In Defense of Fanfiction

My health has taken a downwards turn recently, and now that my university course has resumed with the arrival of autumn, I’ve realised that I need to be more selective with the submission calls I want to write for, only giving my time and energy to those that truly catch my attention and are a pleasure to write. One of those that I’ve been working on this week is this submission call from Belanger Books, exploring the classic Sherlock Holmes characters in the realm of steampunk. As I dived into Arthur Conan Doyle’s world to get in the right mindset for my story, ‘The Silver Swan’, I could not help but remember my first forays into allowing other people to read my writing. Like many others, I suspect, I started out in fanfiction. As an unashamed Potterhead with a vivid and consuming imagination, I could not resist the compulsion to take JK Rowling’s wonderfully deep and detailed world and play around with her characters. The first novel I ever wrote aligned itself with the last three years of the series, clocking in at an immense 110k. That’s 110000 words I wouldn’t have had the confidence or inspiration to write were it not for fanfic.

Fanfic often gets a bad rep, and I think it’s one that’s hugely undeserved. Oh, of course there are a lot of stories out there that could be described as raw and unpolished at best, but they are, nonetheless, the product of someone’s imagination, sparked by their love of the story and world that the original author created. If nothing else, fanfic can be a powerful writing exercise for writers who want to refine their craft. The real beauty of fanfic is that it allows the novice – or even more experienced – writer to take the rich tapestry at their fingertips and use that as a base to weave their own stories into it. As they do so, without even realising, their experiments with plot, dialogue and the individual voices of each character will start to strengthen their own stories in turn. Learning the nuances that authors like Rowling use to distinguish their style and narrative can be a tool to then use when they have the confidence to craft equally rich and detailed worlds of their own.

And so we come back to Arthur Conan Doyle. I’ve been writing professionally for seven years. I am (mostly!) at ease with worldbuilding and relying upon my own ideas to spark a story with characters that are as real to me as if they are standing at my side, but something about this submission call and immersing myself in 221B Baker Street was impossible to resist. The story is coming along swimmingly, and even if I don’t manage to bring it in under the upper word limit or finish it on time, it has proved to be an enjoyable and much-needed exercise in first person narrative, something I tend to avoid as a rule in my own writing, but writing as Watson, a character I know intimately through Conan Doyle’s work, has liberated me to try my hand and experiment with the style.

Authors must never be content to rest on their laurels. There are always lessons to be learned and ways in which we can refine our craft, and maybe by going back to the basics and using fanfic as a framework, we can do so without the added pressure of starting from scratch with the blank page staring at us balefully and the flashing cursor a potent reminder of a story that has to be pulled, line by unwilling line, from our heads onto the page.

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A Rose By Any Other Name

Naming my characters is at once the most fun and the most frustrating part of writing. I swear I found it easier to choose a name for my kids than to get all the names right for all the characters in each story.

A name is so much more than just a label. If you get it right, it tells the reader about their background, their character, and just as importantly, the genre of your story. Take Count Vlad Dracula as an example. Say the name out loud; roll the syllables around your tongue and listen to the harsh consonants amongst the long, soft vowel sounds.

Count. Vlad. Dracula.

It really is the perfect name for the aristocratic vampire of legend. Stoker lucked out, for his Dracula was based on the historical Wallachian Vlad Dracula, but there are many other examples in literature of names that use this principle to work in the same way. Peake’s Steerpike, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, Kesey’s infamous Nurse Ratched, even Dahl’s Agatha Trunchbull. Come on – you just can’t imagine a romantic heroine named Miss Trunchbull, but as a sadistic headmistress her name fits like a glove.

Drifting away from horror, I’ve always admired JK Rowling for the sheer amount of thought she put into naming even the most insignificant characters. Take Phineas Nigellus Black, whose portrait hangs in both Dumbledore’s office and in 12 Grimmauld Place. Nigellus is rooted in the Latin word niger, meaning black, and the Hebrew translation of Phineas is “mouth of a snake”. Phineas was a Slytherin, the portrait his only remaining mouthpiece.

The right name can make or break your character. When I sat down to plot out my new steampunk novella this week, there were eight main characters I wanted to name, from a Moulin Rouge dancer to the shadowy ringmaster of a travelling fair passing through Montmartre. And so Clemence Fontaine and Ignatius Demorte were born.

Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. As much as I love his work, I would have to disagree. Getting the right name for your characters is key.

I would love to hear your favourite names you’ve come up with for your characters! Let me know in the comments below.