Confessions of a fan-fic author
And the destruction of beloved characters
Here’s one I prepared earlier, currently teaching an intensive Masters’ subject…
A confession: “Hi, my name’s Katy, and I write fan fiction.”
My daughter, interjecting: “Mu-u-u-u-um! Don’t publicly tell people this! They’ll think you’re totally perverted and write about orgies.”
Me: “But I don’t! I write very carefully researched work. Sometimes I consult academic articles to make sure I get details right. Most of my works are ‘canon consistent’, or at the least, ‘canon compliant’. Often, I try to match the author’s style, and justify plot choices or characterisations I make.”
My daughter: “I know you do—I’ve seen some of your stuff—it’s super nerdy—but… a lot of fan fiction isn’t like that.”
[Daughter proceeded to show me: (1) A BDSM romance between Faramir and Uglúk from Lord of the Rings - but we never got to the explicit part, because it was just too badly written; and (2) a love story between Stalin and Trotsky, a ‘ship’1 known as ‘Strotsky’, again horribly written.]
Me: 😱😱😱 “I need to bleach my brain, to forget these tales.”
My daughter: “Now you see why you shouldn’t tell people that you write fan fiction. They’re going to think you write things like that.’”
Another friend, who’s read some of my fan fiction, has a theory that because I am a common lawyer and an academic, I respect precedent and what has gone before, but I am creative with it. I think there’s truth to this. I try to develop characters in ways consistent with prior depictions. That’s all part of the fun: what can I do with these characters, within the plot constraints and characterisations which have gone before, and using the history, culture, or world the author has used?
Why do I write fan fiction?
I’ll be honest, it started out as a joke at first. A friend and I wrote a Lord of the Rings fan fiction story as a joke, just before COVID-19 hit, when I was about to start intensive rehabilitation for the second time. I’d never heard of fan fiction before, but since I was young, I’ve had difficulties falling asleep. One of my tactics to soothe my anxious brain was to imagine what happened to characters after some of my favourite stories had finished. My imagination was already primed to write fan fiction.
As we were writing our silly story, we realised that we had to work out other background details. So we started filling in gaps in the chapter ‘The Steward and the King’ from The Return of the King, to finish the silly story.
When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, we were subjected to harsh lockdowns in Melbourne, for two years, off and on. I suffered from terrible insomnia and panic attacks. I would get up at 3am and send a paragraph or two to my friend for her critique. She’d send suggestions and paragraphs back. Because we were both commercial lawyers, we felt that Tolkien had not outlined the legal system in sufficient detail, or for that matter, commercial operations. We used our legal surmises as plot devices, and had tremendous fun. It kept us sane.2
We started inventing characters’ children, where we had a lot more free rein. It pleased us, then, to mash up genres, and play around with tropes. Jane Austen and Tolkien? Why not! Murder mysteries and Tolkien? Let’s do it! Romances of all kinds, university dramas, harem dramas, school days stories, imperial intrigues, military dramas, spy stories: you name it, we gave it a go...
Among other things, we enjoyed creating a richly detailed Haradric Empire, based on our knowledge of Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Mughal, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Persian empires. We’ve made it ethnically and culturally diverse, with its own set of norms and moral codes which make sense in that context. It’s also riven by tension between the Northern ruling class and the rebellious South, and the constant churn of Emperors. We particularly love to explore cultural clashes and cultural difference, something we have both experienced in real life.
Tolkien would be spinning in his grave at some of what we’ve written, I suspect, but we still kept to the rules of his world, his languages, and his writings, and we ensured that if we used characters in his books, they were consistent with those earlier depictions (or at least, consistent with hints in the Appendices, in one instance).
By the end of three years of lockdown, illness on my part, and difficult times, we had—okay, brace yourselves—around 800,000 words. There’s so much of it that we haven’t finished posting it. I keep finding more stories.
In writing, we exorcised some of our own demons. For example, I put several disastrous dates into one hapless character’s experiences. As my co-author said, “It’s much cheaper than drugs or therapy.” Sometimes, when I am feeling blue, I read one of the stories involving our mad inventor characters. Those two never fail to cheer me up, no matter what else is going on.
Last year my daughter encouraged me to make some of my fan fiction public, after she read the bad date story, and was in tears of laughter. Even now, when she’s feeling down, I just have to mention a certain line from that story, and she begins to laugh again.
I continue to write fan fiction because I find it enjoyable and relaxing. I understand that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and some people (including my mother and several close friends) think I am utterly insane for wasting my time on this. That’s fine. They don’t have to read it if they don’t want. Other people don’t have to affirm or accept my choices.
However, over the last six months or more, I’ve discovered that some other people enjoy what I write. It’s not high literature, but I try to make sure it’s well-written, and comb it for errors. I have published fiction, but I was never formally trained, and hence, I’m much more anxious about my fiction than my academic writing. Fan fiction is a good way to get feedback.
I don’t want to destroy characters, or make them behave in ways that are utterly inconsistent with canon. No, Uglúk doesn’t get together with Faramir in any of our works, because that’s just stupid, and inconsistent with their characters and the story.
Another friend, Terry, was telling me about the new Indiana Jones movie. He’s advised me not to watch it, as he thinks that I will be upset, after witnessing my reaction to Episode VIII of Star Wars in particular. I think he’s right. I couldn’t watch Episode IX of Star Wars.
Just. Could. Not.
I hated what they did to Luke Skywalker in Episode VIII. He didn’t resemble his character in Episodes IV, V and VI at all. Terry tells me they’ve done this to Indiana Jones as well. I know some people will think this is ridiculous, and possibly childish of me, but I don’t want to see the movie, if they’ve destroyed Indie.
There’s a balance. Characters have to grow and develop. Sometimes, really interesting stories can be created by giving characters a new angle. On the other hand, if you’re making a sequel to a movie, one can’t just ignore everything that went before, and make the characters do things that are totally inconsistent with prior movies. As Terry notes, there must be some consistency.
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Why do filmmakers want to destroy beloved characters from the past, or make heroic characters ‘gritty’, ‘tortured’, ‘problematic’, or otherwise unlikeable? Terry wonders if filmmakers feel they must be ‘serious’ and move beyond providing enjoyment. My fan fic co-author says, in memorable words, “I think the current fashion has confused ‘interesting’ characters with ‘insufferable’ characters.”
Terry described what was done to Luke Skywalker in Episode VII, and what has been done to Indiana Jones in the latest movie, as reflecting a ‘fan fiction’ mentality. If he means taking original characters, and making them behave in ways which are utterly alien to the original work, I now know exactly what he means (thanks to my daughter, who laughed when she read the first part of this post).
There’s an art to writing a sequel, or to writing good fan fiction, or to adapting a novel for film. As Terry says, “Stories must be built, not reset.” Yes, it’s possible to develop new aspects or characters, but you have to keep an eye to the spirit and intendment of the original characters, world, and story. Fundamentally, it’s about respecting the original author or filmmaker, and respecting your audience and their enjoyment of the story.
Short for relationship. At least some fan fiction involves ‘shipping’ characters in improbable ways.
Terms and conditions apply. Well, we’re lawyers, right?