Writing Fanfic: Everybody’s Got Opinions, Part 2

Say you’ve looked over the review, and decided you just have someone who Doesn’t Like What You Wrote. This leads to step three: Why are they leaving a bad review? Do they not like the story in general? Something about the quality of your writing? How you portray the characters? Something wrong in the canon details?

When you think about how to reply to a comment like this, you may want to consider if this is a complaint, or someone trying to give constructive criticism but getting the tone horribly wrong. “X character would never act like that!” is a different comment to reply to than, “You showed X character doing this, but in this similar instance in canon X did that instead.” Both of these may be opinions, but with the second one you have a better chance to have an actual conversation. Look for bits of the comment that indicate they engaged with your story. As in, actually read it, as opposed to skimming the summary and deciding to give you a piece of their mind based on events and character portrayals that may not even exist in your work.

Yes, that happens. Part of it may be carelessness, or someone just needing to gripe, or who gets their exercise through vigorous jumping to conclusions. But a lot of it can hinge on plain, ordinary (but not simple) psychology.

People are complicated. Characters are simple. Relatively speaking.

Just as a story is “life with all the boring parts edited out,” so a fictional character is a stripped-down version of the complexity of a real personality. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just the way things have to work when you’re telling a story. There’s not enough room or time to flesh out a character the way RL deals with a person.

On top of that, since we as human beings tell ourselves a “story” of who we are to get through life, we think we’re much less complicated people than we really are. “I am an honest Catholic beat cop with a wife and two lovely daughters,” is a great story-of-self for someone to get by day to day, but it glides over bits like what you really think about each of your coworkers and fellow citizens, the doubts and joys of trying to live a life of faith, and the hidden regret for not chucking it all as a teen and becoming a street busker.

That doesn’t even start to get into the mare’s nest of unconscious motivations psychiatrists try to untangle for their patients. Some people wreck their entire lives for a trauma they can’t even consciously remember. One woman in Barbara Sher’s I Could Do Anything (If Only I Knew What It Was) finally tracked down her manipulative, “everyone must rescue me!” behavior to events that happened to her as a toddler: her mother had cancer, died of it, and her family would physically rip a crying young child off her mother every time they visited in the hospital. That desperate, unmet child’s need shaped her life for decades. If no one in the family had been willing to finally tell her what happened, she might never have figured out why she kept doing things she knew were wrong. Only with that clue could she start fixing herself.

Characters are simplified people. That gives them a lot of “blank space” we can project ourselves on. When we see a reflection of ourselves in a character, good or bad, we’re not neutral toward them. And we can have a hard time objectively reading what actually happens on the page versus what we think should have happened.

IMHO, this tendency shows up most intensely when a reader or writer considers what behavior is in-character and what is hopelessly, hideously OOC. Just look at all the ways people have written Batman over the past decades. From the grim but fair World’s Greatest Detective, to the campy Caped Crusader of the 70s, to that utter travesty of a Punisher-in-a-funny-cowl version in the DC movie versus Superman.

Which is an example right there of when I think a character was written horribly OOC. Evidently Hollywood thought otherwise.

So character can be open to interpretation. One thing that commonly happens in fanfic is a character’s top-note “accent trait” – such as Edward Elric’s temper about being called short, or Batman’s Dark and Grim Attitude – will get turned Up To Eleven. Because that trait resonated with the reader. And yet, in canon, the character isn’t like that all the time. And writing them so they’re not hitting that note every 5 pages isn’t OOC.

Canon details… that can depend. Maybe you missed something. Or maybe not. I once got into a serious argument with a fellow writer about Sekirei that we only cleared up once we realized she was listening to the Japanese version while I was following the dub – and they said very different things. There’s also the problems you run into when you watched the series, but someone else tracked down the author’s website and other extras that explained more of canon. Meaning someone might jump all over you for contradicting canon you didn’t even know existed.

On that note, the fanwriting rule of thumb is, series canon comes first. Extra materials like appendices and author interviews are just that – extra. If you use them, fine. But you’re not violating canon by not using them.

And then there’s always the case where you explicitly put in your author’s notes that you’re AUing that specific bit of canon… and the commenter ignored the notes completely. Not much you can do for that besides facepalm and sigh.

Which is a good rule of thumb for considering how to reply to tetchy reviews in general. First, is the reviewer actually paying attention to what was written, what happened in the story you told? If so, maybe they did spot something you missed. Whether or not you choose to do anything about that is up to you. Your story, you decide if it needs fixing. And second, is the reviewer trying to consider their perspective may not be the same as yours? Are they asking questions, looking for information, rather than just telling you you’re wrong, wrong, wrong? If they’re not paying attention, and they’re not considering alternate perspectives, then you’re up against someone who did not wait before they hit the reply button. They’re reacting, not thinking, to something that made them bristle, for whatever reason. And to paraphrase Jonathan Swift, you cannot reason someone out of a position they were not reasoned into in the first place. A reply might be tempting, but it may not get you anywhere but frustrated.

