Tuesday, March 20, 2007

From General to Specific

One advice to writers is that there are no new stories -- that we're simply retelling the same tale. Then there's the recent (as much as more than a decade can be called "recent") rise of fan fiction, challenging that adage even more. So are writers, in the end, merely ripping off each other? Or has the human race truly exhausted all the stories that can be told?

I should think not or else people will stop reading new books and simply stick to the "classics". But how can we reconcile the fact that many stories are similar, either in plot, in concept, in the names of their characters, and such?

I don't have all the answers and there's probably more than one. Here's my take on it, however. It's simple really: we move from the general to the specific.

For example, we have the basic story of boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy runs into conflict with girl, and then either boy doesn't end up with girl or he ends up with girl. It's a basic plot that has been done over and over again. What a storyteller does, however, makes the story more specific. What is the name of the boy? Of the girl? Where does the story take place? When? Even why. What does the boy look like? What does the girl look like? In what form does the conflict appear? Who is the boy's relatives and friends? What is his social status? Etc. Merely supplying these details doesn't give you a story but it starts you on the road. The characters get fleshed out, the story gains more texture. It's not simply boy meets girl, it's Carlos Ku meeting Jane Aquino in Starbucks on Halloween and Carlos is in costume while Jane is manning the cash register. My story might be well written or it might be not but there is a transition when it comes to the act of writing, from a general story to a specific event or narrative.

Another example is when we deal with characters (and characters don't have to be people... it can be an event such as 9/11 or a place we all know or recognize, such as The Bermuda Triangle or The Great Wall of China) that people think they're familiar with: it could be an entity from history, a character from myth, or simply works that are now public domain. When I mention the name Hercules, everyone has this image of a strong, muscular man who is the son of Zeus. However, the Hercules from the Disney film is different from the Hercules portrayed by Kevin Sorbo. And they're similarly different from the actual Greek text where Hercules was based from. Kevin Sorbo's Hercules might be more amiable. Disney's Hercules has an antagonistic relationship with Hades. The Greeks's Hercules is flat-out dumb and simple-minded (although he is not without cunning). There are differences between all three Hercules which sets them apart, even if they begin on the same foundation or concept. In fantasy, there are dozens of Arthurian stories (to the point that it has its own sub-genre). But T.H. White's portrayal of King Arthur is different from Marrion Zimmer Bradley's portrayal of the same character. Each will have their own backstory, their own complex network of relationships, their own motivations, their own unique voices. They all might share the same name, the same set of friends, even the same backdrop, yet the reader knows it's as different as they are similar.

And then there's fan-fiction. The concept of fan-fiction isn't new. In fact, it's always been happening: from certain TV episodes we watch to comics we read to books written by different authors yet contained in the same world. Star Trek, for example, was created by Gene Roddenberry yet a lot of people have contributed to the mythos. What makes it different, however, from the fan-fiction we see published on the Internet are two things: 1) First is permission from the owner. Even in today's modern world, the concept of property extending to intangible objects (such as ideas and stories) is incomprehensible to some (because you can't hold it, you can't feel it, you can't grasp it) but it's a reality. It's a law for you to steal my car so why should stealing characters be any different? 2) The second would be respect for the material. True, there are some fan-fiction out there that does respect the canon (in the sense that they are faithful in characterization and plot) but a lot of fan-fiction out there "bends" the characters or situations to suit the author's ends rather than what the original plot or character dictates. Technically of course, you can simply get away with 1) and just because you have 2) doesn't necessarily mean it's not fan-fiction.

The thing with fan-fiction, however, is that it's not simply re-imagining the characters: you're taking a set of specific details which a previous writer owns and using it as your plaything. Of course it's not always as clear-cut as that as is the case of works that have been relegated to public domain. Sherlock Holmes and Chtullu for example have been re-imagined a lot of times even if they were originally the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft respectively. But in the end, it boils down to property and I as a writer don't feel it's right to steal another writer's creation, any more than I would steal the wallet of the guy sitting beside me.

Of course that is to say the craft of fan-fiction writing is not without its merits. A person who manages to pull off 2) for example should be applauded (assuming he or she wrote a great story) because writing such a story is both easier and difficult at the same time. Easier because a lot of the backstory has been done for you, harder because it's already been done for you. One can't kill character X arbritrarily, nor could you make this character do this and that if it was uncharacteristic of them to do so. Another merit is the fact that good writing (the technical skill) is good writing, even if it is unoriginal. (Just because you can write well, however, doesn't necessarily mean that you've come up with a good story.)

A writer, however, always thinks of the question "what if?" In that sense, fan-fiction is a healthy exercise since it requires you to go beyond expectations, to stretch your limits. Publishing fan-fiction, on the other hand, is different. Just because I ponder the methods of how I can rob a bank doesn't mean it is actually ethical of me to do so. And perhaps Brian K Vaughan said it best: "...as a writer you have to give back and write at least one original story for every piece of fan-fiction."

So, if you think there are essentially no new stories to tell, that's not quite accurate. There are infinite possibilities with every story and you as a writer actualizes one of them. You have your own voice, your own way of making the transition from general to specific.

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