How to adapt a fanfic into an original novel
I love fandom. I love fanfiction. I don’t plan to ever stop writing it or being part of fandoms that make me smile.
I am also a published author, and most of my books are adapted fanfics. Why? Because they are the stories I pour my soul into, and if I can change them into something that a wider audience might enjoy, I love the idea of doing that and pulling in more readers.
Why not? After all, I have spent months, even years sometimes, writing fanfics, and they are no less impactful or important as a literary tool than original books. So for me, they become my original books.
A lot of people wonder how to go about doing this themselves when they look at their library of fanfiction. It really comes down to five main steps.
Step One – Choose a viable fanfic to adapt
Not every fanfic can be adapted into an original idea, at least not without an almost complete overhaul that is basically rewriting it from scratch anyway. The type of fic that works for an adaptation needs to be one that isn’t too reliant on recognizable elements of canon to be told.
For example, my new series Lovesick is adapted from a fanfic of the CW TV series The Flash, but the overarching storyline has nothing to do with anything from the comics or the show. It was my own concept for a story, even using a Flash villain who hadn’t yet been introduced when I wrote him, so my concept for that villain is entirely my own interpretation as well.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t elements of the fic that are tied to canon, how could they not be, when the characters themselves have pasts and reactions based on who they were in canon to get them to where they are at the start of my fic? What matters is whether or not those things can be given different motivations that work outside of canon and that the main plot is something uniquely its own.
Step Two – World-building
This depends on the type of story. Say you’re dealing with superheroes and their abilities play an important role in the story. Then obviously you still need to have your original story set in a world where superpowers exist, so how do they exist? Mutants? Aliens? A miracle for just one or two people? What sort of world are your characters in for this to work that sets it apart from the source material?
Obviously, if you’re adapting your favorite coffee shop AU, you already did the world-building when you created the alternate universe, so your work for this portion of the adaptation will be much easier. But if your plot is rooted in a world that isn’t our normal world, what makes yours unique from the canon it started from?
Step Three – Backstory
Fanfiction is arguably easier to write than original fiction because you don’t have to give your characters backstory or flush out all the little details. How much I disagree with this as an overarching idea is a blog post within itself, but it’s not entirely wrong. We all go into reading a fic with assumptions already in place because we know these characters, so we are more forgiving of lacking setup and backstory.
This actually gives you a lot of freedom as a writer, because readers already know so much about the characters that you are allowed to start in media res with an idea without describing things you know they’re already aware of.
Original stories don‘t have the luxury of previously existing source material to fall back on, so you need to decide what your characters’ motivations are, who they are, why they would do what they do or be in the situations they’re in, and you need to keep all of that—or most of it—unique. You also need to be careful of not falling into the trap of exposition dumps to include your new backstory elements. They need to come up naturally and don’t always need to be explained to death to work.
And you don’t have to change everything. Say your character having dead parents is integral to the plot. Fine. Keep that in. But maybe change how they died, when they died, or some other element. Two characters are friends and still need to be. Okay. Change how or when they became friends. Change occupations or relationship ties, change whatever you need to as long as the central threads you need to remain intact still remain intact.
Step Four – Alter character names and what they look like
This is the obvious and easiest part: you have to change the way recognizable characters look and what their names are. This can actually be fun, but bear in mind, it isn’t always just about changing hair or eye color.
If you change a character’s race or gender or something else fundamental about them, does what you change it to still resonate for how that character interacts in the story? Conversely, how can it resonate differently on purpose to tell the same heart of the story without being identical?
My series The Incubus Saga is also based off of a fanfic, one for the CW series Supernatural. I made the two main characters twins instead of just brothers. I also swapped the birth order so that Dean, or in my books Nathan, is younger by two minutes instead of older by four years.
Because my main plot is different from anything the show tackled, the fact that these characters are twins and how they relate to each other because of that plays an important role that keeps them distinct as characters from the characters they were inspired by.
Step Five – Have an editor from inside the fandom and one from without
Having at least one editor outside of yourself is necessary for any writer always, but when adapting a fanfic, I think it’s important to have someone read through your story who knows the fandom well and can determine if there are still elements remaining that might tread toward copyright infringement. If you’ve drastically changed things, you won’t have any issues, especially if the fic started as an AU, but it’s still worth investing time in a reader from the fandom.
I also think it’s helpful to have someone read through your story who is unfamiliar with the fandom to make sure that an outsider doesn’t think something is missing that you didn’t notice because your head was still living in canon and didn’t realize you hadn’t fleshed things out enough for an original audience.
Then it’s about editing, editing, editing to get your story polished enough to be ready for publishing.
The hardest part is step one, choosing the right fic to start with, but if you follow these steps, it is possible to submit your last fanfic to a publisher as an original idea, or you can learn about self-publishing, like I do, in one of my previous blog posts.
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