I’m a fanfiction writer in my spare time. Yeah…that pretty much makes me the “bottom feeder” or “parasite” when it comes to creativity, seeing as every idea I come up with is 90% something someone has already done…literally. But hey, if Hollywood can do it and have the audacity to charge you exorbitant ticket prices for it, then I can do it for free. Besides, I’ve been at it for over 15 years and I think I’m pretty good at it at this point. …Sure, my view count says otherwise, but still, I’ve been complimented highly, my work hasn’t been flamed since I started back in the late 90s, and I’ve even served on a couple fanfiction panels at conventions. I’ve had people ask me for advice on writing before. So…while I may not be one of the legendary “great ones”, I still think I know a thing or two about fanfiction.
One of the things I regret is that I don’t read as much fanfiction as I used to. If you really dedicate yourself to writing, you don’t want to. Not only does reading take quite a while, but it also takes a while to “dig for gold”. Plus, I’m a very harsh critic, and rather than flame some poor bastard’s work because I’m so anal, I feel it’s better to obey the old adage of “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.
But that said…one of the biggest reasons is that, as anyone who reads fanfiction will tell you, there is a ton of sh’t out there. Loads and loads and loads of it. But the irony is that most of these fanfics are all of the same “type”. They all try to do the same general thing and end up failing utterly, using the same ideas that will never work and yet they keep trying to make them work.
Now…just to be clear, and I’m going to say to take this with not a “grain of salt” but more like a pound of the stuff…I honestly believe there is no such thing as an idea that can’t work. The question boils down to not the ridiculousness of the plot but how creative and talented the writer is, as well as their ability to “make me believe it”. I’ve seen premises for fanfiction that seemed totally ridiculous but, remarkably, worked very well. The problem is most amateurs took that as a sign that something totally implausible and crazy is the key to good fanfiction, when in reality it was the writer’s skill at storytelling.
This said, there are ideas that, in my opinion, are so nearly impossible to make work that they’re essentially “just plain bad”. And I’m about to highlight some of them.
If you’re an aspiring fanfiction writer, chances are you’re tempted to make one or more of these fanfictions your “first attempt”. Well, I want you all to beware of these “fanfiction sins” and use caution before even attempting them. They’re extremely hard to get right at best, and almost DOA at worst.
Better off using them for learning exercises or not at all if you can avoid it.
I’m going to give you, the young fanfiction writer, some helpful advice you should take to heart. Your first fanfiction will suck. Ask any fanfiction writer. They’ll tell you the same. They also won’t tell you the title of it so you can’t look it up and see just how much it sucks, because then everyone will see how horrid it is and ruin their otherwise great reputation. But when you start writing, you’re going to think it’s your magnum opus right out of the gate. It will be your first labor or love and you’ll love it to pieces. You’ll post it, sit back, and wait for the praise and worship to come in. And if you’re smart, you’ll soon say to yourself “what was I thinking” and work on improving your technique.
But early on, here’s hopefully one thing you’ll get “out of the way”. Most early fanfiction writers have a lot to learn about watching their grammar, spelling, and formatting. After all, this is their first time writing something that’s not a school assignment. Yet I’ll warn you in advance…nothing says “I’m an amateur so don’t bother looking at me” so much as a Monolith.
Monoliths are essentially one gigantic block of text. Some people accidentally write their stories like that. Others don’t pay attention to their software and accidentally cut and paste them using a text editor that removes the line breaks. But the worst thing people can do is say: “Aw man, it’ll take forever to fix that! It doesn’t take away from the plot leaving it like that. I’ll just let it go.”
Trust me, you want to fix it. I don’t care if you penned the lost work of Shakespeare. No one is going to sit down and read one big block of text. The English language created paragraph breaks, indentation, and rules for dialog for a reason. And we haven’t let anyone get away with violating it since William Faulkner. Would you even be reading my blog right now if it was one big block of text?
Part of being a writer is that you’ll have to devote a good amount of time to giving your story proper format along with good grammar and spelling. Nobody’s plot and characters are “so magical and wonderful” that readers will forgive you for it, so start working on it now. It will eventually become “automatic”.
