Filing Off the Serial Numbers: Part One
There’s a lot of buzz surrounding E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades” trilogy, an erotic romance series that originated as a “Twilight” fan fiction. Beyond the discussion of the series’ spiciness (too much for some and not enough for others) are the raised eyebrows over the trilogy’s leap from a derivative of a popular series into a popular series in its own right.
I’m not a copyright lawyer, and therefore not an expert in “how much change is enough” to turn a fan fiction into a marketable story. But if you’ve got a hard drive full of fan fiction epics, and are debating following in the footsteps of “Fifty Shades,” here are some things to consider:
Can I create an original setting and still have the story work? Your lead character is a witch? Fine. Your lead character is a teenage witch attending witch school? Okay. Your lead character is a teenage witch attending witch boarding school and wins fame by participating in a witches-only sport played while riding on brooms… If your story falls apart without Quidditch—or any other signature elements of the franchise that inspired it—it’s not going to work outside of fan fiction.
How much can I change the characters and still have the story work? I suspect “Fifty Shades” would have been a harder sell if the romantic lead had remained a vampire—but the central themes could still be conveyed with a human character. This is nothing against vampires and everything about the amount of flexibility a writer would need to change her lead from a direct import of someone else’s character into a unique character in his own right—particularly a character who would logically fit into the new setting. If your tale of star-crossed lovers absolutely demands that the beleaguered couple be giant shape-shifting robots, or if your story is an in depth character study of Captain Kirk and therefore dependent on the personality remaining exactly the same, it might not be possible to make it work outside of fan fiction.
Wait, isn’t this going to involve an insane amount of editing? Yes, yes it is, more than just swapping out every “Mal Reynolds” for a new name of your choice. At this point, you might be asking yourself if it’s worth it, and if you couldn’t write something new in the amount of time it takes you to do that editing.
I can’t answer that. I can’t answer how much passion you feel for the story you’ve written or how much confidence you have in the quality of the end result. I can say that I’ve seen a writer (Christine Morgan) build an excellent novel (“Black Roses”) out of what was originally a fanfiction short story; the novel took the central plot from the fanfiction (a woman gets a supernatural stalker in the form of an incubus, which begins to murder her past lovers and now threatens her current love) and retold it with original characters and expanded details in an original setting. In this case the author’s passion for a plot concept—an idea that was not irrevocably tied to someone else’s characters or world—spawned a strong original story.
Part 2: What if I’m not borrowing from fan fiction, but from real life?