Saturday, March 17, 2012

As a reader, my imagination is often caught by an author's work. When the story finishes, my head is off running far away, asking a lot of 'what if' questions. What if this had happened? What if this character had made a different choice? This is the basis of all fanfiction, and can be the basis of original works. But how do you make the jump from one to the other as a writer?

For the purposes of this post, I'm going to outline my strategies for that using a well known work. If you find this useful, by all means, use to your hearts content. I'm not scared of posting what in the end will be a proposed story for one reason: execution is easier said than done. Even should one of you take the ideas outlined here and write out the story, it will be completely different from what I would write from this same set of ideas. We'd use different details, which if done properly would result in different characters, choices, events, and outcomes. A different story.

So, perhaps one of the works with the biggest fanfiction community currently is Twilight. A basic summary of the first book is that Bella, a female teenager, goes to live with her single father after her mother's remarriage. At her new school she meets a male teenaged vampire named Edward. Edward and Bella fall in love and start dating as Bella learns more about the culture of Edward's vampire family and his way of life. A trio of new vampires to the area challenge Edward's family's control of the area, and use Bella against Edward during the conflict. Edward saves Bella, and they happily go to prom in celebration. In the rest of the post, I'm going to still refer to these characters as Bella and Edward even though by the end of the post, they shouldn't resemble the originals. Changing just their names won't change anything at all. They will still be the same people, doing the same things, in the same story. In order to change the story, and the characters, the changes must be more extensive than surface details.

An easy first thing to change about Bella is that in the original her parents are no longer together and  are even living in separate states. A teenager who's parents are still married, or still have a close relationship, or still live in nearby areas, will have a very different relationship with their parents. In the original, Bella and her father aren't close, and her mother isn't present. This leaves Bella free to do a lot of things a teenager might not otherwise be able to do, including manipulate a father who doesn't know her well. If Charlie knew his daughter better, would she be able to mislead him as much as she did in the original? Would he stand by as much when Bella fell apart in the beginning of the second book? Notice that simply changing Bella's family dynamic will change her relationships with them. It will also shift her personality. If she's no longer the child of single parents, would she be as independent of them? Would she rely on them more for things like dinner, gas, or even approval? Adding in Bella's mother is a huge step, because she's almost completely absent from all four Twilight books. You essentially have a new character, because Meyer hasn't given you much to go on. If you make Bella's mom be still married to Charlie and acting as a mature adult, you've completely negated almost everything Meyer has given you. What happens to Bella if she is no longer the adult in that  mother/daughter relationship? If Charlie is making pro-active and effective choices, you've also negated much of Meyer's original character. Your changes to characters must be more than skin deep. You've changed their backstory, which is going to change them. Pay attention when your changes to characters negate some other part of their backstory, resolve any conflicts between new and original, and allow those things to express themselves as changes to the characters personality and actions. If your goal is something that can be sold as an original work, find things to negate. The more the better.

How would you deal with vampirism differently? Every vampire book you pick up uses a different set of circumstances. Some are based in old mythology, and some are utterly unique. Meyer uses a very unique vampire, so I'd be tempted to pull back into something more traditional. No sparkles, but to keep the young adult genre and the high school setting, my Edward is going to need lots of sunblock. Maybe he's goth or punk of some flavor and wears a hooded jacket with the hood up no matter the weather. I also don't particularly like the idea of someone who is a hundred years old (more or less) falling for a seventeen year old girl. There's a certain creep factor to it, and I also have trouble believing that someone who is a hundred is going to find much in common with a teenager. I'll grant you they'll feel lust, but I'm unsure of long lasting love. So what if Edward is older, but maybe only in his mid-twenties. Maybe he was still turned as a teenager, but he had to leave school in order to learn control. Now he's back and wants to finish his education. We still have an older male love interest who values education, who wants a normal life, who can hopefully be a positive and mature influence. But he's going to be wearing his scars from his turning a bit more obviously. He's going to be a bit more vulnerable, more tentative. He's going to be more attuned to modern youth culture. He's going to have more in common with Bella. He's also going to be easier to write, because he's going to need to do more obvious growth than someone who is a hundred years old. The more he needs to find his way, the more distance you've put between new Edward and original Edward.

While having conflict between competing vampire groups happens in multiple books featuring vampires, it's worth considering loosing it completely. Again, key and recognizable piece. On the other hand, it can be utterly transformed by simply letting Bella be a protagonist and not a princess in the tower waiting to be rescued. If Bella saves the day instead of running away, we have a completely different story. In order for new Bella to be strong enough to do this, she's going to be radically different from the original Bella. If you choose this path, be sure to backtrack and make sure that your Bella has everything in her backstory that she'll need to be the heroine. Original Bella does not have a great deal of things in her backstory that would let her play, survive, and thrive in Edward's world as a human. That's why in Breaking Dawn she becomes a vampire herself. It's not just because she loves Edward and wants to spend eternity with him, it's because she wants to survive. Giving her those things without turning her into a vampire will transform her as a character. This new Bella will make fundamentally different choices, so the story will go in new directions as a reflection of those choices.

To sum everything up, with a few changes, we've gone from Twilight to something new. I have new female and male protagonists, who have different strengths and weaknesses. They have different familial relationships. They have different problems to solve. They will find different answers to the questions of how to fall in love (and why), and how to defend against violent outside aggression. However, it's still deeply similar to Twilight, and legitimately pulls a lot of inspiration from it without being fanfiction. When shifting a story like this, identify key recognizable elements. Anything that suggests deep seated ties to the original work must go. These changes need to be more than surface ones; they need to go all the way down to the foundations of your story. With something like a teenage love story with vampires, you're going to be compared to Meyer no matter what you do. That's fine, and in some cases my actually help you sell more copies of your work. But your work needs to be different enough that agents and editors will be intrigued instead of bored. It must be different enough that Meyer cannot sue you (and your potential agent, editor, and publisher) for copyright infringement.

Virtually every author does this process, consciously or unconsciously, at some point in their lives. I liked this, but what happens when I change that? It's the amount of and level of changes that take another person's story and makes it your story. You can also take inspiration from multiple sources. Like, what if Bella and Edward had to fight Blade or Buffy in order to win the day? At the same time, I find that proposing these changes is far easier than writing them. Writing fanfiction is writing with characters you already know on some level. Without being able to read new Bella first and write her later, I have to write as I get to know her. I have to figure it out as I go, and I need to think about her long and hard. It's how I execute that thinking, planning, and writing that will ultimately determine whether I have a successful piece of fiction or not.


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