This is the first in a series of blog posts about fanfiction.
One year ago, on October 10, 2012, I started updating fanfiction for the first time since 2003. That was because that year, a new show had started airing in the fall: Dragons: Riders of Berk. The show was based off the film How to Train Your Dragon, which in turn was based off a book series, and promised to bring one of the books' greatest villains to the screen: Alvin the Treacherous. Alvin didn't disappoint in his first appearance, where he succeeded in invading the island of Berk and taking a hostage to find the "Dragon Conqueror," who turned out to be little Hiccup. Even though a skinny teenager kicked his butt with a few dragons, Alvin decided that he would recruit Hiccup to train dragons for him after seeing how Night Furies and Gronckles changed the playing field for battles.
|"They ride dragons! We get that boy, and WE'LL ride dragons!"|
Image source: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbdp63fGHw1ryxe54o1_500.jpg
I asked myself a question after seeing that episode: "Alvin knows that the dragons protect Berk, and Hiccup. Invading again would be a waste of effort for him. Why doesn't he just put a bounty on the Dragon Conqueror, and let other dishonorable Vikings wear out Berk's defenses?"
The result was updating my journal on Deviantart two or three days a week with eight hundred words of prose, centered on that idea. In "How to Protect a Dragon Conqueror," Alvin's men riddle Toothless with poisoned arrows and incapacitate him for two-thirds of the story. Hiccup has to learn to defend himself without a dragon, while realizing that he will injure enemies in cold blood and that Alvin has smeared his reputation in the Archipelago.
|This was actual fanart for "How to Protect a Dragon Conqueror", from the opening scene with the arrows impaling Toothless and Hiccup fleeing the scene.|
I am an obsessed HTTYD fan, hence why I wrote several blog posts about the movie, and the themes that it presented. This idea of a bounty on Hiccup's head, when I was so obsessed with the show that I'd rewatch my favorite episodes and analyze them, stayed with me, and I finally wrote it down and updated it on my Deviant journal. Then, with my commitment to finish every story that I could, including ones that suddenly gained an influx of readers that wanted to murder Alvin for hurting Toothless.
As it turned out, canon didn't go that far with Alvin. I won't spoil the plot details for those who wish to explore the show for themselves, but the show writers decided to focus on him getting defeated more often than obtaining what he wanted, though he had a few temporary ones and a permanent victory. For each victory, I incorporated them into "Dragon Conqueror" and made the blows against Hiccup and Berk more powerful. The more that I wrote, the more canon disappointed, to the point that my obsession with the show started to wane. A new villain has kept me interested, as has the teaser trailer for the sequel, but I no longer live, breathe and eat fanfiction the way that I used to, though I still write for the HTTYD fandom. That is both a relief and a disappointment, for reasons I'll explain below.
When you use someone else's prose without claiming it as your own -- and if you do, you will find yourself in oodles of legal trouble-- you don't have to create a new world, or new characters. More often than not, as I was, you'll be writing about your favorite characters and espousing their virtues and flaws. I had a major crush on Hiccup, for example, because he was snarky, brilliant and impulsive. With original fiction, the creator has less admiration for her character, more a need to render them as living breathing beings, discovering aspects of their personality as the writing progresses. Original fiction requires rendering shapes and figures on a blank canvas, while fanfiction allows one to merely add brush strokes to a finished canvas.
I learned this lesson while switching back to original fiction for a few days, after writing "Dragon Conqueror." The words felt emptier, less unsure of themselves, like blobs of paint. As a result, I started writing another short HTTYD fanfiction, as a contest entry, in December. Come January, I was writing the sequel to "Dragon Conqueror," which I called "How to Court a Dragon Prince." By the spring, I started an "HTTYD Easter Special" which soon climbed into the 90,000 word count, almost novel-length. "Dragon Prince" concluded in October of this year, and I have only written short one-shots, some pure fluff and some pure drama. The thrill from writing prose with well-defined, established characters did wonders when I exited my comfort zone and practiced world building with different characters.
Writing fanfiction also taught me confidence, that I could write well and earn readers; I learned that action and conflicted characters snag readers, as do action scenes and lots of peril. After I finished Dragon Conqueror in December and started interning for a local theater, I found the courage to rewrite my fantasy wolf novel and to pretend it was fanfiction so that I could revise it with the same vigor that came from writing about Hiccup and Astrid and the Berk gang. I also made it a personal goal to submit one short story a week this year, after learning that people wanted my prose. So far I have sold about five short stories and have received payment for two of them, so I remain confident that I'm going down the right path.
Let me reiterate one element: you will never, and SHOULD never make money writing fanfiction. Another writer already crafted the territory in which you have made your mark, and he or she will hunt you down for trying to stake a claim on it. I will write another post on plagiarism, and on famous examples that have landed authors in hot water, but I hope that you take that message to heart.
Image source: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4060/4460976042_3daf75b6b6_z.jpg?zz=1
I didn't write "Dragon Conqueror" expecting to make a penny off it. I knew I never would, and so I wrote it for myself. I wrote a story that would never work with the twenty episode format, and probably would never fly with the Cartoon Network censors. I wrote the story that I wanted to see on the screen, with characters undergoing personal changes and exiting their comfort zones. I was just lucky that other readers and Riders of Berk fans wanted to see that story as well.
Neil Gaiman put it best: "Writing isn't all about pleasing other people. You've got a story to tell, and you're the only one who can tell it." I can proudly say that I'm the only fanfiction writer who has written about putting a bounty on Hiccup's head, but I would never try to make a profit off that idea.
Next post, I'll talk about the purpose that fanfiction serves for readers, about the gaps that the fandom prose fills with imagination and logical questions. It will probably feature a long discussion on one of the best HTTYD fanfictions out there, "Hitchups," and the gaps that it filled for unsatisfied readers.