Image: Matthew Loffhagen
In one form or another, fan fiction has always been part of literature. Before books, oral storytelling meant that you were always telling your version of a tale you heard elsewhere, and famous works like Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and basically any of Shakespeare’s plays all depict characters and events their creators found elsewhere and put to their own use. Joyce’s Ulysses is (like hundreds of other books) a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King didn’t invent King Arthur, and Alexandre Dumas didn’t just steal the three musketeers from another book, he also stole the book itself from his local library.
Do these examples differ from modern forms of fan fiction? Of course they do. The way we present, consume, and disseminate art is always changing, but it’s no modern revelation to try and tell an excellent story set in someone else’s universe. What writers of the past didn’t have to deal with are the legal consequences for doing so.
While sharing fan fiction within a closed community is all well and good, you now need to be very careful not to step on anyone’s toes if you want to take your story to market.
This is a topic we’ve covered before, and in Make Sure Your Fan Fiction Is Legal (Or Regret It Later), I talked about how to stay out of trouble with your fan fiction. Ultimately, the best advice is to change it enough that it leaves behind its derivative status and can stand on its own two legs.
Understandably, many, many people got in touch asking exactly how to convert their personal fan fiction into something they could sell as an original product. Well, we listen to our readers, so in this two-part article I’ll be taking an extensive look at what you need to do to turn your fan fiction into original work.
In this first installment, we’ll be covering the basics: changing surface details, cutting ties, and identifying what makes your work special, while in the second installment, we’ll move deeper into the process of ‘origifying’ your work, talking about how to escape the baked-in context of your inspiration and turn established characters into unique creations.
If you want to sell your fan fiction as it is, I recommend our previous article, and if you just want to write great fan fiction, check out How To Write Fan Fiction That Readers Will Appreciate. In this article, we’re focusing on turning the great fan fiction you already wrote into a book you can sell – and which readers can enjoy – entirely outside the context of the work that inspired it. If that’s your aim, let’s start by tackling the scariest question you’ll face.
Is it really possible to turn my fan fiction into an original work?
Some people would quibble the meaning of the word ‘original’ here, but the short answer is ‘yes.’ Ideas aren’t copyrighted, and that’s not because there’s a legal loophole; it’s because art has always inspired art. If you can remove the protected aspects of someone else’s work from your own, you can sell it as a new product – not by lying and saying you came up with it on your own, but by admitting you began with something derivative and then did the work to give it its own life.
Ah, but can you be successful? Yep. The most famous example is Fifty Shades of Grey, an original work adapted from a piece of Twilight fan fiction called Master of the Universe. It’s a book people love to hate, but it’s also one they loved to read.
Or how about Anna Todd’s five-book After series, which is based on her fan fiction about the band One Direction? If this rings a bell, you may be thinking about the successful book series or you may be thinking about the film version that was released this year.
Perhaps you’ve also heard the rumor that Cassandra Clare’s wildly popular The Mortal Instruments is based on her own Harry Potter fan fiction. Is this true? It doesn’t really matter – did Clare adapt her fan fiction directly into her bestselling series or did she just try out a bunch of ideas that she used later in different ways? The fact that the line can blur so much is its own argument for the validity of original content emerging from fan-fic roots.
So, yes, legally, practically, and commercially, you can turn your fan fiction into original work. The last question is whether it’s moral to do so, and here I can’t offer a single, definitive answer. Here are two things that can be true at the same time:
- We take a lot more from the art we consume than we realize, and discussions about fan fiction frequently draw false distinctions between specific inspiration and general inspiration,
- It’s possible to obey every single legal rule and still be ripping someone off.
So, did E. L. James do the unforgiveable when she adapted her Twilight fan fiction into Fifty Shades of Grey? I’d say no – her S&M erotica is different enough from the YA fantasy that inspired her that it has an audience of its own. At the same time, was it reasonable for E. L. James to announce she was rewriting the first book in her series, but this time told from the man’s perspective, after Stephenie Meyer announced she was rewriting the first book in her series, but this time told from the man’s perspective? Personally, I’d say no.
