I was extremely lucky as a child, for many reasons no doubt, but also in that my parents encouraged us to be independent and to develop our own interests. Don’t get me wrong; that isn’t code for ‘raised entirely without supervision.’ In fact, as they also fostered a number of special needs children from the time before I was born until I was old enough to do it myself, close adult supervision and a strict adherence to routine were pretty much the rule. Because anything could happen with any of the foster kids at any time, spontaneity in other aspects of our lives was reduced as much as possible. Even something as simple as a trip to the grocery store had to be planned in advance. Yesterday, my sister looked at me and said, “Want to go to the movies?” and I did and so we went. That would have been unthinkable as a child, as much as if she had asked if I wanted to fly to Paris for coffee and croissants.
The point I think I started to make was that, although we did not have a lot of the same freedoms other kids had, my parents were awesome about giving us others. They did all they could to encourage whatever hobbies we had. They never censored my reading material, never questioned my taste, and always encouraged open and honest discussion of any subject. Many was the long car ride made into a miniature holiday by an energetic discussion on the relative morality of cannibalism, or the impact of religion on the institution of marriage, or why the hell the food industry decided all raspberry products should be blue. (I believe the consensus we reached was, Because they had all these red fruit flavors, but all this blue dye)
So I was brought up in an environment where we stayed home a lot and had to make a lot of our own entertainment. I read a lot, but I didn’t have a lot of money for new books and probably only went to the library every other week or so, so one of my favorite ‘games’ was to make new stories out of old ones. When I read The Hobbit, for example, I liked to make up my own stories to plug what I saw as gaps in Tolkein’s: Why did the wood elves hate the dwarves? What were they celebrating? Where did Gandalf go anyway? What if there was a magical portal between Middle Earth and my Earth and someone, a small child, say, slipped through to be encountered by the party on their way to the dragon? In essence, it was my first attempt at fanfiction.
However, even way back then, I always attempted to fit ‘my’ stories within the narrative of the greater work. I’m not saying that made them better–I think it’s safe to say they were all utterly awful–but at least I tried to make them work. Maybe if I’d been more imaginative or had less of a conformist stick up my six-year-old ass, I’d have a whole different outlook now. But I wasn’t, didn’t and don’t, so today, I’m going to talk about staying true to the source in…
Fans Who Fic
Fire the Canon! Source Material vs. Original Content
Believe it or not, last week’s post could have been a lot longer, but halfway through, I made the executive decision to draw a hard line between world-building in the physical (so to speak) sense as opposed to pre-existing characters and lore, which is arguably more vital to fanworks than the setting of the story. (A shout-out here to Carolyn, who recently asked my advice on what to do about reining in run-on sentences. First word of advice, ask someone else. I let my sentences run wild and free.)
As a self-proclaimed fanfiction purist, I most enjoy those stories that are firmly set in the world of the source material. The fanfiction should ideally fit within the established timeline. Characters should look, talk and act like themselves. Major plot points should stay intact and nothing should be revealed that directly contradicts what I know to be ‘true’. All these things together, as well as pretty much every other scrap of information contained within the original body of work can be summed up collectively as ‘canon’. And in my extremely narrow-minded opinion, fanfiction works best when it draws from canon.
“But R Lee,” I can hear you say. “Doesn’t all fanfiction go against canon? Isn’t that the very definition of fanfiction, to tell the stories not contained within established lore?”
Well, yes and no. There’s a lot of wiggle-room in most fandoms to tell stories outside of canon. There are gaps in every timeline–side-quests, as it were. Within every good comic/movie/series/book are a thousand jumping-off points to ten thousand great fanfictions. Every character has a perspective and a backstory all their own. And as a general rule, the more expanded the universe, the less chance there is of breaking canon, because chances are, another creator has already gone way further out of bounds than you ever dreamed possible. Star Trek, Star Wars, and especially the Marvel and DC universes are prime examples of in-house world-breaking made canon through the power of why-the-hell-not? Conversely, when it’s a small universe, just one game or one book, you can make up all kinds of things and technically not break canon, since technically, the canon material never addressed the same topics.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great fanfiction out there that start from a what-if scenario. What if Harry Potter had been sorted into Slytherin? What if the Enterprise met the Firefly? What if a murder Sherlock Holmes (the real one, not Bilbo Cumberbund) began to investigate led him to a cult of Cthulhu on the eve of His great Awakening? I’m not really talking about Alternate Universes and Crossovers (yet; I’ll be talking about them later, though). However, what I’m talking about here is when the writer simply disregards key elements of established lore because it doesn’t agree with their own personal theory. And, not to tar every fanfic writer with the same brush, but often, the only reason these offenders seem to have is just because they want to see the main character’s sexual orientation change.
