Being an introverted type without a car, I spend a lot of my time on the internet. One of the things I do while wasting time online is read fanfiction. Lots of fanfiction. I discovered the internet via fanfiction, and that first love has never really left me. I spend a lot more time reading fanfiction than I do reading original fiction and, because my writer brain tends to turn on when I read something, I will often find an idea in a story and go, “I want to write something like that!” Usually this comes in the form of more fanfiction ideas than I know what to do with, some of which get started and some of which linger in my mind for a while before giving up and going away. (Very few of them ever get finished, though I’m still trying.) Lately, though, I’ve been trying to take those fanfic ideas and turn them into original stories, or add them into pre-existing ideas for original stories. Which is fine and an interesting challenge, but it brings up one of the key differences between fanfiction and original fic: fanfiction comes with pre-written history.
That probably sounds obvious and, really, it is. The whole point of fanfic is that you’re taking someone else’s creation and using it as a springboard for your own creativity. Fanfic lets you fill in holes or continue the story or shove two (or more) of your favorite characters into closets together until they give in and admit their undying devotion to each other. Fitting your vision into someone else’s world is a great exercise in creativity and flexibility and expanding someone else’s universe tends to be quite rewarding. (Or at least I think so. I am, after all, a fanfic author.) But all of those things that make fanfic fun go away when you take that idea and transfer it into your own universe. All the history you could draw on before goes away and you have to make all of it up from scratch. More importantly, you can’t assume that your reader knows that history. Fanfiction allows for shortcuts. You can namedrop characters without having to explain who they are or why they matter. Previous events can be alluded to without going into detail because you expect your reader to have the same background in the source material that you do. The moment you leave fanfiction you lose that shared background. Now the only person who knows the history is you and you have to convey that history to the reader without taking away from the story you’re actually telling. It also means that you have to, at some point, actually sit down and figure out what that history actually is. You have to establish your own canon.
This is currently quite relevant to me because my newest project was born from fanfic. It started as a what if question and was sternly guided out of the world created by J.K. Rowling and into one created by me. So far so good — the story wasn’t so hugely character-based that it couldn’t leave the magical world of Harry Potter. I started figuring out the basics — characters, setting, plot ark, etc — and even got a couple thousand words written. But the more I thought about it the more I realized how little I actually know. I know a decent amount about the future. I know the ark of the story and where the characters will end up (at least roughly; my stories work best when I don’t plot them too tightly beforehand). I know what the actions of the characters mean for the world they inhabit and how this story connects to the other stories set in this same world about 250 years later. What I don’t know is what happened before. The story starts in the middle of the final battle of a war. It picks up, in fact, just before a more traditional hero’s story would end: the final clash of good and evil where evil is defeated and good returns home victorious. The story is an exploration of what happens next. A tale of rebuilding, essentially, with wounds that are slow to heal and people whose childhoods were lost to conflict becoming adults in their own right. The problem is that I know very little about that more traditional hero’s story. I don’t know how my hero (who, spoiler, dies in the first sentence of this draft) became a hero, and I don’t know how he and my main character met. I don’t know much about my now defeated villain either. Back when this was fanfiction I had seven books of information to draw from for all of this, but now that resource no longer exists.
So I’m worlbuilding. I’m taking time off from getting to know my characters as they are now to get to know them as they were then. I’m figuring out how my hero came to be chosen and why my villain went down the path he did. I’m following my protagonist on her journey from wide eyed idealist to jaded warrior and making note of the major events in her life that influence her character as I met her. I’m visiting the centers of government before the war to see how that changed them and asking questions of my characters to establish their history before the opening scene of this book. I’m creating my own canon so that I can write a continuation for it. And it’s hard work, because plotting isn’t really my strong suit, but it’s hugely fun. My second favorite part of writing is worldbuilding, and this is nothing but that.
And before you ask, no, this is not the story I have planned for the June session of Camp Nanowrimo. I may still work on this in June, but my goal for that month is still to get a complete first draft of Amberspun Spiderwebs, which has its own unique set of problems that I will probably detail at length when the writing actually starts.