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Friday, 14 December 2018
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Avoiding Mistakes in Fanfiction Writing: A Beginner's Guide
by Valis2

I was thinking about writing one day while at work, and I started putting together a LJ entry in my head. My head being fairly leaky with information, I decided to write on a teeny scrap of paper instead and expound later.

I'm still expounding, and it's been three months, off and on, and at last count it reached 8800 words.

So here are my thoughts on the pitfalls of novice fanfiction writers. Being a novice fanfiction writer myself, and having made all of these mistakes and more, I feel fairly confident about prattling on about them. We're all here to improve, right?

  • You Are Putting Your Work into a Public Space: There are many reasons for writing. However, if you are putting your fics out into the public by placing them on a public archive, then you are inviting people to comment on your work.

    If you really are doing this to practice the skill of writing, or share your work with others, then you have to be prepared for what comes next, which is interaction from the audience. Readers are going to tell you what they think about your work. You could receive compliments; you could receive complaints; you could receive helpful constructive criticism; you could receive flames (very negative reviews). Whatever you receive, you need to take with a grain of salt. I have seen some of the most awful fics, riddled with errors, receive a comment of "Are you [the canon author] in disguise? Because I think you are!" I have seen great fics get ignored or receive lukewarm praise.

    Reviewers are just like writers. There are many different kinds of them. The important thing is to analyze the comment carefully, and see if you truly think it applies to your writing or not. Don't be too quick to throw it aside. If a few people mention a flaw in your writing, you should definitely pay heed. Fanfiction writers and readers are a terrific source of inspiration and help.

    If you're writing fanfiction and uploading it to a public archive, then you are writing because you want an audience to read it. Finding that audience is the first part; convincing them to try your story is the second part; keeping them reading is the third part. If they comment, that's a bonus.

  • Who Wants to Read That? (Summaries): For most archives, your summary is the way to attract new readers. A summary that says little or a poorly-written summary will turn people off. You want people to see your work, correct? Then spend time on the summary. Run it through a spell checker. Make it exciting, engaging, delicious. You need to make it so amazing that people will want to click on your story. There is so much competition out there that having a poor summary will hurt your chances of being read. Also, many people are turned off by authors who "beg" for reviews in their summaries, or authors who say they won't update unless they receive [x] number of reviews.

  • When a Snape Isn't a Snape (Staying in Character): A good rule of thumb in writing is to Remember the Audience. It doesn't matter if your audience is grandmothers, fifteen year olds, or just yourself. You need to keep them in mind when you are writing.

    When you're writing fanfiction, you are writing for fans. This means you have the distinct advantage of not having to set the stage; the fans already know the stage pretty well. Fans don't need lengthy introductions; most of them know the canon characters inside and out. But it also means they're going to be less forgiving about what you do with the canon characters. Distort Clark Kent too much, make him into a nacho-eating Transylvanian with a groovy vibe, and people will click the back button and not read any further if you're serious. They want to read more about their favorite characters. They want to know why Han Solo was solo for so long. They want to know how Remus Lupin got bitten by a werewolf. Or they want to read about Harry Potter's next year, or what happened after the second Death Star exploded. There are many scenarios that you can fit right into the canon universe you're writing in.

    When someone writes a canon character who acts and behaves differently from the source material, it's called Out Of Character (OOC). If you are writing them purposely OOC, then you had better explain why. If Lex is joining a hippie commune, you must furnish proper reasons. People generally don't just leave a multi-million dollar corporation to live property-free; there are reasons for their actions, and, as the author, you are the one who has to provide them.

    The thing is, most fanfiction readers don't particularly want to read a story with OOC characters. Snape fans, for example, don't want to read a story where a student tells off Severus Snape in a particularly nasty manner and walks out of his class without a single point being taken or a reaction from Snape. That's fairly ridiculous. Snape fans know the character of Severus Snape pretty well, and the reason they clicked on your story is that he was in it. If he is a nervous stammering wreck for no reason at all, the Snape fans are going to roll their eyes and hit the back button. Remember the audience? Well, Snape fans are the main audience of a Snape-centric fanfiction. Lose them, and there aren't a lot of readers left.

  • Know the Rules: You can break the rules after you know them. Writing, like nearly everything else, takes practice. Not knowing the difference between its and it's, tenses, grammar, and all of the other mechanics of writing will bring your work down a notch in the eyes of those that care.

    There are levels of sophistication in readers as well as writers. Certainly most readers will not notice your continual use of the passive voice. The ones that do, however, may hit the back button.

    Once you're grounded in the rules, you can begin testing their boundaries. Breaking the rules can make interesting fics. It still means that you should do your homework first.

  • I Wouldn't Spell It That Way, Dave (Using a Spell checker): Using a spell checker is an important part of writing, but you should remember that it isn't foolproof. Spell checkers cannot help you with homophones. I once read a piece where the author had mistakenly written that the "mussels" of the horse flexed as she rode it. No, the horse was not an oyster/equine mix. If you have trouble with homophones, then a good beta can help. Also, programs that check grammar are notoriously suspect, because language is so complicated, so it's a good idea to double-check their suggestions.

