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Transitioning from Writing Fanfiction to Writing Original Fiction

We received the following ask anonymously on Tumblr:

I loved your “what is a story” post! Aside from structuring stories, are there any other things you think writers shifting from fanfic to original works tend to struggle with, or would do well to keep in mind?

Hey anon! I’m sorry this has taken me so long to reply, but it’s such a big question, it required a big answer. Especially, it’s a challenge to address because, as a creation medium, “fanfic” is far from a monolith. From a “how hard might a transition to writing original content be” standpoint, there’s a huge range – from people who write canon-compliant short stories coda stories that feel like they’re a living, breathing part of the source world, all the way through people who write epic million word AU stories about their own OCs who maybe at most tangentially interact with canon. Some people see writing fanfiction as “canon, the whole canon, and nothing but the canon,” while others see the original media as a jumping off point to play with other settings, tropes, archetypes, and story elements (“canon? I love canon! It makes a lovely whooshing sound as I fly on by…”). What a fanfiction author prefers to write, to some extent, influences what challenges they’ll face when they try to transition. 

For those who specialize in “all canon,” their strengths will often lie in research, analysis, understanding metatextual themes, and finding holes or gaps to fill with new content. They’ll likely be weaker in world building and character creation.

For those who specialize in “what canon?”, their strengths will often lie in world building, character development, and recognizing tropes and archetypes and reapplying them to new settings. They’ll likely be weaker in analysis and recognizing plot holes.

These are obviously generalizations; an “all canon” author who does, for example, post-canon or uses OCs, might have lots of experience with world building or character creation. A “what canon?” author who, for example, writes historical works or field-specific ones (eg, a super detailed hospital AU) might be fantastic at research. And, further, hardly any author will be 100% one or the other; most writers will fall somewhere in between those extremes, writing some pieces that are canon, some that are AUs, some where they try to write the character IC-to-a-tee, some where they go “OOC is the new IC!” 

Regardless of where a given writer falls on this scale (from “all canon, all the time” through “canon? what canon?”), the best two things any writer can do are: write more and read more. Especially, focus on reading (note this doesn’t have to mean literally “read a book,” it can be, “watch a show,” or “read a comic,” or “listen to a podfic”) original stories you enjoy, and engage with them “like a writer” (how to do that could stand to have a full post written about it, and doing so is on my list…). Look at how the author(s)/creator(s) use language, what the features of their world and characters are, how their plot is structured and paced, all the elements of the story. If it’s too much to take in at once, read multiple times and focus on one thing each time. You need to learn to recognize tropes and character traits, to see them and interpret them and understand that any given story is simply an assemblage of these features, and you can take the ones you like, discard the ones you don’t, and recombine them in infinite ways to tell any story you want. Take notes as you read – scrawl down tropes you recognize, character features that engage you, plot elements. 

Having trouble? Try to tag the work like you’d tag an AO3 story, if you’re having trouble recognizing tropes and how to subvert them.

Would you tag it “angst with a happy ending?” “Emotional hurt/comfort?” “Mutual pining?” Congratulations, you’ve found tropes. 

“Engineer!Character?” or “Character Needs to Learn to Use Their Words” or “Character is a Bad Parent” or “Asexual Character?” Congratulations, you’ve found character features, traits, and archetypes.

“Slow burn,” “getting together,” reunions,” “arranged marriage,” hey look, it’s a whole bunch of plot elements!

Learn to recognize tropes, and see how different creators use them and subvert them, will also help you see that when you write fanfiction you already do all the things necessary to create and write an original story

It can help to take a step back and consider your own oeuvre. What kinds of works have you already done? Which pieces have you pushed yourself on? What do you feel your strength is? Write more. Read more. Read posts like this one – there are so, so, so many excellent writing resources on the internet. And, when you write your own work, experiment with different approaches – learn about yourself as a writer. What time of day do you work best? Does outlining help you? Do you need an alpha reader to help keep you motivated? Grow your experience by writing – any writing – and get a handle on what works best for you.

