In last week’s post, I voiced the opinion that the only difference between a good book and a bad one was whether or not the writer told a good story. And I believe that’s true, regardless of whether the book is original to the author or fanfiction (or, for that matter, whether it’s a book at all, since the belief applies equally well to movies, comics, games or really any creative art). The rest of this series will be my attempt to define the components of a ‘good story,’ as they apply specifically to fanfiction.
So what are the elements of a good story? Well, first on the list is what’s known as the suspension of disbelief, in which the writer tricks the reader into forming a genuine emotional connection with a character in a book, and then manipulating those emotions with a ruthlessness that registers on the sociopathy spectrum. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I rarely read for ‘fun’. I don’t want a book to just make me laugh. I also want it to make me apprehensive, angry, hopeful or afraid, and the best stories of all will make me question my real-life beliefs and inspire me to lasting change.
You might be saying to yourself that those are some mighty lofty goals for fanfiction and you’re right. Hell, they’re lofty goals for any book. But I find it funny that so many people dismiss the notion that fanfiction can or even should aspire to that level of quality. After all, the original game/movie/comic/book is just as imaginary, and yet it had enough power to affect the players/viewers/readers that they couldn’t bring themselves to accept it was over and voluntarily sought out alternate sources for their fannish fix.
When you stop and think about it, the only fundamental difference between the canon story and fanfiction is execution. What about the plot, you say? I say, what about it? You don’t need an epic plot to tell a good story. A plot can be as ambitious as undertaking a quest to destroy the physical remnant of an evil necromancer who stands at the threshold of conquering the world with his dark army (Lord of the Rings) or as small as the story of an abused orphan who makes friends in a hidden society invisible to most people (Oliver Twist) or both (Harry Potter).
Plots don’t matter all that much, honestly. The best concept in the world can’t save bad story-telling; the simplest and most over-used tropes can be made to feel new in an expert’s hands. Again, it all comes down to execution, which itself comes down to suspension of disbelief, which is markedly easier with fanfiction because you don’t have to ‘win over’ a new reader. The emotional connection was there from Page One, an unbreakable bond…that will shatter with the force of a thousand Mjolnirs if you tamper too much with their beloved characters.
And that’s the trade-off. With an original story, a writer has to work to achieve that golden grail of suspension of disbelief, but at least they can do anything they want to get it. With fanfiction, a writer starts out with the advantage of an established fanbase for their characters, many of whom are already carrying torches of lackluster boredom and pitchforks caked in the blood of other fanfics that didn’t live up to their unrealistic expectations.
The surest way to step on a fan’s toes is by messing with the characters or the canon lore, and I will definitely talk about that in future posts, but there’s an architecture to any story and before you add the trimming and move in the people, you first lay the foundation. I’m talking about the world of the source material, sometimes a literal world, i.e. Westros or Middle Earth, and sometimes just our world as viewed through the lens of the source material, i.e. the ‘world’ of Mad Men or The Tudors. A reader tends to be more focused on characters and plotlines, but believe me, even if they don’t consciously notice lackluster world-building, they’ll notice that your book lacks ‘color’ or just feels ‘off’. And if you go against established laws of that world, you run the risk of ruining a perfectly good story by confusing or angering your reader. Remember, you are not building the world for this book; the world already exists and the reader is already there. You can’t just go in terraforming at will and upsetting their castles and herb-gardens. Always remember you’re in someone else’s house here. You know. Have fun, but try not to trash the place.
And so we come at long, rambling last to the subject of today’s post:
Fans Who Fic
World-Building In Someone Else’s World
It is a mistake to think of world-building as being just the place where the story happens. It is, of course, but it’s also everything that fills up that place, all the people who live there and all the reasons they have for doing all the things they do. It’s the food, the furniture, the politics, education, occupations, recreations, prejudice, profanity, love and hope and all that messy social stuff that collects in the corners of our collective social consciousness. It is the story behind the story, and in fanfiction, it’s the story behind the story that inspired you to write a new story. And it is there, even in Five Nights At Freddy’s (the video game which is the source for my current fanfiction, for those who were drunkenly link-hopping and stumbled on this blog purely by accident). For me, it began with the simple question, “Why would anyone come back for a second night of work at this place?” And, because this is just what I do, I found myself trying to genuinely answer the question within the worldframe of the game.
