LESSON Fan-Tastic Roleplay: A Guide to Fan-Based Writing

Discussion in 'REFINING WRITING' started by Astaroth, Aug 29, 2013.

  1. Fan-Tastic Roleplay: A Guide to Fan-Based Writing
    A successful fan-based roleplay (or a well-written fanfiction) can be a wonderful thing. We all have our favorite books and TV shows, and we all have our what-ifs and those personally beloved things that perhaps we don’t feel were explored enough within the confines of the source. We all feel a little sad when a favorite book series ends, or a little angry when that sequel film just doesn’t live up to the original. Fan-based roleplays give us a chance to explore those what-ifs and unturned stones, to keep those stories alive, and to right those “wrongs” of canon.

    Many people new to roleplaying are introduced via fan-based roleplay. One of the appeals here is having a ready-made world to play around in, and it requires less presentation than an original world-building endeavor- unless the writer treks into the territory of severe genre-bending or major overhaul of the setting (although this, too, is a fun opportunity that fan-based roleplaying provides). Some might view this as taking the easy road or being unoriginal; I disagree. Fan-based roleplays are both a leg-up and a challenge. Take this world, a writer hears the whisper, and show me, what can you do with it?

    Of course, fan-based material has many pitfalls. As it is a form of gateway RP, it attracts new players with undeveloped RP habits and writing skills, which can test the patience of other players (even other newbies). Not all players will see eye to eye within a particular fandom; there will always be people who have a different view on the canon material than you do. Some people prefer to play canon characters, which can lead to scuffles over misrepresentation of a character; others prefer original characters, which can lead to accusations of playing a Mary Sue. While some take full advantage of the flexible nature of derivative works, others adhere so strictly to the confines of canon that they research the smallest detail, and these contrasting styles of play do not mix well. The wrong mix of players can quickly kill a roleplay and leave a more sour taste than would an original game.

    There are a few simple keys to successful derivative fanworks:


    One does not need to be an expert on the source to write fanfiction. However, the better grasp you have of the world that you’re playing with, the better equipped you will be to make it come alive. It is much the same as fleshing out an original setting for a roleplay… except in this case, the brainstorming is done for you. Those little details that make your original worlds shine are also what capture the imagination of fans in the books we admire. Following the plot, too, is important; the more you know about what happens over the course of the story, the more you understand why certain things are happening, and the more room you have to work within a timeline.

    This is not to say that you cannot do away with or change details of the plot or world if you so choose. This opportunity is one of the biggest draws of fanfiction and fan-based RP! But fully understanding what you are changing will help you integrate those changes seamlessly.


    This is one of the most difficult aspects of fan-based writing.

    It is also a difficult aspect of original writing, and so can be responsible for what we like to call “fan rage” when an author of a much-loved book or show seems to disregard their own work. This is, funnily enough, what in turn inspires a great deal of fanfiction.

    What is “tone”?

    The tone of a work is how the story is presented by the author. It is their view of the world and the characters within it, the messages they are trying to convey to the reader, and why they are writing it. Genre (the type of story, e.g. romance, adventure, horror) and mood (the emotional response sought from the reader, e.g. uplifting, tragic, grimdark) contribute to tone, but are not as vital as the underlying what and why.

    Your fan-based writing will have its own tone, but should not compromise or undermine the tone of the original work. When you begin to disregard the tone, you divorce your derivative story from its roots, and you are simply writing original fiction with familiar names and places. It will not feel like the parent story anymore.

    This is where severe genre twists or extreme AUs (alternate universes, where events or settings differ from the canon) are especially prone to going awry. It is important to take tone into account when making big changes. Ask yourself: Does this fit with the author’s vision of their world? If not, does it invalidate the messages they wanted to give us? Does this need to be a story about this world or these characters, and if so, why?

    Remember that “tone” is not the same as “voice”. People often confuse the two.

    What is “voice”?

    Voice is how the author’s personality impacts their writing. Certain writers have very distinctive and recognizable voices. Your writing carries its own signature, too; you will not naturally sound like H.P. Lovecraft or Joss Whedon. This can be very noticeable in fanworks derivative of an author with a distinctive voice, making your writing seem lackluster or not quite “right”.

    Some people attempt to mimic an author’s voice- or at least their style (the mannerisms and quirks of writing through which their voice is revealed). This can be difficult, as it requires closely examining the author’s writing, and does not come naturally unless your style and voice are close to theirs to begin with. When done well, it can be an extremely satisfying experience for readers. However, it is more important- and it’s a simpler fix- to make your OWN voice and style distinctive.

    If your voice is clear and pleasing to read, your readers will be too engrossed to make comparisons to the original author.


    This is a big problem for many fans. Essentially, it falls under both knowing the material and preserving tone, but is such a vital aspect that I’ve included it in its own category.

    Borrowing characters that are not your own is tricky. One reason that “hijacking” characters in roleplay (writing what someone else’s character does or says, or operating on the assumption that they do or say something) is a big no-no is that often the hijacker wrongly predicts what a character would do or misrepresents their personality. I’ll avoid the ethics regarding permission and trust for the moment, and focus on the writing mechanics: It is necessary when hijacking to have a thorough understanding of the character. What would or wouldn’t they do? How do they behave around different people? Why do they do the things that they do? If you cannot answer these questions, you have no business hijacking them.