    You must know the rules yourself. You must own a dictionary and a good guide to grammar if you are serious about writing good fanfiction. A good Beta reader is important as well.

  • Betas: You are the alpha reader, the first person who reads your story. A beta reader should be the second.

    There are many different kinds of betas out there. Punctuation/grammar/spelling betas, plot betas, canon betas, Britpicking betas. Some betas are good at it all. Finding the right beta is a bit tricky, but once you have, your writing can only improve.

    Betas can find and correct little mistakes that you don't even notice. Betas can also sometimes tell you more important things, like their initial reaction to a major plot point, or whether the chapter in question "works" in the manner it is meant to, or whether your story is dragging and needs to get to something major soon. Before you take on a beta, you should be certain that this person has the skills you're looking for. Look at work they've beta'd to ascertain their quality.

  • Respect Canon: If you're writing for a specific fandom, then it is your job to know that fandom's rules. The rules of a fandom are collectively referred to as canon. It is canon that Severus Snape has black eyes. It is canon that Han Solo is a great pilot. It is canon that Remus Lupin turns into a wolf during the full moon.

    Readers will shy away from fics where Hercules has wings or Lex Luthor breeds chickens in his run-down shack without explanation. Readers will scratch their heads in confusion if Hermione suddenly knows how to fly without a broom. Every fandom inhabits a unique universe with its own set of rules and guidelines. Knowing your fandom's canon will make your fanfiction that much stronger and will render it far less confusing to the readers. It will allow the readers to concentrate on your story. Yes, making Harry Potter the star of his own game show is interesting, but most fanfiction readers are tuning in because Harry Potter is a wizard, and they want to see what sorts of Wizarding things he'll do next.

    Of course, you can shout at the top of your lungs that "It's fanFICTION, and I can do whatever I want", but that won't endear you to anyone. The rules of the fandom universe are what makes the universe that particular universe. If you obliterate the rules, you may as well write "Quacky McDuck Sings the Blues" and do something entirely original instead of forcing someone else's characters to do odd things.

    There are lots of rules that sometimes aren't even visible without careful reading or viewing. Severus Snape never refers to Harry Potter as "Harry" or "Mr. Potter", only as "Potter". The Hufflepuff common room in Hogwarts is past the kitchens. You should know to whom Clark Kent has revealed his powers, and you should read the Appendices of Lord of the Rings so that you know exactly what happens to Legolas and Gimli and Samwise after the War of the Ring if you are writing for those fandoms. It's also helpful to take a look through fan sites that contain guidelines and resources. In the Harry Potter fandom, there is an amazing online guide called The Harry Potter Lexicon that even JK Rowling has complimented---it's easy to use, exhaustive, and its very existence makes simple canon errors inexcusable. Certainly we all make mistakes, of course, but many can be avoided through the use of online fan resources. Look around, and you're sure to find someone who can point you to the best source.

    If you do feel you want to explore other facets of the fandom, then by all means take the letters AU and apply them soundly to the description of your fanfiction. AU stands for Alternate Universe, and that is where you can invent all sorts of unique scenarios. Draco Malfoy in "The Prince and The Pauper". Harry Potter born a girl. Clark Kent as a Buddhist. Xena taking anger-management classes in modern-day Los Angeles. AU lets the reader know that the rules have changed because you're providing a new set. Whatever you write, be certain that the rules---whether they are canon or your own---are consistent.

  • Attack of the Plot That Everyone Has Already Seen: The very nature of fanfiction implies a set, finite universe. The rules of the canon writer have shaped the universe and the characters who inhabit it. It logically follows that if you are pairing two canon characters together, especially two popular characters, then many writers have already written fics around them. Sometimes it might be a good idea to check out some of the most popular fics just to see what is already out there. You want your piece to be unique, fresh, and interesting, and if it has too much of a similarity to a very popular piece, whether on purpose or not, people might not read it. And there are some scenarios that are written so frequently that they are considered to be cliches. A little investigation before you expend a lot of effort outlining and writing your piece can help you avoid an unpleasant experience.

  • Everything You Wanted to Know, and Lots More on Top of That (Expositional blocks): We've all done it. Started a story with action, and then suddenly given our readers whiplash when we quickly shift to Expositional Mode, dumping huge quantities of information on top of them. Example:

    She lingered in the doorway, wishing that she had brought her Glock. The derringer just wouldn't be enough if anything serious started. She'd always liked guns. Guns seemed to bring out her calm side. Normally she would be bouncing off the walls---but hand her a gun, and she'd transform, becoming cool and collected. Even as a little girl she'd always wanted to play cops and robbers instead of dressing up Barbie. Her brothers used to leave her behind until she got old enough to keep up with them, and then they'd play for hours in the backyard. She remembered her oldest brother, dead now, and wished that it wasn't so. His killer would pay. She'd taken down so many jerks in the last six years that she knew how to do it now. She took the safety off the little gun and prepared to deal with the bank heist that was going down.

