Sunday, August 7, 2011

Writing Part 7: Roleplaying and Fanfic

Continued from my previous blog...

So, the Grey Legacy experience was over (at least that phase of it). We both took a break from producing comics. Fred moved to DC to pursue a career that had nothing to do with art (a career he's been very successful at). I was still doing the temp routine. This was around the time I started writing articles for In Pittsburgh (as detailed in a previous blog) and other freelance jobs. A couple of years later I was hired by New Dimension Comics in Cranberry and said goodbye to my temp career. A year after that I was hired by Phantom of the Attic and have been there ever since.

But I didn't stop writing or drawing. I still had the need to create, whether there was any practical or financially-rewarding goals in mind or not.

Like a lot of people involved in my hobbies, I started playing roleplaying games in my teens. I'm old enough that Dungeons & Dragons was a new game when I was a teen. I received the box set for Christmas in the late 70's and a small group of my high school friends played for a couple of years (until my friend Tom Hanks went crazy from the experience and got lost in the sewers looking for real goblins... but that's another After School Special). These were the basic “find a treasure” and “kill the monster” type of adventures. We really weren't experienced enough to turn these sessions into the genuine storytelling, character-driven games that real roleplaying can be. I played a couple of times in college, but that was the end of it for nearly a decade.

When I moved to Pittsburgh in 1990 I met a group of people who were really into roleplaying and joined in. The first campaign I played was called Circle of Iron and the gamemaster was David Fielding (who went on to be the face and voice of Zordon on the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers). It was everything I had ever wanted roleplaying to be. He had created a sprawling and complex world, utilizing mythology and history to give weight to his setting. Instead of simply looking for treasure our characters were placed in a story, with very specific goals. We spent far more time engaged in character development than we did rolling dice and fighting monsters. One New Years weekend we spent hours and hours surrounded by the remnants of our carnage food: bags of chips and Twizzlers, take-out pizza, take-out Chinese, and a never-ending supply of a Kool-Aid we called the Blue Elixir. There were three distinct major story arcs that took place in this world.

From there my roleplaying experiences expanded, usually with variations of this same group of people. We moved from D&D into other game systems. We spent a summer in the world of Shadowrun.

Somewhere in there, based on my lifelong love of comics, I joined a Marvel Superheroes roleplaying campaign. If memory serves, this was a game that had been started by my friend Jerry Scott when he was in middle school (maybe before that, maybe after... well before his college years anyway). Jerry played the Circle of Iron campaign with us and is now a Professor of Theater at Case Western. It was group of superhero characters that he and his friends had been playing for years. Several of us from Circle of Iron joined the fray. Set squarely in the long, convoluted history of the Marvel Universe we all created original characters and fought many classic Marvel villains, as well as new ones we created.

“Original characters” may be overstating it. Like many people who create superheroes, a lot of ours were variations on established characters, at least in terms of powers and backgrounds. It's easy to do this when you're young, and many people who work in comics professionally do the same thing. After 70 years of history and literally thousands of superheroes it's difficult to be completely original.

But we had fun, and somewhere along the line, Jerry decided to write short stories based on our characters.

It has become a cliché in the world of fantasy novels that many of them read like someone's D&D campaign, and it's true. Far too many writers have taken their tabletop adventures and attempted to convert them into prose. I have no doubt that some of these efforts have been successful. A tremendous amount of creativity can go into establishing a roleplaying world. Major publishers have released very successful book series based on most of the popular roleplaying games.

There is also the convention of Fan Fiction, or Fanfic. People who are fans of something, be it a comic, or a movie or a TV show, want to tell new stories set in their favorite world. This is especially true when a series comes to an end. So, they write their own adventures of their favorite characters. There are thousands of Star Trek fanfics out there, and Star Wars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Doctor Who, and... Pick any show you know of and Google it with fanfic and you will probably find something (be careful... a lot of these take Spock and Kirk in, let's say romantic, directions that were never on the original show). As long as you don't attempt to sell your work and infringe on copyright laws, it's all good.

Of course many, if not most of these, are poorly written drivel. But not all. Lots of serious writers get their start with fanfic and are able to eventually turn this into real careers in writing. Like the roleplaying companies, the copyright holders of any of these properties have produced thousands of legitimate novels based on their product as well. There have been countless novels and comics set in these worlds, and sometimes the authors of these books got their start writing fanfic.

I once had a coworker who said he just didn't get the concept of fanfic. Why would anybody be interested in writing someone else's character? At the time, he was in a punk band that, in addition to original material, played covers of the Ramones and the Dead Boys, among other Punk classics. Fanfic is the same thing. There's something you love that has insired you and you want to perpetuate it. Unless your band is doing a radical reinterpretation of a cover song I'm going to say that fanfic is more creative. At least the story is a new one based on someone else's work instead of a simply faithful rendition of a story already told.

