#127: The Ethics of Turning Fanfic into Original Fiction

Dear Story Nurse,

I write both fanfiction and original stories. One of the fanfictions that I’ve written, and am about to re-write, is one that I’m very proud of. I love the premise and I’ve worked really hard on the lore and world. While I intend to continue writing it, I am also considering taking this world and premise that I’m proud of and making an original story out of it, too. Let me preface the rest of my question by saying that I don’t intend for the original characters to be based off of the fanfiction ones, because they weren’t even mine to begin with. And while there will be elements from it, and the basic premise, I don’t plan to make my original follow the exact same story of my fanfic.

I plan to self-publish, maybe even make a webcomic, so I wouldn’t have to worry about the publishers. However, is it a bad idea to take something I’ve written for fanfic and make it original? I would at least say something on my fanfiction so that people wouldn’t assume that the original is a copycat, but I feel like maybe there’s something wrong with making it original at all. Is this tacky or ridiculous? Should I not do it because I’ve already written something for those ideas? Something about it makes me feel ashamed but I don’t know what. Is this feeling justified? Please help.

—Don’t Know What to Do (she/her)

Dear Don’t Know,

I completely understand where you’re coming from, but please allow me to put your conscience at ease. It’s absolutely fine to develop fanfic and other derivative ideas into original fiction. Many, many, many people have done it. (I cite a few in my post on how to create original work.)

Many authors have also written the same story or the same idea over and over, sometimes on purpose and sometimes because it’s the only idea they have and by God they will write it into the ground. My favorite example is David and Leigh Eddings’s Malloreon quintet, in which the story so closely follows that of the preceding Belgariad series that the characters say, “Wait a minute, hasn’t this all happened before?”

Let me rephrase your question thus: “I’ve developed a detailed world, original characters, and a functional plot. Is it okay for me to write that?” Obviously the answer is yes! There’s nothing at all that would indicate otherwise. At this stage, the canon that you wrote your fanfic for is relegated to the status of inspiration. It’s extremely common for writers to read or watch something and feel inspired to create an original story. You just had an intermediate step.

If you feel that you owe a debt to that canon, you can give it a shout-out in your acknowledgements, generally promote it, or look for a direct way to support its creator (many novelists have Patreons, for example). But that’s not at all morally required, just a nice thing to do that might also help ease your perceived burden of responsibility.

As for the shame, that might be linked to the notion that writing fanfic in the first place was bad or wrong, or to the notion that you’re just a dabbler and writing is just a hobby and it will never be anything more. Shame is generally rooted in a sense of being judged; who is or might be judging you, and what for? If you imagine that judgey person scolding you, what do they say? Identifying the source and shape of your shame will help you work through it and reach a place where you can gladly and fearlessly do the writing that calls to you. If feelings of shame are common for you, or common around your writing, working with a therapist might be helpful.

There’s absolutely nothing unusual, shameful, or wrong about doing what you’re describing. Go forth and do it. Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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