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03 May 2010 @ 18:01
thoughts on derivative works and filing off the serial numbers.  
So I'd originally written this back in March 2008, at my pro blog. When I moved that blog to a different location, in an effort to segregate my pro work from my fannish life, I deleted it. But in light of certain meta recently, I decided to republish it here on my fannish LJ.

The thing about spending over an hour in a taxi with someone, is that you end up having conversations. And aside from the fact that it took us ages and ages to get where we intended to go, and then cost a lot of money, it actually gave us the opportunity to talk about fan fiction. And I came to a realisation that week-end, both about myself, and how I approach fanfic.

I argue with people all the time that writing good fan fiction (or any derivative work, whether it's DC Comics' Batman, or a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, or a retelling of a myth, legend, or fairy tale) is hard work. It's not less hard work than writing original fiction. It's probably not more hard work than writing original fiction. It's different hard work. If you don't think Shakespeare wasn't sweating blood writing MacBeth or Hamlet or A Midsummer Night's Dream just because he was retelling stories other people had fictionalised and dramatised before him, then you'd best walk away from me right now because we're simply never going to come to a common POV. Best give up now.

The thing that excites me creatively with derivative fiction is the challenge of telling a new story set in an existing universe, and making it fit as cleanly into the original universe as possible. In terms of continuity, in terms of characterisation, I want the audience to feel satisfied that what they are reading could happen. But more than that, I want them to believe for the space of that story that it would happen. That if presented with these new circumstances, the characters we know so well would react exactly this way. I want stories to feel inevitable. That because of who these people are and how they relate to one another, everything that happens could not have happened any other way.

That requires a lot of research. It really does. It means knowing the source material inside out. It means knowing the characters, and being able to reproduce their voices accurately. It also requires skill. Because derivative work still needs to stand on its own as good storytelling. It needs a beginning, a middle, and an ending that satisfies. There have to be real stakes, and at the end of it, something needs to be gained or lost. Whether that something is knowledge, or a change in a character's fundamental views, or evolution of a relationship, the people at the end of your story need to have been changed by the story. Or at the very least, the audience's understanding of that world and those characters needs to be changed by it. And these are not skills unique to fan fiction. But they are skills you need to write good fan fiction. And in my eyes, that means fiction that succeeds both as fiction and derivative fiction. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

I have a passion for writing period pieces. I spent three months researching a story I wrote for a Secret Santa Fiction Exchange, based on Robert Altman's Gosford Park. Because my recipient had asked for an Ivor Novello story, I read a half dozen Novello biographies. Because the story was set in 1932, I read social histories of England between World War I and World War II, and biographies of Novello's peers. I read a dozen books on life in domestic service from Victorian times up through the 1960s. I stuffed my brain full of as much information as I could to accurately reproduce not just the period setting, but the attitudes of the characters, their social backgrounds and class differences. I needed to understand who these people were, in order to view the existing story from a different vantage point, and extrapolate beyond the film to try and say "and here's what happened next".

And I had a ridiculously good time. I really did. And I know that not everyone approaches fan fiction this way, but it's how I approach it, and that's what I find most enjoyable about the process of writing. Even if I only used a tenth of my research in the finished piece, I still enjoyed the process of learning new things immensely.

Some of my friends are proper authors who get paid and everything. It's hard for a lot of these friends to see all the hard work and passion that goes into writing a story like that, when there's no paycheque at the end of it, and understand why I do it. Where the motivation isn't to reach a mass audience, but to reach a niche one. The smallest niche there is, in fact. Because the story is not meant to stand alone, but in a symbiotic relationship to the original text. The effectiveness of the one relies on the context of the other, and the satisfaction the audience derives from it comes from their relationship with the original text.

And while fannish, these pro author friends tend to watch me go insane with tons of research for a story, and then draft after draft, and scratch their heads, and wonder why don't I try and turn that fan story into a professional sale? Because that's what makes sense to them, and I can't blame them. If I were wired differently, I probably would as well. Certainly my long-suffering parents agree with them, but that is neither here nor there.

The process is generally referred to as "filing the serial numbers off" and the idea is that you alter the characters and setting enough that they no longer resemble the original work your story is derived from. It happens all the time. But I can't imagine doing it myself, and I was really reaching as I tried to explain why. Then somewhere between LAX and Silverlake, I think I finally found a way to articulate it so that it makes sense.

Think about "alternative universe" stories.

Whether it's "Hitler won the war" or Star Trek's Mirror Universe, those stories work and are effective entirely because they rely on context. The story you're telling in that alternative universe may well be a cracking good yarn, full of romance and adventure and drama and pathos, with real stakes for fully developed 3-dimensional characters. But any depth and effectiveness that story has relies on the audience's knowledge of the original universe you are diverging from. You need to know the status quo, in order to appreciate how deviating from the status quo affects the characters. You need the knowledge of how those canon characters were shaped by their environment and experiences in the original universe, in order for the new environment and experiences to tell you fundamental truths about the original characters. You cannot fully appreciate the alternative universe without that context.

I can't imagine "filing the serial numbers off" when I write fan fiction, because the effectiveness of those stories relies on who these people are, and the world the come from. If I remove that context, then I've lost what motivated me to write it in the first place. If I set out to tell a story about Robert Parks and Mary MacEachran, then I cannot fundamentally change those characters to the point where they are no longer Robert and Mary, and no longer changed by the events surrounding William McCordle's murder. Because the joy I get is by writing something specifically in that world, for those characters, building on Julian Fellowes' script and those actors performances, and Robert Altman's direction.

I probably will build my own world to play in, and will embrace those challenges someday. And I will be hard work, and it will be different hard work from writing derivative fan works, and work I'll enjoy, and will find satisfying. But right now, I derive tremendous satisfaction from writing fan fiction precisely because it requires me to be a good storyteller and an excellent mimic. And all those skills I use when I write something like Gosford Park or Doctor Who fan fiction, I will use to write original fiction.

But, for me, it has to be conceived of as original fiction.

Characters and stories have to be built with a specific purpose in mind, and trying to re-purpose a piece of fan fiction to create an original work is just something I can't get my head around. If I write something with the intent of selling it as original work, then it really would have to start life as its own story—not retrofitting someone else's. Otherwise, it's an endless game of compromise. How much of the original characters and world can I keep and still be satisfied emotionally by the story I'm telling? How much work would I have to do to make the story compelling for someone with no relationship with the original work? To me, that's an awful lot of work to build something that is neither fish nor fowl. In that specific instance, I'd rather come up with new characters and a new world, than try and retrofit someone else's and still have meaning.

So, anyway, this is what long expensive cab rides are for. Having a captive audience that forces me to articulate things I never could quite manage before, in a way that I hope makes sense.
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getting the chocolate in the peanut butterdotfic on 3rd May 2010 23:29 (UTC)
This is a terrific essay.