Still at a loss where to start? Read on…


Worldbuilding

Every world, whether it’s high fantasy, hardcore space opera, or modern contemporary, will require worldbuilding. Worldbuilding isn’t just the big, universal questions like: “how does the magic/science work, where are the cities located, how do people live?” Worldbuilding is also: “what does the corporation where they work look like, what is in the characters’ neighborhood, what are the places and things that will need to exist to make the story idea function?” You don’t need to treat this as “all the biggest stuff,” and I guarantee that, as a fanfiction writer, you’ve done worldbuilding – even if all you write is 1k coda fics. You may cut some corners, relying on context, on the “big stuff,” but the small stuff still needs to be in a story or it won’t make sense. What works in fanfiction, by and large, is the same as what works in original fiction. You should never be leading your reader through a lovingly crafted description of the surroundings/magic system/neighborhood/space ship while the plot languishes. You never need to have all the details up front.. If you’re a planner, go for it, plan the minutiae! But if you’re a plantser or panster, don’t feel you need to transform magically into a planner just to write original fic! You don’t. I’m a plantser. It’s fine.

You can often assume a reader will know what’s going on (even if they won’t!), especially if the character would know what’s going on. Weaving information into a story isn’t a “thing you don’t do in fanfic” – improving your writing in fanfiction will teach you how to do this as surely as writing original fic would. The writing itself isn’t different. Drop a reader in, and introduce them to elements as you go. 

Introduce elements gradually, avoid info dumps, make sure the characters act like…this is just the world…they’re not going to (for example) explain things in detail if they’re eminently familiar with them. Use all the same tools you’d use when writing fanfic. Indeed, I think one of the biggest challenges a fanfic author will face isn’t “how do I worldbuild?” but rather, learning how to do consciously and intentionally something that they’ve surely been doing all along, because no story can be done without worldbuilding! 

Thus, we circle back to “read your own work and the work of others and see what you’ve done and what others have done.” Force yourself to see that you do worldbuilding when you describe their surroundings, when you introduce story elements, when you say what they’re wearing. All the details that make your fanfiction rich and vibrant are worldbuilding. You build the world around the characters – whether they’re canon or OC – and then they interact with it to tell your story!

(Now, all that said, if you’re like, “that’s all well and good but how do I even start when I want to create a whole new world?” There are a lot of good articles on that; I’m personally partial to this list of questions by Patricia C. Wrede.)


Character Design

You create a character every time you write. Yes, if you’re creating fanfiction, that character already exists in some form, but you’re still creating: you’re deciding, in the context of your fanfic, what aspects of that character you want to explore, what behaviors of theirs you want to highlight, what things they do you’d rather ignore. You dictate their actions, decide how they’re established canon behavior applies to the unique and different circumstances you are exposing them to be. This is true even if the story is “all canon;” that said, the more AU a story is, the more likely the characters are to be essentially “original characters in a mask” – yeah, you might be using the names from canon, but when all is said and done what you actually are writing about is a new character, featuring the archetypes you chose from the base character and manipulated into a new environment. AUs change character ages, professions, surroundings, backstory, appearance, species, gender, sexuality, family, birthplace, native language, ethnicity, religion, intelligence, presentation type, I could go on…when you make them from Ancient Greece instead of modern America, when you decide they’re a half-octopus, when you say “oh, they’re ace,” when you go, “what if they were trans,” when you think, “I’m really in the mood for some pwp A/B/O…” you’re creating new character with aspects of the original character. The goal is often to keep them “enough like” the original character to be recognizable, but that doesn’t change that, in many AUs (and sometimes even in canon fics!), if the character names were swapped out with a find-and-replace, a reader coming in would be hard-pressed to recognize the source material. They might even guess the wrong ship (this sounds just like a Stucky story! they say, while you know it actually started as Destiel).

This is because characters are composed of archetypes and personality traits. They’re aggressive, they’re shy, they’re brave, they’re risk-averse, they’re selfish, they’re a martyr, there’s a huge menu of options, and any given character is rarely black or white…and when you decide how to portray a canon character in your fic, you’re automatically, often without thinking about it consciously, saying, “these are the archetypes and personality traits I want to focus on, these are the ones that’ll be paramount for this iteration of this character, the others won’t come up.”