So. Those are potential pitfalls and frustrations of review replies and the various interpretations of a fandom. The good news is, most readers are definitely there for the Story, and trying in good faith to look at how another fan interprets the beloved characters and setting. Some really cool stuff can come up in reviews! Even inspirations for more stories. And that means everybody wins.

23 thoughts on “Writing Fanfic: Everybody’s Got Opinions, Part 2

  1. A lot of times, commenters just want to say their piece and go, but of course most fanfic sites aren’t like that. Which is both good and bad.

    OTOH, Amazon reviewers. Although more people are getting good at saying explicitly, “This writer did not write the book I wanted him to write” or “This blurb set up expectations in me that are not met in the book, although it was okay as a book.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sites also have different approaches that affect how you can respond to things. FFNet, for example, frames their response area as reviews, directed towards other readers – there’s no smooth system for responding to a particular review. (I’ve completely given up on responding there, to be honest.) AO3, on the other hand, treats the comments – and note that they call them comments – as an open forum for discussion.

      The pluses and minuses tend to depend on what kind of day you’re having, which type of reviewer you’ve gotten, and what sort of fandoms you’re writing in. On a given day. Depending on the phase of the moon.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. *hehe*

        I favor the comment form, because then the work of responding to a “review” can be done by readers, which leaves more time for the writers to write. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thinking about it, most OOC things I notice are from an AU where the main character is significantly different in some way, and those differences don’t propagate out in some way.

    They have the exact same friends and same love interest and get entangled in the plot in the exact same way.

    In a lot of cases I’m not particularly familiar with the original story so I’m left completely confused as to why this “gritty, selfish, only-out-for-myself, always-has-a-plan” character is spontaneously throwing themselves in harms way in a really boneheaded manner.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s called bad writing and it is endemic to fanfiction.

      The real challenge when you’re doing AU work is to figure out how the changes in your character or background affect the plot and the characters relationships with each other and the world. I’ve been getting back into Naruto fanfiction recently and it’s really common there for an AU to revolve around giving Naruto (the main character) some sort of power up…and then have everyone treat him the exact same way as they did in the manga and to follow the stations of canon up until Naruto gets a chance to be awesome and change how things went…and then nothing changes save that Naruto got to play the hero only for no one to acknowledge it outside of maybe a pat on the head and a “good job” in the moment.

      The good ones – which all seem to die on the vine sadly – actually think through the changes and while they may start from the same place for the sake of convenience will actually have the changes propagate out and change how the characters interact with one another and the surrounding world. Sometimes going off in wildly different directions than in canon, but remaining within the realms of their potential development paths at the time the changes started happening.

      Like

      1. The thing about bad writing is, it takes something like 10,000 hours of practice – or ~20 hours a week for 10 years – to git gud enough to be competitive in a field that has no end of hopefuls and wannabes. This is true for chess, writing, Starcraft 2 tournaments, and many many other fields of human endeavor. People who are good enough with writing tend to try to go professional.

        (I know I’ve got Louise glaring at me in the back of my head, since most of my wordage these days is for original content attempts, and I’m honestly not quite gud enough yet.)

        -Albert

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Personally, if I don’t like the way the characterization is done in a story, I’m far more likely to think, ‘well, that’s a wash’ and duck out of the story. Sometimes even duck out on the author, if it’s particularly egregious.

    The really annoying thing, for me at least, are when the story is great, the characters are decent, I like how it’s going…and then they jump genres and decide that this great, plotty story with lots of family development needs to be a terrible rom-com. I had a story do that once and got so disgusted I pretty much dumped it like a hot rock. Really annoying, because until the single-dad-character got a new girlfriend, it had a ton of promise.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Yeah, I rarely bother leaving reviews for those, just drop them.

    I particularly have trouble swallowing fics that pair people who canonically pair off with people a & b, pair up with each other instead. It’s hard to make that In Character for a reader like me, since obviously the IC thing is pair off with the canon pairing. It’s a lot easier to swallow of the canon person is somehow not there due to ‘things’ that make this AU. Mostly, though, of those I’ve looked at the writers don’t bother making enough changes to have it be plausible.

    I suppose I can give a pass to the cases where \you look at the canon pairing -as many Potterverse writers do with Hermione & Ron – and go “huh”? And are up front about it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rowling originally had Ron being a fairly clever guy, who was good at chess and at tactical/strategic games. Logically, he should have been developed into the “military thinker” of the three friends. And then, it wouldn’t have been surprising that Hermione would fall for such a clever, clever guy.

      But I think Rowling had trouble thinking tactically or strategically, and therefore had trouble making Ron do clever tactics or strategies. So Ron pretty much was a wasted character for most of the books, instead of being Miles Vorkosigan with a magic wand and red hair.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Depends on the kind of magic.

