The Butterfly Effect: Pitfalls of Converting Your Fanfiction into an Original Work

The disclaimer I’m going to put at the beginning of this post is I know fanfiction vs original fiction is a touchy subject.

Fanfiction exists, I’ve written fanfiction, I’m not making any value judgements on fanfiction as a hobby, a passion, or a craft learning tool. If you like writing fanfiction and aren’t interested in converting your works into original fiction for publication, this post isn’t for you. If you’re the sort of person who feels threatened or delegitimized by discussions about the benefits and weaknesses of fanfiction as a tool for learning craft, this post isn’t the place to throw your tantrum. Got it? Good. Let’s move on.

One of the lies you’ll hear when you’re thinking about transitioning any fanfiction work you’ve written into an original work such as a short story or novel you can send on submission is that there’s no difference between fanfiction and an original work and that the conversion is easy.

It isn’t. 

They’ll list off all the authors who have admitted to writing fanfiction or converted their works from fanfic into “real” fic like Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments vis-à-vis Harry Potter, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey  vis-à-vis Twilight, even trying to nail JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings vis-à-vis the entire tradition of European folklore with extra special helpings of Beowulf, Norse, and Celtic myth. These arguments equate inspiration and adaptation to fanfiction without any contextual nuance. “Everything is really just fanfiction anyway,” they say. Which? No.

It’s important to understand that these arguments are defensive by nature and exist more to reassure the person making the argument than to convince anyone else. It’s an argument meant for the echo chamber and the ears of those who already agree, a defensive knee-jerk reaction, and an expression of insecurity. This can be confusing if you’re genuinely trying to make a conversion because the defensive discourse surrounding the “legitimacy” of fanfiction will ultimately point you in the wrong direction. 

There are very important differences between fanfiction and an original work that have nothing to do with your writing’s quality or your skills as a writer. The relevant pitfalls are structure and, most importantly, context. 

Fanfiction is in the name, the work is designed to exist supplementally to the work it’s based on and cannot stand on its own without its point of origin. The entire genre is referential by nature, you’re not just using another creator’s work as inspiration for your own work, you’re writing stories in that creator’s world. It’s more akin to tracing than fanart, which is where fanfiction acts as an excellent learning tool. You can learn a lot about drawing and drawing well from tracing. You can learn a lot about writing and writing well from fanfiction, whether you’re working within the provided template, practicing other styles outside your own, or taking the work apart and restructuring it in new and different ways to fit your imagination. Fanfiction’s problem when transitioning to an original work is in its contextual reliance on another narrative. You’re using a complete creation as your launch pad, there are going to be problems baked into the very bones of your narrative you may not even be aware of; even in a completely different story which only uses the characters of the original work like your Coffee Shop AU.

At the end of the day, fanfiction is all about playing in someone else’s sandbox and, no matter how cool the castle is, everything you’ve built is full of their sand.

The professional form of fanfiction is tie-in fiction. With tie-in fiction, the work is written with the expectation you’re already aware of the property the story is based on and its world, meaning you know many of the rules, foibles, characterization, and world building coming in. This means, none of it needs to be explained to your reader. You can skip it. This is a serious problem if you’re trying to convert a fanfic into an original work. A lot of the steps you could skip as a fanfic writer cannot be skipped with original fiction because an original work lacks the benefit of prior understanding. As I said, the issue for an original work conversion is in the bones of your fanfiction rather than the surface read. This has nothing to do with a writer’s skill, but rather their intention when they originally started writing and all the aspects of a work they accidentally brought with them when they copied.

If you go back and review each of the examples I listed, you’ll find those works can all stand on their own merits. However you may feel about the authors or the quality of the work itself, none of them require prior knowledge from having read the original source material to understand the story, the characters, and their world. You don’t need to have read Beowulf to understand The Lord of the Rings. You don’t need a Cambridge scholar’s understanding of European myth in general to enjoy The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, though it may enhance your experience and the same is true for The Lord of the Rings vis-à-vis the entire fantasy genre. You don’t need to know Robert Jordan was deconstructing The Lord of the Rings and the Chosen One trope to enjoy The Wheel of Time, just like you don’t need to have read Pride and Prejudice to enjoy Bridget Jones’s Diary. That’s the difference between inspiration and fanfiction. One is a complete work capable of standing on its own merits outside of required prior knowledge and the other is inherently tied to the prior work in the very fundamentals of the text.

The necessity of context is why you can’t just palette swap the surface of your fanfiction and call it ready for publication. We need to go deeper. When drafting and rewriting, the butterfly effect is real. When you change one thing, whether it’s events in a single scene or a single decision, much less an entire character, you alter your narrative’s internal logic. Internal logic is what your plot runs on. It’s the basis on which all your characters are making their decisions (Why you? Why now?) to propel your narrative forward. In a palette swap of a fanfiction for an original work, you no longer have the characters you were previously using for your plot. Their world is different and, as a result, they are different people. Your reader no longer has the benefit of prior knowledge regarding the character’s history, their characterization, and no expectation for how they’re supposed to behave. The butterfly effect kicks in.

Let me give you an example, you’ve written a piece of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fanfiction with Julian Bashere in the starring role. He’s trapped on a prison planet controlled by The Dominion with Miles and Kira (and Ducat.) The scientists in charge of the prison planet want his help unlocking the secrets of an ancient alien technology that’s been lost to the ages. Julian is torn between his love of science and his hatred for the enemy, all the while his friends are secretly plotting an escape behind his back.

