A while ago I told a friend I was writing a Sherlock Holmes novel. “Oh,” she said. “I’ve read some of those stories. They’re a bit naughty, aren’t they? The things Sherlock and John get up to…”
I explained that I wasn’t writing fan fiction, but a pastiche, and that I was basing my novel on the original Conan Doyle writings, rather than the television adaptation. (Nothing wrong with that adaptation, by the way. I’m a huge fan of Sherlock. But I was a fan of the original Holmes long before Benedict Cumberbatch reluctantly donned the ‘Frisbee hat’.)
It did get me wondering though: what is the difference between pastiche writing and fan fiction? Is there a difference at all? Does it matter?
Great Stories Inspire us to Tell our Own Tales
Books, movies and television programmes that evoke a strong sense of identification on the part of the audience cannot help but prove an inspiration to others. They ignite the imagination and that’s wonderful. Sparking creativity is always a good thing.
Inspiration strikes the moment the reader or viewer encounters a story and thinks, “Well, what would have happened if…?” From that moment, the original story is played out in a different way and the end result can be extraordinary, depending on the skill level of the person telling it.
When I was a teenager I wrote Star Trek fan fiction. Through it, I learned how to write. In particular, I discovered how to write dialogue. Star Trek was especially good for that because all of the characters have such distinct voices. I mean voices as written, not just as spoken by the actors. You read a page of ST script without any character identifications and you still know who’s speaking: Ahead, warp factor one… Quite logical… Och, my poor engines…
See what I mean?
Learning how to make your characters sound different from you, the writer, is a start. Making them sound different from one another is the next step; one, sadly, some writers never take. The point is, if you write fan fiction based on some decent writing you can’t help but learn something.
Writing fan fiction taught me how to build a scene and escalate the tension. By the time I started writing short stories and, later, novels, I’d learned the fundamentals of my craft and I had a great time doing it.
Fan fiction is fun to write. It gives the writer the opportunity to stretch his or her imagination. It presents the would-be writer with a platform on which he or she may build an entire universe. It provides a chance for a would-be writer to get used to putting words on the page. For very good fan fiction writers it also offers an audience. Just check out Tumblr and you’ll see what I mean.
When Fan Fiction Meets Literature
It’s not just adolescent fans who are inspired by works of genius. Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, Rebecca – these are just a thimbleful of the literary works that have inspired very successful pastiches in the forms of Scarlett (1991) by Alexandra Ripley; The Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys; and Susan Hill’s Mrs Dewinter (1993) is just one of many other sequels and prequels of du Maurier’s original novel. How many writers have been inspired by Tolkein? By Shelley? By Conan Doyle? There are hundreds, no, thousands of other examples. They don’t just write stories either. Some of them make films or paint pictures or compose operas.
It’s all good.
When a work of art is truly compelling and encounters a reader or viewer with a propensity for creativity, the result can be magnificent. Moffat and Gatiss’s Sherlock is a great example of that. Of course, it can also be daunting when you come upon a work of art so compelling. You might think, “I’d never be able to do that!” For instance, Babylon 5 writer J. Michael Straczynski said,
“After watching tonight’s Sherlock episode the only thing keeping me from getting out of the writing business is knowing it would bring joy to too many people. Goddamn that may be some of the best television I’ve ever seen…I’m doomed.”
I sympathise. I’ve had similar reactions to great writing. I’m sure after he got over his sense of doom, JMS found his game had been raised by what he’d seen.
For the majority of people, writing a story based on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Dracula or King Arthur is simply a fun way of engaging with the characters or the stories. These fans aren’t looking to create literature, at least, not initially, though that may come later. They are looking for a way to scratch an emotional itch. The resulting stories are more about the writer (or artist) releasing a strong emotion rather than really trying to connect with the reader or viewer though, again, that can happen too.
Transition Into Literature
The transition into literature (or fine art) comes when the creative individual realises they have something to say and the best way of saying it is through the medium of a particular character or set of stories. At this point, the author may use the Arthurian legend to say something about the perceptions of women, as Marion Zimmer Bradley did with The Mists of Avalon (1983) for instance. My own novel, A Biased Judgement was inspired when I wondered how Sherlock Holmes would have dealt with his giant reputation after twenty years of success. Would he feel threatened by the advances being made in forensic science during the fin de siècle? How does a man cope with being viewed as an ‘elder statesman’?
There’s a definite overlap between fan fiction and literary pastiches, but I think a proper pastiche attempts to capture the essence of the style of the original work. Fan fiction writers don’t always consider style that important. The fanfic writer takes an element of the story, the characters, the circumstances etc., and riffs on that. Fan fiction is all about entering a particular fictional world. Pastiche is using that world as the starting point to develop something new.
Some Other Questions for you to Ponder:
Is the best pastiche one that seems so authentic you can’t believe the original author didn’t write it, or is it something that takes a concept and then riffs on it to the point where the original work is almost invisible?
Can a pastiche ever surpass the original inspiration in quality? The Star Wars films were inspired by the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, for instance.
Modern readers sometimes think vampires were invented with Twilight or, if they’re a little older, by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Does it matter that Bram Stoker’s work is sometimes ignored or forgotten?
How would you define the distinction between fan fiction and pastiche? Does the distinction even matter?
Finally, have you ever written fan fiction? If so, what, if anything, did you learn from it? Let me know in the comments below.