    So many times the character's history just starts overwhelming you as you're writing a scene. You suddenly think of wonderful quirk after quirk, fabulous background material, and flaws galore as you're writing. It's natural, because you're developing the character. However, these things are for your benefit, and don't necessarily have to be transmitted to the reader at that moment, or at all. Generalities ("she'd always liked guns") and mini-flashbacks ("She remembered her oldest brother") sometimes do nothing but confuse the reader, as they would much rather see it then hear about it. I could have written instead a line that implied her devotion to ammunition and firearms without making the statement so explicit, and then the reader would have been able to surmise it all on their own. That would have made the paragraph much more action-oriented and not so choppy and distracting. The background I could have saved for another character to bring up, or for her to mention in a conversation with her mother on the phone. As it reads now it pulls the reader everywhere.

    Too many times I've read fics that start with a line or two of action, and then the rest of the entire first chapter becomes huge expositional block describing everyday habits, life patterns, back history, and food preferences.

  • Look at my character! No, really! Look at my character!! (Too Much Description): Describing a character is a very important part of building up just who they are in the imagination of the reader. But that doesn't mean that every single item that the character possesses must be inventoried in a single paragraph the very first time the reader is introduced to him/her. The more you stack on, the more difficult it is for the casual reader to keep it all straight. This mistake is related to Exposition Blocks.

    Sari put her hands on her hips, admiring her reflection in the mirror. She was five feet six inches tall. Her long red and black streaked hair was pulled into twin ponytails atop her head, fastened with ponytail holders with little gems on them that flashed when people looked at them. She drew her twin swords, striking a pose. She wore a leather collar with spikes on it and matching red and black leather wristbands. She was wearing a bikini top made from red leather paired with a black leather miniskirt and fishnet stockings with black leather boots with three inch heels. She wore one red kneepad and one black kneepad. What most people didn't know is that she had an arsenal of weapons stashed in her outfit. A garrote was hidden in the hem of her miniskirt, and she had several throwing knives concealed in her boots. Her wristbands held shurikens. She looked closer in the mirror, noting with satisfaction her unusual eyes, one red, one black. She loved it when an opponent got close enough to see them and freaked out. She could make the red one turn black if she wanted, but she preferred them this way. Her eyebrows were full and perfectly curved naturally. She smiled, baring her sharp, white teeth. She knew she was pretty. She knew she could kick butt. Her twin swords were made from mithril and could cut through anything. Sometimes, though, she used the Glock in her shoulder holster, just to shake things up a bit.

    Okay, how many of you really got through that entire paragraph? It may be scintillating to the writer, full of awesome details, but to the casual reader it can be a pretentious turnoff. Too much of it just makes people hit the back button without giving you a chance. Sometimes it's better to let the character go about her business, or, if the work is a long work-in-progress chaptered story, it could be much more interesting to reveal details slowly. If the shurikins in the wristbands are not going to be a factor in the story until chapter 20, then you might want to reserve their description until chapter 10 or so.

    Also, too much very specific detail can "push" the reader right out of your fanfiction. Why does she need to be "five feet six"? It's easier to say she's of average height, or compare her to a "tall" character and say she's shorter. Saying she is wearing "three inch heels" just piles on too much. "Heels" is enough. Unless later in the story she is saved because her heels are exactly three inches long, it's a completely useless detail.

    The character design should make sense from all angles. If Sari, for example, is from a very cold climate, then her normal gear would not consist of a leather bikini top and a miniskirt. If she is from a medieval-based culture, then her fishnet stockings would be laughed at (as well as her white teeth). The outfit and appearance have to logically fit in with her environment, her culture, and her abilities. If she's a ninjitsu expert she most likely will not wear a long, flowing skirt. This applies to her physical description as well. If her mother has shocking red hair and her father has pitch-black hair it will not make sense for her to have striped hair, unless you support it somehow, but remember...some of the readers are going to know that you've made up an elaborate excuse for your character just so that she can have red and black striped hair. Look into common eye colors and hair color combinations in your source material. And just because your best friend happens to have jet black hair, porcelain skin, and shocking blue eyes with a violet rim does not mean that it isn't a rare combination. It is also not recommendable that you at any point refer to someone's eyes as "orbs". It doesn't sound attractive, and it is a common description that new writers use that will peg you as inexperienced. Trust me on this one.

    The more your character stands out, the more apart from the reader you make her. I'm not saying that you can't have a banjo-playing superstar with green skin and fuschia eyes who likes to wear sharkskin. I'm just saying that you'll have to work that much harder to make him believable and, more importantly, let the readers empathize with him, unless that is the norm in the universe he lives in.

  • My Parents Abandoned Me and All I Got Was This Lovely Angst (Background): Part of creating characters that live and breathe is fleshing out their past. Realistic, believable backgrounds can go a long way into developing character. Backgrounds can influence plot and give even the most basic of encounters extra shades of meaning. This scene:

    Harry looked up at Remus, wondering how many days the werewolf had left to live. Remus was dying.

    is much more poignant when the reader remembers that Harry has few adult figures of compassion in his life, and that Remus has seen his other friends die or betray the others and has never lived a full life because of his lycanthropy. Background provides the resonating emotion that is underneath the action.

    A character's background is, I would argue, even more important than appearance and possessions. It is the engine that drives the character and supplies reactions to external stimuli. So it only follows that a character's background should be carefully thought out.

