Love it or leave it, you can’t write a story without building on what you already know. Sometimes it slips under your radar, and it isn’t until your friend gives you a weird look and says something like, “Isn’t your story about a tortured millionaire with no parents oddly similar to the stories about hit DC superhero Batman?” that you realize you’ve completely stolen an entire franchise’s main character.
Not that I don’t enjoy some good old fashioned archetypal burglary, but if I’m going to steal personality traits from a character, I might as well just steal the whole thing.
Which brings me to fanfiction, the only world where I accept and embrace character tropes. The first story I ever wrote to completion was fanfiction, and with that began my adoration of characterization.
Fanfiction was a window into another world, a world filled with complex and completed characters just begging to be scrutinized. It was a sandbox, where I could place my main character anywhere, force them to talk to anyone. It was a continuation of my favorite stories once the pages ended and the speculation began. It was a risk-free way for me to develop my voice, as well as the voices of others.
I love others’ voices more than I love my own sometimes. I love the roughness of HBO’s Supernatural cast, I love the oddly poetic language that stems from the character driven story of the Dream SMP. I love the comments on my writing telling me that people could hear the characters’ voices in their head most of all. The less I sound like myself online, the more I can act as a stand-in for whatever media people are trying to consume, the better I feel. I cherish every comment on my work that tells me I could write for the show or book series myself, and my viewers or readers wouldn’t even know the difference. It’s an odd comfort to know I can become whomever I want, and that I can do it so well.
My boyfriend, Joe, and I discussed this on a nighttime drive back from New Jersey. I remember the streakiness of street lights through water-buffered windows as he and I drove through the darkness, but not nearly as well as I remember his words.
“But why would you write fanfiction to begin with if you could just create something completely and totally authentic?”
It was a genuine question, not a judging one. Still, the shame that bubbled in my stomach was nothing new. I knew I could create something new if I wanted to. I just didn’t know why I didn’t want to.
I thought for a moment. “It’s not necessarily about creating something completely and totally authentic, it’s about creativity for the sake of creativity,” I responded. “It’s about making something you can appreciate, taking the building blocks of what others have provided for you and turning them into something of your own.” I remember shrugging. “I like getting to take a character and ask myself, ‘What would happen if I put him in this situation?’”
Soft music played in the background, a mix of my favorite road trip tunes. The orange car’s engine rumbled a little louder as he accelerated, and he dropped one hand from the steering wheel to shift into a higher gear.
“I guess I’m just not understanding the appeal,” he finally admitted. “I would be unhappy if I made a film that was just like someone else’s, you know? I want to be completely original, or at least as original as I can be.”
“I don’t think it matters so much, as long as the writer is enjoying themselves,” I countered, feeling defensive. Annoyance pricked my stomach—not at him, but at the connotation behind his words.
He sighed. “I just don’t understand why you do it. I know you can write original things.” “Yeah, but I like to write for myself sometimes too. And that’s what fanfiction is for me. It’s easy.”
Fanfiction is, to put it lightly, criminally easy. The internet is a place filled with people of all shapes and sizes, all backgrounds and orientations. You’ll never meet two identical people online, though you may notice some trends. Everyone on the internet craves that interaction just as much as you do. Everyone’s a little bit sadder than they should be. Everyone is willing to associate with “cringy” content, as long as their names aren’t attached to it.
Nothing is as relieving as knowing that no matter what you write, someone out there is going to be desperate enough to love it. You can write the weirdest, strangest situation, and someone will still comment, “This is so unique! I wish I had thought of this!!~” I could write about Sam and Dean from Supernatural going to the moon and learning they can breathe air in space. I could write about a race of sentient pigs taking over Earth, and Black Widow and Snoopy the Beagle having to fight them off with nothing more than the power of friendship and a singular Glock. I could write a Backyardigans and Doctor Who crossover in which the characters struggled to make the perfect dish of spaghetti, and not a single person would bat an eyelash.