Related to this though not quite the same are properly formatted chapters…that are about 100 pages long. No one likes to sit down and read a 100 page chapter. I’ve seen ones longer than that. Heck, I’ve written ones longer than that…and I’m older and wise enough now to break chapters down. If you can’t, you either aren’t trying hard enough or your story is too wordy. I’d say shoot for 10 pages a chapter. Maybe 20. Possibly 30, but they better be a damn good 30 with a large font when you typed it out.
Out of all of the “sins” on this list, the one I view as the most “forgivable” is this one. Most people outright ban them. I believe they “have their place”, in particular in comedy. Trying to get the “timing” down of comedy in prose is hard, since it’s usually designed to come at you fast and in a series. The mere fact that you have to read so much more in prose makes it difficult to still work, although it’s possible. Plus, in some cases, you just want to write a “fanscript”. In those cases, I’d say these are ok.
But when it comes to doing straight drama or telling a story in a script format, it’s a huge no-no. Young fanfiction writers quickly become frustrated with having to do things such as setting, mood, and the like. Even trying to make a battle sequence “fast paced” is hard. They want to get to the “good stuff”, especially if they feel they’re good at writing dialog. So what better way than a script? You can sum up the action in a couple phrases and devote all the time to just focusing on what characters say. It’s gold, right?
Scripts are meant to be read and performed by people (Except maybe for things like “Faust, Part One”, but that’s up for debate…). Hence, to get everything out of a script, you actually need actors, stages, performers, and everything else…none of which you have in fanfiction. It doesn’t matter how great your sequence seems or how brilliant you think your dialog is…it needs an actual cast of actors and a setting to “make it work”. Something “visual”, something that sets the mood and the characters and the setting and gives you a sense of what they’re feeling or thinking. You can’t get that with a script…and that fact that you try shows you that you’re not putting a lot of effort into getting that. And if you don’t look terribly invested in your own fanfiction, how do you expect other people to be?
Most noteworthy fanfiction sites ban these already, but if they don’t, please don’t take that as a “free pass”.
5. Bambi Meets Godzilla
Anywhere from half to the majority of fanfiction you’ll see in existence is crossovers. I don’t care for it much myself, but it’s gone beyond a genre to being more of its own “domain”. I rarely see one that “clicks” with me although they’re out there. Why? Most of the time it’s just plain cheap. The fact is most of these crossovers just came out because a fanboy wanted to see two characters put together, and that’s usually for one of two reasons: they want two badasses paired together or they want a “shipping”, which is fanfiction lingo for taking two characters from two different worlds and romantically pairing them. And I’ll go ahead and admit with a certain degree of shame that I tried that out with one of the most current infamous shippings of all: Jack Frost from “Rise of the Guardians” and Elsa from “Frozen”. (…And its one of the most popular fanfictions I’ve ever done, which should tell you the other reason people like writing shippings so much.)
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with shippings or crossovers in general. Like I said, they can be done very well, and there’s pretty much…well, almost pretty much…no crossover that can’t “work” provided the author is a damn good storyteller. Plus, you usually have a built-in fan base. Going back to my example, I was guaranteed a lot of hits because lots of people see Jack Frost and Elsa and automatically think how cute of a couple they’d make, so they’d at least check out the first chapter. The temptation is definitely strong to do this, and hey…some of the biggest authors out there have made a career of it. For some crossovers, the wackiness is actually the “hook” to the whole thing. You can pretty much plop Deadpool in anything and it’ll “work”, for example…because that’s how he is “canonically”.
That said…there’s some crossover choices that range from making your readers grimace to making them smack you upside the head and ask “what were you thinking”? Picture Sam and Dean from “Supernatural” checking out Smurf Village, for example. Or the cast of Tiny Toon Adventures ending up on “Game of Thrones”. Even if you do those purely to “be funny”, it’s something that won’t really “click” due to just the awkwardness of it. About the only way I can see those conceivably working is if the crossover itself is the joke, and not just the outlandish situation.
The primary way you make any reader engrossed in your story is by making them believe the situation. If you can’t do that, your story is shot and pretty much unsalvageable. The only way you can make it worse is by trying to make it work. Let’s say Kratos from “God of War” plopped down in Equestria. Well, logic would suggest the end result would be many, many butchered technicolor ponies. Yet if the author tries to make it work by making the ponies “hardier” or “grittier”, swearing or tough and beat-em-up…well, now you’ve taken something bad and made it worse by making the characters OOC(out of character). And that’s the most unforgivable sin of all…so much that it’s split into two different sins (which we’ll touch shortly).