    I've read fanfictions before where the character somehow had time to learn eight languages, is a martial arts expert, a fencing expert, and the daughter of a demon who killed the human side of her family and left her with only her talking fire-breathing horse for company...all by the age of sixteen. Perhaps somewhere there is someone who can do most of those things before sixteen. She would be one in a million, though. The readers will notice how coincidental it is that she's a fencing expert because the male hero of the fandom happens to also be a fencing expert. They'll wince when he tries to fence with her---and loses. Characters who already know everything and can do everything just aren't as interesting as characters who have to learn and make mistakes.

    The background of your original characters should be realistic and carefully thought out.

  • I've taken English classes/I read a lot/I am an English major: Ah, yes. The Curse of Consistent Quoting. I have definitely been guilty of this one. So has Sharyn McCrumb, a published mystery author. When I read the first of her Elizabeth MacPherson novels I rolled my eyes. Elizabeth was particularly annoying because she continually quoted from all sorts of odd sources, and she would get into quoting wars with other characters. Fortunately Ms. McCrumb somehow got the picture, and within a book or two the only character left quoting aloud is the character's cousin Geoffrey, who acts in plays (mostly Shakespearean), and for whom the quoting is second nature and quite entertaining. It is quite understandable that, if your character is an actor or writer or English major, they would occasionally quote something. Very occasionally. It is not understandable when it gets out of hand or it comes from an unlikely character. Too often it's "Look how well read I am!" or "Check this out, it's my favorite quote!", and that isn't as interesting to the reader as it is to the author. I wrote a "quoting war" scene when I was fifteen. Yep. And it was awful. I read it now and laugh, because it pulls me right out of the story. It's not something that almost ever happens in real life, unless you're in an arts program.

    The same applies for references to something really cool that you're reading right now. Look, I just re-read Lord of the Rings, and honestly, I was incredibly moved by "the Doom of Man" as being a wonderful name for, well, death. Don't think that I didn't have this amazing urge to have a character in my Harry Potter fanfiction use this phrase. But I know better. It would just be weird and jarring for those who wouldn't catch the reference, and pretentious to those who would.

    Also be wary of including different languages. If you quote in another language, many times it draws the reader out of the fanfiction in order to find out what the word or phrase means. I'm not saying don't ever quote or make a reference to other works! I'm just saying, work it in properly, and really make certain that it's a good fit. A properly placed translation is helpful as well, but even so, it can be annoying to try to look for the translation on the page. I've seen this quite a bit in fanfiction. Characters will suddenly say something ominously in Latin, or quote Wordsworth. Or Byron. Or some other worthy Romantic poet that doesn't deserve to be pulled out of his slipcover for this. I've read fanfictions where two characters have a Meaningful Scene in which one blithely quotes Dante's Inferno and the other, without missing a beat, quotes Dante's Purgatorio. It just doesn't work unless it is very plausible that these two characters would be doing so. The thing is, in Harry Potter canon at least, no one quotes almost anything. I don't even remember reading any Wizarding "proverbs", honestly. And no one speaks in Latin, except aural spell components. There are exceptions---of course there are exceptions! There are always exceptions (humor fics spring to mind immediately). I'm just saying that quoting and alternate languages have to be well thought out.

  • My Original Character Cannot Be Contained by Your Paltry Canon Rules (Author Self-Insertion (Mary Sue)): Many minds superior to mine have written essays about the Dreaded Mary Sue. I will try to capture her essence in a nutshell. Part of this explanation will be from an earlier LJ entry I made.

    Original Characters (OCs; OMC=Original Male Character, OFC=Original Female Character) are characters invented by you to live and breathe next to canon characters. A Mary Sue is a negative fan term that refers to an Original Character who has become a nuisance by warping the story. A Mary Sue is an author self-insertion gone awry.

    Self-insertion is going to happen to a degree, regardless of whether the author wants it to or not. As long as we're writing about characters and not aliens who are completely, well, alien, we're going to have to put something into that character that we know about ourselves, even if it is just something simple like breathing in and out.

    I think that there are two different kinds of self-insertion: a) regular self-insertion and b) wish-fulfillment self-insertion. "A" happens all the time in all writing, because you need some little bit of yourself to put in the clay to make it come to life. "B" is where the problems begin. They usually start internally with the words "Wouldn't it be cool if..." and snowball from there. Wish-fulfillment is usually only satisfying to the one making the wish. To everyone else, it can be annoying because the character has so many unusual qualities and, more upsettingly, she warps the story until everything and everyone references her in some way. The Sue becomes supreme, whether in her glorious inner beauty or her uber-angst, and she wreaks havoc on the canon world, ignoring or changing the ground rules.

    So when does a self-insert become a Mary Sue? When does innocent "A" morph into sinister "B"? Well, it is all a matter of degree, in my opinion. When the character's quirks and strengths start eclipsing the character---when they start to distort the character's shape like a black hole pulling on the edge of a star---that's when to stop. To an experienced fanfiction reader, a "B" stands out fairly quickly. B has no limits. The author does not want to impose limits or vulnerabilities on their character, which in turn creates a one-dimensional flat character that is unable to grow. Everyone has to have some sort of soft spot. Everyone has to have realistic flaws and strengths and goals and nightmares.

