Friday, April 07, 2006

The Creative Power of Dissatisfaction

My best friend, Jenn, loves fanfiction, that infamous and ubiquitous creative outlet for frustrated writers and non-writers alike. She seeks it out for just about every show she watches, almost invariably when the show she loves has taken a turn that she doesn't like. In other words, her dissatisfaction with the show leads her to seek an alternative story for the characters she loves.

I've recently given some thought to the appeal of fanfic, and I've come to the conclusion that all popular fiction is, in a way, fanfiction. For one thing, plenty of books and articles have documented the patterns that almost all fiction has in common--archetypes, themes, plots, story rhythms, etc., suggesting that whoever it was who said there's no such thing as a new plot, only fresh and interesting twists on old ones, was right. But beyond that, I think that for a lot of writers--perhaps even most of us--the emotional and creative drive to write comes out of a similar dissatisfaction with "the way things are" that drives people to write fanfic.

We want to revisit old archetypes and plots and revisit them, twisting the set-ups, the settings, the endings, the beginnings, providing an alternate take on an eternal story. Perhaps we decide that "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" isn't really enough of an ending for Scarlett and Rhett. So we create a new story, set up new situations for archetypal characters (the headstrong heroine, the bad boy, the villain with a heart of gold, etc.) so that their outcomes are different this time.

We're finding creative power in our dissatisfaction.

I've recently had trouble trying to come up with new ideas for novels. But one day, as I was discussing fanfic with my friend Jenn, we were discussing all the weird ways fanfic writers twist Jane Austen's classic stories, setting them in high schools, on different planets, you name it. During the discussion, we jokingly came up with the idea to turn Jane's books into spy thrillers, a la Tom Clancy.

Then, suddenly, it wasn't a joke. It was an idea. Why not play with the archetypes and plots of Jane Austen, only twist them to fit a contemporary romance thriller? Address some of the ways that Jane Austen's stories didn't quite meet my personal needs for fiction (e.g., where's the dead body, Jane? Where's the twisty, turny mystery I love so much?) Take the basic story conflicts--rich versus poor, pride versus prejudice, sense versus emotionality and modernize them to reflect current day conflicts. Raise the stakes, make the conflicts more immediate, modern and dangerous, and see where the "what ifs" take you?

I'm not talking about stealing plots or characters. I'm talking about taking inspiration from stories I love or stories that didn't entirely satisfy me with their outcomes, settings or depth. I'm rethinking characters, situations, conflicts and resolutions and figuring out how to tell them in new ways, with new outcomes and new themes.

Have you been so inspired by a particular character or set of characters that you wanted to give them (or their archetypes) a different ending or a new and exciting adventure? Hit the comments link and tell us all about it.


Deborah Matthews said...

It worked out well for Helen Fielding. I don't know a lot about fanfic, but I've been inspired.

I love Amanda Quick's historicals. Her heroines weren't shy and didn't always need saving. It was those novels that inspired me to write my own.

Angel said...

The first book I ever wrote was a contemporary twist on a historical story I'd read and was dissatisfied with the ending.

And there's a reason why there are so many "secret baby" stories and "forced marriage" stories--readers love these classic scenarios with new, lovable characters.


jennifer echols said...

I had only a vague impression of what fanfic was. But now that you describe it this way, I realize that this is how I started writing in earnest! And I suppose it's no accident that I started with YA, and YA is what I'm now writing. In junior high school, my best friend and I would stay up until the wee hours re-thinking Lois Duncan's YA thriller Five Were Missing, starring us and boys we liked. :)

Carla Swafford said...

Oh, my gosh! Yes. Movies, books, TV shows all have aggravated me enough to change or finish the story the right way. ::g::

One example is how several historicals will start with the hero exiting his soon-to-be-ex-mistress's bed. I thought it only fair to have a heroine exiting her soon-to-be-ex-lover's bed instead. To make it believable, I changed it to a contemporary. Thus was born THE FEMALE CHAUVINIST.

Paula said...

Ooo, Jen, I LOVED Five Were Missing!

Gone With the Wind was the first book I ever remember wanting to rewrite for a better ending. Not for Rhett and Scarlett, either. I always thought Melanie ended up being a stronger and more important character in the story than anyone ever gave her credit for, and I wanted her to rally and recover from her illness, kick Ashley and Scarlett to the curb and go show Rhett that not all women were high strung, high maintenance, self-centered harridans like Scarlett.

But that's just me. ;)

jennifer echols said...

Okay, Paula, that would actually make a fantastic literary novel. FANTASTIC!