The Demon of Originality, or Lessons from Fanfiction

This time we’re going to talk about every writer’s bugaboo: the Demon of Originality. That nasty little voice in your head tells you, in the sneering tones of the high-school English teacher from hell, that your idea is ‘not very original.’ That idea alone stops a lot of us cold.

And for the rest of us, it gives us sneaking doubts. There are those of us, for example, who do adaptations or riffs on other works; the writers of historical fiction; and let’s not forget all of us writing pulp fiction, whether it’s detective stories or high fantasy or romance, where most of the art consists of playing with or against traditional narrative arcs and/or character types.

Then there are the shadow worlds that respectable writers eschew: below the demi-monde of pulp lies the underworld of fanfiction. And interestingly, there are some real lessons to be learned from the descent into the underworld.

All, right, I’m going to fess up: I read the stuff, and it’s been tremendously educational in a number of respects. For one thing, it’s a sort of laboratory of genre and narrative. When everyone is starting from the same universe and characters, narratives stand out from the background as entities unto themselves, as do choices in characterization. Narratives and tropes play against each other, and generate new ones (along with endless imitations), so what we’re looking at is a miniature, hothouse version of the genesis of literature itself; it’s rather like a terrarium, compared to the Amazon jungle.

Oh yes, and you were going to say: the stuff is crap. Well, no, I’d say it’s 90% crap, according to Sturgeon’s Law. The other 10% is good stuff. It’s not curated, because just about anybody, for example, can contribute to I’ve heard it said that the big fanfiction archives resemble slush piles, in terms of the distribution of quality and the lack of curation.

This, too, is a positive, if you ever wanted to get a fix on your own relative position in the evolutionary scale of writing quality. It’s a whole lot easier to spot bad writing when it’s somebody else’s, and nowhere else on earth will you see a slushpile in the wild. They’re mostly shut away in the towering stacks of manila envelopes on the desks of hapless publishing interns. And it’s not strictly true that you can’t find the good stuff, because fanfic fans constantly create lists of their favorite stuff.

It’s non-profit, and that takes money out of the equation. You’re never going to make a cent from writing it, and it’s free to read it. It’s grubby kid stuff, with zero pretense of literary merit and all sorts of gleeful playing-about. Which means that readers and writers alike face head-on not only the Demon of Originality, but the Demon of Seriousness, which is to say, the one that whispers loudly in every writer’s (and reader’s) ear that what they’re about is silly, that they’re day-dreaming,  walking around in worlds that don’t exist, and having way too much fun doing it.

Some lessons and conclusions:

  • The only difference between the daydreaming done by the reader and the writer is that the writer is in the driver’s seat.
  • The only difference between the daydreaming of fanfiction and ‘original’ fiction is that the reader comes to fanfiction with some givens.
  • And actually, for ‘original’ fiction, the givens are provided sub rosa by the genre label, which is why it’s such a perilous thing to play about with genre, and so very confusing to those of us who aren’t quite sure what our work is.
  • Oh yes, and genres that make me happy, just because they play about with all sorts of boundaries: magical realism, urban fantasy, steam-punk, superhero romance (yay!), zombie fiction (even though I don’t write a huge amount of it), and stuff that’s full of silly-silly self-referential comments. The genres currently accepted as ‘serious fiction’ are actually a very narrow band in the traditional storytelling spectrum (but that’s a rant for another day).

What else about fanfiction: it makes you start thinking about the uses of backstory. From time to time I’ll read fanfic in a universe where I don’t know the original material—usually because I like the work of a particular fanfic writer—and often these stories hold up as stories even though I haven’t the faintest idea who the characters are or what the setup is. That gets me thinking about my own fussing, as a writer of ‘original’ fiction, about setup and exposition and world-building. What if I just assumed that my readers were fans? I’d only reveal as much of the background as was really necessary to the story, just as a fanfic writer will retell a bit of ‘canon’ backstory when it serves the requirements of her/his narrative.

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