    I remember one of the first stories that I wrote. It was set in a fantasy universe. My self-insert started out as a girl with a pet wolf and morphed quickly into the Earthmother, with power over all flora and fauna, and the wolf turned out to be the most amazing wolf that ever graced the world with its paws, and he, too, was hundreds of thousands of years old. The nature goddess could have been an interesting character, except I didn't want her to die or be harmed and I wanted her to be on top of every situation. So she was incredibly wise, yet snarky for entertainment value, she was nigh-invulnerable, and she knew everything and was more powerful than nearly any other deity, despite the fact that she was relatively low in the pantheon that I had created. I was so frightened that she could be hurt or change that I made her into this static, incredibly boring author avatar that ruined every scene that she entered, though I didn't know it at the time.

    Sue authors don't think their Sue is ruining their scenes. They don't realize that a character that can easily change the weather pattern of the entire globe with a snap of her fingers translates to boring. There is no tension involved. The readers figure out fairly quickly that the Earthmother can handle everything that is thrown her way, and more. Why bother reading further? A character who is an inexperienced Weathermage who is trying to change the weather to save her husband is much more interesting, because the reader genuinely doesn't know if she'll be able to avert the storm or not. Too often the Sue is so good at everything (except harmless things like cooking) that there is little or no tension. Will the Sue cast a tremendously powerful Stunning Spell that knocks out all of the Death Eaters and allows her to kill Voldemort with her super awesome magical .45? Oh, of course. Will the Sue have difficulty taking on twenty five orcs at once with only her bow and arrows? Nope, not at all. There can't be any tension if the reader knows that the Sue will always come out on top.

    There is a theory in writing that there are two types of characters: flat characters and round characters. Flat characters are the same from the beginning of the piece to the end. Round characters change and grow. Generally you have one, maybe two, round characters who are the main characters of the piece, and you surround them with flat characters. I've noticed that many beginning fanfiction writers tend to make their main character full and complete before the first word is even written. If the character has already learned everything and is perfect, or near perfect, then what is the point of the piece? The character needs room to grow and become a fuller character, or you've merely written an exercise in How Cool Is It When She Beats Up All Those Ninjas. Characters who do not need anything are nowhere near as interesting as characters who do need something and have to overcome inner and outer obstacles to find it.

    It's not that the character simply "needs a flaw", either.She needs real, human traits that real people possess, like a tendency to be closed-minded, or wishy-washy. Something that you've seen in people before. A realistic flaw cannot be "She bites her nails." That's a bad habit. A flaw is something that you can explore in your writing and either solve or use to create tension. Is she certain that she's hideous? Does she always want to impress people? Those are real flaws. Insecurity and vanity in your characters will give the audience something to chew on. It will make better storylines. See, if the Earthmother shows up then Voldemort will be obliterated, and the One Ring will turn out to be merely a trinket that she thinks nothing of destroying while she's filing her nails. Miss Insecurity would keep going, afraid to put the Sorting Hat on, or Miss Vanity would try to take the Ring from Frodo, and you'd have a story there.

    And beware of giving them the most cliched flaw that I can think of: having a bad temper. Certainly you can write an interesting story around a character with a bad temper, but most that I've seen in the hands of a beginning writer involve the character simply being angry without any realistic limitations or setbacks. In real life a bad temper is not an asset, and people with anger problems alienate friends and family. Their outbursts are not tolerated the way they are in fanfiction.

    It is my little pet theory that Mary Sues are some sort of a blueprint for whatever eats at us. If someone has trouble with anger, perhaps repressing too much, she'll write the ANGRY Sue that yells at people over the slightest provocation. The important part of this scenario is not the yelling. It is the reaction. Either both parties will sustain the yelling for a while, with the Sue coming out "on top", or the Sue will march out of the room after a "snappy" comeback, leaving "devastation" in her wake. See, the thing is, the Sue author writing it thinks that they've invented the wheel, when in reality her Freudian slip is showing.

    The rules of canon should apply just as strongly to original characters as it does to canon characters. If Harry Potter canon mentions that few people are born Metamorphmagi, and few people become Animagi, then having an original character who is both really strains the believability factor. Here's one way to go about making OCs more believable: the more unusual powers, the more drawbacks. Want a character who can shoot magical beams of energy from her hand? Well, if you can somehow work it into canon believably, you should give her something detrimental as well. Perhaps doing so drains her terribly so that she has to sleep for thirty-six hours afterwards. Or she has no aim at all and only hits her targets with luck. Or perhaps it burns her hands terribly, and she has to heal for days. There needs to be some balance so that the character isn't just out-and-out powerful.

