Fanfic Friday: Tangents, Characterizations, and All the Feels

Admittedly, I’ve tried to present a real-world view of how fanfic lines up with typical published fiction in past posts, but I thought I’d focus today on something that, in my opinion, the style absolutely gets right.

In a lot of professional writing, and in certain types of genre fiction, there’s a huge press to keep things streamlined, keep chapters short, keep focusing on momentum. Find the plot and stick with it, don’t deviate, don’t give your readers a chance to lose interest. While I agree with that, it does seem, at times, that character development and even some more in-depth descriptions/plot elements get sacrificed to pacing and momentum. The thought process is that in this day and age readers won’t hang on through massive books when there’s so much else going on in their lives to distract them. I’m sure we could have a whole other post devoted to that debate, but there is some truth there. I’ve seen books that resemble the structure of television shows or fast-paced movies do very well, no lie. As good as those are, though, I always feel like I’m stuck on the surface or outside of the plot, watching it happen through a window.

Something that I really love about fanfic is the utter freedom writers have to tangent within a story. A lot of this is because the works often focus on relationships. It’s a hard line, too, because it’s so easy to go off the deep end with that and ruin the overall feel of the story. I’ve seen that happen enough, too. Honestly, though, I’ve seen some stories on AO3 and other places that rival some romances I’ve read. Everyone takes a dig at Fifty Shades of Grey for originally being fanfic, but I have to tell you, I’ve read some stories that really sadden me because they aren’t original. They definitely deserve to be published, because they’re incredibly good at making me feel for the characters. Sometimes they even develop them in ways that may fail as fanfic because the canon characters may not seem the way they’re portrayed on screen or on a page or whatever…but they’re actually morphed into something that’s better if it was an original character. 

Here’s my thought on that. Generally, I definitely have a set expectation of how a character should act. You should respect the creator’s intent, etc. However, I think we can all agree that there’s only so much that can be covered in a two hour movie or one book or even a series. There’s always going to be a part of you wondering ‘what if’ for a specific character you like or connect with. Maybe you just want to see them be happy. Maybe you want to see them taken down a peg. Maybe you just want to read more about them and figure out what may have been going on in their head. This sort of style definitely gives a writer that opportunity. I’ve felt empathy and sympathy for characters I never thought I’d end up liking, and I’ve read some stories that just melted me because of how well the writers chose to match up a character with certain settings and emotions. If that takes things away from the original characterization a bit, well…who’s to say they wouldn’t act that way if given the opportunity? Make it believable, and I’ll at least give it a chance.

I will admit that there are times (usually in Alternate Universe fiction), where if the character ends up slowly showing a different side to them that makes sense, I’ll follow you there. The caveat is that it has to be done well – I don’t want to read a vaudeville-esque villain portrayal of any type of bad guy or someone mooning about just to do it. You have to give me a reason to believe this character might have a version of itself that would act that way. And, like I said earlier, often times this just makes me sad because I really wish there were other names attached to those characters in a book that I could buy.

For a very loose example – I’ve read a story based on an action/adventure-type movie genre movie, where the residence of the characters is reminiscent of Restoration culture and the plot is almost something out of Masterpiece Theatre. There is a plot, but a lot of the story is various interactions between the characters. You may have one chapter that suddenly throws a kink in the action, then three to five of the characters dealing with all the repercussions among themselves. You would not think in a million years that it would work, but it does, very well, in fact. It’s also brilliant in that it slightly morphs the main “good” guy in the actual movie to be arrogant and slightly dangerous in a believable way, and slightly tweaks the “villain” of the movie to be more sympathetic and easy to relate to – in a believable way. That absolutely works for me.

I’ve read “day in the life” type of stuff in various universes that, while I’m not sure how it would fit in with the original work’s canon, works really well emotionally and with some suspension of timeline. I could see something like that being a really, really interesting take on urban fantasy, beyond what paranormal romance has done from shooting off from that genre.

I can see where all of this wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but something about the posting in chunks or chapter by chapter format really works for some writers. While pushing the story forward, they may throw in a couple of scenes that, while not really servicing the plot, do give you more of an insight to the characters and the reasons behind their actions. There’s also the opportunity for one shots – sometimes just for the hell of it, sometimes set within a fanfic writer’s own little version of the universe. Again, they may tangent the “main” series or story,but you get some really intimate interactions, some wonderfully angsty moments, some revealing dialogue that cranks everything up a few notches. I’ve seen a lot of this in AU (alternate universe, stories that may change a key element or twelve but keep the same characters) stories, and I have to admit that stumbling upon one of these tangent pieces (if it’s done really well) will, often, make me go look up the main story, or at least more of the writer’s work.

Drabbles work well for this, too. A writer may not have a long idea in mind, but has enough to do a little 800 word scene. There’s usually a very specific goal involved, usually a very specific moment between two characters or something that reveals a lot of emotional context for a specific character. Granted, sometimes these are gratuitous, but that’s not always a bad thing, either.

Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed Shojo manga does a lot of this, too. Those stories are also usually written chapter by chapter (so many pages have to be out each month or whatever the schedule is, depending on where it’s published). Boys Over Flowers (Hana Yori Dango) goes all over the place, especially in the early volumes, and I never felt it got way, way out of control. If anything, you get a sense of the author really discovering a lot about her cast by putting them in these situations – something that’s honestly lost a little bit in the anime and drama versions, because the main story had to be streamlined to work better for those mediums. Skip Beat is incredible for character interactions. Pages and pages are devoted to Kyoko learning acting technique from Ren, and while it may seem frivolous at first, the author is usually great about bringing those moments up later and having them move Kyoko’s actions forward. Plus, they serve to show the growing relationship between the two characters, as well as Ren’s secret life and all of Kyoko’s emotional problems.

This is where I wish I felt better about linking to fanfic, but I don’t like calling people out without permission. I could show you some phenomenal character-driven pieces, though. Some are more traditionally paced than others and some meander around and are unapologetic about it. There are definitely times this doesn’t work, but when it does, it’s magical. You feel like you’ve seen another side to someone you thought you knew, or maybe you feel better about the whole original character technique because you come across a scene that just tears you open with empathy for that person. I’ve discovered some hilarious moments that I’m way jealous I never thought of, and it make me happy because it’s obvious the writer in question is having a blast. Honestly, isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway? Producing good work and having fun doing it isn’t a crime, and sometimes it gives you something just amazing to read.

Formula and discipline are all well and good, but I’d love to get to a point where I could incorporate both into my worlds, like maybe do a main series then do spin-off stories of little moments that really don’t amount to much except making the reader happy or allow them to discover something about characters they love. Plus, it would be fun for me, too, to just write to play with the casts I’ve worked so hard to create.

What about you, all you fanfic readers/writers out there? Do you think there’s a difference in form? Do you like reading character-centric pieces with no real goal, or is this the end of the free universe as we know it? Can this sort of thing be incorporated into genre fiction? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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