Fanfic is a lot of fun and a great way to become a good writer. Some of us, though, might want to make the transition to writing professionally. This isn’t always as easy as E.L. James makes it look.
One of the biggest issues with making the transition is that fanfic, by its nature, comes with a world already defined. The heavy lifting of worldbuilding has already been done by the original author or creators. And, of course, changing all of the names isn’t enough to change your fanfiction into something original enough to publish under your own name.
There are three basic approaches to transforming the world from the one you started out with to something you can use:
Just use the real world.
It worked for E.L. James. If your story and characters don’t need anything supernatural, especially if you’re already messing with something like, say, a college AU, you can always skirt worldbuilding altogether by using the reality we live in. Or, of course, you can add in magic (making it urban fantasy), superpowers, or a bit of advanced science. Obviously, this approach doesn’t work for every story—or writer. A lot of us would rather write science fiction or fantasy than realistic fiction. But it’s certainly worth considering.
Tweak, alter, evolve.
By this I mean changing the world just enough to make it original, but keeping something of the spirit of the original. For example, at one point I played an online RPG that was clearly based on Pern, except the enemy was an opposing kingdom, and the dragons were magical, had elemental abilities, and talked out loud. The creators took the dragon bonding from Pern and changed almost everything else. Or, alternatively, you might decide your Pern story doesn’t actually need the dragons. Maybe the fascinating part is the peculiar politics of the world.
Take your story and your characters and create a world for them from scratch. Obviously, this is the most time consuming option, but worldbuilding can be a lot of fun. Be aware, worldbuilding can even be addictive, and if you enjoy it too much you might just end up an RPG designer. If you plan on going this route, there are plenty of resources out there to help you, and it’s a useful skill for any writer to develop.
So, which option should you choose?
I recommend taking your story and characters and writing down which elements of the world are essential to them—the things without which it would simply not be the same tale. If that ends up being all of them, you’re probably trying to convert the wrong story.
If it’s none, then consider a real world or historical setting, or starting over with an entire new world. You can go anywhere in time and space.
If it’s somewhere in the middle, then keep those elements, but change everything else, starting with the parts of the world you’ve already changed because you didn’t like them. Does your Doctor Who fic work well with a time machine that falls into the hands of a group of teenagers? Maybe you could just move that Game of Thrones idea into real Medieval Europe, especially if you happen to already know quite a bit about it.
Changing the world so it only seems to be inspired by the original is an essential element of converting fanfic. And worldbuilding is an essential skill for any professional writer—as well as being a lot of fun.