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Fanfiction is an underground pop-culture tradition that dates from the late 1960s, if not earlier, when authors would put together self-published fanzines of stories based on Star Trek. With the advent of the World Wide Web, fanfiction has exploded in popularity, and a wide variety of it is available for dozens of genres and hundreds of fandoms.
As a novice fanfic writer, it took me a while to learn the ropes of the medium, its customs, and its protocols. Some of what I learned was general information, pertaining to fanfiction as a whole, while some things were specific to a certain fandom or two. For the sake of this article (and this site), I will focus on Final Fantasy VII when discussing specifics.
As I've stated earlier, fanfiction is diverse and varied. Yet while there are some excellent fanfics available, many fan-authors agree that there's also a large number of works that are excruciatingly bad.
Well, you may be wondering, just what is so bad about these fanfics? And how does one tell a good fanfic from a bad one?
The second question is a bit easier to answer: what separates "goodfic" from "badfic" is general overall quality. A good fanfic will be enjoyable and may even display a spark of originality. In contrast, a bad fanfic will have you scratching your head by the end, wondering why you chose to waste your time-- that is, if you bothered to finish reading it at all.
Now, what makes a fanfic bad? There are a staggering amount of things which are the bane of a number of readers; many of whom, I might add, are fanfiction writers themselves. Some of these are nitpicky elements which are particular to one or two readers, but there are certain other things which are despised by many.
What follows is a general guide for fanfiction writing, with advice for writing good fanfic, as well as things you want to avoid so you don't wind up with bad fanfic.
Let's start at the very beginning: to write a story of any kind, you need a plot. Of course, you need characters and a setting as well, but this being fanfiction, such things are typically predetermined. On a similar note, your fanfic's genre will largely depend on whatever plot you're writing. There are a great number of potential stories within the Final Fantasy VII world; it's simply a matter of coming up with the one that you most want to write.
In coming up with a plot, a typical starting point is to establish some sort of conflict which the characters must resolve (note that "conflict" in this context doesn't necessarily mean a struggle, but rather something that motivates the characters and/or shapes the action). If you're writing an epic, especially one with branching storylines, you may want to use multiple small conflicts that intertwine and feed into a single, central one. If you'd like some practice in coming up with plots, then a good excercise for fanfic writers of all experience levels are "challenges". Challenges are story requests which are generally tossed out in fanfic writing/discussion communities. The criteria for a particular challenge is usually minimal; a character or two is given, along with a setting, and perhaps a prop or a phrase to be incorporated. Here is an example of a challenge: write a story with Yuffie and Cloud that takes place in Costa del Sol, and somehow involves a surfboard.
Before writing your fanfic, take great care while brainstorming your plot. There are many plots and plot elements that are in common usage among Final Fantasy VII fanfic authors, and for an avid fanfiction reader, seeing multiple variations on the same half-dozen basic plots can be rather irritating. To be fair, not every fanfic writer knows about every type of story that exists, but it couldn't hurt to read other fics beforehand just to get an idea of what others are doing. Also, keep in mind that there are some fanfics that take clichéd and overdone ideas and turn them into something very original, but these types of fics are rarities and work best in the hands of a skilled writer.
By way of example, here are some plots and plot elements which are common in Final Fantasy VII fanfics: Aeris is resurrected, Reeve restarts/becomes President of Shinra after Meteor, reworkings of FF7's story, Tseng becoming Rufus' bodyguard, etc. There's many others; just start reading FF7 fic and you'll soon see the patterns emerge.
Now that you know what your story's going to be about, there's one thing which you must be aware of at all times while writing your piece, an element which is especially important when it comes to fanfiction. This element is "canon", and going against it without warning is a major pet peeve of many a fanfic reader. What is canon? It's the established facts about the original work's characters (including personalities), world, and other important elements. With some fandoms (like Pokémon and Sonic the Hedgehog), there are multiple versions of canon; fortunately, FF7's canon exists in one single version that contains very few inherent contradictions (Aeris' childhood relationship to Tseng being a prime example of the latter). What this means is that, compared to other fandoms, it's rather easy to adhere to certain facts of FF7.
But, you might protest, I don't want to have to replay the game just to check what number tattoo the guy in the pipe has. Isn't there an easier way to fact-check?
Of course there is. You have this site, the FF7 Citadel, right in front of you-- one of the best resources of its kind on the internet. In particular, I highly recommend Little Chiba's transcription of the FF7 script, readily available in the Game Information section. It contains the entire script of the game, including the full dialogue from all of the sidequests.
