Expanded Universes: Why does my wife write fan-fiction?

[Editor’s note: Ali D gives us an interesting take to the Expanded Universes theme from last month’s Monthly Musing topic. — CTZ]

If you have a casual look at the sci-fi section of your bookstore, chances are you’ll probably see a few licensed videogame novels. There’s not many when you consider how many fan-fiction stories there are online. Warcraft, Halo and Final Fantasy are all titles that have a big cult following and there are hundreds of people writing fan-fic for them. Even games like Super Smash Brothers and Tetris have fan-fic written for them.

My wife Anna has written fan-fic for 10 years now (some of which you can read here), for a number of different games, so I sat down to ask her a few questions about how and why she writes fan-fic.How did you get into writing fan-fic?

It all started for me when I was playing Ultima Online. You used to get a “newbie” book as part of your starting kit. One day I was really bored, so I wrote this silly little adventure story in the book, then scribed a bunch of copies and left them lying around the place. I wrote a couple of other books in game as well but didn’t take it very seriously. Then they implemented a small character profile for your paperdoll. So I started creating this story for my main character. I had never really RPed in UO, so I hadn’t ever thought about who this character was before. So I started writing this biography and pretty soon I had more info than I could fit on the little profile. The bio quickly extended into an epic saga and that was when I realized that I was writing fan-fic. I still have not finished that particular series, because eventually along came Deus Ex and that well and truly got me hooked on writing fan-fic.

Why write fan-fic?

For fame and fortune!

Generally it’s because if I have really enjoyed a game I don’t want the experience to end. So I can kind of extend my immersion in that game by writing fan-fic. What I discovered from my UO experience was that I also simply enjoy writing and the great thing about games is someone else has created a universe for me to write about. I don’t have to worry about all the nitty gritty details and can generally just write about the aspects that interest me. Call it ‘Shake and Bake’ stories, if you will.

Why choose the games you’ve chosen to write about?

Usually I write about games that had quite a good story to begin with, or at least a game that has a very rich and detailed world. Often it’s games that make me think about them, during and after gameplay. If I enjoyed a game I pretty much want to write about it. But I like games that have different ideas, that bring something new to the table. Anything that stands out and grabs my attention. Sometimes it’s the whole game and sometimes it’s pieces of games that trigger an idea for a story.

For instance, I wrote what I call a DOOM 3 inspired fic. When I was playing it, I thought to myself, what would I actually do if I were in this situation? Because we wouldn’t all grab a gun and fight these hellish creatures. I imagine that the terror and confusion would be so overwhelming, a lot of us would just become quivering wrecks, lambs to the slaughter. So that was one thought I had and I started writing along that theme and that’s how ‘Eye of the Beholder’ came about.

Are you attracted to the characters in a game or the world which they inhabit?

Both. For instance, with Ultima Online it was the world that attracted me, especially since I had played all the Ultima games anyway, so I knew a lot about Brittania. Deus Ex was purely about the world Ion Storm had created. There was just so much going on in that game. It’s a nearly endless source of inspiration. That’s not to say there weren’t interesting characters in the game. I wouldn’t mind writing a Gunther inspired piece. But mostly I’m more interested in the action/Sci-Fi components.

With Thief it was both the character of Garrett and that brilliant Steam Punk world. All the Fic for Bioware games that I’m currently working on or planning in future are very character oriented. Probably because Bioware games have such character driven stories. So again it depends in the game itself. I don’t really write character specific stories if I feel like a character has already been really fleshed out. If I can’t think of anything new to do with them, then they don’t really interest me from a writing perspective.

What is your writing process, how do you plan a story out?

Planning … yeah that’s something I’m not so good at. Which is why I eventually stall with some of my fic, because I get to a certain point and go, hmmm, now what? For all my short pieces of work I generally have a rough idea of how I want the story to go. I just want something short and snappy, that conveys my main idea and immerses people in that gaming universe that we loved so much. For instance, one of my Deus Ex stand-alones (MJ12 – Series L) started with a little snippet I read about the different kinds of augmentation in the DX universe. There was some mention of pharmaceutical enhanced agents. So I started thinking about what that might entail and took it a step further to think, well if they are augmenting people with drugs, would they not also be controlling them with drugs? What if those drugs were addictive? So that was the little kernel of thought that eventually expanded into a story.

With my fiction series, only one of them was ever actually meant to be an ongoing series. Both my Deus Ex and Thief ones began as a single short story. Someone on a forum wanted me to expand the Deus Ex one with them kind of co-writing. So we were alternating chapters on that one for a while and eventually he stopped and I just kept going with it. The Thief one, I don’t really know what happened there. I kinda just kept writing chapter to chapter. Then I decided I wanted to make it all from Garrett’s perspective and start each chapter just like in the game, with Garrett’s monologue. It kinda just took off from there. Don’t ask me what happens next in either of them, cause I won’t really know until I sit down and start writing the next chapter.

Sometimes I might have a rough plot outline and then I just sit down and fill in the bit’s in between. It’s not the best way to go because I always end up going off on a tangent and what was meant to be only one or two chapters blows up into four or five. So yeah, I’m trying to be a little more structured and forward thinking with my NWN2 fic. My plan is, once I finish off the Thief and DX ones, I’m going to focus simply on writing stand-alone pieces. For me they are simply more enjoyable and straightforward to write.