So, much like worldbuilding, the concern you have when you transition to original fic shouldn’t be, “I’ve never had to make a character WHAT DO?” it should be, “I’ve been making and modifying characters all along, how do I bring myself to do intentionally what I’ve been doing anyway?”

I’ll give you one guess what the answer is, ha. Also, yet again, there are a lot of resources to help an author learn to do this “on purpose.” A Google Image Search for “character design writing sheet” turns up zillions of results, for example – look through, try a few, see what works for you, make some characters just for fun!

If you’re really struggling, try using one of those sheets to write up different “versions” of the same character you’ve written in multiple fanfics. Like, pick a canon fic you’ve written, and make a sheet for the main canon character, then pick an AU you’ve written, and make a sheet for that same canon character. You’ll notice pretty quickly that they each write up differently – they’ve got different goals, different motivations, different ways they react, even though they’re the “same” character. Pick the two “most different” versions you’ve written of that character, and compare, and it’ll start to be pretty clear: you’ve been making characters all along, so just…keep at it.


General Concept/Plot

“But what story should I tell?” can be a tough question to answer, especially for fanfiction authors who usually write shorter pieces, inserts, codas, and the like. The first thing to remember is…there’s no reason you should tell different kinds of stories! You can write a 2k fluffy meet cute between OCs. Not every original fic needs to be a 500k epic fantasy world saving adventure. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t write exactly the same kinds of stories. Yes, you’re not going to write a “fix it” or a coda for your OCs, but you can absolutely write “moment between” original pieces. You can write drabbles. You can write shorts, novellas, pwp, anything.

However, if you want something more involved…I think you’re starting to get the gist here but I’ll reiterate one last time…look at your source canon material and at the fanfiction you’ve been writing. What were the story elements you chose to incorporate when you made your transformative piece? What do you love about that source material that you’d like to emulate? Do you enjoy a good mystery? Do you like the agonizing drag of slow burn? Do you crave that “I COULD JUST SMACK THEM BOTH” of idiots to lovers? Do you want historical drama, political machinations, high adventure, space battles? Consider what story elements drew you to that fandom, what about it made you go, “THAT’S the one I want to write for!” Consider which story elements you most enjoy playing with when you write fanfiction. Then…do more of that. If you love a good plot twist, or an air of horror, or BDSM, or, or, or…that’s a good start for figuring out what story to tell. 

It doesn’t have to be what you’ve written the most of, to be clear – but absolutely it should be something you love and want to emulate. If you don’t love it, what’s the point in writing it?

Figuring out what story you want to tell with OCs isn’t magically different than figuring out what story you want to tell for fanfiction. Your best bet, truly, is to go about things using exactly the same strategy you use for fanfiction. If it helps, you can even plot it using fic characters – pretend it’s an AU, figure out the story you’d tell with canon characters in that AU. If you’re playing with archetypes as discussed above (spoilers: you are), and you’ve put together a world for them to play in, creating a story to tell in an AU using “established” characters is exactly the same as writing original work, except you give them different names, and you don’t throw in random references to canon or quotes that insiders will get.


The biggest mistake most writers make when they transition from fanfiction writing to original fiction writing is treating original fiction as some ineffably Different And Unique And New form of writing. It’s not. A good original fic and a good fanfic will have many, many elements in common (YES, even if the fanfic is set in the canon verse!).

The best advice I can give, honestly?

Do exactly what you’d do when you sit down to conceptualize a new fanfic, but every time you hit up against “Oh I can’t have them say that, that’d be OOC,” or “Oh, I can’t make that happen, that technology/magic doesn’t exist in that world,” or “Oh, I’m going to have to change that, there’s no canon character that makes sense for a role like that,” you can go “OH WAIT THIS IS ORIGINAL I DO WHAT I WANT!” and you make that thing you want them to say be IC for them, you change the technology/magic/whatever so what you need exists, you create a character that’ll fit that role.

Fanfic or original fic, the story is always your sandbox.

Now – go build some castles!


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