One thing to keep in mind is that, while following and adhering to canon is certainly important, it's not the be-all and end-all of fanfic writing. There's a genre of fanfiction called "Alternate Universe" (or "AU" for short), wherein an author takes a canon world and reworks it to their own vision. AU fanfics are definitely acceptable in many a fandom, but an author must remember to mark their fic as AU if they don't want numerous irate readers on their hands. As a side note, in many fandoms, marking a fic as "yaoi" or "yuri" automatically implies the presence of AU elements, but it is possible (under certain circumstances) to write such fanfics without violating canon. Many script-style humor fanfics can also be considered AU without having to label them as such.
A final word to the wise about canon in regards to FF7: There's a lot in the game which is never told to you or explained (the hometowns of the Turks, for instance), which the fanfic author is free to invent as they see fit. For this reason, one must never confuse fan-invented content with that originating in canon. When used frequently enough, such fan inventions become known as "fanon", which sometimes get mistaken for canon facts. If you intend to write FF7 fic, please be aware of the differences.
For many an author, characterization may take presidence over plot as the meat of their story. Strongly-defined characters can drive a tale forward and shape the plot, even in epic-length fics. Characterization can also be a great creative tool to use to your advantage, especially with those characters whom we don't know much about at all-- Cloud's mom, Seto, and President Shinra, just to name a few examples.
The most important advice I can give in regards to this topic is to know the characters that you're writing, backward and forward, whether you're closely adhering to canon or not. Imagine having a conversation with them. Picture their mannerisms in your head, and think about how these little quirks define their personality. And above all, don't make your characters one-sided, or a caricature of themselves. Real people are complex and nuanced, not simple or "flat", and truly believable characters are the same way.
In conjuring your plot, you may want to invent original characters to add some diversity to the story. Original characters can be wonderful things, and can sometimes be as richly drawn as the established cast from the game. However, there is one notable pitfall fanfic writers are encouraged to avoid when writing an orignal character (or "OC"): The Mary-Sue, also known as the Marty-Stu (for guys) or the self-insert.
Mary-Sues are original characters, usually with a lead role, that many a fanfic reader find dull and/or annoying for some (or all) of the following reasons:
-They're incredibly talented, even moreso than the strongest, smartest, and/or most skilled characters in the canon.
-They're unbelievably beautiful and/or ruggedly handsome, and their looks are described with lots of adjectives ("silky raven black hair", "cherry red lips", etc.).
-They somehow cause the canon characters to break out of their canonical personalities, making them act OOC ("Out Of Character"). This is especially true if the Mary-Sue's love interest is a canon character, such as Sephiroth.
-They have an unusual origin. In the case of an FF7 Mary-Sue, this usually means being a descendant of the Ancients, an elite member of SOLIDER, etc.
-They have a tragic past. This could be anything from being raped as a child to witnessing a loved one die a horrible death.
Mary-Sues and their ilk are annoying because they are usually just thinly-veiled projections of what the authors themselves. Granted, there are canon characters that have one or two of the traits I listed above (Aeris, Sephiroth, etc.), but they are also usually more complex and flawed than your average Mary-Sue.
Now that you have a plot, and are familiar with the characters, you should start taking notes. Of course, this is less important with short stories than with long, epic fanfics, where little details can get lost and forgotten if they aren't written down in an outline. Not all epic fanfic authors take notes, but for me, it's an invaluable part of the writing process. I highly recommend taking plenty of notes-- both before and during the actual writing of the fic-- if you plan on doing an epic.
All stories consist of three basic parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. A more technical way to think of this is: introduction, conflict, and resolution.
Introduction: The first part of your story should introduce the setting (in other words, the time and place), as well as the main characters. This is a great time to establish your characters' personalities by showing what they're like on a regular basis. Then, toward the end of this introduction, the conflict (or plot) comes in.
Conflict: The characters have a problem, or they embark on an adventure, or something happens which changes their way of life. This section of the story is typically the largest one of all, and can involve many layers. An example of a multilayered conflict from FF7 would be the effort to rescue Aeris from the Shinra Building. This plotline leads into Jenova's escape, and President Shinra's death at the hands of Sephiroth. Once all plotlines are ready to be wrapped up, it's time for the...
Resolution: Your characters have embarked on their adventures, and are now ready to take care of the source of their conflict for once and for all.
Something that one must keep in mind is that it's generally better to have an ending (resolution) in mind when you first start writing your fanfic. Not only does it motivate you in that it gives you something to work toward, but it also helps to keep your writing focused.
