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Old 09-11-2022, 06:33 PM   #1
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How To Write Your Fanfic, or: What is Fan, and What is Fiction?

With Rings of Power coming out, there has been much talk about what makes a good Tolkien adaptation, and a the seedling for this discussion germinated over in How We Read Rings of Power. Adaptations by definition must be a little different from the original, but are generally a pretty direct retelling. Then you get into the realm of fan-fiction, where an existing foundation of worldbuilding and characters and history is expounded upon to tell a new story, or retell the story from a different perspective, or to fill in blanks in the original story. It is not meant to be a retelling of the original. I think of it as balancing the "fan", the nerd that knows how that story is "supposed" to go, with the "fiction" - the new elements. And then you get into alt-fiction, where the story itself deviates from the original in notable ways but is still nonetheless firmly set in that existing universe. I feel like fan- and alt-fiction are really the same thing on a spectrum of the degree of deviation/contradiction to canon, so for purposes of this thread I will just use "alt" to emphasize the more prominent deviation.

Over the past couple years I have seen and read some fan-made fiction and other adaptations of Tolkien which I have enjoyed very much. Some of these have been quite alt. Some I enjoyed overall despite there being elements which I strongly disagreed with. And then there is Rings of Power, which I think many people by now have come to treat as a sort of glorified high-budget fan fiction, and which may be the easiest touching point for referencing specific examples that people would recognize (but please let's not make this primarily about RoP! There's enough on the Movies sub-forum for that).

So I have asked myself the question: what makes a good fanfic? What makes some alt elements good and others bad, even though both these and those are in contradiction to canon? How much deviation is permissible before it becomes unacceptable? Is there a formula by which fan fiction is to be judged?

I don't think that I have been able to formulate a very good answer for myself, and certain not an exhaustive one - and hence I am interested to hear other people's thoughts. As a general rule for all fics, they are subject to the same rules of storytelling that govern all stories big and small - a dull story is dull to read, and that's that. A fanfic, being based on another work, I think also has a bit of obligation to give its nod of respect to the original source. I read fanfics which dared to mock and correct source material - but simultaneously there were so many references scattered in there that you could tell it was done with a lot of affection, in spite of the elements that were clearly being criticized. Respect for the source does not necessitate agreement, but I feel that if it's lacking it takes away from the quality of the fic, and vice versa - the more respectfully and lovingly it is made, the more the enjoyment from it. But both of these points are pretty Captain Obvious, and not very specific at all. Can we go farther with this?

In parallel to the general question, I was analyzing what and why I liked and disliked specifically about alt elements in an attempt to produce if not a formula, then a sketch to a formula for predicting (or at least explaining) my appreciation of such elements. The alt elements tend to fall into a number of fairly distinct categories. Some of them map well onto my existing headcanon or general idea of what certain person/place/event might be like if seen in that situation; these elements are usually subconsciously approved without much deliberation, because they follow the right way of things according to whatever schemata I have in my head. Then there are alt-elements which I don't necessarily agree with or don't like at the onset, but I come to accept them and sometimes even like them. These split into sub-categories: a) there is canonical justification for including these elements, or even justification from unpublished texts, and then I have to concede that my mental schema has to change to accommodate this possibility as it is in fact grounded in canon; and b) completely uncanonical but justified by the alternate story, either as a consequence of prior events or to set up later events; and in this case my acceptance of the alt-element tends to depend on the outcome of that alternate story loop - a good story that loops all these elements in makes me a lot more lenient, especially if by the end of the loop it gets back onto its canonical path (hitting the milestones but takes a different way to get there, so to speak). And then there are elements which I cannot seem to reconcile at all, but those I have the most difficulty defining. Some of them are the flip part of that last category - jarring elements the existence of which I cannot justify by either canon or alt-canon. Some I am just inexplicably angry about. And this part of the formula, though probably most critical, is least developed; I really have no good definition for why I really dislike the elements I really dislike, as a rule. Of course, all of this begins with the premise of subjective viewpoint - it is my schemata that determine which way the judgment falls, and it would be different for every reader/viewer.

There was another post that made me think on a related subject:

Originally Posted by William Cloud Hicklin View Post
You don't see other fanfics or altfics parading as true depictions.
Well, one sees it all the time, with historical fiction. Shakespeare made his living doing it. Of course, Shakespeare was good. The writers of Showtime's The Tudors, not so much. (Or even more directly, the Bard's Henry V alongside Netflix' wretched The King). And the ROP gang, the same.

Is it possible to make an altfic adaptation and still wind up with something rather different but equally good? Well, yes, occasionally: Lawrence of Arabia has many historical infelicities but is a brilliant film nonetheless. Moving back to literary adaptations, The Shining fared awfully well-- but it took a Kubrick.
It is a good question - is all of historical fiction the same as fanfic? Should it be treated as such? There are certainly similarities: you take an existing story and setting, and expound upon it; sometimes you use recognizable characters, sometimes you make characters up that could have been there. It has a similar impact on the audience as fanfics of larger magnitudes (e.g. RoP) - the adaptation will likely form the audience's conceptions of the events, for all audience members not familiar with source materials, and in that way has a lot of power in how the public views those events. Both can be critiqued on grounds of not being a true enough reflection of its source - eg well-known events or persons for historical fiction. So is there a difference, and where does it lie? For one thing, unlike a written fantasy book, real world history does not have a single definitive account, so keeping the fic true is both harder (a lot more work to find all the right references, certainly not limited to one publication or even one author!), and easier (it is likewise harder to pinpoint errors or refute your fictional retelling, so long as it fits well within the general gist of plausible events). For another, the viewpoint-shaping responsibility is much greater for historical fiction, as this concerns real events and real people and thus spills over into people's lives outside the "fandom"; by the same token though it also has the greater capacity to educate - you can learn a lot of general knowledge from good historical fiction. But these are just differences by virtue of application to real life; is there an actual difference in the essence of these works? Are War and Peace or Gone With The Wind or Hunchback of Notre Dame any different from fanfics? What does that make fanfics about these books, or adaptations - e.g. the Disney Hunchback, which bears little resemblance to Victor Hugo's book, which in turn probably bears little resemblance to actual Paris in 1482? What if someone wrote a fanfic about the Disney Hunchback movie? I think that the only conclusion I have come to with this is that with fanfics it is important to recognize what is the source material, i.e. a fanfic about the Disney movie is based on the movie, with the movie as the source material, and not the book or actual historical records. But for the rest, I am afraid that I only have questions and little to suggest in the way of answers for now.

So this was my bit of disorganized philosophizing on the nature of fanfics for today. I am interested to see people's thoughts.
You passed from under darkened dome, you enter now the secret land. - Take me to Finrod's fabled home!... ~ Finrod: The Rock Opera
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