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Old 09-11-2022, 06:33 PM   #1
Galadriel55
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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:

Quote:
Originally Posted by William Cloud Hicklin View Post
Quote:
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.
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Old 09-13-2022, 03:55 AM   #2
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I've tried for three days now to get my thoughts coherent on this one, and I think I've finally pinned it down to two Principles of Fanfic:
  1. You can make anything work, but
  2. you have to be clear what you're changing - and know the rest well enough to know what you're not.

Fanfic is about change. At its most gentle, it just backfills a scene that Tolkien never recorded: Bilbo choosing the gifts to leave after his departure, for example. Sometimes the change is to add a character, either away from the plot or in it. Sometimes it's to change the style, perhaps to give an irreverant retelling (see the Leithian Script) ). And sometimes it's full AU - Sauron gets the Ring, Elrond goes to Numenor, Ulmo turns evil instead of Melkor.

And all of those can work! I strongly believe that any story concept can be well-written, however outlandish it seems. But to do it properly, you have to know the canon well enough to see exactly what changes you need to make - and to make only those changes, and know what the consequences of them will be.

Coming back to Rings of Power: from their legal position, their One Change is the compressed timeline. Being unable to even admit the Silmarillion exists, they can't treat (say) the absence of Celeborn as a change: they are legally required to consider it gap-filling. But we can still think about them as changes, and judge them that way.

You asked "Is there a formula by which fan fiction is to be judged?" I think there is, at least from a changes perspective:
  1. Do the changes affect the plot as they should?
  2. Do they contribute to the story being told, or improve the viewer/reader's experience?

hS
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Old 09-13-2022, 06:50 PM   #3
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At one point, I had a longer reply in mind, but those half-formed ideas dissipated long before I sat at a computer and now here we are.

I do have one thought, though, that sticks with me:

A good fanfic extends the runway when I've run out of the original and want something more.

That's probably not quite broad enough--a lot of fic deviates quite a bit from its origins (and I think Hui has a pretty workable theory), but I also find that I believe in Sturgeon's Law, and the 10% that rises above is going to do at least two things: tie me back as the reader to the original and give me something in addition to the original--i.e. in some way, add more, though "adding" could be changing/deviating/retelling/what-iffing as much as gap-filling or extending.
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Old 09-14-2022, 05:47 PM   #4
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I've also been trying to get my thoughts together for a few days. And now that Huey has given a baseline it's given me a few ideas.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Huey
And all of those can work! I strongly believe that any story concept can be well-written, however outlandish it seems. But to do it properly, you have to know the canon well enough to see exactly what changes you need to make - and to make only those changes, and know what the consequences of them will be.
I agree and a few examples to show good changes from poor (imo)

Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring. I remember from the extended commentaries Jackson stating when making decisions on what needed to be cut, or not, they went by the general guide of "if it's not about Frodo and the Ring it needs to advance the story to have a reason to stay in." So, obviously he brings up having to cut out Bombadil, but also interesting that he mentions cutting out the scene when the Fellowship was attacked by wolves at night. He said Frodo, the Fellowship, and the Ring had to get from point A to point B and the wolf attack wouldn't add anything extra to advance that story. But he made the decision to keep Gandalf's imprisonment in Orthanc, because that was an ancillary scene so we knew what happened to Gandalf when he never showed up in Bree. This is why I think Fellowship of the Ring was the best film Jackson did, because he stuck to a pretty clear purpose in making the choice "this story has to be about Frodo and the Ring. If it does not involve Frodo and the Ring, then it has to advance the story to stay in." Like the audience would want to know why Gandalf wasn't where he said he was going to be. If only he showed this kind of clear thinking and vision in The Hobbit movies. Instead of throwing in everything with the kitchen sink, and Bilbo getting lost in his own movies.

If you haven't watched the extended commentaries, I think they would be quite helpful in understanding the questions you raise here. I don't agree with all the changes Jackson made, but he explains a reason for a lot of them, and gives a better understanding of their own creative thought process.

Now, perhaps a bad example. Again, at least in my opinion, but others might feel differently. I really enjoyed Bakshi's Lord of the Rings (even viking Boromir and pantsless Aragorn) but I didn't like either of the Rankin/Bass's The Hobbit or Return of the King. It wasn't so much there was no Beorn or Arkenstone story. Sometimes just cutting something out is a good thing for fanfiction writing. I just didn't get it, The Rankin/Bass Hobbit left me with more questions than it should have because of a poor conclusion. Like for some reason we are told 8 dwarves died, but besides Thorin and Bombur we don't know who died and who survived, because Bilbo never says bye. Gandalf just says Thorin and Bombur died, ok time to go home. I feel like they could have just cut down the number of dwarves in the Company, because apparently the rest aren't important enough to know what happened to them. At least tell us which ones didn't make it!
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Old 09-14-2022, 06:22 PM   #5
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Thanks for all the responses so far! This has definitely given me something to think about. And in particular Hui's theory - I would rep you if I could, but apparently even now with so much activity I've repped you too recently. I don't know if this was always obvious to you, but it was not obvious to me - but it's one of those things that once said aloud you suddenly realize that's exactly what you've been looking for. Thank you very much for sharing your "formula".