    The same applies to canon characters in fan-based RPs.

    One of the biggest issues here may be “fan-goggles”.

    Everyone has characters that they love or that they hate. People also have different interpretations of characters. That’s all fine! There is also such a thing as “head canon”, where readers get impressions about things that may not be explicitly written. Be careful, however, not to let those impressions directly override what is explicitly written or heavily implied. Viewing things through these colored “fan-goggles” will lead to canon characters that feel “OOC” (out of character) or even like “canon Sues” (in this instance, a canon character that is being written as a self-insert or as the author’s highly fantasized and two-dimensional version) to most other fans.

    This is especially common when it comes to non-canon shipping (pairing of characters romantically, as in “relationshipping”). Writers have a tendency to amp up the appeal of one character to the point of making them unrecognizable, and to paint the canon love interest or rival in a villainous light to make them unsavory by contrast. It’s cheap, it’s ugly, and it destroys what is good or interesting about character relationships… often including the one that is being promoted. This glorification/vilifying of characters is not exclusive to shipping scenarios; it is often used as a plot device in other senses as well, and it is just as unsatisfying when it undermines the character as we know them.

    One of the most notable examples can be found in the Harry Potter fandom:

    Draco Malfoy as the Slytherin Sex God.

    The glorification/sexification of Draco Malfoy has become so well-defined that this trope is known as Draco in Leather Pants. The spoiled, smarmy snob becomes a smooth-talking, seductive, misunderstood bad boy. In the books we can see that Draco is whiny, pampered by his parents, surprisingly sheltered, and often acts impulsively or emotionally. He can be a loveable brat, but he’s a brat.

    Ron Weasley as the dastardly Death Eater.

    Ron is so strongly disliked by so many fans that a popular characterization is to turn him into an evil, twisted Death Eater. The stubborn, brash best friend becomes a sneaking, spiteful, murderous toad. Canonically, Ron is shown to be a temperamental person ruled by his passions and insecurities, but he’s loyal to his friends even when they argue and has been raised with values that make Voldemort and his followers reprehensible above all else. He makes mistakes, but he sticks to his beliefs.

    These renditions of Draco and Ron are not only two-dimensional, but easily belied and made ridiculous by canon. That isn’t to say that these characters cannot ever be written as appealing love interests or as doing something reprehensible, merely that these extremes are not true to form.

    Another interesting example of this can be seen in the pervasive misinterpretation of the main characters of Final Fantasy VII:

    Cloud Strife as the emo, whiny hero.

    For most of the game, Cloud is witty, fun-loving, and down to earth. He’s a wise-cracking, likeable hero and often lightens the mood. He does become depressed later in the game, but there is substantial reason presented for this depression. He’s a good-natured guy faced with a crisis.

    Aerith Gainsborough as the innocent, pure princess.

    Despite Aerith’s modest and feminine character design and mage/healer position in the team, she’s a poor girl from the slums and is streetwise. She knows seedy places, keeps questionable company, and is an adventurous flirt. She sasses and teases Cloud and at one point makes him crossdress. She’s the Bad Girl.

    Tifa Lockhart as the bold, flirty tough girl.

    Although Tifa runs a bar, wears revealing clothing, and is the bare-fists brawler, she’s a fairly sheltered and naïve girl who just happens to get mixed up with terrorists. She clings to and lies to Cloud because she has a crush on him, and she is often shown to be vulnerable and needy, afraid to stand up for herself. She’s the Good Girl.

    What’s so unusual about these overwhelming fan-goggle views of these three characters is that their new incarnations (in the Advent Children film, and the spin-off and sequel games featuring the FFVII cast) have actually adopted them. Now, for better or worse, FFVII fanon has become canon.

    Ask yourself: Is it better, or worse?


    This is the biggest secret to a successful fan-based roleplay or fanfiction.

    If you are trying to make big money or publish a masterpiece that will change the world, fanbased RP or fanfiction is not what you should be doing. You’re doing this because you enjoy it and so that other people might enjoy it too and so maybe you’ll get to meet other people who enjoy the same things that you do. You’re doing this to get the same thrill that you get from reading the books or watching the show or playing the game. This is for fun. Remove your Writing Is Serious Business cap for just a moment. I promise that it won’t kill you.

    It is okay if something isn’t exactly like it is in canon, as long as it makes sense, or to say “Hey! I don’t like that this character died, so I’m not going to let that happen!” It is okay if someone writes a character differently than you do, as long as they still write them well. It is okay if someone ships Han and Leia and you prefer Han and Luke, because you can both find other people who share your preference. It is okay if your original character is Legolas’s long-lost daughter because fuck everyone, she’s a badass motherfucker. It is okay if you think cyberpunk Sherlock Holmes sounds like fun or if you want to write grimdark My Little Pony, and it is okay if other people don’t like it.

    So put down your Canon Nazi batons, pack up your Shipping War t-shirts, and stop flaming each other. Everyone is here to have fun.

    Now go play with your favorite fandom.
    #1 Astaroth, Aug 29, 2013
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2013
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  2. Oh my lord, the bit about Cloud made me laugh. Because everyone I've ever rp'd with that rp'd him, made him cold and broody. I'm assuming that's Advent Children, post geostigma, Cloud (it's been ages since I've seen the movie, so I can only assume.) Someone give me an actual Cloud now!