Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Welcome to part 2 of our article on ‘origifying’ fan fiction into something that stands (and can be sold) on its own two feet. In part 1 (available here), we discussed the basic logic of how to turn fan fiction into original work, and we began addressing superficial differences and cutting any ties that don’t serve our new story. In this, part 2, we’ll be getting a lot more practical, and since we’ve got a lot of ground to cover and not much time in which to do it, let’s get going.
Replace situation, maintain relationship
Last time, we talked about cutting ties – losing those elements that are only there because they feature in the work from which you’re taking inspiration. There are lots of ways to do this, and it will be an ongoing process as you write, but one radical approach is to try altering your characters’ situation while maintaining their relationship.
Famously, Fifty Shades of Grey was adapted from a piece of Twilight fan fiction called Master of the Universe. E. L. James was inspired by the relationship between the characters in Twilight, and specifically the power imbalance between an ageless vampire and a human teenager.
What’s interesting is that this relationship (the differing levels of life experience) isn’t inextricable from the situation (a vampire/student romance). In Fifty Shades of Grey, James instead tells the story of a high-powered businessman and a virginal student. Instead of a desire to feed on human blood, James’ protagonist has a compulsion to punish women, and an extended lifetime of vampiric misbehavior is replaced with a human story of sadism and abuse.
Anyone reading Twilight might think the supernatural elements are essential, but James’ Fifty Shades retains the elements that spoke to her personal vision without a fang in sight.
The truth is that you can make much bigger changes than you may think while still retaining everything you need for your personal vision. Ask what you actually need from the various settings and plot elements of your story – is it necessary that these characters go to school together, or is it just necessary that they see each other every day? If the latter, an office or even a hospital can do the job just as well.
Remember that what you need to keep is entirely dictated by the story you’re trying to tell. While the aim is to keep ‘relationships,’ this doesn’t have to be literal – if Character X and Character Y are married in the story from which you’re taking inspiration, but all you need for your story is that they’re close enough to share secrets, then that’s the only part that needs to stay the same. Make them brother and sister, mother and daughter, priest and parishioner. Not only will this free you from the source, but it’ll open up a wealth of new storytelling opportunities.
Merge minor characters, dissolve Mary Sues
Of course, relationships aren’t sacred. They’re useful because they describe how characters interact, but if there’s another way of achieving the same effect, go for it!
I won’t over-explain common writing advice here, but most authors should consider whether they can merge minor characters together. How does this work? Well, we need Character B to give our protagonist something useful in chapter 2, and we need Character C to give them some good advice in chapter 4, but we don’t really need either character for anything else. That being the case, why not merge them together and have one character do both things? Not only does this make for a tidier narrative, but it makes for a more interesting cast, because our new character now has more to do in the story and can be explored more without that time being wasted.
This is as true for personality traits as it is for function in the story. If you have a funny character and a melancholic character, try merging them into a character who masks their suffering with humor. You just got a much more interesting character, and all it cost you was two who weren’t pulling their weight.
Where this becomes particularly relevant to authors of fan fiction is in how restructuring their story changes each character’s function. As you move events, settings, and characters around to tell your own story, it’s likely that some previously vital characters are now superfluous. This is a good time to cut them or, if you can’t cut them entirely, to merge them with other minor characters. This will help you keep moving away from the source text, but it’ll also give you even more complex characters to play with.
The opposite technique can be used with ‘Mary Sue’ characters. These are characters who are a little too good to be true. Every event revolves around them, they always have the right answer or the relevant experience to solve any problem, and they’re most commonly found in fan fiction.
She’s amazingly intelligent, outrageously beautiful, adored by all around her – and absolutely detested by most reading her adventures. She’s Mary Sue, the most reviled character type in media fan fiction. Basically, she’s a character representing the author of the story, an avatar, the writer’s projection into an interesting world full of interesting people whom she watches weekly and thinks about daily.– Pat Pflieger, ‘“Too Good To Be True”: 150 Years Of Mary Sue’
The definition of a Mary Sue character has drifted a little since Pflieger wrote the above, but the basic implications remain the same. As readers, we want the problems of a story to be solved, and so when we take the reins of that story, it can be tempting to solve them a little too easily by throwing in a super-capable character or even just becoming a character and fixing them ourselves.