And even that doesn’t automatically make it a bad story. One of the first Harry Potter fanfics I ever read cast Harry as gay, not to the exclusion of everything else, but just on top of it all. I don’t remember what it was called, unfortunately, but I have to admit the struggle of a young boy to find his own sexual identity fit in well with leaving an abusive home (where he had to literally live in a closet) and finding out where he fit in a magical new world he had no idea existed all around him all along. I guess what I’m saying is, I may be a purist, but I’m also ridiculously easy to please. Like everyone else who reads fanfic, I want to be convinced. Just give me a reason why this works, that’s all I ask. Just give me a reason, and ‘I ship it,’ doesn’t count. If fanfiction is a house, then shipping is the furniture, not the foundation.
Of course, having said all that, this is a perfect time to point out what anyone who’s reading my fanfiction already knows. My series–mine, me, the one who’s been yammering on all this time about the importance of staying true to the source–is not canon.
In my defense, when I first started writing it, I believed I was coloring solidly within the lines. There were things I made up–like personalities for the animatronics, a town for the restaurants to be in, and a whole cast of characters to move in and out of the story–and there were widely-held fan-theories I did not adopt–such as the one about the animatronics being possessed by the ghosts of murdered children. And yes, I do consider that a ‘theory.’ It has never been confirmed.
When I started, there was no canon identity for the Purple Man, so I made up my own. And after I was good and invested in my head-canon, Scott Cawthon went and added to the lore. Like, a lot. Without even asking me.
Now here I am, writing a story that has only the most token resemblance to the game that inspired me to write it in the first place. That’s an uncomfortable position for me, but you know what? At the end of the day, it’s still the story I want to tell. However, it does leave me on the other side of a fence I myself have built to separate what I consider good fanfiction from the bad. If I want to be one of those who successfully hops that fence (wait, I had a house metaphor earlier, didn’t I? Have I now got houses jumping over fences? Maybe I shouldn’t be writing at all), there are two things to keep in mind.
First, you can’t play both sides forever, so pick one and stand by it. If you can solve a discrepancy with a name change and you can think up a plausible reason why your character might have used an alias until now, go for it. If not, don’t just shoehorn something in. Accept that you and the canon have parted ways and focus on telling the story. Most people who read fanfic also write it, and so are very forgiving of head-canons and alternate universes. Even purists like me can forgive almost any deviation as long as the story is told well.
Second, accept criticism, ignore hate and learn to tell the difference. This one is a daily reminder for me. As I’ve said before, I haven’t received any really negative responses to my series, but I’ve sure seen it happen to other people who tweaked with the lore way less than I have and I know it could happen. I also know that, like many introverts, I have trouble with normal social interactions, much less the ones that are text-only, without even body language or tone to help me figure out the intention behind the words. So many misunderstandings online could have been solved or never even ignited if they had only been two people sitting at a table and not two comments on a YouTube video. And this is fanfiction, and fans are often exuberant about the things they love and keen to share their knowledge of the lore. They might not even consider what they’re doing to be criticism; they may just think they’re being informative. On the rare occasions that I am contacted by someone who wants me to know that the ‘real’ Purple Guy is William Afton (uh, spoilers?), I merely reply that I know that now, but didn’t then, and am now committed to seeing this thing through my way. And we chat about the game and that’s it. No hate. I had one person tell me they didn’t like all the swearing. I understand that; my books aren’t for everyone. It’s okay not to like it. It’s okay not to read it. It’s okay to tell your friends what you think is wrong with it. None of that is hate, even if the platform they use is the comment section. Telling me I use too many semi-colons and mix my metaphors is not hate; it’s constructive and I should be listening and taking notes so that future stories are improved. Telling me my book is dumb and FNAF is dumb and I’m dumb is hate; I’ve got better things to do with my time than answer someone whose only aim is to make trouble.