There’s a lot to be said for the realisation that fictional worlds are not a description, but an argument.
The real world is full of descriptions. Reviews of things, travelogues, reference books, bird guides, practical manuals, social media pages, dictionaries… the list could almost literally go on forever.
This is fairly obvious, right? It pretty well goes without saying that practically anything we write about our world is going to be a description. Of course it is. We have our world right in front of us, and necessarily, if we write stuff about it, we’re describing it. Why are you even bothering to say this, Takumi? Why are you insulting my intelligence?
Have you ever realised that fictional worlds work completely differently?
When we consume things, it’s so easy to think of the writing process as being pretty much exactly like writing about the real world. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you’ve been creating a world, which is big and vibrant and more or less coherent. And you just kind of dive into it and describe what you see.
But there’s a problem with that kind of thinking.
Consider what you’re more likely to believe is real: a vague but sensational headline about a dinosaur with dragon wings being discovered, or a detailed description about the life history of dragons.
Neither, right? I mean, dragons aren’t real. That’s such a dead horse of a fact that obviously any attempt to claim “oh my god we found one??” must be a desperate attention grab. Right?
If you know anything about dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles, you know the first thing they are is weird. There were big scaly monitor sharks. There were creatures with ten foot long necks. There were huge batbirds. That’s certainly weirder than a little theropod with webbed wings, isn’t it?
It turns out Yi qi is in fact real, but that’s beside the point. The point is that interest was created by making you question whether what you were faced with was plausible or ridiculous.
This is the heart of a good news story, and the heart of a good lie.
Fiction is lies. We know that. It’s obvious.
Or is it really obvious? Do we really ever stop to think about the fact that the same skill sets are involved in both activities, and if we could just be better liars, we could be better authors?
Consider the Guardian‘s seven-page fake travel supplement about San Seriffe, 1977. Inspired by reports on “all these little countries I’d never heard of”, it was an elaborate hoax with a number of subtle typography puns in it. The “semicolonial” islands led by General Pica had a three-point strategy for success, an ethnic group called the Flong, and a wall made of Didot blocks, among other things.
There’s no passion-fired mind-world at the heart of a hoax. It’s nothing more than a carefully-constructed pile of lies intended to dupe you. Nobody is standing off to the side chewing on a pencil wondering if the hoax matches their head image. All anyone is concerned with is the final image people will see and tweaking it just enough it can successfully bullshit you into believing it.
And yet people get enchanted by hoaxes. We keep talking about them. We make documentaries about them. They find their way into museums. Some practically even have fandoms—just look at bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster.
Because a hoax is a lie, a lie is an argument, and they’ve been convinced: whether cryptids exist or not, it would sure be Damn Cool.
In a fictional story, the focus of the argument is different. It’s not as if you’re trying to make anyone actually believe the story is true in literal terms. You only need to make people believe that the final product you present is coherent.
All good writers know however that this is a lie. Nothing is coherent! When you write stories you are bound to rewrite every single chapter from the beginning ten times, rewrite your mental “wiki page” for each character several times with potentially radical differences, and make a million ad hoc transformations to your world to suit the transformation of everything else.
It seems like being a hack. It seems like cheating. It seems like you’re no good at conveying the perfect image in your head, and don’t know how to be genuine.
It’s also the most effective way to do your job.
The ugly secret to writing fiction is that fiction is the art of bullshit. Creativity is literally nothing more than coming up with the most unrelated thing you could possibly think of and making up an excuse for how it is actually perfectly related and utterly completely not something you just pulled out of a hat at the last minute. Try it. Go to a random noun selector and find two totally unrelated nouns. Now try to argue that one is actually the other one. You’ll quickly find that Siberia is like a windshield because everything gets wiped clear off in the winter, ashtrays are like engineering because they deal with the dirty problems of the world, and Friday is like a front because it’s where the warm weekend days split away from the cold weekdays.
It’s only logical now that the things we’d call the most “creative” and “original” are also the most random. It’s not because their creator was born holding some god-given silver relic that contained a perfect mind-world inside. It’s because they made you believe they had.
What we call “originality” and presume is uniqueness is really the extent to which the creator has been able to stretch through hard work and ambitious arguments our typical perception of how concepts relate to each other. Too high an ambition-to-argument ratio, and something will seem ridiculous or nonsensical. Too high an argument-to-ambition ratio, and the distances between the concepts will be familiar enough that everyone can start to see the flaws in the argument. James Cameron’s catpeople movie is probably a good example: the creatures have six legs that aren’t arrayed in a way that makes physical sense, the magnetic field is too weak to support giant floating mountains, and the catpeople have so many features whose “explanations” don’t jive with the established world it’s hilarious.
What about fan fiction? Is that also an argument founded on bullshit?
Yes. Yes it is.
There are two major “thoughts” about transformative works: one, they should be adhere to the “canon” of the original whenever possible, and two, that they should be completely unhindered and reflect whatever the original inspired you to create.
What’s a “good” fan work? What will have the most impact and meaning?
I’ll assert this: what makes a good fan work is exactly the same things that makes a good independent work. Planning, dedication, experience, experimentation…. and—you guessed it—bullshit.
The question is really, how should our most crucial ingredient be applied? Should you be arguing with or against canon? And I think it doesn’t matter in the end. But there’s one very important caveat.
Since the rules for creating a fan work and an independent work are the same, if you want to create a quality work, you can’t use the excuse that your work is fan work to explain why it isn’t the best it could be.
That means, if you want to work with canon, you had better work with canon. You can’t say you’re going to work with canon and then just not. If you want to work outside canon, that’s a valid choice. But, you need to own up to it. You can’t act like there was some story behind the difference and then not justify it, nor can you say there’s no particular story and then fail to integrate the new dash of random aesthetic you’ve brought in. If you want to ignore canon, you need to recreate that lost internal consistency yourself, and make your audience believe that actually, it totally makes sense that everyone has airplane wings, in light of the new skypunk setting, haven’t you heard of this great aesthetic I just made up. Random airplane wings? Great. Never making them feel like a meaningful part of your new scenario and not a totally unnecessary addition? Not great.
Canon is not rigid, nor is it law. But, at the end of the day, when you present your finished product, you’re still responsible for producing a product which is internally consistent, however many tucks and patches and replacements and improvements you did to the underlying scaffolding before building on top of it. The structure’s still gotta hold up. If it falls apart, it’s not a good structure, plain and simple.
What about fictional characters?
Are characters arguments too?
I would argue yes. Yes, they very much are.
Consider what a complex character really is. A complex character is an entity that does a lot of things that are at first unexpected, but are later shown to be perfectly reasonable and understandable in its convoluted network of motivations and emotions.
That’s right—writing a good character is really just applying the art of bullshit a million times, and having one of the most flawless bullshit games imaginable. It’s rationalising so well you make people stop asking whether your argument is good or makes sense and simply stand back in awe of the rock-solid truth.
A character can contain a description of reality, and often we expect some amount of that. But I think this is why so many soap operas and sitcoms and similar are unintentionally boring. To be interested in a narrative, we need more than facts. We need some semblance of an argument. It can be as minimal as “actually, there’s way more to this obscure island state than you thought there was, look at all this history” on a Wikipedia page. It can be as humble as “according to recent research, there *may* be a new elementary particle, maybe” in a news story. But if something is just purely telling us what we already know and nothing else, it will not be interesting. Where’s the argument? What are you convincing us of? Are you convincing us married couples hate each other? Are you convincing us you believe in subtle ethnic stereotypes? Are you convincing us life is boring?
And—stay on board with me a bit longer—I think this is what separates good fan fiction from blah fan fiction.