I don’t write that. What I do write is the same two characters, talking through their trauma. Discussing their lives, their purposes, their ambitions. I put these two characters in a room, and I make them speak. Over, and over, and over again.
After all, I want to write it. And someone will want to read it.
And if I want to write it, and someone wants to read it, then that means there’s someone else like me out there in this big wide world. There’s someone else out there who cares about my dumb little character study. I’m not sure why that’s so comforting.
There’s just something so alluring about long, introspective discussions that feign a deeper meaning, but if you asked me what my favorite thing to write is, I would tell you that it was the stupid little exchanges between oblivious and/or unbelievably dense characters that I enjoy the most. This kind of writing is how I add humor to a piece. I’ll sit there at my computer and giggle to myself as I type, even if I know no one else is going to find it nearly as funny as I do.
I’ve made a bit of a home for myself in writing character dialogue. It comes easier to me than the drag of description. Sometimes when I try to move my characters around, it feels like I’m pulling them through molasses. I scrunch up my nose, throw my hands in the air, and add more action to my dialogue tags.
Sometimes, it feels like I can’t do anything except make my characters talk circles around one another.
“I actually don’t like to write dialogue all that much,” Joe told me one day, the beginning of that same conversation that would span hours of our time on the road. But that was okay. There’s a long way between New Jersey and Nazareth, and we had nothing if not time. I looked out the window, watching us pass other cars from the passenger seat, and as I turned back to him, he made a little face of discontent.
The admission was startling to me. After all, he was a film major, and you can’t have a film without a script. Most of the time. But even in those rare cases where you don’t need one, your characters still have wants and needs, thoughts and feelings to convey to the viewers.
“Why not?” I asked him after a pause that spanned a few seconds too long. We creeped ahead of the car in the slow lane, and I tracked our reflection in his windows as we passed.
He made a noncommittal noise. “I’m so much more invested in larger plotlines. My main characters are nothing more than a vessel for my plot. Honestly, they’re all pretty interchangeable.”
I had never heard of approaching storytelling this way before, though I would later learn that it’s quite common when it comes to pitching franchises. Those characters are whittled down to nothing more than the archetypes they’re meant to represent, the goods and evils of the world they live in. Authors pitch storylines to publishers, they pitch whole worlds. Characters matter less and less the more a franchise grows. It’s a little sad to think about how little an individual can mean.
But why is that so? Nothing has ever captured my intrigue more than the eyes we view their world through. That warped lens is a necessity for me to enjoy a story. I want to feel tainted by my character’s bias, I want to yearn and hate and love with them as though I were them. I want to be wrapped so tightly within their version of the world that it feels no less tangible than my own.
But then I hit a wall. I can’t deal with the disgust that grips people so tightly, I cringe away from the discussion of destruction. I don’t want to see two characters tear one another down until neither of them have a leg left to stand on. I hate the idea of hatred so much, and I read about it anyway. But I can’t write it.
But what good is a story with no character conflict? What’s the draw of a boring life with boring characters who genuinely enjoy one another’s company? Who would want to put themselves through reading that?
Admittedly, the concept isn’t the most fun in writing, but I would live that if I could. It stems from a fear of losing what I have. I don’t want to put any part of myself through what I dread most of all, even the part of myself I bleed all over the paper. I would read a thousand fluffy fanfictions about the same two characters’ meet-cute. I would read them meeting in a coffee shop, a flower shop, a tattoo parlor, a high school pep rally. I would read a million 5+1 fanfictions, a trillion works tagged everything is good and nobody dies. I would read the same plot in different locations over and over and over, and I would imagine the way it would feel if everything really was good and nobody really died.
Maybe it’s a lack of distinction between reality and fiction, entertainment and existence. If I were a little more willing to put myself on a pedestal, to hop into the bright spotlight our main characters so frequently find themselves in, maybe I would be a little more willing to lose a few people along the way. After all, when our main characters go through a huge breakup or lose their friend of ten years, they always have another, a reserve friend to turn to. There’s a safety net there, of other people who love and care for them. The story would be boring if they didn’t have that person to bounce off of, if they just cried for the remaining two hundred pages of the book.
