A grey area – converting fan fiction to original fiction

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the practice of rewriting fan fiction to make it original fic and therefore saleable. Specifically in the m/m genre there was a post in January by an editor at Dreamspinner press, that caused so much discussion elsewhere there is now a clarification on the original post. Other bloggers weighed in with opinions, but now the whole thing has gone mainstream with the success of the book Fifty Shades of Grey which is a converted Twilight fan fiction.

Converting fanfics is not new, but I think is likely to become more common. Many writers are getting a start in fan fiction and a lot of fan fiction is romantic and erotic, both genres that are thriving. So it’s an obvious path from fanfic to original there. And the temptation to take a fic that the writer spent a long time on, and is very popular and do whatever needs to be done to make it saleable is understandably strong. But it raises several issues. Is it fair to the readers of the fic? Is it fair to the people who never read the fanfic? Is it fair to the creators and copyright holders of the source?

On that last one, I personally have a gut feeling that there’s a difference if the source is a TV show, movie, anime, etc than if it’s a book. A repurposed fanfic of a movie or TV show isn’t competing directly with its source. They are two different mediums. On the other hand a converted fanfic of a book source can end up on the shelf directly competing for people’s cash with its original source. If the writer of that source book is still writing and making a living from their work, as Stephanie Meyer is, then I personally feel an ethical line has been crossed somewhere. It seems disrespectful to the source, especially when that source is just another hard working writer, even if they’ve made a lot more money.

What about AU fanfics? Some converted fics start out as an AU, where the characters from the source were moved into a different setting, or there’s some other significant change to their storyline. AU fics can be a lot of fun. I did a couple myself in my fic writing days. It’s often fun and interesting to see familiar characters out of their element and dealing with the world in a different way. But my favourite AU fics always kept the characters pretty much the same as they were originally. Some AU fics not only change the situation, the characters change enormously too, and at that point it’s stretching the definition of fanfic to breaking point. And then I have to wonder if this isn’t just an original story anyway and the characters are only the same in the writer’s head, not on the page? I’ve seen comments that this is the case with Fifty Shades of Grey. That the writer could indeed have done no more than search and replace on the names and the job would be almost done. That the only thing the characters shared with their source was their names.

There are some characters too whose personality is just so bound up in their canon situation that they aren’t easily moved elsewhere. Sherlock Holmes is the way he is because he’s a detective. You could make him something else, and he’d maybe be as intense and obsessed, but you’d lose so many traits he’d become someone else, so you might as well just write an original character anyway and not handcuff yourself to Holmes.

Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John (Martin Freeman) in the BBC series Sherlock

Not that there's anything wrong with being handcuffed to Sherlock Holmes...

By the same token, some settings are so specific they may be difficult to convert. If the setting is just a police department, the military, a law firm, or a hospital, then it’s no problem. Lots of stories take place in such settings. But how do you convert a story for Stargate: Atlantis? Or Torchwood? Or Lost? How can you convert that to original without tearing out the heart of the story?

Ensemble shows must be harder to convert too, because while one or two characters can maybe sneak under the radar, a group is going to have its very distinct dynamic that will come over as familiar even if they now all have different names and are fire-fighters not doctors or whatever. Can you imagine trying to disguise the dynamics and distinctive banter of the characters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? And would what was left at the end be as interesting as the original?

The point is, with these more distinctive sources – which are often the most popular with fanfic writers – the writer has to take away so much that makes the characters and their situations fun in the first place that they might as well start from scratch. A fanfic that’s easily converted, in one of these fandoms, may well be a bad fanfic. It might be well written in many ways, but it can still be a bad fanfic if it’s not truly a story about those characters in that situation. On the other hand a story that couldn’t work as an original might be that way not because of being badly written, but rather because it’s only really a good story for those characters and only those characters would do what they do in the story.

I personally have no intention of converting any of my old fanfics. The idea brings me out in a cold sweat! I feel like I’d have to rewrite every single line of dialogue for sure. Even most of the story ideas I noted down but never got around to writing don’t seem to work for anyone but those characters. It’s also because I’m not keen on going over old ground. I write something, I learn from it, I move on to new stories. Sometimes about the same characters, if it’s a series, but the key for me is to keep moving forward, not endlessly going back to old work. (George Lucas Syndrome)

This doesn’t mean that the fandoms I was into have no influence on what I write. Of course they do. I liked them because they dealt with ideas I was interested in, so naturally I’ll write about those ideas in my own work. I’ve already posted about how Higher Ground is influenced by Lost and The Stand and other stories, without resembling any of them in the details. But that’s not the only one. In my first original novel, called Shoot the Humans First, which I wrote, back in NaNoWriMo 2006, the story centred on a small group of rebel military types, on the run. Well, guess what the main fandom I used to write in was? The A-Team – a small group of rebel military types, on the run.

That’s as far as that similarity went. My story was science fiction and none of the characters resembled the A-Team, and their reason for being on the run was entirely different. But there was that similarity there, because I liked writing about characters in that situation. Anyone who knows the TV show Blakes 7, another show I loved, and another one with a band of rebels on the run, might also see something familiar in the fate of most of my ensemble cast in Shoot the Humans First. I could go on, but you get the picture.