    One last comment about character profiles. I've read many, many "Is She a Mary Sue" profiles on FictionAlley, and nearly every Mary Sue says the same thing: "Fiercely Loyal to her Friends!" "Doesn't care if someone knocks her down...but watch out if you pick on her friends!" I don't know why this gets to me so much, but it does. There are realistic limits to friendships, and exploring these can create interesting tension. What if the friend who was picked on suddenly turns on the main character instead of the bully? What if the loyalty is too much and gets out of hand, with the main character following the friend around too much? Those are interesting thoughts, unlike Hermione and I skipped hand in hand down the corridor. We never argued at all, except when I wanted to make her hair look nicer. Just then, Draco Malfoy jumped out and said 'Boo!' I cast the Disarming Charm and sent him into a suit of armor! Hermione gave me a high five. That gets old quickly. Real friendships have a bit of drama. Friends do not agree on everything, after all, nor do they blindly follow their friends into fire. Even Hermione has moments where she disagrees with Harry. Gimli and Legolas have their moments as well. Friends respond to friends based on a complex system of values and other intangible factors. It can depend on whether the friends have any antagonism in their past, or whether their parents were rivals, or even if one was jealous of the other in the past. A good writer has to get into the OC's skin and really understand where they're coming from and how they would react in a situation.

  • Where Is This Coming From? (Point of View):Point of View is one of the most important decisions you'll make in writing your piece. POV will shape your fiction and affect the end result, sometimes drastically.

    For fanfiction I think writing Third Person Limited (Rotating Characters) is an excellent choice for many stories. I think that it allows the author to connect with the audience through whichever character is being focused on at that moment, and it is a lovely way to create tension, though it isn't the only choice, by far. For those of you who don't know Points of View, I'll explain (very briefly):

    First Person POV is told through "I".

    I looked at Severus. His corset was definitely too tight, and one of his stockings had a run in it. He had pasted the false fingernails on crookedly. "That's the worst tart disguise I've ever seen," I said, rolling my eyes. "Voldemort is never going to believe that you do this for a living." I frowned, wondering if my plan would actually work. More and more it seemed doomed.

    "Lupin was distracting me," said Severus breathlessly.

    "I thought I sent him for a flea dip!" I exclaimed, putting my hands on my hips.

    Severus passed out.

    It has a strong personal feel to it; however, it is limiting, because the entire story must (usually) be told from one character's perspective. It's particularly suited to drabbles and short fics where you need to create empathy for your character in a short amount of time.

    Second Person POV is told through "You".

    You notice that Clark Kent is staring at you avidly, so you slam your locker shut. You've always liked him, but he's never noticed you before. Not until now. Not until you started wearing that glowing stone around your neck. Your phone rings. "Hello?" you say.

    "Hi, Sari," says a familiar voice. "This is Lex. I'm willing to negotiate."

    He must really want that stone. You feel a thrill of excitement crawl up your spine.

    People rarely write in Second Person POV, for the obvious's unusual, honestly. And even more limited than first person. It's quite distracting. Even the best fanfiction can be limited by a second person POV. That's not to say that there aren't any good fics out there with this POV; just that they're uncommon. Unless there is a specific reason to use it, it should probably be skipped by a beginning fanfiction writer, or else the fanfiction suffers from having the feel of a Choose Your Own Adventure story.

    Third Person Omniscient: Now we're getting somewhere. TPO is told through "He, She, They". Tolkien used this. We see the world through all of the characters' eyes, and we experience their thoughts and ideas. We have an omniscient (all-knowing) narrator that helps us keep track of all of the different characters and the world. The author is a narrative goddess here, and can say things about the future or the past with impunity. The narration is not dependent on the characters; the characters are dependent on the narration. It can be great. It can also be complicated, and it can be impersonal.

    Sari watched as the orcs approached. Legolas noticed that she held herself with grace, her long hair flowing in the wind. She turned and smiled at him, feeling the familiar battle-lust. "This is what I love to do," she said. "Orc-killing makes it all worthwhile. It stops the pain, if only for a little while."

    "We should wait for the others," cautioned Legolas, wondering at her courage yet again, that she would attack so many at once. Her blades would serve her well in combat; they would cut deep and true.

    The group of orcs was in a hurry, as they had been called to battle late. They were not prepared for the vengeance that ensued as Legolas and Sari flanked them and slaughtered them all.

    You see, the narrator knows all about what's going on. She knows that the orcs are doomed. She knows that Sari and Legolas will be unmatchable in battle. She knows that the road was the site of a battle three thousand years ago as well. She know that Sari was born thousands of years ago next to a divella tree. What the narrator chooses to reveal shapes the story. The narrator is the master.

    I will skip over Objective and go straight to...Ludicrous speed! Oh, no wait, I mean...

    Third Person Limited: Again, "He, She, They", but here we see the world through only one character's eyes. There is no overpowering all-knowing narrator. The readers only know what the character knows and experiences.

    Sari knew without even having to ask that Lupin was uninterested in her. Her clumsy attempt at asking him out had failed miserably, because he looked suddenly like a fish out of water as he stared at her, his mouth working to come up with an adequate excuse. I wonder if he's already involved, she thought. "That's okay, Lupin," she said brightly. "I know that you're busy. Look, I'll just see you later."

    "Sari, I'm...I'm sorry," he said. He looked concerned. "I don't want you to feel left's just that...the timing is not right. Next week?"

    She realized that the full moon was tomorrow, and suddenly felt awful. One of her shurikins poked her wrist, and she shifted her arm irritably. "Oh, next week? That would be lovely."

