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When I was fifteen years old, I tried to write my first real piece of fanfiction. To avoid embarassing myself too intensely, I will refrain from mentioning what fandom it was for, or anything about the plot; to say it makes me blush when I read it today is enough. Though the ideas weren't terrible, their execution left a lot to be desired: the story revolved mainly around an original character who resembled me to a degree which was not likely to be coincidence, and all the main characters ended up playing supporting roles to her eventually.
I didn't know it then, but I know now that the plot device of self-insertion-- creating an original character almost exactly like one's own self-- is so common among amateur fanfiction writers as to be nearly epidemic. The various permutations of self-insertion-- including the "super-powerful character," whose name is fairly self-explanatory, and the "Mary Sue" character, a self-insertion character created to be the love interest of the author's favorite character-- all merit entire essays of their own.
I've been reading others' fanfiction since I first found the Internet, and to call it an enlightening experience may sound like a bit of an overstatement. It can be downright painful to subject oneself to reams upon reams of Aeris resurrection fanfics, girlfriends (or boyfriends) for the author's favorite character, absurdly powerful original characters, pointless crossovers, and disturbing mischaracterizations. Yet for me, at least, there is some merit in reading stories that make me cringe: they've helped me to realize what I disliked in my own fanfics-- especially the early ones-- and what I absolutely, at all costs, want to avoid doing in my writing.
Now, Usagi Vindaloo's standpoint on fanfiction is that cliches are not always bad. This is a statement with which, perhaps surprisingly, I'm willing to readily agree. There's a fine line between cliche and archetype, and if a writer is able to present his or her ideas in a particularly striking manner, it often won't occur to me at all if their themes or plots are "cliche." Some of our "cliches" endure for a reason-- because they tap something deep and unconscious existing in the human psyche, because they resonate with the experiences of almost everyone. As Joseph Campbell and others have pointed out, every legendary hero in every culture has taken some form of a universal quest, with similarities that can be identified across nearly every society's version of the heroic journey.
Clearly, there are some ideas and themes which possess a near-universal appeal to human beings. The "Star Wars" movies, for instance, were comprised largely of themes and ideas drawn from other, earlier sources, yet the movies were and continue to be phenomenally successful. To draw on old, reliable themes when creating fanfiction-- a heroic quest to find one's self, a story of love enduring against the odds-- is understandable, and quite human, and can make for excellent reading when properly executed.
It's not this sort of cliche I have difficulties with; it's the cliches that exist simply because a sizable percentage of fanfic authors fail to understand the essential themes of a game or make no distinction between what they want to happen and what realistically could happen, as well as what fits with the established motivations and personalities of the characters. The most obvious example of this is the "Aeris resurrection" fanfic; many people have pointed out, quite rightly, that to resurrect Aeris virtually destroys a major theme of FF7-- that of loss and sacrifice. And yet if what I hear from friends who work in fanfic editing is any indication, the same old version of the Aeris resurrection story is still being churned out by no small number of aspiring authors.
While I don't take exception per se to Usagi Vindaloo's second and third points ("There's nothing wrong with being dissatisfied with the end of a game" and "There's nothing wrong with DOING something about being dissatisfied about the end of the game", respectively), I believe the third point merits a few limits and restrictions. I'll willingly admit that on some level, every author writes for themselves, and a great deal of excellent fanfics are written on the basis of wish fulfilment. However, to wish that a certain part of the game or certain character had been explored more and given a better resolution is one thing; to completely overlook what the game was saying because you want to be a character's personal girlfriend/boyfriend or can't stand the fact that the cutest character in the game was killed off is another.
Usagi Vindaloo cites the example of the "redemption of Sephiroth" fanfic in her editorial. Actually, this is a very instructive example for my purposes as well, so with all due respect to her, I'm going to borrow it here. Fangirl favorite Sephiroth has probably been the subject of as many aspiring authors as have Aeris and her resurrection. Of those authors, I would estimate, only a very small percentage demonstrate a true understanding of Sephiroth's character on any level beyond the visceral. Even a cursory examination of their attitudes reveals a shallow understanding of the game and characters (i.e. "Sephiroth is the best! Cloud sucks! I'm gonna write about Seph killing Cloud!").