Then again, who knows. Maybe someone would be into reading that. I just think that person would have to get tired of being so miserable eventually.
Honestly, it makes me a little uncomfortable when character conflict becomes the main focus of the piece. I’ll still read it, don’t get me wrong, but there’s just something about it that puts a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t want to think about big staged fights where characters alienate themselves from one another and push each other away, just to reconcile in the final act and forgive unforgivable wrongs. I prefer watching my characters overcome complicated prompts.
I don’t want my star crossed lovers to fight over one of them being in love with another man, I want them to have to fight through a war before they can be together. I don’t want them to have to overcome their own hatred rooted in keeping secrets from one another, I want them to figure out a murder mystery and fall in love with one another’s wit along the way. I don’t want them to use one another but grow to understand how they’ve wronged each other with time, I just want them to be legally unable to date until the end of basketball season because they’re on opposing teams.
My reasoning behind not wanting my characters to destroy what they’ve made is selfish. Every day I fear that I’m going to be the one to destroy what I’ve made, the little niche I’ve carved for myself from the block of life. Every time I sit down in front of a blank page and prepare to write in another person’s voice, I breathe a little bit of my own life into that character, I puppeteer them with my own hands. I push so much of myself into my own writing I can’t help but shelter the characters I created in my own image. It’s selfish, there’s no denying that much.
“Writing can be a little bit selfish though,” I say, in my own car this time, driving away from Selinsgrove for the third time this month. One of many selfish acts. “You’re allowed to write for yourself, you’re allowed to create for yourself.”
I’m getting close to home now, watching the minutes on my phone’s navigation tick down closer and closer to zero as I talk. My phone, propped in the center console, reads a call time of over an hour. On the other side of the line, my boyfriend laughs. It’s one of the only times I hear his voice in my car, since he usually does the driving when we’re together.
“Sure, but what if you give it to other people? Is it still yours then?” His voice comes out gravelly through my car’s speakers, and it’s far too late in the day for me to think about death of the author.
“I guess there’s two types of creation then,” I amend. “What you make for your own, and what you create for the entertainment of others.” I raise my voice a little bit to be heard over the road noise.
I’ve always had trouble drawing that distinction, though. I sit down to write something and I tell myself I’m going to let it be self-indulgent, that I’m going to write it for myself, and then I post it online for thousands of people to see. I use self-indulgent almost as a free pass, an excuse to call my own writing bad before anyone else gets the chance to. I stumble over my own insecurities when describing my writing because it feels like I’m describing myself. Maybe if I point out enough of my own flaws, laugh at enough of my own mistakes, there won’t be any left over for anyone else to discuss.
And maybe it’s a little easier, using parts of other people in my writing. Maybe I can delude myself into thinking it doesn’t matter nearly as much. If you handed me a lasagna and told me to cook it at 425 degrees for 40 minutes, I would feel a lot less connected to that lasagna than if I had put it all together myself before cooking it. Fanfiction is my premade lasagna. It’s easy, and it takes way less thought.
Joe is so different from me in that respect. It’s like night and day. He’s fearlessly authentic, you can feel his influence on his work from a mile away. I could never display my work with the same pride he seems to so effortlessly radiate. I could never look at something I’ve created and declare it finished and completely worthy of praise. Yet the praise of others has always been the driving force behind my work. I want to see people’s faces twist upwards with giddy joy and the corners of their eyes crinkle as they flit from word to word, but I’m too scared of what will happen if they don’t.
At the end of the day, I think I’m always going to be a little selfish about what I write. I’m always going to breathe a little too much of my life into my characters, cram too many uncomfortable parts of myself into them. Looking at my own writing will always feel a bit like looking in a funhouse mirror, words and phrases and social tics all silently screaming at me from their spots on the page.
At the end of the day, maybe that’s the only thing that makes my writing any good in the first place.