    Here we experience only what one character feels and thinks, and what other characters look like they're thinking. We don't know Lupin's true thoughts, only what he appears to be thinking. Which leads us to...

    Third Person Limited (Rotating): "He, She, They". We see the world through only one character's eyes at a time. There is no all-knowing narrator. The characters trade their points of view at certain scene changes. (JK Rowling writes mostly in Harry's thoughts, but she does have one or two chapters that are looking through someone else's eyes, so in a very technical way she belongs to this viewpoint.) What's great about this set of viewpoints? Well, it is relatively simple and straightforward, but very powerful. The possibilities are quite attractive. In one scene, the male character can be thinking naughty thoughts about the female character. In the next, we see that the female character is angry, and won't give in, or perhaps she's shy, or perhaps she's already engaged, or she's about to pull out her shurikins. Tension results from changing the viewpoint and seeing the situation through someone else's eyes.

    [First scene] Han smiled. She was certainly sexy, and seemed to know her way around a bar full of rogues, but he knew he was way out of her league. "Listen, Sari, I'm real sorry for your bad luck, but I can't help you."

    "Then I'll turn you in," she said brightly. "Your ship will be crawling with stormtroopers so fast your head will spin."

    Han frowned. He wondered if she was serious. "Look, I've already got a cargo, and passengers. I can't take another on board."

    "You can, and will," she said. She looked so determined that he wasn't certain she'd take no for an answer. "I've got money, I'm ready to go, and I'm not leaving your side."

    [Second scene]Sari was so nervous she couldn't stand it. The stormtroopers hadn't searched the cantina yet, but it was only a matter of time. "...I really could use your help," she concluded.

    "Listen, Sari, I'm real sorry for your bad luck, but I can't help you," he said, smiling crookedly at her.

    Her heart froze. He was her only chance to get off this planet. Keeping her panic tightly locked up, she forced herself to look nonchalant. "Then I'll turn you in," she said brightly. "Your ship will be crawling with stormtroopers so fast your head will spin." Hopefullly he wouldn't realize that there was no way that she could actually make good on her threat.

    He frowned, looking a little worried. "Look, I've already got a cargo, and passengers. I can't take another on board."

    She almost had him. She put on her best authoritative look. "You can, and will. I've got money, I'm ready to go, and I'm not leaving your side."

    The first scene is told from Han's point of view. We see his thoughts, and we only see what Sari looks like she's thinking. We don't see Sari's true thoughts, we don't read her motivations, we only know what she's saying and presenting to Han.

    The second scene is told from Sari's point of view, and we learn that her threat is idle, and that she, in reality, needs to get off the planet now, and is panicking. The reader sees how Han is being played, but also sympathizes with Sari. The twin scenes give the reader more information and complement each other.

    The thing is, and I cannot stress this enough, if you are going to use this absolutely lovely point of view then you must abide by its rules. And it has one very very big rule. Stay in character, until the scene changes. Then stay in that character until the next scene change. And so on. This has to be one of the more-violated rules, and it causes chaos and sadness among readers. They'll hit the back button, especially if Sari has quoted from Hamlet as well.

    Here we have an example of the old Switcheroo Viewpoint Mistake:
    To say that he was angry was an understatement. Severus was furious.

    The girl in front of him cowered, her imbecilic hair color infuriating him even further. "I'm sorry," she said, shivering as she looked into his scowling face. He noticed her eyes, one red, one black, and nearly snorted in derision that she had dyed her hair to match.

    "You should be," he said cuttingly. "That was, quite possibly, the worst attempt at a potion I've ever seen." He stared at her with his fathomless black eyes, pursing his thin lips in an expression of distaste.

    She nearly started to cry. "I'll brew it again," said Sari desperately. "I promise it will be right this time!" She was frightened, and she nodded her head, the red hair gleaming in the firelight.

    "You'll do no such thing," he said softly, in a tone of menace. He could see her fright plainly, and it pleased him. "You will fail instead." He smiled wickedly, feeling triumphant. She felt as if she had been dashed to pieces on the uncaring rocks.

    This isn't too confusing, simply because it is too short, but the idea is there. Too much of this and the reader goes back and forth like a yo-yo. Somehow we are not omniscient (all-knowing), yet we are absorbing two viewpoints at once. We have both Snape's thoughts, and Sari's thoughts. Plus, as an added bonus, while we are in Snape's viewpoint we have him somehow describing his own eyes, which is rather silly when you think about it. Sari also seems to know what her hair looks like in the firelight, though she isn't looking at it.

    I am not suggesting that everything has to be divided perfectly and that we can never have a hint of emotion or description that is from or of the other person. This is where creativity comes in. Perhaps, if it is told in Sari's view, she could notice his fathomless eyes. If it's told from Snape's view, he could see the terror on Sari's face. The thing is he can't think about things that only she would know or be thinking if it is in his view. And vice versa. That is the crux of it. So many Harry Potter fics try to emulate JK Rowling, but end up with some sort of Pin the Tail on the Narrative Mess that no one except the author can puzzle through.