Okay, we’ve decided to make our changes. We now have Not-Julian in an industrialized fantasy setting trapped on a fantasy prison island reminiscent of Australia and Alcatraz. No one has ever escaped from it. He’s a freedom fighter captured by the ruling regime after they conquered his homeland, and we know he committed some sort of horrible crime but the details are kept secret. He’s in love with Not-Miles, and Not-Kira is a complete stranger. The scientists in charge of the facility want his help unlocking the secrets of an ancient fantasy technology that belonged to a long dead race of a previous era. He’s no longer torn about helping them and is focused only on his own survival. All the while, his lover is being blackmailed by a complete stranger and secretly plotting an escape behind his back.

Have you noticed the problems with the narrative’s internal logic yet? Why do the scientists need Not-Julian, who is just a freedom fighter?

The problem for this setup is that Julian Bashere is not just a Starfleet doctor. He is a minor celebrity within his field and considered one of the greatest scientific minds of his generation, meaning it makes perfect sense within the narrative for even highly advanced alien races to turn to him or blackmail him for help. If you take that prior knowledge away without adding any additional justification that supports his level of involvement within the plot (like not just being a brilliant and famous scientist, but also being a specialist) and let it run… it no longer makes sense, especially the degree of access to sensitive information Not-Julian gets within the narrative as a result. In fact, the decision to keep this the same makes your narrative worse. Now you no longer have a narrative running on internal logic, you have external logic. External logic is when the justification and reasoning for a character to know what they know comes from outside the story. The narrative’s justification for Not-Julian’s position is now “because he’s our POV and main character.” That’s bad writing.

This is the butterfly effect. You wrote your story for one set of characters as the driving force of the action and now those characters are different people. They live in a different world, have different stimuli, different needs, and potentially completely different backgrounds. It’s the same as when you do an adaptation but change important key details at the beginning and keep the same end result. You weaken your narrative because the chain of events which justified that ending is now broken. How does your story as written make sense? It doesn’t. Unless, you start from the very beginning and do all the important detail work in the building blocks to reorient the character and their world into a new, harmonized existence.

This is where an old axiom becomes very important:

Bad writers copy.

Good writers steal.

A lot of fanfic writers hear the first section “bad writers copy” and immediately think it pertains to them, and it doesn’t. (However, if “bad writers copy” did just make you feel defensive then your brain’s gone and told on you. Congrats. You’re copying.) 

The difference between JRR Tolkien and fanfic is that JRR Tolkien stole. He stole flagrantly, he stole shamelessly, and he made all of it his own within the context of his narrative, his characterization, and his worldbuilding.

If you want to convert a work, you need to steal. You need to take someone else’s property and make it wholly your own. There are lots of ways you can achieve this, one of the easiest is actually going harder toward the original property rather than running from it. You don’t need to change everything if the world your characters exist in remains mostly the same. In the case of Star Trek, there’s an entire genre influenced by its existence.

Okay, let’s go back to Not-Julian. How could you restructure the scenario to keep your narrative’s goals mostly in line with your original fanfiction? Let’s see.

After a failed rebellion against the Federation of Planets, freedom fighter Jackson Ran is sentenced to the prison moon of Azkabar; a place from which no one has ever escaped. Together with his lover, Mac, and their CO, Kendra, he’s destined to spend the rest of his life mining duranium for the enemy. However, Doctor Jaybrin of the Federation soon arrives to make Jackson an offer.

Once Jackson was a star scientist studying the technology of the lost alien race. Jaybrin needs Jackon’s help unlocking a key genome keeping the Federation from accessing their surviving weapons technology. In return for Jackson’s help, Jaybrin will use his influence to provide Mac safer work, better meals, and living quarters. With Mac’s health taking a turn for the worse, Jackson can’t refuse.

As Jackson grows closer with Jaybrin, Mac and Kendra plot their escape from Azkabar. A plan Mac knows he must keep from Jackson now that the love of his life has become the enemy.

Reminder, this was our fanfiction:

Julian Bashere’s trapped on a prison planet controlled by The Dominion with Miles and Kira (and Ducat.) The scientists in charge of the prison planet want his help unlocking the secrets of an ancient alien technology that’s been lost to the ages. Julian is torn between his love of science and his hatred for the enemy, all the while his friends are secretly plotting an escape behind his back.

The narrative of the new original work remains very similar to the DS9 fanfiction, however, many of the key details which allowed the narrative to function remain the same. The themes and goals of the work are the same, and it doesn’t scream Star Trek. You’ve just got a sci-fi novel.

One of the downsides of fanfiction is that it can lead to authors feeling illegitimate, even delegitimized, like their work isn’t as valid because they’re using another person’s creativity as a launchpad. This sense of illegitimacy overwhelms the author’s original goals and can lead to them running from their story, trying to make it as different as possible to cover up it’s fanfiction origins. That’s the one direction you shouldn’t take.

It’s important to remember we’re all influenced and all inspired by the media in our lives. We can even begin to feel reliant on others for our creativity. Remember that the goal of converting your work from fanfiction to original fiction is for your work to stand on its own without being reliant on contextual knowledge or outside structural support. It doesn’t have to be good. (It could be.) It doesn’t have to be successful. (It could be.) It just needs a self-contained existence. You don’t need to be ashamed of your novel’s origins. Recognize that while your story needs to change, it doesn’t need to change drastically. If you read the works I mentioned and the original fanfiction back to back, you may notice that on a surface read they do feel remarkably like a palate swap. Yet each one is capable of standing on its own merits. Why? 

These works didn’t stray that far from their authors’ original intentions. They were given the grounding in worldbuilding and characterization to allow a reader with no prior knowledge or fandom background to jump straight in.

A self-contained existence is the real dividing line between fanfiction and original fiction.

-Michi

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