Why would he? It had to be more than just a paycheck; even in 1993, that ain’t a lot of money. Then the progressively disturbing phone calls–is this seriously supposed to alleviate my concerns? Bite of ’87? Wait, why is the qualifier necessary? How many more ‘The Bites’ did there have to be before you had to break them down by year?–and the newspaper clippings with the plot-point of abducted/murdered kids was added, then the mini-games, and by the end of the game, the jumpscares were pretty much just a lethal distraction from the real mystery of figuring out what in the hell is happening at this pizza place?!
And that’s good world-building. Say what you want to about how cheap/lazy/overused jumpscares are as a mechanic in horror, but that game wound me up in a way that damned few games, books or movies ever have before, and let’s face it, the monsters aren’t all that scary. Some of them are quite the opposite.
Yes, sir, my disbelief was off the floor, out the window, over the treetops and heading for low orbit the last I saw it. I bought it all–lock, stock and cupcake. And so, fully aware that I had half a dozen of my own ideas pinned to the old story-board in the office, I opened Scott Cawthon’s door and stepped into his world. I’ve been there for over a year now (as several of you frequently and lovingly remind me) and although the end is in sight, I’m going to be there for a while longer yet. I’ve had a lot of fun here at Freddy’s and I’ll be sorry to go when the time comes, even if it will be nice to finally be back home, so to speak. I’m aware that I don’t quite inhabit the same world Scott built, but I must have done something right, because I’ve picked up quite a loyal following at ff.net and ao3. Despite the toxic reputation of this fanbase, I’ve had nothing but positive feedback (which only goes to show that the most toxic element of any fanbase are the people who make fun of it), and my world-building has been called out more than a few times as one of the best parts of the story.
In another medium, that might be an insult. I mean, if I was the director of a play that had just premiered and the first review I read said, “The backdrops were incredible and the props, so realistic,” I’d probably be in tears. But in writing, world-building is a big deal. I’ve read books whose characters I could not stand just because the world was so interesting, and lord knows I’ve shelved plenty of books because the world was derivative or non-existent. And as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t even read fanfiction that doesn’t at least try to occupy the same headspace as the source material.
But come on, how much credit can I really take? How hard can it be to world-build in fanfiction anyway? Someone else has already done all the hard work.
Yeah. Someone has. And you had better have been paying attention.
The cardinal rule here is the same as if you were writing an original book: Research everything. When I wrote Warcraft fanfiction (and I know I’m dating myself here, but before that, when I wrote EverQuest fanfiction), I made damn sure my characters went to the right part of town to meet in the tavern and were served by a recognizable NPC. It’s not enough just to spell the name right. Hair, clothes, paintings on the wall, layout of the building–it all has to resonate. Yes, the scene should be about the characters and the actual story, but stage-dressing matters and the more it resonates, the better it will read. That does not mean every scene should read like a Family Guy script, just a string of random references thinly connected by core characters, but if you’re in a world, show that world, and if you show the world, get the details right.
I lucked out with FNAF, in the sense that the source material doesn’t have a lot of world-building on its surface. The player rarely sees beyond the rooms of the building in which the games take place. Also, since I was shifting the When of the story to a different time than has ever been addressed in the games, I wasn’t restricted to a predetermined location. Heck, there were multiple pizzerias; I could have put a new one anywhere at all. For that matter, it didn’t even have to be a pizzeria. Scrapyards, factories, storage units and theme parks–there are plenty of places one might encounter one of the Fazbear animatronics under one condition or another. However, the imagery of the restaurants in the games was what affected me the most when playing, so it was what I wanted most to recreate.
‘My’ pizzeria is very much designed to fit in the world where FNAF originated. As I was writing the scene in which Ana (and the reader) is first introduced to it, I found some good no-commentary gameplay videos and really studied them, paying particular attention to the backgrounds.