You know your own moral rules, but do reflect on those rules before you begin, and keep checking that you’re respecting them. It’s easy to decide you’re in the right once and then never check again, but taking inspiration from an author is different to chasing their career.
So, now that we’re sure that turning fan fiction into original work is possible, where do we start?
Recognize your choices
Here’s the thing about differentiating your fan fiction from the work on which it’s based: you already started. No-one who writes fan fiction actually just rewrites the original story in their own words. They shift attention to specific characters, they change events, and they even tackle different themes. By making these decisions, you signaled what you wanted to do that the original author didn’t. Likewise, by what you changed and left out, you identified the aspects of the original work that you weren’t interested in using.
The first step to ‘origifying’ your work is to identify all these choices. You saw something in the original work – something that inspired you to write in its world – but you also saw something missing, which is the gap you tried to fill. In fact, all things considered, you had a pretty unique vision, and that’s what you need to chase.
In this way, the process by which you turn fan fiction into original work is pretty easy to explain – you keep cutting what you don’t need, you keep adding what you wanted to add, and you treat your unique vision as more important than the established rules of the work that inspired you.
The first part of this process is therefore to reflect on what you saw in your source material and what you wanted to add in your own writing. These are your guiding lights, telling you what you want to keep and what you need to add, so really nail down your conclusions. Write a short essay about it, or write a letter to the author who inspired you, telling them why you’re moving away from their vision (don’t send it, though).
If you need help, focus on the things that differ between your work and the source material, even if they’re incredibly minor. You made these choices for a reason – perhaps because they were closer to your personal vision, or perhaps just because it made writing your version easier (in which case, follow the trail back).
For instance, let’s say the beating heart of your fan fiction is that instead of Character A ending up with Character B, you wanted them to end up with Character C. There’s a reason you prefer this – a dissatisfaction with the pre-existing narrative arc, a different reading of the characterization, or even an alternate worldview. Figure out this reason and you know what your original work is actually about.
Once you feel like you’ve pinned down what makes your story different from what already exists (even if it isn’t much), it’s time to start moving away from what you don’t want and toward what you do.
Deal with the surface
The first practical thing to do when transforming fan fiction into original work is to deal with surface details. You can’t keep names – not for characters, not for settings, not for events or types of magic or breeds of monster. Even if you could, you wouldn’t want to, because we’re moving past our inspiration.
I’d encourage fan fiction authors to do this as early as possible in the ‘origifying’ process, because dealing with new names cuts a lot of subconscious ties. There are things that ‘Hermione Granger’ wouldn’t do that ‘Artemis Roebuck’ just might, and that will be true in a hundred little ways as you write.
Once you’ve made these minor changes, it’s time to start interrogating your characters. In doing so, you’re trying to find out which of their traits are there because they already existed and which actually serve your personal vision.
Try summing up each character in five words. Personality, but also appearance, profession, species, and anything else that you think is a basic part of who they are. Once you’ve done that, set yourself the task of changing two of those words for every character. Of course, these changes need to serve your story, so what you’re doing is twofold:
- You’re looking for ways to move your characters away from being someone else’s property,
- You’re giving yourself extra tools with which to tell your own story.
This isn’t the way you usually develop characters, but then you already have characters that work for your story. Start with big, bold surface changes and then spend some time thinking about how they alter the character. Really experiment, and keep in mind that part of the goal is to find out what you don’t need. You can’t do that with a few seconds’ thought, so put in the work of rewriting some scenes with your new assumptions in place.
You’re going to draft and redraft your story like any author, so you can change these decisions later, but for now, they’ll help you start seeing your characters as new people who you can understand according to their utility to your story.
Now, do the same with your settings and any other aspects of your world that you think this will work with. If changing two of the five words was easy, go for three. If there are no more big changes to make, try a few small ones. If it works for your story and makes your work more original, you’re one more step down the path to success.
Cut unnecessary ties
Now that we’ve started adding new details, it’s time to lose those details that we don’t need. If your character is no longer secret royalty, does the story still need to be set in England? Now that Character A isn’t the protagonist, do they still need the same tragic backstory? Do they need to be in the book at all?
