Now, my focus here primarily isn’t fan fiction, although that’s the world I’ve dabbled in most when it comes to writing. No, this stems from television…specifically, the writing on a current television show which shall remain nameless, to protect me from hate-spam. (No, friends, it’s not my beloved Thunderbirds…that’s not current. *grin*)
Think of it: you start a brand-new show with stellar writing. You make it shine, tip-top above everything else, with an epic mix of everything that makes a show great, from the writing to the casting. The show goes like gangbusters for a season and then you decide hey, let’s completely and totally fuck up what’s working by making the writing go so completely south we end up in the Southern Hemisphere, and alienate half our fans in the process.
That sounds normal, right?
Er…wait, what? No? Well, let’s back out of TV shows and into something we might all be a little more familiar with. How about….McDonald’s. Sure, why not? We all know who they are, right? Huge fast food chain, home of the Big Mac, etcetera, etcetera.
Think of it: you start a brand-new restaurant with stellar food. You make that food something everyone loves, craves, with just the right taste to make them keep coming back for more, from the ingredients you use to the service your staff provides. The restaurant takes off like gangbusters for a year and then you decide hey, let’s completely and totally fuck up what’s working by changing McDonald’s from a hamburger-and-fries-and-Coke joint into a hot-dog-and-cabbage-and-water joint.
What do you think happens if McDonald’s stops selling hamburgers…or starts using tofu burgers instead of whatever kind it is they use now? What do you think happens if they stop selling french fries and only sell cabbage as a side? Or if they completely nix Coke products and only sell water? I’ll tell you what happens: they go out of business. Why? Because they took away what their customers loved about them the most, the thing that made them work, made them successful, and replaced it with something that makes no sense to their customer base.
Okay, now pedal backwards to the first thing I talked about: the show that started out with stellar writing. Can someone please tell me how it is that a TV show that’s doing everything right, that’s on top, and that develops a nearly instantaneous fan base (which is rabid and loyal and a marketer’s dream for all the social media-ing they do), decides it’s okay to change their “product” mid-stream when, in the world of business, any successful businessman would tell you such a move is a death sentence?
Good question, huh?
Now to tie this back to writing, I will dive into what about this particular show-that-shan’t-be-named went south and oh, look at that…it was the writing. You don’t need to know what show I’m on about to get the basic tenants of what my point will be. And what IS the point, you ask?
Don’t mess with what works.
What you have, if you are successful, is what put you on top. It’s what made you get fans to begin with, and only by keeping it intact are you going to keep those fans. Slacking off on writing just because you get too comfortable in your own leather desk chair is a discredit to the characters you created, and to the fans you have essentially made a promise to, when you get them hooked on a really good premise with really good characters.
I suppose I can tie this back to fanfic writing very easily, and be very much in line with my previous article about writing existing characters IN character, vs. twisting them into what you want them to be. And I’ll use Thunderbirds as my example.
Why do you think that little tiny marionette show still has die-hard fans this many years later? Because what they did, worked. Yes, some of it is outdated now…after all, the mid-60s were quite different than 2013. But as I will expound upon until the day I die, the characters at the core of that show are what made it work. They’re what got fans’ attention, and held it right through to today’s day and age, where you can mention it anywhere in England and they’ll know what you’re talking about. This is a show where there exists a thriving fandom that produces fanfic for a show continuing to live on in so many hearts.
That means what, exactly, to us fanfic writers? Oh, my God, it means exactly the same thing: Don’t mess with what works.
Why did you start writing fanfic for the show? Because you fell in love with some aspect of it, whether the characters or the machinery. You loved how the characters were portrayed, and you’ve decided you want to write about their further adventures since no one else is doing it (at least, not well, they’re not). The Spy Kids rip-off they tried to call Thunderbirds a few years back was an epic fail, why? Because they tried to mess with what worked. The recent novels are an epic fail (sales numbers don’t lie, people), why? Because the author just did not capture the spirit of what worked all those years ago. And the project that’s underway to do a new show where they’ve completely removed the patriarch of the family from the equation and made a secondary male character into a woman that’ll be in every episode, and where they’re going to make all the 21+ years main characters teenagers? Well, that’ll be an epic fail too, sorry. Why? Because rather than doing the REAL Thunderbirds…rather than sticking with what worked, and what made us continue to love them all these years later, they’re changing everything.
And I have no earthly idea why. You wouldn’t do that if you were McDonald’s. Or Best Buy. You wouldn’t do that if you were Wal-Mart or Costco. Up in Canada, you wouldn’t do that if you were Real Canadian Superstore or Tim Horton’s. Would you?
What if Paris took down the Eiffel Tower and burned the Louvre to the ground?
What if Egypt leveled its pyramids?
What if Hollywood relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia?
Those would all be very bad business decisions…the first two for tourism, the third for the entire economy of Southern California, including tourism.
Bad business decisions seem so obvious to us as consumers. Similarly, bad decisions in writing TV shows often seem so obvious to consumers, but the people who run the show are, somehow, completely oblivious. In spite of instant feedback via social media, showrunners are hiring hacks, or friends of friends, or members of whatever their inner in-bred clique are, to write for their productions, rather than hiring people who can string an actual story together that makes sense.