But just as minor characters can be merged, Mary Sue characters can be dissolved, their accomplishments and over-varied attributes either shared out between the other characters or split in two, creating two more believable characters.
Try a little merging and dissolving as you rewrite the first draft of what will become an original work, then revisit these ideas during the editing stage.
Do some contextual research
Okay, we left behind the surface details a little while ago, but now we’re really getting into the heart of the story. If you want to adapt fan fiction into an original work rather than write something new, it’s because there’s something about your source material that you really want to keep.
That’s fine (again, it’s how inspiration works), but if you want to create something of your own, you need to do your own research into the things you want to keep. What new things can you learn about the idea in question? If you’re adapting Harry Potter fan fiction, what can you learn about boarding schools that J. K. Rowling didn’t include in her story? If you’re adapting Star Wars, what can you find out about fascist dictatorships that will make your Empire different from the one in the movies? You’re sure to find facts that work for your story, even if they weren’t relevant to the author of the source text.
Research whatever element of the story is making you want to play in its world. Again, start big then think smaller. What can you learn about the circumstances that affect all your characters? What can you learn about the life experience of just one?
Backfill missing context
One of the main attractions of fan fiction is that your target audience already understands a whole world and cast of characters which you don’t have to explain.
Obviously, this is something you lose when you adapt your fan fiction into an original story – as you sever ties with someone else’s world, you lose the context that world brought with it.
Generally, this is a good thing – that context is what we’re trying to move away from – but it can pose its own problems. For instance, you now have to think up and explain new versions of any pre-existing elements which you want to keep. You’ll also have to contend with what losing certain types of context means for the way you’ve told your story.
In her critique of Black Moon Rising, Jenny Nicholson opines that author Frankie Rose’s story suffers extensively from this issue. In a world where Rose’s characters aren’t drawing on the context of an existing franchise, Nicholson argues that they fall apart:
Removed from the exact context they were obviously written in, the characters’ motivations make no sense anymore. The author did this to herself. It’s obvious that when she wrote the fanfic, it was deeply entrenched in the universe in which it was set, which is a good quality for a fanfic! But it also means that you can’t extract it without breaking it.– Jenny Nicholson, ‘This Is DEFINITELY Not A Published Reylo Fanfic Novel’
Of course, the solution isn’t just to re-explain someone else’s plot, and this is another common misstep when ‘origifying’ fan fiction. No-one wants to read a huge information dump at the start of your book. Instead, you’ll have to take the same approach as any other type of author: figuring out what the reader needs to know when and then finding a natural, entertaining way to share that information. Oh, alright – we’ll help.
Restructure serial fiction
A lot of fan fiction is published online in chapters, many of which will be written only after previous chapters have been written and published. There’s nothing wrong with this (it’s a great way to get a piece written), but it can cause problems that you need to iron out as you adapt your fan fiction.
In his critique of the Fifty Shades franchise, Dan Olson breaks down how he feels this serialized approach hurts E. L. James’ novel:
The serial nature of the original publication is something that was never worked out in the editing process, so plot threads will abruptly end, the story will get sidetracked in a random aside for several chapters at a time that will ultimately be dropped and forgotten, things are rarely foreshadowed, and at least one character that is integral to the plot, Link, is only mentioned in passing four times in the entire series, and never actually shows up.
…In particular, the serial fan fiction method tends towards a sort of public performance. A writer might publish a short, dead-end chapter purely because they haven’t posted anything in a few weeks and their fans are wondering if ‘the fic is dead.’ Ideas might catch the author’s attention, but after a few weeks they decide it just isn’t going the direction they or the audience want, and so the plot thread is abandoned. Because the nature of serial fiction is to always keep pushing forward, and edits are only made chapter by chapter, these problems then persist into further derivatives. For Fifty Shades of Grey in specific, these mostly manifest as a lot of cyclical, repeating scenes in the middle of the book, petty arguments and conflicts that happen often enough that it’s hard to remember which specific one was in which specific chapter, and numerous side stories that last a chapter or two before abruptly ending. Now, ideally, these are exactly the kind of issues that an editor would address in adapting a fan fiction from forum thread to published novel.– Dan Olson, A Lukewarm Defence of Fifty Shades of Grey (The Movie)
So, what’s the solution? As Olson points out elsewhere, it’s fine for a story to feel episodic, with miniature arcs of rising and falling conflict. The problem is when those episodes are so separate from one another that the end-product ceases to feel like a whole and begins to feel, in Olson’s words, like ‘just the ongoing, stream-of-consciousness, compulsive writing of someone more concerned with maintaining their online status, their presence and dominance in a community, than they are with the actual story they’re telling.’
