The Bittersweetest Thing

Lead Writer of BioWare's Dragon Age game series, lover of fan tears. This is where I blog about game development, fandom, and narrative design. Anything I say here is my opinion alone.

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On Fanfiction

Do you ever read fan-fiction? Or does it make you feel as though your characters are ruined? — Anonymous

Fanfiction can be a touchy subject for some writers. Not so much for me, usually, but I can see why some might feel that way. We have a personal bond with the characters we create— we love them, we hate them, but ultimately they’re ours. Even in an environment like game development where you have to share creation (with artists and the whims of development, and occasionally with other writers) you still feel most strongly about the characters you personally create.

There’s a point, I think, where the character turns into a real person. To you, I mean… you know they’re not real, but once they develop their own voice they suddenly have a life that’s independent of you. I think every writer out there knows what I’m talking about. The character stops acting like you want them to, refuses to say things you need them to say, and generally acts like a rebellious teenager. And that’s not a bad analogy, in a way, because you’re kind of their parent.

Like any parent, you care about your child. You worry when the character gets released into the public domain for scrutiny, anxious for them to make a good impression— rather like sending your child onto his first day of school. You get a little hurt when someone criticizes them unfairly, even though you tell yourself it’s silly to do. And, yes, the thought that they might have a life beyond your control makes you anxious… and that’s exactly what fanfiction is. My characters are out there being co-opted by fans who love them enough to give them a home, take them out to Tijuana and get them drunk to the point where I hear about them waking up in a ditch in El Paso, a big moustache painted on their face and wearing only a giant sombrero.

It makes you wonder. Your instinct is to tell his friends, “No, you can’t see him anymore. Last time you got him arrested at that crack den in Michigan and I just won’t have it. He stays home and does Dragon Age now, and that’s it.” It’s a tough, irrational instinct to fight.

Let me tell you a story.

We had this character for a game, a male character who I’d already been writing for a while and to whom I was pretty attached. A conversation came up about making him a gay romance, and my reaction was instant and vehement: absolutely not. No way.

Writer: “Why not? What’s the big deal?”

Me: “I just don’t like the idea. It doesn’t fit for him.”

Writer: “Why doesn’t it fit? I’ve read the character, and it seems to fit just fine. It certainly doesn’t contradict what’s—”

Me: “I said no, okay? Just no.”

Writer: (eyes widening) “You don’t want him to be gay.”

Me: “I… no, of course not. Its just… it seems wrong. I don’t like it.”

Writer: “You don’t want players having sex with him.”

Me: “Fine. Yes. Men are pigs, and boys are even worse. I should know. I don’t want them touching him with their dirty… I don’t like thinking about it happening. It makes me mad.”

Writer: “Now you know how your Dad feels.”

MIND. BLOWN.

Okay, aside from the bit of empathy for my father I totally didn’t need that day, it did suddenly strike me how this affection for my character had crept up on me… to the point where decisions regarding him had become personal. It was specific to that character— normally I have no qualms about my characters being romances of any kind, I think with that one it was just so far removed from how I imagined him— but that doesn’t make the feelings less relevant or less universal in how we come to feel about these people with whom we spend so much time.

Or maybe it’s just me? Somehow, I doubt it. I imagine it’s worse with writers who are the sole authors of their characters in novels and comics, who have no experience at all with needing to share their vision with anyone.

So I had to take a step back and realize from where these feelings were coming. It’s very similar to the mental processing with which you need to deal when you come across fanfiction and fan art. On one level you know damn well that’s not your character. At best it’s a simulacrum— the writer or artist took a piece of your character and gave birth to something of their own. Just writing or drawing your character or story doesn’t make it theirs, after all… but they need to feel like they have that piece of it. They want to see it keep on living, and so they take their own creative energy and breathe some additional life into the part of that story which resides in them.

Because it does reside there. You put it there; you can’t begrudge them that. If you didn’t want them to take that piece away with them, you should never have given it to them in the first place. In many ways, the fact they’re spending their energy breathing life into your story is the highest of compliments. There are so many other stories they could love, but they love yours. Isn’t that what you wanted?

So, speaking personally, you put aside that anxious feeling you get when you come across fan-created works involving your stuff. You know where the feeling comes from, you acknowledge it and instead you salute these people for clearly having such awesome taste. It does mean I can’t enjoy reading fanfiction much— that feeling gets in the way of me appreciating it the same way other fans do— but I can appreciate the love behind it. Fan art is a bit different, for me, mainly because art isn’t the medium in which I work… but even that can go to a weird place.

Because, yeah, there is definitely a weird and dark place where fans can go. It’s a place where they’ve co-opted the character and the story to the point where they feel they have just as much ownership over it as you do. They know the character better, the true character, and they act like you would if the situation were reversed… even though that’s just not the case. That is not the relationship between creator and fan. And all of this ignores the legal complications of ownership— I’m talking about creative ownership, and that is indeed something which fans can abuse.

But, honestly? I don’t see it that often.

Most fans I encounter approach it from a very healthy standpoint. They know very well that what they’re working on can never truly belong to them, but they don’t care. They want to participate. Perhaps they need to, in order to process the many feels we’ve generated or perhaps simply because tapping into the collective pool of fandom generates so much more inspiration for them than they could acquire on their own. Either way, it’s nothing at which to scoff.

Encourage it, I say. We need more people reading and writing and drawing and cosplaying. Stifling creativity is death for us all, and sneering at anyone who does something creative simply because it’s not the sort you appreciate is the work of philistines. We have more than enough of those: in the gaming community, the fan community and far beyond.

And that’s all I really have to say about that.

Notes

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