Sadly, this million-dollar OOPS they’re doing in Hollywood is recreated every damn day in places like fanfiction.net, where you go to find a good yarn to read about your favorite show, and wind up wading through stories that are labeled as being about that show, but whose characters you don’t recognize at all. Instead of writing what worked – the characters as they were created – people seem to want to twist them all to hell in the fanfic world, just like they tend to do in the TV world as well.
What a parallel, right? Life imitating art imitating life…
Oh, wait, we have too much testosterone in here, we need a hot, leggy female thrown in the mix, so let’s just ruin what we created by shoehorning one in there and pissing all our fans off when we get rid of a core character to do it. Oh, wait, there isn’t enough wrong with the character to give me enough angst to get high on, well, I’ll write him with such an out-of-character characteristic that it makes absolutely no sense with the way we’ve known him for the past season, just because I want a certain end game. Wait, this isn’t about gay men, we have to give them all girlfriends and wives and babies just to hit the audience over the head with the fact that no, they’re NOT gay.
The list goes on.
Why is it that when you write a book to be professionally published, your publisher won’t let it see the light of day unless it holds together as a real story that’s well-written…but that in the billion-dollar Hollywood industry, the most god-awful writing that rivals the worst crap on fanfiction.net is not only allowed through the gates, but encouraged, with those writers going on to get job after job after job, even when they’ve proven they couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag?
No, it’s not sour grapes on my end, so my detractors can stop right there if that’s what they want to say. I do not ever want to write for TV shows, no way no how do I want to become part of the cynical Hollywood machine. I’ve been on the inside (many moons ago) and it’s not nearly pretty enough to lure me back. I like the independence of being able to tell a good story the right way. I don’t want to be forced to write drek because the bosses say so. I’m perfectly happy to write and sell my screenplays and write and sell my books and keep control of what I’m writing, thanks much. At least that way if it DOES suck, it’s my responsibility and my fault, and not because my name was slapped on something that was forced on me, something so embarrassingly bad that my 13-year old son could’ve done a better job.
As I stated at the beginning, I think that what it all boils down to in Hollywood isn’t just what everything boils down to, which is money. It’s that, certainly, but when it comes to people who write on television shows, it’s all about who you know, not how well you write. Nepotism is alive and well there, and it’s sad when you start seeing shows tank because of the same reasons some of us complain about pieces of fanfic being awful: because of people not taking the time to a) write a GOOD story that makes sense, and b) write the characters the way that people fell in love with them.
I certainly cannot change what bigshot TV producers and moviemakers do, even if I find it really telling that a core fan base for a current TV show tells me I write much better stories than the show does (how sad is that, when I’m not even paid to do it?). And I can’t stop people who write for reasons other than to pay homage to good characters and a good show. But there’s one thing I can do: try to write whatever it is I write with integrity, rather than being sucked down the rabbit hole of popularity. If I am true to myself, and if I write my characters (whether someone else’s or my own original ones) by staying true to them, then I can be proud of what I do, even if I’m not getting a huge paycheck with a bunch of zeroes at the end.
I once had a discussion with a good friend of mine who wrote for a television comedy series back in the nineties. I loved his scripts, loved the episodes that were ones he got the credit for writing. And when I asked him, how do you do it? How do you become a writer like that on a show? His answer to me was, “I’m not a writer, I’m just a comedian. You’re the real writer.”
I’ve carried that with me ever since, and have talked to others “in the business” over the years only to find out he was right. Sometimes, writers on TV shows really are good writers. And sometimes, they’re nothing close to good writers. In the ensuing years I’ve mourned when television shows that started off so promisingly, seemed to somehow lose “real writing” and fall down the rabbit hole of “eh, it’s good enough to get by, we’ll just add more explosions or boobs so no one will notice.”
I’ve also mourned when a fandom’s fanfic went so off-the-rails that it was nearly impossible to find anything recognizable from the world that I’d loved of that long-gone show, that I could sit down and enjoy with a cup of coffee.
I just wish that everyone, showrunners included, understood that the reason good TV shows are good, is for multiple reasons…and at the base of all those multiple reasons, at the bottom of the pyramid it’s all standing on, is the writing. You can have the best actors in the world, but if the scripts you give them suck, they aren’t going to be able to save it in the end. If you alter their characters to get rid of the things that made everyone love your show to begin with, whatever your reasons are, then you’re going to lose your fan base.
And for those of us who write both original and fan fiction, remember that while it may be all fun and games and Barbie dolls and playing house to you, it’s not that way for all people. I won’t “kill” a character’s personality for the sake of a story. And I won’t write a story that makes no sense or has a lame-ass conclusion, and try to cover it up with a bunch of fanfare so nobody notices how bad it really is.
Maybe one of these days, instead of trying to resurrect things that worked 50 years ago and remaking them because they’ve run out of well-written new ideas, Hollywood will return to what made plays in the theater good…and made older TV shows good: the writing. Until then, I’m hopeful that fanfic writers will pick up the slack that the paid writers are just skating along on and patting themselves on the back for.
To the characters and the show that are getting tanked by these guys, I would like to offer my sincerest apologies. You deserve to be written well, not reshaped like you’re a can of Play-Doh being stuffed through a spaghetti-maker. No, I’m not saying what show, because the wrath of those who just want to drool over the actors isn’t worth outing its name. But if that show goes off the air because the ratings drop too much, you won’t have them to drool over anymore, anyway. At least, not as those characters.
Maybe, in the end, that’s actually for the best.