One of the most common traps for authors trying to convert fan fiction into original work is getting bogged down in all the unnecessary aspects of their story that are only there because they existed in someone else’s book. Not only does this make a story feel derivative, but it diverts a lot of resources (page space, reader attention, better but mutually exclusive choices) somewhere that they aren’t needed.
In her critique of Frankie Rose’s Black Moon Rising, Jenny Nicholson says:
The primary thing that suffers when you publish a fanfic as a new novel is, obviously, the story of the novel. In fanfic, since you’re using an existing work as a springboard, you don’t have to bring the entire lore of the universe to the table. You just open it up with the characters and they’re ready to go, and everyone understands what’s going on… The audience already understands the universe, the character dynamics, and if you’re writing something where you really just care about the character interactions – like, say, a romance – you can just jump right into the parts that you actually want to write.
In a book like this, where it is adapted into an original work but it’s not totally divorced from the content it started as, you have all this tiresome exposition, over-explaining things, making them make less sense because you need them to not sound too similar. And all that ‘stuff’ detracts from space that could be used to establish the characters, show them interacting more, and make us understand why they’re in love, which is important in a romance.– Jenny Nicholson, ‘This Is DEFINITELY Not A Published Reylo Fanfic Novel’
Cutting anything you no longer need opens up new storytelling possibilities, but it also clears out clutter that’s going to get underfoot as you rewrite your story.
Having already started adding new details to your story, you have some useful clues that point to what you can cut. Begin with the changes you’ve made and reflect on what aspects of the story now only serve elements you’ve removed. Do these characters need to be in the same place, do they need to be brought together in the same way, do they need to have the same relationships?
Answering these questions depends on you having a concrete idea of what you’re moving toward and what you’re leaving behind. For instance, if your original fan fiction was of Harry Potter, you could go many different ways: if you like one particular character and want to explore their life, do you need any of the magical elements? If you want to explore how the magic ‘works,’ do you need to set the story in a school? If you want to explore the social dynamics of the characters, do you need any of J. K. Rowling’s antagonists?
In his critique of the movie adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, Dan Olson describes how, in the books, the character of José remains a presence in the story even after his narrative usefulness has been fulfilled and it would be easy and appropriate to write him out. Olson identifies this as a problem with the books being unable to cut ties with their origins – José is based on a popular character from Twilight, and this makes it hard for E. L. James to let him go:
Marcel and Taylor-Johnson had the right idea that, at this point, José’s narrative utility (if not his friendship with Anna) is done, and he more or less disappears for the rest of the movie. In the book, he continues to float around in the background… he’s always sort of there as though he’s going to form part of a love triangle that never happens, because he’s Jacob Black, and you can’t just cut him out of your fan fiction or Team Jacob will revolt!– Dan Olson, A Lukewarm Defence of Fifty Shades of Grey (The Movie)
Start big and work toward the small stuff. For example, even if you want to explore the Triwizard Tournament, ask yourself which parts you really need. A championship in which wizards use their powers to overcome a series of challenges sounds interesting, but do they need to be from different schools, do they need to be teenagers, do the challenges have to take place over a given period of time? Does there even need to be a championship? Because if what you want to write is a team of wizards facing various dangers, you’re already pretty far away from J. K. Rowling’s vision.
Another place to start is with those details that you found inconvenient when you were first writing your fan fiction – the things you wished weren’t true, because it would have made telling your story easier. Well, your wish just came true; get rid of them!
There’s a great way of approaching the existing text that can help with this, but that’ll have to wait until part 2.
There’s a lot more to say about transforming fan fiction into original work, so join me for How To Turn Fan Fiction Into Original Work – Part 2, in which we’ll be talking about adapting for medium, dissolving Mary Sues, and whether or not you should ‘pull to publish.’
Let me know about your journey from fan fiction to original work, and check out Make Sure Your Fan Fiction Is Legal (Or Regret It Later) and How To Write Fan Fiction That Readers Will Appreciate for more advice on this subject.