It is not necessary for a reader to know that the curtain in Pirate Cove is deep purple with little gold stars on it or that Chica’s bib reads Let’s Eat in yellow letters with flakes of color like confetti around it, but details like that pull double-duty, resonating with those who already knew about them and creating a richer environment for those who didn’t. I think it’s important to remember that these details are like any decorative element–too many too close together just turns into distracting clutter. So keep it in the background as much as possible and bring it into focus only as you would for any other story element.
This was the main setting for my book and I think I successfully gave it the FNAF-feel (of course I am a raging narcissist with a constant need for self-congratulatory validation, so I would think that whether I succeeded or not), but I knew I wasn’t going to stage the entire book in the pizzeria and that meant building a world around it. As I mentioned, you don’t see much outside the restaurants in the game. On the rare occasions that you do, it’s only through windows or fragments of pictures on the wall or on TV or through mini-games and cutscenes. From those clues, I was initially able to deduce that it was not an urban area and that’s about it. Unsatisfied, I found a likely research rabbit-hole and hopped in. A few days later, I hopped out again, having concluded through a combination of researching the game and researching the man behind the game, plus a generous dollop of follow-my-gut to place my Freddy’s in the fictional town of Mammon, sixteen arbitrary miles from the real town of Hurricane, Utah. And a few months later, Scott Cawthon released The Silver Eyes, which officially set FNAF in…Hurricane, Utah.
That was either a ridiculously lucky guess or a subconscious deductive insight of Holmesian proportions, but was it necessary? No, of course not. As I said, Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria was a franchise restaurant; I could have put one on the moon if I’d had a plausible reason for doing so. What mattered to me was creating a place where the events of FNAF could have played out. I believe my Mammon does that (again, raging narcissist) because it is, in essence, another version of the pizzeria, just on a bigger scale.
Mammon is, like Freddy’s, a family-friendly place full of happy people. It’s bit run down, sure, but you can still see the appeal. You have to actually go there before you realize how bad it really is, and even then, you mostly just notice how dark it is, how empty…and the smell.
Later, when I got around to planting the pizzerias from the games in my town, I went back to meticulous attention to detail. I ought to be embarrassed to admit how many times I took screenshots so that I could study the restaurants and decide how best to describe them. I drew maps. I printed out pictures of the animatronics from each site so I could keep references next to my workspace. I pinned up posters and bought plushies. Okay, that was just for fun, but the rest was all work. Way more work than I probably had to do, but the measure of my success is that I’ve heard from three different people that they now use the addresses of my fictional town as their head-canon for which pizzerias are referenced; it’s not the pizzeria from FNAF or FNAF 2 to them, it’s the one on Circle Drive or the one on Mulholland. And I won’t lie, when you hear that, that’s the fanfic writer’s equivalent of feeling like a sexual tyrannosaurus.
If there is a secret to world-building in fanfiction, it lies in recognizing that there’s a middle ground between staying faithful to the source and creating something original. Did I do it right? Yeah, I think so. Is my way the only way to do it? Hell, no. I’ve read a lot of FNAF fanfiction since the game came out, because that’s what I do with stuff I like. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s…well, some of it’s good. And one thing I’ve noticed as I look back at my favorites was that they are all so different. There’s ‘good’ animatronics and ‘bad’ ones. Some haunted by the ghosts of murdered children, some sentient AIs in wholly robotic bodies, and some just up and humanized. I’ve seen a score of Springtraps, a plethora of Puppets, a menagerie of Mike Schmidts. Some were written kid-friendly; others, wow, were not. And yet, I would consider that we all ‘fit’ in Scott Cawthon’s world, with plenty of room to grow and for others to move in.
Ultimately, world-building inside fanfiction isn’t about copying the original exactly. Think about how unnerving it would be to find yourself in a forest made up of identical trees. You want to take the seed of the idea, walk a little ways, plant it and let it grow however it wants to grow. And when you end up with a forest that’s mostly fir, some pine, some birch, a couple aspen, even a few stranger transplants, like that fig or that banyan–
–you end up with a much more interesting landscape. And beyond the forest, there are deserts and mountains and oceans. It’s all the same world.