Dear Darla’s daughter,
I’m really sorry, but when your mom left a comment on my website, she didn’t tell me what your name was, so I’ll have to hope you don’t mind my being a bit general.
Anyway, she said that you are 12 years old and that you like writing fanfiction, like me. She also mentioned that she is trying to get you to start creating characters of your own, something you and I also have in common, because I am trying to do that too. She believes this is important, and so do I, and I wanted to tell you why.
First, though, I want to say Yay for you! You’re writing, and that is fantastic!
Writing, as I am sure you have found out for yourself, is great fun, some of the best fun, in fact, that it is possible to have. And fanfiction? Well, doing that just makes it even better. You take other peoples characters and send them out into the world of your imagination. You can make them do whatever you like, get them into all sorts of trouble, and get them out, have endless adventures with them – what’s not to like? And then there’s the other thing about it. You get to act out all your crushes on the gorgeous actors and pop stars that you like. Yes, don’t blush, we all do it!
I was writing fanfiction at your age, although I was writing about actors and shows you have never heard of, and probably never will, and fanfiction didn’t even have a name back then! It was something you did by the light of a torch under the blankets at night and didn’t tell your friends about. A fantasy life all your own. It was something embarrassing you did in private, like picking your nose!
Now it’s a recognised genre, although there is still a lot of snobbery about it, like there still is about all kinds of genre fiction, like crime and romance. (Usually the people who criticize it are not writers themselves, though, so feel free to completely ignore their opinions because they invariably don’t know what they are talking about!) Today, people recognise that most of the great writers have written fanfiction at some point, and popular and literary novelists are being paid to write fanfiction novels for the legitimate market.
Fanfiction is a great thing to do, too, because it allows you to practise, to test out your writing skills and grow them. The more you write, the better you get, and if you are enthusiastic about the characters, you will write more. You get to experiment in ways you just can’t with other types of writing. And if you share your work online, there is a whole world of other writers willing to help, advise and support you as you learn. So don’t ever let anyone tell you it is wrong to write fanfiction, or that its not ‘real’ writing, because it is.
But here is the thing: using another writer’s characters can only take you so far. And if you really like writing, if you really want to get good at it, you have to take the next step. You have to make up your own original characters.
Well, here is the thing: At the heart of every truly great story are great characters. Look at Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, for example. Both are full of fantastic, original characters, from Severus Snape to Frodo Baggins. There are outstanding characters in every truly great novel. Think of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’, Willy Wonka in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ or even my favourite, the wonderful Sherlock Holmes. In films, you might choose the shark fisherman Quint in ‘Jaws’ (which you are too young to have seen, I suppose, but that’s a treat for the future!), James Bond or Spock in ‘Star Trek’; on the stage, there is the villainous Salieri in Schaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ or the Phantom in ‘Phantom of the Opera’. If you haven’t come across any of these yet, I encourage you to seek them out because they are tremendous.
All original. Each loved by millions. And each one has ensured their creator’s immortality.
So, to become a great writer, or even a good one, you need to have at the core of your work truly great characters.
But here is the really wonderful part:
There are only seven plots. Okay, yes, you can chop them up and interchange bits of them endlessly, but basically, there are a limited number of things you can do, plot-wise.
But there are as many original characters in your head as there are people on the planet. And here is why:
No one, anywhere, even if you are a twin, has ever had the same experience of the world as you.
You are unique.
The way your mind works, what has happened to you, the things you think about and imagine, that you think are important, that you love and hate, are all unique. There may be a few people quite like you, but no one, anywhere, has ever experienced the world exactly the same way as you.
And because you are unique, your imagination is unique. No one else can create quite the same kinds of characters as you.
And once you start creating your own characters, they start getting up doing things inside your head that are completely exciting and unexpected and utterly amazing. Believe me – I was writing a novel a few years back, and one of my main characters just upped and died right there in front of me, without any warning, and I didn’t know what to do because half of the rest of the book depended on her being there! Help! Okay, I fixed it in the end, but it was a scary moment. And also utterly wonderful.
Once you start creating your own characters, your writing moves on to the next level. That element of chaos as they take on a life of their own is only the start.
That is the moment when the wonderful thrill of story-telling hits you, and you open your wings, and take off, and soar through the air.
Fanfiction is great, believe me, but it is like being a sparrow when you could be an eagle, And wouldn’t you rather be an eagle?
So creating your own characters isn’t just thing your mom goes on about because its what she thinks is important, even though you are having so much more fun making the pin-ups on your bedroom walls have romantic adventures through fanfiction. She wants you to taste the real freedom of the imagination, as do I.
That is why I am going to write a lot less fanfiction this year, and concentrate more on my original characters. I’m already having so much fun with it. So why don’t you join me?
With Best Wishes from your fellow writer,