How do you approach character development in fan fic?

That’s a tricky one. I try to stay true to any characters from the game, emulating their behavior and mode of speech. But I don’t believe in keeping them exactly the same, it is a continuing journey after all and people do change over time. Not drastically of course, but a character like say Garrett from Thief could mellow with age, or he could become even more cynical. It all depends on what direction I’m taking with the story. So that’s hard, trying to stay true to what people expect from established characters but still having the freedom to evolve. Very often though, I’ll insert my own original cast of characters into a fan-fic. Sometimes as the main player and sometimes as a support cast for an existing character.

Do you read fan-fic by others and if so, what kind?

I didn’t start reading fan-fic until I was writing it myself, mostly because I was so clueless about the whole thing. I like to peruse what other people are doing. Sometimes it’s good cause I’ll expand on an idea that someone else has touched on. For instance I beta read (that’s kind of editing the story) for another author and while I was doing it, the whole time I was thinking, Hmmm, I would write this completely differently, or I would focus on this point here instead. So I got a whole bunch of ideas to work with from that. I wasn’t by any means copying their story, it was simply taking a theme and expanding on it. Which is what we do to begin with anyway, isn’t it? It’s also good to see what everyone else is writing about so that you can be sure that you’re producing something a little bit different and not re-hashing the same old themes. Though I personally think that I tend to re-hash my own ideas a lot.

There are a lot of what people call ‘novelizations’ of the game. I don’t really read those because, hey I played the game, I know all this. A lot of the time it’s practically a walkthrough. But sometimes people add some new things and they can be quite entertaining.

I read a lot of fan-fic about games I enjoyed but weren’t particularly inspired to write about. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story about a game that I haven’t played. Mostly I find though that the games I want to read for, there just isn’t that much quality fiction around.

Mary-Sues and self-insertions I avoid like the plague. The kinds that have plot summaries like “Ashleigh is a typical high school girl from earth who magically got sucked into the world of Diablo/Faerun/Warcraft” and the angsty, romantic entanglements with game characters ensue. Maybe there are good ones out there, but I’ve yet to find one. Generally you’ll have game characters just acting contradictory to their established persona. A lot of them don’t even draw on the universe they are writing for, they’re just bland environments housing these unbelievable characters. Each to their own, but it’s just not my thing.

Do you think fan-fic is an important and legitimate aspect of player created content?

Absolutely. You could argue that maybe it doesn’t take as much skill as modding or designing in-game content, but I think fan-fic is just as legitimate and important. It maintains your attachment to a game, long after you’ve finished playing it. For example, there are a series of books (I won’t name them) where the author has stated she doesn’t want any fan-fic written about them, unless you join this authorized group and follow all their rules and regs. As far as I’m concerned that kills my creativity entirely. The end result being that I no longer read those books, they are not something I return to after the initial read. Games that I write fan-fiction for, I keep going back to them, because in the writing and reading about them, it just makes me crave the experience all over again. It also makes me look out for anything new that the developers of those games produce. It keeps me interested in their work. I think this is the case for any game that allows user created content, no matter what form.

How do you handle criticism?

I think I handle it pretty well, as long as it’s constructive. Actually I don’t think I’ve ever had someone slag my writing for no reason. It’s not something I see a lot in the fan-fiction communities I frequent, which is nice, that no-one is being nasty. But it’s nearly impossible to get any kind of constructive feedback either. I don’t know if it’s that people are afraid you might turn around an criticize their fic in return. I think it’s probably more that people simply want to be entertained, they aren’t interested in sitting and picking apart a piece of fan-fic and giving you an in-depth report on where you went wrong. As long as the spelling and grammar isn’t too bad and you aren’t hitting people with an unformatted wall of text, you’re off to a good start.

All in all I think it’s important to not take anything too seriously. If people like my fic, great, I’m glad I could entertain them. If they want to give me a couple of pointers on how to improve my writing, I’ll try to take it on board. If they simply don’t like it then it’s not really significant to me. I’m writing for my own enjoyment and I invest a lot of time in the actual writing and research for my stories. It doesn’t cost the reader anything really. Not even their time. I think you can gauge within five minutes whether you’re going to enjoy someone’s fic or not.

Are there any games you’d like to have a crack at writing fan fic for?

Ha! It is really hard to not go off and start writing fic for nearly every game I play. I am trying to be really disciplined and finish the three ongoing fiction series that I’m currently working on (Deus Ex, Thief and NWN2). I write any ideas down that I get, but I try to not get distracted. As it stands there’s a heap of stand-alone stories that I would still like to write for Deus Ex. I also have ideas for Half Life 2 (though not Gordon-centric fiction, more just about the world in general). I’d really like to delve into themes involving the Combine. Mass Effect is a big one that I am desperate to publish some stories for. Warcraft 3, Bioshock, System Shock, Syndicate, Pirates, Ultima series, KOTOR II, The Witcher, Fallout. Off the top of my head, those are the ones that call out to me at the moment.

Alasdair Duncan