trenchkamen: (Blah blah blah)
[personal profile] trenchkamen
I'm sure by now most of the interbutts has heard about Fifty Shades of Grey, that hott new Twilight-fanfic-turned-bestselling-novel that is being devoured by "mommy bloggers" and, if the various newspapers are to be believed, is allowing fortysomething suburban housewives to rediscover themselves as sexual goddesses and revive their marriages and blah blah blah. Apparently it's helping to portray the BDSM scene in a positive light (???), but as I'm not in the Scene and have not actually read the books, I will not even go there. But I would love to hear from somebody with a perspective on the subject.

All rampant sexism in the newspapers aside ("mommy bloggers", really? I know it implies a Certain Type of Mommy, not all women who have spawned off, but come on), I do acknowledge that any trend that tells women that, yes, they can enjoy pornography, and kinky sex, is desperately needed, especially here in the United States. But the premise is something I find skeezy (just like Twilight, what do you know): a rich, powerful man enters an extreme Dom/sub relationship with a struggling, naive, virginal (why always virginal?) student. The power imbalance is extreme, even though I know they sign a Contract and all that shit (which is apparently printed in full in the book). And I'm sure copious numbers of feminist analyses and MST3K-type takedowns are imminent, to which I say: bring it on. I do get a guilty pleasure out of ripping into everything awful this world has to offer. I say "guilty" only because it's a waste of time outside of providing me with a good laugh.

Now, let's look at the origin of the story. Yes, it was, until a couple of years ago, an AU Twilight fanfic where Edward is the rich, (relatively) young, handsome CEO of a huge corporation, and Bella is the young waif of a student. They have lots of sex. Like, all the damn time, apparently. So it's a standard porn-epic. Every fandom has a ton, of widely varying quality.

For what it's worth, I read the first Twilight novel. It sucked. So, yes, I can say confidently that neither Bella nor Edward have any complexity or personality, at all, unless you count Bella's faux-everywoman bland passiveness and Edward's creepy possessiveness and brooding. But lynchpin traits a fully-developed character do not make. They're not even tropes. I would say 'archetype' is the correct word, but only in the most two-dimensional sense. The upside to this, for fanfic writers, is that writing in-character is really fucking easy, so for matching the canon, E.L. James is spot on.

Now, for commercial publication, the author and her representatives claim that Fifty Shades of Grey is a "lightly re-written" version of Master of the Universe (REALLY?), which is fine if your idea of "re-writing" is abuse of Ctrl-R. Because that seems to be all that is different. Edward Cullen becomes Christian Grey (REALLY?), and Isabella Swan becomes Anastasia Steele (REALLY?). And, uh, I guess some other characters change names too.

Which has brought up a lot of controversy re: the ethics inherent in "lightly re-writing" a fanfic for commercial publication. Every predictable player shows up to comment: the "fanfic is illegal in the first place" crowd, the "fanfic is fine for practice, but this is going too far" crowd, the "I don't see a problem with this, and, by the way where can I sell my fanfic for seven figures?" crowd (which is an excellent question because SEVEN FIGURE ADVANCE HOLY SHIT). And there is the argument that, like Cassandra Claire, E.L. James is benefiting from her already extensive fanbase from her Twilight fanfic days. She benefits from the inbuilt audience of Twilight fans. Publishing houses are hip to this. And there is the accusation that any author who recycles from his or her older stories is being lazy. God knows I've written small scenes or visual snippets or dialogues from older stories I would like to keep for new, published stories. I think it is a question of degree and aptness--how much is recycled, and how relevant to the story is it.

And that's all up for debate. None of that is new. But I'd like to offer a few observations on the mechanics of the writing, or, that which must go into being able to create a product wherein making such superficial changes will result in a whole new product.

If your characters are so bland that changing their names completely obscures them, you wrote poorly-developed characters.

Bearing in mind what I said above (the original canon Bella and Edward are so bland anyway writing them in-character amounts to the same phenomenon), a character will be far more than an archetype. A complex character's PERSON will shape the dialogue, the choices he or she makes, every nuance of movement and dress and action and reaction. A complex character will effect the other characters, play off them. A complex cast of characters will interplay with each other, make choices that effect each other and the plot. All of this amounts to an influence that is deeply interwoven throughout the story. In a truly character-driven story, you can't just yank up the character and change his/her name, and expect the original character to be scrubbed out. Because the SHAPE of the character will still be there, and recognizable. You'd have go back unraveling the threads of interaction, choice, and cause that character has exacted on the story.

So if you really had written a fanfic starring complex characters, and written them well, changing the character's names should be a transparent tactic. It should be obvious that you just did that, because that full, complex character is still there, acting in ways we know he or she would. A story should be driven by the characters. Putting different characters in those same situations would have different results. Putting different characters together will have different results. People play off each other, balance (or unbalance) each other, influence each other.

I know that not all characters are so dynamic, idiosyncratic, or iconic as to be easily recognized in absence of labels. Many people aren't either. And there are people (and characters) that seem to be almost the same, soulmates, or strongly evocative of one another. This happens all the time. And this is all fine; stories need these characters too. But all of your characters should not be so flat that the only thing required to completely change the fabric of a story is to change the name. Bella and Edward, Christian and Anastasia, are just any other interchangeable set of innocent, endearingly-clumsy everygirl (with a little token faux-feminist 'feistyness') and aloof, controlling "dark prince" who unexpectedly falls madly in love with her.

I also think good characters subconsciously effect the author. That cliche about the characters controlling the story, and the author merely being a scribe, is an apt observation. You will notice that authors who write compelling characters will corroborate this. The slightest changes, things you can't quantify but play into a mental picture, kicking crucial visual details--word choice right down to the most basic layers of rhetoric--I think these things are also effected by good characters. A character will notice and bring out different colors, different details in a scene. The sky seems greyer, the flowers bluer, depending on who is in the scene, whose point of view we are in. These are small, subconscious ticks of the author, but they translate to the reader. The entire fabric of a complex story is permeated by the characters. I forgot who said that writing is a form of magic humans can work, because it is telepathy. I think part of that phenomenon is linked to details, visuals, syntax, which communicate subconsciously far more than we think they do, especially when these phenomena become emergent. A skilled author can evoke an entire, complex scene with a few strong eye-kick details. But I digress.

I also realize Fifty Shades of Edward's Christian's Cock is set in modern-day Seattle, without any supernatural elements or original mythology, so there isn't any world-building that has to be tweaked. Which would make scrubbing of Twilight elements a lot easier. Hence my focus exclusively on character.

This is the lesson you can take from Fifty Shades:

If all that it takes to completely re-package your story and render it 'original' is re-naming, and this remove any semblance of the characters you originally wrote, you really need to re-examine your writing. Because it probably sucks.

But look at it this way. If you tried to retool a GOOD, in-character fic with control-R, you'd be nailed as a plagiarist. But if you do the same with a smutty fic with bland characters, you may be a shitty writer, or referencing shitty material, but you'll be laughing all the way to the bank.
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July 2012


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