What are your thoughts? Have you converted fanfic? Was it harder than you thought it would be? Is good fanfic more likely to be bad original fic, and vice versa? What do you think of the Dreamspinner editor posting about it? Giving the game away, or just talking openly about what we all know is happening? As a reader, are you bothered if you know something you’re reading is converted fan fiction? If you’re a fan of something would you want to read the converted version? Or if you’ve never seen the source might it make you go and seek that out? (This has happened to me.)

More Reading
A post (and an addendum) by Julianne Bentley an editor at Dreamspinner press
The post on Dear Author that sparked much discussion about Julianne Bentley’s post. And about a lot of other stuff. It was a busy day.
I’m green, but I’m not recycled by Ann Somerville
‘Fifty Shades Of Grey': Publishing’s Sexiest Trend

10 thoughts on “A grey area – converting fan fiction to original fiction

  1. That Dreamspinner link comes up not found – perhaps it was deleted? At any rate, have read about this on a forum, so I’m kinda ‘in-the-loop’ anyway ;)

    Anyhoo, I have no problem with someone converting a fanfic to an original, and definitely not with getting it published. If it sounds too much like the show/movie/book the fanfic was written for, it’s probably not going to get picked up anyway, at least not without massive editing required. But, especially in the case of SM, there are tons of books written that were heavily influenced by her story/stories and could constitute ‘competition’ – but then, every book written in a particular genre is competition for all the other books written in that genre. But, since people aren’t limited to buying one author, does it really matter?

    Now, as to the difficulties in converting, I agree that AUs are the most likely candidates, because of the gap between those circumstances and canon. Then again, there are a lot of canon-based stories which really don’t depend on that canon, where it’s only a backdrop, as it were. Those stories could, with a little more difficulty, be rewritten to be more ‘generic’.

    In either case, the big difficulty, IMHO, is the characterizations. Not only would one have to ‘re-name’, but there would have to be the introductions and the development of the characters. After all, not all the new readers will have any idea, or care about, the originals.

    If I were to convert a fanfic of mine, I don’t think it would bother me if people knew it. The publisher obviously would have to know, but I really don’t think it would matter if others did as well. I’m neither ashamed nor embarrassed about writing fanfic.

    There’s also been talk about how it was somehow unethical for the author to ‘use’ the fanfic community and then pull the story in order to convert it, and I think that’s also totally unfair. She gave the readers what they wanted. They enjoyed the story. I’m quite sure many, if not most, copied it to their hard drive to read again. After that, an author is under no obligation to the readers – especially since they didn’t pay for anything. If she could convert it and get it commercially published, should she turn around and say, “Oh no, that wouldn’t be fair to my fanfic fans! Take your contract and never darken my door again!”. Yeah, right!

    Fanfic has a bad rep – almost as bad as self-publishing. Quite honestly, I see a lot of noses out of joint because this person dared to get an converted fanfic published – and make decent money, of all things! How dare she snub our snobbishness by being successful like this?

    So, would I convert a fanfic? If I could do a decent job of it. I think most of mine are too heavily canon-involved, but I wouldn’t rule it out. If the publishers don’t like it, or think it’s too lawsuit-prone, they won’t pick it up. But I don’t think anyone should automatically dismiss the idea.

    • Fixed the link, thanks – and the one I ballsed up on Live Journal. It’s not a good HTML day for me.

      I think the characters are definitely the trickiest point. If you have to change them to make them unrecognisable, then you’ll just be changing the things that made you want to write about them in the first place. So you might as well do your own anyway and have that freedom.

      I don’t totally set my face against the mere idea, even though it’s not what I want to do. I’ve read ones I know are conversions and liked them. But it does have its issues. Doesn’t everything?

      • You wouldn’t have to completely delete those things you loved about the character. It would just mean changing some of the more canon-esque things. I was thinking more that no longer could you rely on the fact that readers already know them. You would have to bring these ‘new’ characters to life – and for people who haven’t a clue about them already. It’d be like writing a cross-over.

  2. I think a lot of it boils down to the issue of where ideas come from. I’ve written, or at least had ideas for, short fanfic stories that would actually work better as longer original stories. In those cases, just as with taking a short story and expanding it into a novella or full novel (which some famous writers have done, even getting both versions published at different points in their careers), the best thing to do is to start again from scratch. The main thing that comes from the initiating idea is whatever the author considers to be the pivotal aspect of the stories, whether that’s the archetypes that the characters spring from, the setting, or the opening line.

    After all, how many different successful TV shows take a very similar theme and twist it in slightly different ways? I’m especially thinking of SF here, where many starships seem to be crewed by six to eight main people who can be characterised as very similar archetypes.

    • Yes, good point about SF. Look at how we ended up with two space station based shows running at the same time back in the 1990s, with Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5, but how different they were!

  3. Ha, yes, I have converted a fanfic (as you know), but only because I wanted the story idea – the idea of two strangers pretending to be a couple at a wedding. I changed the characters, and the story itself has been extended, for the happy ending (as there wasn’t one in fanfic – that would have been out of character).

    • Yes, you’ve definitely changed it out of all recognition. Really you’ve ended up using the same basic premise, but made a whole different story with it.

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  5. No one has mentioned another way that is probably the simplest conversion: When you’ve written about a minor character in canon as the protagonist with little to no interactions with the main characters from canon. In that case, all you need to change are the names and a few key details.

    • That’s a good point, Daniella, in that the character pretty much is an original character at that point anyway, since the writer has only a small starting point and has to create that person almost from the ground up.

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