Quote:
Originally Posted by Boromir88 View Post
I agree and a few examples to show good changes from poor (imo)

Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring. I remember from the extended commentaries Jackson stating when making decisions on what needed to be cut, or not, they went by the general guide of "if it's not about Frodo and the Ring it needs to advance the story to have a reason to stay in." So, obviously he brings up having to cut out Bombadil, but also interesting that he mentions cutting out the scene when the Fellowship was attacked by wolves at night. He said Frodo, the Fellowship, and the Ring had to get from point A to point B and the wolf attack wouldn't add anything extra to advance that story. But he made the decision to keep Gandalf's imprisonment in Orthanc, because that was an ancillary scene so we knew what happened to Gandalf when he never showed up in Bree. This is why I think Fellowship of the Ring was the best film Jackson did, because he stuck to a pretty clear purpose in making the choice "this story has to be about Frodo and the Ring. If it does not involve Frodo and the Ring, then it has to advance the story to stay in." Like the audience would want to know why Gandalf wasn't where he said he was going to be. If only he showed this kind of clear thinking and vision in The Hobbit movies. Instead of throwing in everything with the kitchen sink, and Bilbo getting lost in his own movies.

If you haven't watched the extended commentaries, I think they would be quite helpful in understanding the questions you raise here. I don't agree with all the changes Jackson made, but he explains a reason for a lot of them, and gives a better understanding of their own creative thought process.

Now, perhaps a bad example. Again, at least in my opinion, but others might feel differently. I really enjoyed Bakshi's Lord of the Rings (even viking Boromir and pantsless Aragorn) but I didn't like either of the Rankin/Bass's The Hobbit or Return of the King. It wasn't so much there was no Beorn or Arkenstone story. Sometimes just cutting something out is a good thing for fanfiction writing. I just didn't get it, The Rankin/Bass Hobbit left me with more questions than it should have because of a poor conclusion. Like for some reason we are told 8 dwarves died, but besides Thorin and Bombur we don't know who died and who survived, because Bilbo never says bye. Gandalf just says Thorin and Bombur died, ok time to go home. I feel like they could have just cut down the number of dwarves in the Company, because apparently the rest aren't important enough to know what happened to them. At least tell us which ones didn't make it!
I am not that familiar with the animated adaptations so have to just take your descriptions at face value, but I would argue that at least part of the "bad change" example might not be so much a reflection of the fictional changes as a reflection of bad storytelling. It's bad storytelling to not give a proper conclusion to your story, whatever "proper" may be in that context (whether closure or cliffhanger, answer or eternal question - it all depends on the story, but there has to be a conclusion, and TH begs more certainty). The fictional change was perhaps in the number and identity of the Dwarves that died. Is there some internal justification for killing off Bombur and the nameless others? Perhaps Bombur is one of the most memorable Dwarves (dunno if that's so in the adaptations too, but he does stand out), so that might have played into it. Doesn't explain the other extra Dwarves though. But I'm not sure here, this question requires actual knowledge of the adaptation which I am lacking. But I suppose my question, if we were to dissect this scenario and split a couple hairs, is: was the "badness" a result of changing the cannon, poor storytelling (ie it would still have been a dissatisfying conclusion even if Dwarves died canonically), or a combination of both?
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Old 09-15-2022, 05:01 PM   #6
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1420!

Perhaps another bone to add to the cauldron of story.

Fanfic is written by lay readers. Adaptations are written by professional writers. Each could have different purposes.
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Old 09-15-2022, 08:34 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Galadriel55 View Post
I am not that familiar with the animated adaptations so have to just take your descriptions at face value, but I would argue that at least part of the "bad change" example might not be so much a reflection of the fictional changes as a reflection of bad storytelling. It's bad storytelling to not give a proper conclusion to your story, whatever "proper" may be in that context (whether closure or cliffhanger, answer or eternal question - it all depends on the story, but there has to be a conclusion, and TH begs more certainty). The fictional change was perhaps in the number and identity of the Dwarves that died. Is there some internal justification for killing off Bombur and the nameless others? Perhaps Bombur is one of the most memorable Dwarves (dunno if that's so in the adaptations too, but he does stand out), so that might have played into it. Doesn't explain the other extra Dwarves though. But I'm not sure here, this question requires actual knowledge of the adaptation which I am lacking. But I suppose my question, if we were to dissect this scenario and split a couple hairs, is: was the "badness" a result of changing the cannon, poor storytelling (ie it would still have been a dissatisfying conclusion even if Dwarves died canonically), or a combination of both?
To fill in the gaps (so to say...and sorry, **Spoilers** ). In the Rankin/Bass Hobbit, all 13 dwarves are introduced. They get introduced all at once, instead of arriving in groups spaced apart. That change is fine, I get it for costs and time, I don't need an explanation of why they changed that part. But I think, you hit the nail on the head. What bothered me about changing how many dwarves died at the Battle of Five Armies, was simply bad storytelling. First, they didn't bother telling us who died aside from Thorin and Bombur. Secondly, my thought is you introduced all 13 dwarves in the first place, so why change how many of them died in the battle? And if you are going to change that number, why not show us (or at least have Gandalf tell us, since he said Thorin and Bombur died) who survived by being at the end with Bilbo?

So, your thread got me thinking why that change bothered me, but I was able to accept a waffly-Aragorn and softer (plus strawberry-blonde wigged!) Boromir in Jackson's movies? After reading Huey's theories, it makes sense to me. If you're going to change something, then you have to be clear in what you're changing. I think consistency and an explanation of your reasons for making a change are important too. Waffly-Aragorn and softer-Boromir probably wouldn't have worked in Tolkien's story. But with they worked in Jackson's movies, because it was consistent within the story he was telling. In my opinion, I expect others will probably disagree.
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Old 10-03-2022, 05:43 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Huinesoron View Post
I've tried for three days now to get my thoughts coherent on this one, and I think I've finally pinned it down to two Principles of Fanfic:
  1. You can make anything work, but
  2. you have to be clear what you're changing - and know the rest well enough to know what you're not.
Interestingly, those would also be the rules for good science fiction (at least of the harder variety, as opposed to space fantasy). Change the rules of physics as needed to permit FTL travel or kinetic shields, but know what you're changing and how your fictional physics plug into real physics.
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