Writing styles are what separate fanfiction authors from each other, and can vary depending on a number of factors (length, genre, etc.). While it is important to have a consistent writing style throughout your work, it's not the sort of thing which you want to concentrate heavily on. If you know your characters and your plot, then your style should manifest itself naturally. Concentrating too hard on coming up with a cool, impressive, and/or unique writing style will adversely affect your work. This does not mean that you shouldn't be picky with what words you choose, or how you phrase things. On the contrary, you should be aware of such details at all times, but you should think of them in terms of good and consistent writing, and not necessarily style.
Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation
With all the pieces in place, you can finally start buckling down and write your fic. However, be sure to keep in mind all the rules of grammar for the language you are writing in, including proper spelling and punctuation. Avoid "chatspeak" and emoticons whenever possible, and try to make your dialogue and writing seem natural. If you're ever unsure about how a passage looks, read it out loud; this is a good way to tell whether or not the "flow" of your story is working.
I might add that out of all of the problems that occur with fanfiction, improper grammar, spelling, and punctuation are three of the most commonly voiced complaints. There are many online tutorials that go into sentence structure, proper use of punctuation, and other such issues; if you feel that you need to brush up on your grammar, do a search on Google for such sites.
Editing and Revising
Once you have written the first draft of your work, step back from it and let it sit for awhile. Read it over a week later and see if there's any changes that need to be made, then go ahead and make them. It's also a very good idea to give a copy of your first draft to someone else so they can look it over. A second set of eyes can be very useful in that they can catch errors that you might have otherwise overlooked.
Summaries, Warnings, and Ratings
Finally, you're ready to post your fanfic on the internet, or submit it to a fanfiction archive. If you're posting the work on your own site or an "open" archive like Fanfiction.net, it's a very good idea to include various details in the summary of your work, such as the main characters of your story, a quick description of the plot (or only a hint, if you don't wish to give away the whole thing), any romantic pairings (if applicable), and whether the story contains anything which your readers may find offensive (such as graphic sex scenes, extreme violence, or gratuitous swearing). The latter notes are known as "warnings", and are highly recommended if your fanfic contains material that might be offensive; this is especially true for fanfics containing sex scenes and/or homosexual romance. Keep in mind that offensive elements are a turnoff for many readers, and may even prevent your fanfiction from being archived on certain sites.
Speaking of which, some archives (such as the Citadel) include a rating system that serves as a guideline for what sort of material a fanfic contains. The types of ratings used vary from site to site, but there are usually very clear distinctions made between fanfics that are appropriate for a general audience, and those which are for adult readers.
If you want to submit a fanfic to the Citadel, you may be curious to know what "offensive material" we find inappropriate. In general, graphic sex and extreme violence is considered unacceptable. However, you may be interested to know that non-graphic yaoi (male/male) and yuri (female/female) fanfics are okay (at least as long as I'm Webmaster).
Well, there you have it; a basic guide to writing fanfiction. If you'd like to know more, or would just like to browse some interesting fanfiction-related sites, here are some of my favorite links:
The Final Fantasy VII Citadel
The Final Fantasy Wiki - An open-source encyclopedia of everything Final Fantasy. Disclaimer: I run this site as well.
Behind the Name - A great resource if you're looking for the perfect name for your original character. Also check out their spinoff site dedicated to surnames.
Dictionary.com - Along with its companion, Thesaurus.com, this is one of the best resources of its kind on the Internet.
Fanfiction-Specific Resources and Communities:
Destina's Fan Fiction FAQ - Answers to various general questions about fanfiction.
The Fanfiction Glossary - A continuously updated directory to the dozens of terms that you may come across during any discussion of fanfic. Also contains other useful links pertaining to the peculiar lexicons of fanfiction, fandom, and the Internet.
The Grand List of Fanfiction Clichés - Another project of mine, this is an attempt to catalogue the most overused ideas in fanfiction.
Fanfic Research Center - A place to ask questions whenever you need to know some pesky little detail to maintain realism in your story.
Final Fantasy and FF7 Fanfiction-Specific LiveJournal Communities:
Final Fantasy VII Fanfic Writers
Final Fantasy VII Yaoi Fans
Final Fantasy Fanfiction Recommendations
Everything Wrong With Fanfiction (LiveJournal "Rant" Communities):
The Pitfalls of Fanfiction - More commonly known as Fanfic Rants-- which, in itself, is pretty self-explanatory.
The Mary Sue Report
Sues of Final Fantasy - A FF-centric Mary Sue reporting community.
Self-Insertion That Plagues Final Fantasy - And yet another one!
Ranting Lunatics of Slash and Yaoi Fandoms
And if you'd like to read any of my own work, just to see where I'm coming from, you're more than welcome to visit my personal site, The Blue Shinra Project. At any rate, I hope you enjoyed this little article of mine and got something out of it.