I recently read a very nice young adult novel by Rainbow Rowell – Fangirl [Amazon link] and it got me thinking about the nature of ideas in fiction-writing. The book tells the story of an introverted college girl who prefers to live in the world of her favourite book series and write her own version of events in that same world. Her Fiction Writing professor tries to discourage her from stealing other people’s characters and worlds and, instead, invent her own. The girl, however, is reluctant to do so. What’s the issue? It is just that it is a lot more difficult to come up with a decent character and setting by yourself, or is there more to own preference for writing fanfiction?
When having ideas isn’t enough
A lot of us aspiring writers have an idea every now and then. We take great care to not those ideas and try to develop them in our heads. Thinking about and imagining what you might write is a lot of fun. I often spend my whole commutes to work trying to come up with witty lines for a story I have. All in all, having ideas usually isn’t a problem. It’s putting them down on paper that’s tricky. When I was 16, I wanted to write a novel about this girl, Kassidi, who was my age and who had lost her brother and father in a plane crash. As soon as I sat down to write it, however, I discovered that I knew nothing about Kassidi. I didn’t know when she was born, where she lived, what colour her bedroom walls were; heck, I didn’t even know how tall she was. I needed to be able to imagine her world in order to write about it. And coming up with all those details (and then actually remembering them) proved too much for me at the time.
DIY vs. factory-made basics
Before you say ‘You should have started smaller’, let us return to the book that inspired this post. So what was the Fiction Writing professor’s ultimate tip for writing fiction? ‘Start with your own life.’ She advised our college girl to dig deep into her past and come up with something – be it an event, person or feeling, she would like to explore; and then twist and turn it until it was a completely different story. So far in my non-fanfiction writing I have always done just that. I wonder if there’s any other way to do it. But it still means finding some middle ground, some starting point. No one builds a world out of thin air. Even J.K. Rowling built hers on the presumption that, in the post WWII world, the youth had the power to prevent Nazism from rising again. I guess my point is: how is using somebody else’s world worse than using your own inner world (provided, of course, you are not trying to profit from it)? If anything, it should be more different to get under a character’s skin if it was not created by you. Saying that people who write fanfiction are lazy just shows how little one knows about writing fanfiction.
All’s well that ends well
I have previously wrote about the beneficial side-effects of writing fanfiction, so I am not about to repeat myself here. But I will say that: writing fanfiction made me realize I could actually come up with interesting plot twists and character developments, something I previously lacked. Since I started writing fanfiction I have written a number of short stories, a radio play and half a novel, and I am increasingly proud of my non-fanfiction work. If I had to write some unlikely slash to get there, it was a price worth paying. What is more, writing fanfiction meant that I found like-minded individuals who like my fan work and, as a result, are a lot more likely to read my other stuff too. If that is not a clear advantage of writing fics, I don’t know what is.
So, what do you think? Would you take a person, who is more widely known for their fanfiction than for their original fiction, the light of day, or do you consider the practice of using other people’s characters to be lazy plagiarism?