Anything is possible…so long as you can make it possible. Keep that in mind.
4. King-Dumb Farts
Ok, the name is kind of childish, but it kind of captures the essence of it.
I remember being blown away when “Kingdom Hearts” came out. I was a fan of the Final Fantasy series, after all…so what more mind-blowing thing could there be besides something that crossed over multiple Final Fantasy games with multiple Disney movies into one ginormous package? While my fandom for the series faded due to “prequelitis” (Here’s a fun game…try to figure out what the real name of the final boss of the first game was.), it left a larger legacy behind in the fanfiction work. Basically, the idea of the “Kingdom Hearts” crossover.
These crossovers don’t have to necessarily be in the Kingdom Hearts universe…just the same concept. Some sort of unifying thread to unite tons and tons of diverse storylines and universes into one massive story. It was inevitable, really. After seeing Final Fantasy VII/VIII blended with every infamous Disney movie there was, fans soon told themselves: “I can do that…but only with things like Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, Mario, Sonic, Naruto, and Bleach!” The idea is really the same behind your basic crossover…the thought of blending together many already “awesome” stories into one super-duper, mondo story. What could go wrong?
The fact of the matter is, as a fanfiction writer, you will inevitable have three-day stretches where you will get some sort of amazing new idea, you’ll rant and rave about it, you’ll want to immediately stop all of your current projects and work on that because it’s way better than anything else you’ve got and it’s pure gold and you love it…and after three days or a week you’ll treat the whole idea as “meh”. Usually that happens when you try thinking of fleshing it out and you realize aside from a few really good ideas, you don’t have much going for you.
“King-Dumb Farts” fanfiction, however, “stymies” that reaction by overloading you with thoughts about the crossover. You keep thinking how awesome it will have to have that character meet that one, or that villain fight this one, etc., etc. It eventually reaches the point where the only “selling point” is the crossover itself, without any plot to go with it. Even worse is that these fanfictions honestly end up becoming “here’s every fandom the author belongs to”. And why not? The author is only going to include fandoms they like, and with no one of them taking much screen time, it’ll only highlight the “parts they like” rather than giving any depth.
Most people would think that the main “selling point” of a crossover is the crossover itself, and in general that’s right. But the thing is these types of fanfictions become where the crossover is the only part of the story, and degenerate into “too many cooks spoil the soup”. Rarely is there any plotline compelling or intriguing enough to sell the audience on why all of these characters are together, and the whole thing comes off as one big plate of fanservice…which is bad because fanservice is something “on the side”, not supposed to be the “main story”. It’s small wonder the majority of these fics are incomplete. Even the author realizes soon after getting into it they’ve got nothing.
In short…don’t do these kind of fics. They look like they “write themselves” with all the characters, but in my experience they’re by far the hardest to write.
3. Draco In Leather Pants
Now for the “rough stuff”. These last three are so bad, they actually have their own tropes, which is pretty bad considering most tropes refer to source material and canon media. These three are mostly for fanfiction.
“Draco In Leather Pants” is a situation where a negative, unlikable character is magnified and made more positive to the point where the audience is expected to love them. The best example comes from the title of the meme. Draco Malfoy in “Harry Potter” doesn’t have one good thing about him. He’s egotistical, racist, snobbish, vile, spiteful, childish, cruel, demented, a whiner, cowardly, and is just completely a bad character. Rowling intended him to be a totally unlikable character Harry just had to “deal with”. He doesn’t have one redeeming characteristic whatsoever. Heck, the “best” thing that can be said about his character, if you can even consider it a good thing, is that he’s too cowardly to kill people. Now, granted, not wanting to kill people is always a good thing, but it’s not like Draco does it because he doesn’t want people dead. He does it because he’s too cowardly to “pull the proverbial trigger”, which isn’t so much a point in favor of him as actually giving him two negative character traits instead of one.
Yet he has fans. He has people who want to portray him as having this quiet or innocent side, of being sensitive or caring, or having this sort of “quiet badassary” about him that not only makes him loved and admired but also makes him the best character of the series. They love making stories about how all the females (even the males…ugh…) have secret loves for him and how he’s just so suave and sexy and blech…this makes me sick even to write it down. That’s a “Draco In Leather Pants”. Rowling clearly never intended any of these things. She clearly meant to make him just a character who would be better off smashed under a giant’s foot. Yet the fans make him something else.