In short, now that you know where your story is going, you need to make sure that all the various plot threads and major occurrences build and interweave in a satisfying way.
Adapt according to medium
A short piece of advice here, but one that’s often relevant. A lot of the time, fan fiction is a way for authors to engage with another medium – a video game, a graphic novel, a movie – in a way that isn’t possible in its original form.
You can’t just see a movie and then make your own, but you can write something in the same world. This is becoming a common refrain, but I’ll say it again: there’s nothing wrong with this at all.
That said, it’s a process that comes with its own problems – namely, that you’re attempting to write a story that was designed to be told in another medium.
Movies excel at spectacle and clarity, video games excel at immersion, and graphic novels excel at manipulating the reader’s perception of time and space. This means that, if you adapt such media to the written word, you need to compensate for what the original version was bringing to the table. Movie fight scenes aren’t as spectacular in writing, video-game busywork isn’t as gratifying, and big comic-book twists don’t come with the advantage of being able to immediately flip back and read an earlier scene in a new context.
Of course, literature comes with its own benefits, but they’re only there if you use them. It’s easier to move between characters, there’s the opportunity to see a lot more of your story, and you’re building more of a relationship with your reader as they consume your story over a longer period, to name only a few.
If your story started out as fan fiction for something presented in another medium, make sure you’re focusing on those parts that gel best with the written word.
Decide whether you’ll ‘pull to publish’
When it comes to fan fiction being adapted into original work, there are few more hotly contested questions than whether to ‘pull to publish.’ This phrase refers to the practice of making it hard or impossible to read the original fan fiction in order to support your new release.
The benefits of doing so are obvious – your book doesn’t have to compete with a free, easily accessible version of itself, it’s much harder for people to draw direct lines between your inspiration and your art, and you don’t have to keep justifying the journey your story took to publication.
Of course, there are downsides too. If your fan fiction was popular in its own right, existing fans may be irritated if they feel you’re sweeping it under the rug. Similarly, acknowledging your fan-fic roots can make it easier to gain attention for your work, since readers already have a point of reference. Finally, if anyone does go looking for the original fan fiction, they may conclude you have something to hide.
You’ll have to weigh these considerations to decide whether pulling your work from the net in order to publish a new version is worth it. If you decide to do so, you can simply delete the work where it appears. If a site is hosting your work and you’re unable to delete it personally, get in touch to request it be removed. If, after that, any sites are hosting your work without your approval, you can follow the advice in What To Do If A Website Has Stolen Your Work.
Move from adaptation to inspiration
Following the advice described above will help you turn your fan fiction into an original work, but the final thing you need to do is accept that process. Be conscious of how you discuss your work: trumpeting the source material can be beneficial in fan communities, but it can hurt you with a wider audience, who don’t want to feel like they’re reading a copy or knock-off.
The idea isn’t to be dishonest; writing isn’t magic, it’s hard work, and if you did the hard work to develop an idea into a book that’s legally yours and no-one else’s, you wrote a book. Start to think of the original story as your inspiration, not as a work you adapted. The fan fiction was the adaptation, and the story you turned it into is what came next.
As you market your book – as you develop the blurb, as you promote it on social media, even as you discuss it with friends – try to be conscious that you’re not accidentally telling them not to take your work seriously. Every author on the planet is able to create art because of the writers who filled their heads with ideas. You’re no different.
So, that’s our advice on turning your fan fiction into original work that can rightly be sold as your own. As ever, if you have any questions, I’ll see you in the comments, and please 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 the subject of fan fiction.