“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare
Wow, Bill, you have no idea how ahead of your time you were. I know it must be hard to believe, but hundreds of years after you made this insightful observation through Juliet’s words, some people still don’t get it.
Why, just a few weeks ago, the writing community outed one of its own (a treasurer of a Romance Writers of America chapter, no less) for plagiarism. How did she think she’d get away with it, you ask? She changed the characters’ names and geographical details.
But changing names isn’t enough to make a something unique, is it, Bill? Just as roses are known by their smell, characters are known by their actions, beliefs, and attitudes. If their core essence hasn’t changed, they’re still the same person on the inside.
*sigh* Thanks, buddy. I knew you’d understand.
Plagiarism and “Plagiarism Lite”
Fan fiction (fanfic) is one of those gray areas of plagiarism (which is already pretty gray as it is). Most members of the fanfic community appreciate that the original authors are letting them “play in their sandbox” of characters and world-building.
The problem comes when some fanfic authors choose to sell their fanfic writings. They’ll change superficial things, those character or place names, and think they’ve gotten around the plagiarism issue by “creating” new characters.
But if the “changing names” excuse doesn’t work for outright, blatant plagiarism, why would it work for “plagiarism lite”—publishing fanfic without a major overhaul to remove all semblance of the original author’s characters and world-building?
Simple answer: It doesn’t.
What “Creating a Character” Really Means
In my last post about the ethics of fan fiction, some of the comments from the fanfic community didn’t understand this point. Most (if not all) of those commenters seemed to be readers, not writers. And that makes sense. Readers don’t know what goes into making a fully-formed, three-dimensional, non-cardboard character.
Characters—good characters—go much deeper than their job, their human/non-human status, their name, number of siblings, where they live, etc. Real characters are born out of their history, family background, worldview, religious beliefs, moral code, self-image, self-delusions, strengths, flaws, goals, etc. They aren’t puppets fulfilling our goals for a plot.
Most fanfic stories—no matter how out-of-character the characters might act—still intend for their characters to evoke those of the original author. While superficial details might be different (especially if it’s an “alternate universe” fanfic story), most of those things I listed above would be similar to the original. In other words, not a unique character.
So while readers might look at the superficial level of characterization and say, “Yep, they changed xyz, so they’re not the same anymore,” authors look at those differences and know that superficial characteristics are the least important aspects to a character. Changing those superficial details alone isn’t enough to avoid ethical or plagiarism issues in regards to stealing characters.
Unique Characters Are Unique to Their Core
A fanfic author can’t have it both ways. Either the characters are meant to evoke those characters belonging to someone else, or they aren’t.
The problem compounds because some fanfic authors think they’ve made the characters their own by having “their version” of the original characters. But creating characters from scratch is very different than inviting someone else’s characters into your head and hearing their accent change slightly after they’ve lived there for a while.
The characters in a former fanfic story ready for publication shouldn’t be anyone’s “version” of any other characters but theirs. The only way to make a character truly unique is to change their core essence, those deep elements behind all people, not just fictional characters.
Protagonists Aren’t Interchangeable
Changing the core essence of characters in a story brings up another problem. A character who’s different on the inside would react and act differently to plot events. And in a domino effect, a changed “cause” would create a changed “effect” and so on down the plot line.
As giselle-lx commented in the last post:
“If you drop a completely different character into your story and nothing changes, something is wrong with the story.”
One of my favorite bloggers, Janice Hardy, has a fantastic post about making the stakes match the protagonist:
- If the protagonist walked away, what would change? (Because the plot needs them to continue is not a good answer—low to zero stakes there.)
- If the sidekick stepped into the protagonist’s slot, what would change? (This checks for whether the stakes are personal.)
- What does your protagonist lose if they walk away? (If they have nothing to lose, the story has low-to-zero stakes.)
Good fiction isn’t just about “and then this happened,” but about why is it happening now and why with this particular protagonist. The stakes should be specific to them.
Why Subtext Is Key for Unique Characters
In school, we learned how to draw conclusions about characters from their actions. What is another word for “reading between the lines”? Subtext. A huge percentage of what makes up a character exists only in subtext. And the elements revealed in that percentage determine who a character really is, not the superficial stuff.
Characters are much deeper than readers realize because subtext registers subconsciously. So readers don’t consciously recognize what all goes into their understanding of a character. They might describe a character as being a “good” person, but when asked why they think that, they might say, “I just got that sense from them.” That’s subconscious subtext at work.
Good writers understand this and try to grasp a basic level of psychology to explore those depths. The blog The Character Therapist is a good place for writers to go for help in developing the psychology of their characters.
Writers of all types—fanfic or otherwise—can analyze the superficial aspects of their characters and learn about their core essence:
- Why do they do “x”?
- What does that say about them as a person?
- Are they aware of that aspect of themselves?
- Do they like that aspect? Why?
- Do they try to hide it? Why?
The answers to those questions are infinite times more important than the superficial details behind them.
Other Pitfalls in Turning Fanfic into Publishable Stories
Commenter tulchulcha brought up a chilling point to all those fanfic authors hoping to cash in:
“[F]anfiction can’t be copyrighted.”
As soon as a fanfic author posts work on a fanfic venue, they are declaring that they don’t own it. If they want to later claim that’s it’s not really fanfic because of a, b, c, it’s too late. Significant story and character changes (certainly beyond those “name changes” that don’t prevent charges of plagiarism) would be necessary to ensure they could invoke copyright law after knowingly giving it up before.
Fanfic authors need to recognize the risks in publishing previously free fanfic: original author rights, lack of copyright for fanfic, disgruntled readers who don’t want to pay for something that used to be free, etc. Pissing off the original author or their old readers or their new readers is bad business in the long run.
Don’t be tempted by the quick buck. The number of authors who debuted huge? Very small. The number of authors who debuted huge and were able to maintain that level of success? Almost zero.
(Note: I apologize to those who were too intimidated by the drama in the comments of my last post to speak their mind. While I certainly welcome everyone to read and comment on my blog, I didn’t expect the Twilight fandom to
invade—er—visit because I hadn’t reached out or linked to that community. And yes, much of this post was taken from my comments there, but the 7500+ words I typed in the comments on Tuesday should be good for something, right? *smile*)
What tips do you have for ensuring that a character is unique? Do you agree with the importance of a character’s core essence? Or do you think superficial aspects are enough? What’s your take on how subtext creates characters? Did you have something to say about the ethical issue brought up in the last post and you’d rather discuss it here? (I don’t blame you. *smile*)Pin It