    I've pointed this out before to fanfiction writers, and they say things like "I want to show what both of them are feeling" or "So? I'm writing like Tolkien!" If you wish to write like Tolkien, then by all means, use Third Person Omniscient. Just be certain to read about it! Know the viewpoint's limitations and strengths. Doing a strange version of Third Person Limited with Occasional Omniscience will only confuse readers. And if you want to show what both of them are feeling, then you have three choices: Third Person Omniscient, as described above, Third Person Limited with Rotating Views and write each scene twice or more depending on how many views you want to show, or realize that it's just too awkward to show every single person's view about every single event and that someone's viewpoint will have to be inferred from another.

  • When, Exactly? (Tenses): I will only briefly talk about tenses, because it can get rather complicated. There are (in general) two popular tenses to write fanfiction in.

    Present Tense: Everything is happening now. This is a very visceral tense, a tense that grabs the reader and pulls them in. There is a feeling of urgency.

    Every time Han sees her he wants to hold her, he wants to protect her from everyone else. But he can't. He can only watch as, again and again, Leia pushes herself to the limits and keeps the rebels alive and one step ahead of their enemies. He nearly growls as, yet again, Ackbar takes more of her precious time and resources, and he wishes once more that he could smuggle her away from here, taking her somewhere beyond war.

    It's all happening now. There is a sense that anything could happen. The Present Tense is great for short, stylized pieces, wonderful for creating tension and keeping the reader guessing. However, it is not the best choice for a longer piece. It's awkward to use to refer to events in the past in this tense.

    Past Tense: The most common choice. The narrator is revealing what happened, keeping us at a consistently moving point in the past.

    Severus woke up that morning wondering if this day was the day where he would finally be found out. As he dressed he wondered if this would be the last time he'd be putting on robes. As he extinguished the torches in his room he wondered if this would be the last time that he would see them.

    Dumbledore was waiting for him. "Severus," he said, smiling. "Good morning. I have some good news for you."

    "Good news, Headmaster?" replied Severus.

    "Yes," beamed Dumbledore. "There are blackberry flapjacks waiting for us at the Head Table!" He scowled, remembering the last time that blackberry flapjacks had been served. It meant that the Headmaster wanted something from him.

    The reader follows along as the narrator spins his or her tale. There is a little less tension; Severus must be alive by the end of this tale, or he couldn't be telling it to us now. But all in all it is the most-preferred tense for writing narrative fanfiction, and it definitely gets the job done in the smoothest possible away.

    Mixing the two tenses is right out. You should absolutely not mix them. It is confusing and jarring to your readers.

  • Who Said That? (Maintaining Clear Dialogue): Dialogue is incredibly important. Whole books can be written about how to write dialogue and use dialogue effectively. I will only provide the smallest outline here.

    Dialogue must be clear. That is the cardinal rule. The reader must always know who is saying what to whom. Here are a few examples of proper dialogue formatting:

    Sari frowned. "I don't like you," she said.

    "I don't care," replied Snape.

    "You should," she said, "because my tuition pays your salary."

    "Your tuition?" he spluttered in rage.

    "Have you every played Frisbee?" She picked up a neon pink disk and waved it at him.

    "You obviously desire detention," he snarled, "so I will do my best to arrange one for you."

    "Aww!" she said. "You're not giving in to my spunky, feisty persona! What's up with that?"

    "Enough," he said in an ominous tone. "Out of my classroom! Out! To the Headmaster's Office with you!"

    Another rule to follow is only one speaker per paragraph. This also helps maintain clarity.

    "For a long time I wished I could get away from Tatooine," said Luke in a sad tone. "But now I wish I was there again. The arid land of my childhood...its twin suns..."
    Leia nodded. "I know..."
    He remembered that her home planet had been destroyed, and she could never go back again. "I'm sorry."
    "We will start a new home," she promised.
    Han waved at them both. "Hey, we need to get out of here! Chewie, start the engines!"

    Now the same excerpt, without a paragraph change for every new speaker:

    "For a long time I wished I could get away from Tatooine," said Luke in a sad tone. "But now I wish I was there again. The arid land of my childhood...its twin suns..." Leia nodded. "I know..." He remembered that her home planet had been destroyed, and she could never go back again. "I'm sorry." "We will start a new home," she promised. Han waved at them both. "Hey, we need to get out of here! Chewie, start the engines!"

    Without the paragraph changes, we're a little confused as to who is saying what. We have no idea that Leia said "I know". We also don't know that Han is saying the end piece of could be any of them. I have read many novice pieces of fanfiction where it was very difficult to puzzle out who was saying the dialogue. Why torture the reader? Make it clear. A new paragraph for each piece of dialogue, and a name if there is more than one person involved in the dialogue of the same gender. (Otherwise "he said" could mean both of them, for example.)

In Conclusion: Writing is only as good as the effort that is put into it. It isn't easy. It takes practice and patience. But the results are rewarding in themselves. To look at a piece you have written with satisfaction, to receive a positive comment from a reader who really understood what you were communicating---it makes all the effort worthwhile.

We aren't paid for fanfiction. We write it and share it for the joy of it, for the feedback, for the chance to become better writers. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it.

Special thanks to everyone on my 'flist' who had to hear endlessly for three months about revisions, mortifyd for reading the rough draft, and ginarsnape for helpful suggestions.
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