Recently I've been doing some research on fanfiction. It all started when I found out Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fanfiction. I have to admit, I'm fascinated by it. And still reeling a bit about the fact that up until a few weeks ago I knew nothing about it, not by choice - but because I had no idea it even existed.
I'm fascinated because I thought I was hip and cool and up on all of the workings of the interwebs. I mean, I've got a twitter account and everything, and have at least a vague understanding of how it works, though at first it was a bit like learning a new language. So for this to exist in such a big way right under my nose, well, how is that possible?
I think it's so interesting, reading about the debate over E L James. Did she violate an unspoken rule by publishing what is essentially her fanfiction (some comparison sites state her published novels are 89% the same as Master of the Universe, her fanfiction). Apparently this is a very touchy subject amongst those in the fanfiction world. How would I feel if someone used my characters for profit, essentially only changing their names? And not just some paltry book sales. We're talking a multi-million movie deal. It's intriguing. Of course, I guess I'd have to have characters out there for someone to steal...one step at a time, right?
Mostly though, I'm fascinated at how many writers got their start by writing fanfiction. I saw a list of published books that stared out as Twilight fanfiction - it was an extensive list. Honestly, I'm floored by this. But not because I don't think it's a fine way to start a novel - I'm sure it is. Obviously it worked for those published authors.
It's because I've never even so much as considered the thought of writing a novel (or short story, or anything else, for that matter) using characters, or ideas, or themes from already published or produced works. I mean sure, I've had the occasional fantasy involving Jax from Sons of Anarchy (who can resist a hot man on a motorcycle? Not this girl) or Michael Fassbender. But they all involve me. Why would I want to fantasize about them with other women? And come on, once they met me no way could they resist, right?
Now that I think about it though, perhaps my way isn't all that different. Because all of my novels stem from fantasies in some way. But the fantasy (be it based on an actor, or musician, or whatever) always exists in my head. Sometimes on multiple occasions, and in various forms. When I stumble on an idea that just has to be written down, before even one word hits paper I've worked out how the characters aren't going to be me and the actor/musician, and also how they aren't going to be characters I've used already. I change looks, careers, settings, goals, priorities, you name it, it's different. Because though I think I'm fascinating, no one else wants to know about my life, values, morals, etc.
So maybe my way isn't all that different - I just skip the step where my fantasy appears on paper (or on a screen, or whatever). I've done it. It wasn't a good idea. I think it's a novice mistake to go directly from fantasy to paper, and then to allow others to read it. Not that all fanfiction is fantasy. Or that fantasies only appear in fanfiction. And maybe that's why writing fanfiction can obviously be a good exercise, a good learning experience. Again, not that there isn't some fantastic fanfiction out there - I'm sure there is.
See, as a novice, I thought that's what writing was. Putting my story, my fantasy, down on paper. THANK GOODNESS my first few attempts were never published. Because I thought they were the best things ever written. Seriously, it makes my insides all squirrely to think that those first few things might exist out there for anyone to see. Oh man. Scary stuff. Also one of the reasons I'm against self-publishing a first novel (though that's a post for another day).
For me, making my characters as different from me and my life as possible is the best course of action. I think using characters that someone else devoted years to creating and changing names is cheap, and it robs the author from the chance and necessary experience of creating her own characters. Maybe others feel differently. I'd be curious to hear other viewpoints.