        Takeways:

        Past my bedtime, and I’ve kinda spent the day a little sick, recovering from the week.

        A original fic, taking the design goals implied by early Potter, and doing them properly, would be interesting. Would also be loads of work, everyone would know that it is derivative, and it somehow feels like it isn’t the sort of problem that can motivate me.

        I’ve been collecting random notes for a FGO fic, that is a series of singularities drawing from old western science fiction. 1. Gregor Vorbarra requests and requires Auditor Vorkosaigon go deal with this singularity grail war thing. 2. Next thought, having all the Time of Isolation great men show up on modern Barrayar would be a lot of OCs, and probably boring. 3. Ivan is a diplomat now, and could wind up stationed on Earth. 4. Singularity shows up on Earth, and Piotr gets summoned somehow. 5. Cue message sent back to Barrayar, for help. 6. Yeah, I don’t see that it fits my vague sense of plot for the bigger thing, but it goes in the stack of random ideas anyway.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. You know… in some ways, Cormoran Strike is the “military thinker,” although he is mostly a tactics guy. (Rowling got a lot of help to make him realistic.) He also has some of the Ron issues with being poor. And Robin Ellacott is sort of a self-insert, sort of the lost potential of Ginny, and also her own character; but she also deals with some of the issues of lacking money.

        Rowling’s not a one-trick pony; but as with Bujold, there are times when you can see improvement in areas that got sloughed over before.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Hillariously, Hermione/Ron is the most common canon ship on Ao3 in the Harry Potter fandom. Harry/Draco has over double the amount of fics. So it must have have had enough raw potential for the fandom to want to pick it up and run with it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hermione/Ron stories are overwhelmingly about Hermione breaking up with Ron, Ron being violent with Hermione, Hermione finding someone else, etc. Not every story, but that is the usual meaning of the marker unless they are still in school, or unless it is a heartwarming Weasley visit with the Potters.

        Liked by 1 person

    3. For me, it’s kinda the opposite. “Why should I think it’s more IC for them to pair off like in canon, when everything has happened differently here, including especially in the areas that would potentially have been important factors in the canon development of the pairing?” It’s like time-travel stories where the time-travellers are blatantly changing stuff right and left, and yet you still have all the “stations of canon” happening without even cosmetic differences to them. It just doesn’t make sense.

      Now, I’ll agree, if the differences between what happens in a particular story and what happened in canon _don’t_ affect things that are likely to have been factors in the canon pairing, then yeah, the canon pairing still makes sense. But still, it’s not “the pairing makes sense because it was the canon pairing”, it is instead “the pairing makes sense for the same reason it did in canon, since those reasons are still the same as in canon.”

      Of course, as you mentioned with Hermione and Ron, “and if the canon pairing didn’t make sense, and nothing has changed that would suddenly make it make sense, then the canon pairing still doesn’t make sense and the pairing should probably not be what canon did.” But again, that’s still dependent on things other than “because it was/wasn’t canon”, just like all the rest of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have always been a little bewildered by people who start plotting AUs with the explicit goal of “How do I keep X, Y, and Z the same as in canon?”

        On the other hand, I have also tried to plot them and unless I start at point F and just don’t worry about too much that was revealed afterward (or for particularly sprawling canons, too much that I merely found out about afterward), I do find that a lot of stuff intrudes even if I didn’t want to deal with it, because this person is logically still pursuing the same goals or whatnot… and then those other people are still stuck in a bad situation that I don’t want to leave them in just because I wrote out the events that canonically led to getting them out of it…

        …That should at least produce cosmetic differences, though.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I wasn’t even mentioning those (it actually _can_ be an interesting writing exercise to try to figure out “how can I make it realistic that X changes, but Y and Z still end up happening the same way”). I was talking about the ones where they just don’t think about it. “Ok, canon had this next, so my story will too (ignoring anything that’s already happened in my story that would have prevented it, like the character that did the thing in canon having already been killed off in this fic).”

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m bad at leaving comments, a lot of times because I’m overfocusing on a certain character and just need to move on to the next fic. Always end up feeling guilty when I finish binging but by then the impressions of the separate fics blend together so it’s hard to go back.
    The first fic I managed to was Embers, think that says something about how much I love your writing. 😊

    My current focus-character is Nie Huiasang so have one on me. “A lamb in wolf’s clothing” by Ibijau – a post-canon fic were everyone was wrong and NHS didn’t orcestrate anything and just was exactly the kind of person he appeared to be.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think that it also depends on how or what the commenter views as the moral of the story. For example, my brother and I have different views on BNHA.
    He thinks that the main theme of the story (anime version) is about i/why/i people become heroes, whereas I think the main theme is i/what/I makes a hero. Of course, this means that he thinks that AM was right to give Izuku AfO, whereas I feel as though that particular decision cheapens the victories that Izuku has… (Also everytime I think too hard about the society BNHA sets up I just… *shudder*)

    Liked by 1 person

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