It should be known that not ever time we try to “get into a villain” is it a Draco In Leather Pants. For one thing, it doesn’t even have to be the villain, just a character who was meant to be negative. One of the first Draco In Leather Pants I can think of was Bulma from “Dragonball”. Toriyama came right out and said she was supposed to be a character everyone was annoyed by and hated, yet people loved her (for the two reasons why…look no further than her chest…manga readers in Japan seem to be generally perverts). Nor should every time we see “another side” of a villain should it be considered Draco In Leather Pants. Take a fanfic that does a romantic moment between Vegeta and Bulma, to pick on “Dragonball” again. Yes, it may seem out of place or a bit awkward…but it’s not Draco In Leather Pants because the canon shows that as cold and aloof as Vegeta is and as much as he and Bulma clash…he actually does love her. It would be more along the lines of Cell and Bulma falling in love together. Cell is a monster, pure and simple. He cares nothing for anything’s life except his own and wants only to prove himself to be the perfect life form by destroying anything that could present him a challenge. There’s no way Cell would ever be attracted to Bulma. Bulma…well, the series has proven she’s attracted to anyone who’s hot, but it’d be more than pushing it to have her attracted to the one who killed her son. The main requirement is that it’s something the source not only never intended but never fathomed…something that would effectively never succeed unless the canon characters were OOC and effectively different people.
People read fanfiction largely to see their favorite characters in new situations, but they still want them to be “the characters”. Having Aerith and Sephiroth get resurrected only to fall in love and get married is NOT Aerith and Sephiroth playing their original characters. Now, granted, there’s a shipping for everything out there…so some people do these anyway because chances are there’s fans out there that want to see Aerith/Sephiroth or Bulma/Cell or Sasuke/Sakura (Yeah, that one may be canon but good luck finding a majority of fans who think it should be…I think in that case Naruto/Sakura is actually far more plausible, but moving on…). And so people who write Draco In Leather Pants fics are kind of “tempted” to because you have a small-but-guaranteed fan base. Hence, this is only the third greatest sin.
But don’t you dare do the next one…
2. Ron The Death Eater
Everyone has some character they hate but everyone else loves. It’s inevitable. In those situations, it’s best to live by the adage I said earlier: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Do not live by this adage…make a fanfiction to vent your hatred.
“Ron The Death Eater” is the polar opposite of “Draco In Leather Pants”. Rather than taking a character designed to be despised and giving him/her traits that don’t exist to make him/her wonderful, this is taking a character designed to be liked and giving them traits to make them totally hated. I’m talking turning Inuyasha into a savage who rapes Kagome. I’m talking turning Fluttershy into someone who shoves fillies into meat grinders. I’m talking…well…turning Ron Weasley into a Death Eater, just like the title. These are horrible, often profane and explicit, completely implausible, and, in the end, the core problem is the same as it was for Draco In Leather Pants. The character doesn’t have these negative traits, and the author never intended for them to have them. No one reasonable can see them from the source material. So trying to distort the character into having them is more OOC.
I’ll confess I did this myself in my younger years. The character was Yuffie from Final Fantasy VII. I hated her in the game, and I made her rotten in my fanfic. She was selfish and greedy, but far more than in the game. She was spiteful, even sadistic, racist, and just plain horrible. I made her pure rottenness to the core, when in reality, as bad as she was in that game, she wasn’t that bad…not to mention the sequels improved her character quite a bit. And while people thought the rest of my fic was good (I had a forgiving audience), they couldn’t stand what I did to Yuffie. Yet I was lucky. Most people on any real fanfiction site would have ripped me a new a-hole.
Similar to those who do “Draco In Leather Pants”, you’re bound to find someone who agrees with your hate. So you may get a few points…although the main reason people get fans for these kind of fanfics is only when they go hand-in-hand with “Draco In Leather Pants”. “Let’s see…how can I pair Aerith with Sephiroth when Zack is so nice? I know! I’ll make Zack an abusive jerk so she’ll leave him and run into Sephiroth’s waiting arms!” Something like that.