Anyway, Jerry started writing stories based on our Marvel roleplaying game characters. They were meant for fun and he never really intended for anyone to read them other than the handful of us who were in the game. Four or five stories in I asked him if I could write one. He said sure, and so began a two or three year ongoing collaboration between us.

Our superhero team was called The Guardians (and yes, pretty much anyone who ever created their own team of superheroes has named them The Guardians... Jerry was young when this all started). I would write a story, then Jerry would write one. We never really overtly collaborated on any single story, but we kept each other in the loop about what we intended, while still trying to surprise each other. We both had a mutual respect for the characters and each other, so neither of us ever introduced anything that completely changed the world. If we wanted to do something huge, like killing off a character (poor Tenebrae), we talked it over ahead of time. There were some characters, like Mindbender and Lightwave, that were more Jerry's province than mine, simply because he had created them. Others, specifically Auracle and Totem, were my characters and I felt like I had more autonomy with them than others.

Of course, I did costume designs and drew pictures of all of them. Oddly enough I never attempted to do full-fledged comics of any of our stories.

In the end we wrote about forty short stories between us. These were never published on the internet (and probably won't be). One year for Christmas Jerry printed and bound two volumes of these to give to our friends in the game. These were pretty thick tomes and my initial response was “Wow... So I can write long extended works.”

This was an important insight, and led pretty directly to my confidence and ability to embark on a full-length novel. Not long after that I began work on the manuscript that was to become King of Summer, my first finished, and first published, novel.

The fanfic experience was really important to me as a writer. It was low pressure. This wasn't meant for publication or for the eyes of an editor. It was writing simply for the fun of doing so with a product that had no larger intent. We were never going to submit this work to Marvel, or anywhere else. I was writing to please myself and a small handful of others (though myself and Jerry primarily). That was tremendously freeing to me. I had the tendency to over-think my writing prior to this. I would sit down to begin the great American novel and become far too concerned with every word being perfect to ever get very far into any project. The Guardians allowed me to simply write.

This was during the same time frame when I was writing articles for In Pittsburgh, so the two forms of writing, and the rewards of actually being published by the newsweekly, both reinforced my habit of writing.

I'm sure that a lot of that work would seem very clumsy to me now, in terms of language, plot, story structure and character. I learned a lot of those skills while writing those stories. There is a definite progression in writing ability, on my part and on Jerry's, that can be seen in The Guardians. The short story format of these (though some probably count as novellas, based on word count), allowed me to develop structure and forced me to be more concise (believe it or not), while the serial nature of them gave me the opportunity to work on long-term plots. Simply seeing the bound versions made me realize that I had written more than enough words to count as a novel or two.

Every once in awhile Jerry and I reminisce about The Guardians, or throw out a inside joke about them that only he and I in the whole world would appreciate. It's another friendship and collaboration that that has changed due to life (though Jerry is still my friend, and I'm very proud of what he has accomplished). We both miss Mindbender and Auracle (the characters he and I played respectively, and the obvious focus of most of the stories), and the fun they brought to our lives.

But remnants of The Guardians still remain in my work. One story of mine in particular, Fire and Flood, had a lasting impact on me. When King of Summer was finished and I was making notes for future novels I realized that I could strip all of the superhero elements out of that story and still have a world and a core concept for a modern fantasy/horror novel. The idea stuck and after a lot of reworking it became the basis for my second completed novel manuscript entitled Scratch. Though the prolog chapter has been rewritten and polished many times since, the base flow of it and the ideas introduced, is still the chapter I wrote for The Guardians.

Scratch has not yet seen print, though there are some stories about it.

Next time...

1 comment:

  1. Awesome! I hadn't a chance to read this, but I enjoyed it very much, seeing written down what the experience meant to you (and knowing what it meant to me). It's interesting that, for my part, the Guardians stories also helped me become a better academic writer (even though my particular line of work doesn't demand a lot of it). Funny how something so pleasant and recreational can have wide-reaching impacts.

    I miss the Guardians a lot, actually ... the story writing, the anticipation for what story you'd send, and there's a definite improvement in both our writing as the stories progress (writing is rewriting ... or more writing, as the saying goes), but particularly in your style. It grows much faster and better than my own, of that there's no doubt, and is a real treasure to read. Now and again I pull out my bound copies and pour through them for fun bedtime reading.

    And thanks for your kind words and expressed pride in what I've done, I can use it right now ... ;)