readers love so much.
Fan fiction writing is hard, there are many more considerations to take into account than when the characters are your own, and yet bringing something new to a committed and excited community feels fantastic.
If you’re a dedicated fan fiction writer who wants to know more about your rights when it comes to writing and publishing check out Make sure your fan fiction is legal (or regret it later) for the facts you need to stay protected. Or if you’re looking for more great places to stimulate your creativity try Eleven places you can find inspiration for your writing.
How do you feel about fan fiction? Are you a committed fan writer, or do you think creations should stay with their creators? Either way, let me know in the comments.