I'm certainly not saying such fanfics ought not to be written, much as they disgust me. I'm not saying Aeris resurrection fanfics, or Mary Sue fanfics, or super-powerful-character self-insertion fanfics should not be written. Writing is something done for one's self, first and foremost. However, if you're really dead-set on writing a fanfic where Sephiroth kills Cloud, resurrects Aeris and marries her, I'm frankly not all that keen on the idea of reading it. I can't imagine that anyone who doesn't share that particular fantasy would really want to, either. There's a reason sites like RPGamer have an editorial board to screen all fanfiction submissions. Once you allow the established facts of a character or story to be ignored in favor of what you personally felt about it, the story becomes accessible and enjoyable only to those who share your take on the character or story in question. I've found many "romantic" stories rather unfulfilling for this reason, when an author decided to pair up two characters simply because he or she liked the way they looked together and offered no believable justification for the pairing. My ultimate impression, in such cases, was generally one of a huge contrivance.
The difference, I think, between good wish-fulfilment fanfics and bad wish-fulfilment fanfics ultimately comes down, in most cases, to balancing what would be good for the characters-- as they were shown and portrayed in the game-- versus what you, as an author, personally want to see. Inasmuch as it may be dismissed by much of mainstream society as being merely another form of plagiarism, writing fanfiction can, in ways, be even more difficult than writing an original work-- because you, the author, are taking a character designed and created by someone else and attempting to emulate that character as you understood them.
Sometimes a writer has considerable liberty to interpret a character's history, thoughts, and motives; often, however, we don't, and it can be quite difficult to seperate the true character from one's own biases and preconceptions. That's where "missing the point" can really come into play. For example, writing a story where Sephiroth encounters Aeris in the Lifestream, after the end of FF7, and she helps him to remember what it felt like to be human may be wish fulfilment, but it need not be a blatantly egocentric kind. It can be fit into the continuity established in the game and holds true to the personalities set down for the characters. Writing a story where you kill off Cloud just because you, as an author, don't like him, is egocentric. It ignores the interrelationships between characters crafted over the course of the game and has absolutely no basis in what would be good for the characters. If you can find a way to make Cloud's death a galvanizing story event which unites the characters, fine-- but it'll be pretty obvious if you're making no such effort and allowing your own personal biases to dictate the roles played by the characters, rather than attempting to evaluate them from an objective standpoint.
One of the things which defines a writer is the ability to step into another person's shoes and see the world from another person's perspective, through their eyes and their mind. In fanfiction this ability is particularly important, because you must step into the role and put yourself in the situation of a character created by someone else. It's difficult to write about a character to whom one does not relate; it is equally difficult, at times, to tell where a character ends and your own personal feelings begin. Writing is always a process of striking a delicate balance, finding a workable medium-- finding the middle ground between what you want and what the characters would really want, between your own personal biases and what was shown in the game, between creating something to satisfy yourself and creating something other people can relate to and enjoy (even if your motive in writing it was something which never occurred to them).
Sometimes, if you're lucky, a story which satisfies you will also be immediately accessible to a wide audience; other times, you have to stand back and examine your ideas more objectively. The problem is that this idea of balance never occurs to many amateur writers at all, and the subsequent result-- as my own writing experience shows me, in retrospect-- can be quite painful to read. Alternate universes, unexpected outcomes, and twists of plot can all be enjoyable if properly executed, but when writing something that you wanted to see necessitates blatantly ignoring or even destroying established character traits and motives, then it becomes very difficult to enjoy a story, however well-written it may be otherwise.
Of course there's nothing wrong with being dissatisfied with an ending of a game; a primary purpose of fanfiction always has been to fill in neglected plot gaps and resolve loose ends. While authors certainly are free to present these resolutions as they choose, this does not necessarily mean the average reader will enjoy all or even most of the variations on them. It's not too difficult to put forth even a modest effort, in most cases, to improve one's writing-- whether the aspect in need of improvement is technical skill, characterization, or ability to view the original game more objectively. This should in no way be interpreted as an argument against freedom of speech-- but ultimately, all writers must ask themselves why they write. Is it purely, sheerly for themselves, or do they want other people to be able to read and enjoy what they've created as well? And if taking a closer look at a game or a character instead of pounding out the first idea that pops into your head will result in a better-characterized story which can be enjoyed by a wider audience, why settle for that first idea?
So don't be afraid to change your mind when you're working with a story idea, or allow yourself to entertain a new perspective. The challenge, as I've said before, always comes down to finding the balance-- keeping that motivation, inspiration, and drive to create and share intact, while making sure one's ideas are justifiable and believable from the standpoint of the original game.
[Editor's Note: To all you fanficition writers who have taken the time to write editorials to me, I give you my most heartfelt "Thank You." You guys have such mastery over the English language, that I'm downright envious. You all seem to give your points in a very concise, clear manner, so as to make it a joy for me to read. Also, the debates that you have seem to tend away from the nasty which I so often seen. I hope this counts as commentary, because I still have a LONG way to go tonight...]
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