However, these ones are worse than Draco In Leather Pants. While going OOC is always poison to a fanfic, if you have to pick one…do Draco In Leather Pants. Never Ron The Death Eater. If you do Draco In Leather Pants, people may hate it and say it’s unrealistic, but they’ll, in the end, see you as a fanboy/fangirl expressing your crush on this character and that’s all. But Ron The Death Eater fics are something completely different. People will see you’ve manufactured a completely unrealistic and unreasonable situation just to have an excuse to vent irrational hatred on a character…and to top it all off you may have ended up doing it on a character everyone else likes. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like seeing my favorite characters trashed…but I especially don’t like it when people create an unrealistic situation just to trash them. You may have a few likes, but you’ll definitely have tons of “hates”.
To paraphrase Dan Akyroyd… “In a word: don’t do it.”
1. Mary Sue
Ah, the big one. The unholy grail of fanfiction. The hallmark of all “bad fanfiction” before most people even knew what fanfiction was.
But first…a discourse.
The most contentious subject in the world of fanfiction is the subject of “Original Characters”, or OCs. In other words, characters the author creates and inserts into the storyline. Opinions range from them being great to them being fine to them being “necessary evils” to them needing to be avoided like the plague.
Me? I think they’re not that bad…BUT…that said, I can understand pretty much every negative complaint about them. I myself use original characters and…I have to admit, when I pick up a fanfic and I read in the synopsis “a new hero” or “a new face” or something of that nature…my first instinct is to stop reading now. I personally think you have to have them for some types of fanfiction. Sure, you can do shippings, one-shots, interior monologue, all that good stuff…but if you really want to put the characters in a new situation, then at the bare minimum you’re going to need new villains. Heroes, on the other hand…well, that’s something else. Me? I write mostly game fanfiction. And since this takes place after games have “concluded”, then it makes sense that there’s a new story and new heroes because that’s how games work. But yes…it’s not what people “paid for”. They came primarily to read about their favorite characters, not your characters.
In short, it’s a real “art form” and requires a judgment call. Yet one general “rule of thumb” that one can use is to make sure your OC never becomes the main character, which is generally good advice. Otherwise the series gets “hijacked” by your character and you lose the focus of why the series was good and attractive in the first place. It’s pretty much a good idea not even to make your character the focus, for that matter…unless you’re doing one of those deals where you’re doing the perspective of someone reflecting on the events that occurred or whatnot… But in a narrative, not a good idea. It can work…but it’s hard. In general, never let your character “take over” the story.
Or you might become a Mary Sue.
“Mary Sue” refers to a fanfiction creation from way back in the 1970s for Star Trek involving a character more cunning than Kirk, more logical than Spock, more intelligent than Scotty, and who was loved and admired by everyone and the subject of romantic affection by Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all at once. In other words, completely perfect in every way and good enough to replace the entire cast yet still be loved by the entire cast. Or in short…the ultimate example of a bad OC.
In modern days, most fanfiction writers also consider these to be self-inserts, which is where the author makes themselves a character in the story. “Self-Inserts” are, from my perspective, something that should be avoided like the plague. Whenever you insert anyone from real life, it’s usually either for revenge (which is never good) or to stroke your own ego (which is even worse). I’d include them on the list as right next to Mary Sues. However…many fanfiction writers have done “closet self-inserts” and so they give it a pass so long as it’s done well. Heck, Stephen King did a self-insert in “The Dark Tower” but made himself such a minor character no one really cared. But making a Mary Sue a self-insert is pretty much just…well…something obscene to your own manhood, we’ll just say. The penultimate expression of narcissism.
Readers won’t like you for taking a horrible character and making him/her great. Readers will despise you for taking a great character and making him/her horrible. But readers will shun you like a leper after roasting you in effigy for making yourself the greatest person in the entire universe…namely a universe that was someone else’s to begin with.
Never do a Mary Sue. The only “safe” kind of Mary Sue to do is the kind that makes fun of the concept. Trying to do it serious is a recipe for disaster. I don’t care if you lump them all together as “Mary Sue” fanfics or use distinctions like “Marty Stu” and “Villain Sue”…don’t do them.
Well…those are the big ones. There’s other smaller ones, but…as I said at the beginning, what matters is that you tell the story well and make the audience believe it. Do that and avoid the seven deadly fanfic sins, and you’re on your way to the wonderful world of fanfiction.