You’ve poured your heart and soul into a fanwork, and lo and behold, it’s caught on with other fans. While success is great, it’s not paying the bills. To financially benefit from all that labor you put in, you’ve decided it’s time to retool your piece as a work of original fiction. Conventional wisdom says doing this just means “rubbing off the fingerprints” – changing names and other obvious references to the parent work. However, if that’s all you do, you’re not giving your story the best chance of succeeding in the original-fiction market.
Taking Your New Audience Into Account
Fan fiction is written for a specific audience of enthusiasts who all share knowledge of the parent work. Once you branch outside of that, your new readers won’t understand things that are obvious to a fan. So, while specific areas of your story could use extra attention when making the conversion to a stand-alone piece, there’s no replacement for looking through the whole thing for references that won’t make sense to newcomers. Recruiting beta readers from outside the work’s fandom will be very helpful.
While you may need to include more explanation for your new readers, insert it into your piece carefully. Fanfic generally has a much quicker opening than original fic,* and that’s a good thing. If you add scenes to your beginning to fill readers in, make sure those scenes are as engaging as the opening you had before. Your new audience needs to understand the elements of your story while simultaneously watching your protagonists deal with the problems in their lives.
Unfortunately, you may also need to cut some things. Because your former audience was familiar with the parent work, they already knew who all the characters were, any important facts about their relationships, and how their world works. But an outside audience has to learn all of those things for the first time, and that can be really confusing. If your fanfic has references to a dozen minor characters that appear in the parent work, think about who you can part with. Their presence won’t be very meaningful without their original names, anyway. When in doubt, simplify the story.
Building Attachment to Characters
The biggest distinguishing factor between fanfics and original fics is that in almost all fanworks, the protagonists are already known and loved by the audience. This takes a huge burden off the beginning of the story. In a work of original fiction, much of the beginning is devoted not only to introducing protagonists but to showing the audience why these characters are worthy of their love and attention. A fanwork doesn’t have to do that.
Once you change the names of your characters and market your work to an outside audience, this burden falls on your story. Since you didn’t have to do that before, there’s a good chance your story could use strengthening in that area.
Generally, selling a character means showing their likable traits in action during the opening scenes of the story. I have a list of twelve likable traits I recommend browsing, but the gist is that they are traits that are selfless, sympathetic, or fascinating. If you’d like to know more, we have many articles on character likability you can go through.
Carefully examining the parent work can give you ideas for how to introduce your protagonist. If your hero has a very similar tone and personality to the hero in the parent work, that may be a good route. However, characters in fanworks are often pretty different from their namesakes. On top of that, if your character is from a visual medium, their introduction might lean on the skills of a talented actor. Be true to the character you’ve written by picking something that fits them and the unique story they’re in.
Optimizing Your World
Fanfic worlds generally come in three varieties. What you should consider varies depending on what type of world you have.
If you’ve been using the fantastical world of the parent work, or one of a different original work, then you’ll need to rub the fingerprints off. But while you’re doing that, keep in mind that there are probably ways the world could work better for your story. After all, it was created with a different story in mind. While changing the names of everything in the world might not be fun, at least there’s nothing stopping you from making additional tweaks.
However, you’re not doing this to make more work for yourself. To avoid rewriting too much, start by looking for anything that will take a bunch of explaining for your new audience to understand. If you don’t need it to support your story, take it out. If you do need it for your plot, can it be replaced by something simpler and easier to explain?
This is also a great time to integrate anything you tacked onto the world to make your story work. If you added time loops, ghosts, or soul-mate magic to a world without those things, consider altering the theme of your world a bit so they fit in better.
Worlds Using Another Theme or Genre
Let’s say you’ve moved the characters to another fantastical genre or switched the fantastical elements involved in the story. They might now be in a science-fiction setting instead of an other-world fantasy, or they might be fighting zombies when before they were dealing with werewolves. Whatever you chose, it probably has a strong theme. That gives you a leg up over many writers of original stories, who often try to include everything and the kitchen sink in their worlds.
However, worlds created for fanfic can be a bit generic. This happens for a couple reasons. First, because fanfics generally devote the lion’s share of their wordcounts to characters and relationships, leaving less space for complex worlds. Second, the mere act of moving established characters from one genre to another creates novelty. The world doesn’t have to be unique because seeing beloved characters in a new setting is interesting enough.
When you change your work to original fiction, that novelty won’t be there anymore. Instead of being something that draws readers into your story, your world may seem forgettable when compared to settings created for original fiction. To help your story sell, consider how you can make your themed world more interesting and distinguished. Simply changing the description of your zombies or spaceships to something that stands out could make a difference.
If you took out any fantastical elements from the parent work and placed the story in a familiar, contemporary setting, there’s not much for you to do here. There’s no point in adding fantastical elements, since your plot doesn’t need them, and you won’t have to explain anything.
Strengthening Your External Conflict
Fanfic is often written to fulfill an unmet need to see favorite characters work on their relationships and sort out their inner demons. While many fanfics do have an outside threat, they usually don’t have as much as original fiction. Fans have the parent work for that. However, once your story is marketed to an outside audience, readers may not show up looking for what they’re missing from a different story.
To be clear, external conflicts aren’t strictly necessary; your story might be fine without one. However, they do come with benefits. In particular, an outside threat relieves relationship arcs of the burden of generating lots of conflict. Trying to keep your lovebirds from hooking up when they’re obviously meant for each other is just hard. Letting monsters swoop in and separate them is a lot easier. The same can also be true of personal-development arcs.
Here are some signs that your story would benefit from more external conflict:
- Readers tell you that your heroes are acting out of character or just feel unrealistic when they get in conflicts.
- Readers find conflicts really unpleasant or become frustrated with the bad behavior of the characters.
- Readers report that the story’s conflicts have gotten repetitive by the end.
If you want to retool your climax to include more external conflict, remember to put in foreshadowing about the outside threat earlier in the story. But you shouldn’t have to rewrite everything.
If you already have an external conflict throughout the story, you might consider fleshing it out with some additional scenes. That’s likely to please an original-fiction audience. Just make sure your beginning sets the right expectations about your story, and don’t let urgent, life-threatening problems overshadow interpersonal scenes. Readers shouldn’t feel like innocents are dying because the heroes chose to watch sappy movies together instead of saving the day.
Your converted story doesn’t have to be like most works of original fiction. Many readers out there want the type of writing fan fiction has to offer but aren’t involved in a fandom. Yet.
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