Dear Story Nurse,
I’m a mostly-retired fanfic writer trying my hand at original urban fantasy. I would very much like to be able to write from an outline, but I’ve been going completely blank when I try to plan my original stories compared to fic. However, my most typical process has always been to more-or-less happily ‘pants’ through a very very rough draft and then mold what I find into a story shape. That’s worked ok in the past, but now that I’m attempting original fiction in earnest, I’m encountering a problem that I would have found utterly comical to imagine happening to me.
In fanfic circles, I was known for writing doomed star-crossed lovers and other sorts of intense angst from canons that were full of horror and suspense. Villains were frequently my most favorite characters and I wasn’t shy about letting the heroes make enticing yet oh-so-regrettable choices.
Now that I’m writing my own original fic, which is supposed to be about decadent and frightening vampires, everyone’s behaving like a flawless paragon of reasoned maturity and working out their problems and desires in the most responsible ways possible. And so every plot conflict I try to set up is quickly defused, nothing scary or suspenseful ever gets to happen, and not one of my characters is willing to step up and do any of the villainous or catastrophic things I enjoy so much in other people’s stories.
It’d be one thing if I was discovering a heretofore unknown love of writing slowburn coffee shop original universe fic, but that sort of thing has vastly more tension then what I’m generating. I’m boring myself to tears!
I’ve never been unwilling to torture a character I’ve loved (quite the opposite) and I don’t think that’s all or even most of what’s happening here. It almost feels as if I’m afraid to get in some sort of trouble for having any of my characters behave anything less than ideally. I don’t know where that would be coming from, as I’ve never had any anxieties or confrontations regarding that with my fanfic. Perhaps borrowing someone else’s characters allowed me to fearlessly explore their pain, flaws, and terrible decisions because I wasn’t the one responsible for them.
I just want to be able to write stories that are fun for me to write, however dark or fluffy they turn out to be. Instead, all I’ve been writing are pages and pages of bland mush that I had hoped to find quite spicy. Your wisdom is appreciated.
There’s a lot going on here! I suspect you’re primarily hampered by two things: a focus on characters as the source of your problems, rather than as a reflection of them, and the habit of comparing your original fiction writing with your fanfic writing. Your letter scratches the surface; now it’s time to dig deeper.
Original fiction and fanfic are two different beasts, and I think you’re going to have a much easier time of this if you stop expecting them to be similar in any way at all. Maybe you’re a plotter for one and a pantser for the other, or maybe you need outlines for one and a Pinterest board full of character and scene imagery for the other. You’re not entirely starting from scratch—many of your skills will carry over—but skills aren’t methods, and you will have to develop new methods. It might help to bridge the gap if you borrow elements of someone else’s characters for your original fiction, or think of it as an AU of the real world (which all original fiction is to some extent). Or maybe your process is to write boring first drafts and then write exciting fanfic of those first drafts that cleverly fix all their flaws.
You mention being known in fanfic circles; that’s another thing that’s different for your original fiction. Instead of having a big audience that knows you, you’re writing for just you. When you talk about feeling like you might get in trouble, I wonder how that relates to this shift in audience. Who is there to be in trouble with? Maybe your fans, who might be disappointed that instead of writing what you’re known for, you’re trying something new? Maybe your fellow fanfic writers, who might judge you (or think you’re judging them) because you’re prioritizing original fiction over fanfic right now? Maybe yourself?
A big red flag for me is that you’re describing characters as living entities that are making decisions without your say-so. Your characters are actually avatars of your subconscious (especially but not only when you’re pantsing), and your subconscious is clearly saying “NO WAY” to any kind of conflict. So that needs to be addressed. Who is there for you to be in conflict with? What conflicts are you feeling within yourself? What might that desire for good communication and sensible decisions reflect in your writing life?
When your characters come from within you, and contain pieces of you, as all original characters do, it’s very natural to want to take care of them the way you want to take care of yourself (or be taken care of), and to want them to do the right thing all the time the way you want to do the right thing all the time. But like all people—and all three-dimensional characters—you make bad decisions and get into ridiculous arguments sometimes. Your characters don’t want to do villainous or catastrophic things. How do you feel about your own capacity for villainy and for causing catastrophes?
Putting unlikable aspects of yourself into your characters sounds like it’s very challenging for you, but it can also be a way of being true to yourself. You’re on the right track when you say that you’re not responsible for other people’s characters; follow that to its conclusion and think about what you are responsible for with your own characters, which is also your responsibility to yourself as the originator of the characters.
I suspect that once you sort out these character issues, your plot issues will either solve themselves or be much easier to get a handle on. Plot stems from character, and from the tensions and contradictions within a character. Fully drawn characters will have internal and external conflicts that feel real. Writing those conflicts can be fun, but it can also be emotionally and psychologically difficult, so be kind to yourself as you go through it.
For a bit of homework, consider reading my posts on sources of writer’s block and how to create original work, and also Austin Kleon’s Steal like an Artist. But mostly, sit with yourself and your feelings around this change. It’s a big change, a big leap into an exciting and challenging new space. Give yourself time to adjust. You’ll find your way to a whole new kind of fun. And if you don’t, you can always write some fanfic! That community will be right there for you whenever you want it. I know plenty of writers who do both, and you can too.