Writing and Fan Fiction

The Barby Returns - The Case of the Dead Plot Bunnies

Just the other day I got to read a fanzine that I’d long been anticipating. I discovered to my pleasure that the writer’s characterization was good. The dialogue and settings were well done. And the premise was very appropriate, true to the ‘flavor’ of one of my favorite series. Why, then, did I ultimately find the novel to be disappointing?

I was disappointed because a story ultimately rises and falls on its plot, and unfortunately, this story contained three major plot killers. I know that we fans care most about the characters—the guys (and rarely gals) whom we love. But even with fan fiction, the reader still winds up asking the question, "Wow! What happens next??? " If the reader stops asking that, the story has lost its purpose—and all the angst and hurt/comfort in the world won’t be able to save it.

The Usual Suspects: Three Common Plot Killers

  1. Gratuitous Acts of Villainy:
  2. "Would you prefer another target, perhaps? A military target?"—Grand Moff Tarkin, Star Wars

    Too often, villains in fan fiction are nothing but cardboard puppets. In the Real World, the bad guys usually have an agenda that is just as coherent and understandable as the good guys’ agenda. No street criminal would waste his time beating up Hutch just so Starsky can comfort him—only fans would be interested in that sort of thing. When a bad guy’s Evil Plan makes no real sense, when his only interest is causing grief for Our Heroes, then you have a plot device, not a true antagonist, and your respect for the heroes probably dims a little. To make a great hero, you need to have a great villain. Darth Vader, Hannibal Lector, Mrs. Tweedy—these are villains you can sink your teeth into—because their plans just as easily could have worked.

  3. Deus Ex Machina (the God in the Machine):
  4. "I believe in coincidences—coincidences happen every day. But I do not depend upon them."—Garak, DS9

    A coincidence or two at the beginning of a story can be a fine way to get the plot bunnies jumping—or to put Our Heroes into trouble that is demonstrably not their fault. But when it turns out at the very climax of the plot that the crisis is resolved, the villains are thwarted, or the day is saved by a coincidental event instead of by the heroes’ honest efforts, your readers are going to feel cheated. Besides, it’s harder to swallow coincidences in a written medium like fan fiction than in a visual medium like TV, where the action is fast and furious and there’s no time to think about what you’re seeing. In short, Deus Ex Machina is a plot device that went out with Zeus.

  5. Wussing Out on the Good Fight:
  6. "If it bleeds, it leads."—Old newspaper maxim

    In every story, there has to be a conflict. You don’t always need to include boo-boos, but at some point, A has to go up against B. Blake’s 7 versus the Federation, The Old Man and the Sea, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In fan fiction, however, the writer often will say to herself, "Well, that’s not what I really care about. What I want to write about is how much the guys mean to each other. I’m not interested in what happens to the villain." So, after a hundred suspenseful, angst-ridden pages of suffering and emoting, Our Heroes finally arrive at the villain’s Secret Lair, only to discover that the bad guy has inexplicably changed his mind for no good reason or tripped over his shoelace or something (incorporating Plot Killers One and Two). This is bad for two reasons:

    1. If the villain was a pushover, the importance of the heroes’ earlier actions begins to unravel in the reader’s mind.
    2. After a hundred pages of suspense, the reader’s adrenaline is flowing and she wants to see blood!!!

    Was anybody besides me frustrated when after seasons of buildup, Babylon 5’s Shadow War finally culminated with the Vorlons and Shadows being sent to their rooms after a scolding? What was Straczynski thinking of? Compare this to The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo and Sam finally defeated Sauron at the very Cracks of Doom—at the cost of one of Frodo’s fingers.

    For the fan writer who really doesn’t want to deal with fight scenes, there are always Mountain Cabin stories. (Although even there, I think that Our Heroes would probably wind up arguing over the last bag of Cheetos.)


Lord of the Rings Fan Fiction

Since my fandom obsession is LOTR again, I've been searching for good fanfic. While much on is dire, there are some gems:

A Game of Chess: A story about the first years of Faramir's and Eowyn's marriage. Their new life starts out blissful, but war trauma and the memories of an abusive father make their lives rocky. The author has captured the characters and the situations perfectly.

Captain, My Captain: The story of one of Faramir's Rangers during the last days of the War of the Rings. This is not a Mary-Sue; in fact, she's more real than Eowyn. Hethlin doesn't meet the high status characters (Frodo, Legolas, et al) unless it's pertinent to the story, so it's a great ground's-eye view of the War of the Rings.

Oboebyrd's Guide to Writing Formulaic Fanfiction: a humorous essay about writing the absolute bad, mediocre, or just plain stupid fanfiction that permeates this section. Among the topics addressed (or attacked): Aragorn/Legolas slash, extorting reviews, writing useless story summaries, the inevitable Mary Sues, and chat-room etiquette. Upcoming chapters (courtesy of moi's suggestions) are Frodo/Sam slash and actor/Mary-Sue stories.

The Girl Who Aimed Straight and Jewel of Brandy Hall - the first is an OC story about a hobbit girl, given a great task by Gandalf-- to learn so she can teach the hobbits about their history. But Saruman and the War of the Ring intervenes, and Frodo Baggins comes back to the Shire… The second deals with the daughter of Frodo Baggins, who searches for her father who has gone over the sea. When Frodo returns to take care of his daughter, he must learn to live without the peace that the Elvish Isles gave him. Both stories are wonderfully written and ring true. No characterization creep, and except for small alterations could almost fit in the trilogy.


And Now, for Something Completely Different…the smallest subgenre in F&SF: the Regency Fantasy!

Patricia Wrede.
Maurelon the Magician : Tor, 1991.
Magician's Ward : Tor, 1998. (sequel)
w/Caroline Stevermer
Sorcery and Cecilia : Ace, 1998.

This review is occasioned by the appearance of Wrede's latest contribution to Regency Fantasy, her book Magician's Ward. The marrying of these two genres may seem a bit esoteric, but as mystery fans recall, the Historical Mystery really only blossomed after the appearance of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael, and the premise is absolutely selling like hotcakes.

At any rate, if you like to read both fantasy and regency romances, you should definitely give these novels a try. (The Regency Romance is set in an upperclass late 1700s England setting.) These combine a creditable regency atmosphere with a plausible if relatively low-key magic environment. (Sorry, no elves, unicorns, or demons need apply.)

Of course, it's still early days for the whole enchanters-in-Almack's scene, so the subgenre is still pretty rough. I would like to see more spectacular magic—or at least its existence being more integral to the plot. More local color (Fodor's Guide to Fantasy London?). And since this is a fantasy version of the historical Regency era, I would enjoy seeing the Alternate Universe versions of George IV, Beau Brummell, the Duke of Wellington, etc. It should add considerable piquancy.

Sorcery and Cecilia is also remarkable for the collaborative style in which it was written. The story is composed of a series of letters purportedly written back and forth between two young women separated by distance, in which they recount their divergent adventures, which ultimately converge. My understanding is that the two writers (also young women separated by distance) collaborated by taking turns writing these ‘letters' (with some consultation to keep things straight).

It's an interesting writing technique that might be considered by budding fanfic teams. For one thing, it would be a great way to collaborate over the Internet.

Three unusual novels, fluffy but fun. Read ‘em if you like that type.

Go to Barnes and Noble Online or Amazon.Com to order the books


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