So one of the Golden Rules of writing is that you never write about anyone you know.
There are a whole host of good reasons not to. You can offend people, for starters, if you have them do something that they don’t think they’d ever do, or if they feel you’ve misrepresented something that they did or said, or believe. It either limits your creative freedom if you’re constantly checking with someone what they think they’d do or how they think they’d react, or you just invent all that stuff yourself in which case is it really them anyway? God help you if you decide to write a sex scene.
Of course, to paraphrase the treasurer of my chess club, the only Golden Rule of writing is that there are no Golden Rules of writing…
This is partly because there’s no one to enforce them. And the literary world is replete with stories of authors who created thinly veiled versions of people they’ve disliked to send them up and drop a diss track on them. Basing characters on people you know (as opposed to trying to make the character be them) is actively encouraged, and I’ve done this myself on many occasions. My favourite example of this is that time I was reflecting on a developing friendship with someone I’d known a few weeks. My internal monologue went something like, ‘Hmmmm, you’re a rather composed, calm sort of person. I wonder what would happen if I put someone like you on a boat and then BLEW IT UP!’
Cue evil author cackles. Think Ursula the Sea Witch.
But the ensuing character is not the same as the person who inspired her. She’s a bit younger, grew up somewhere totally different, made different life choices, looks at the world and the people in it differently. Been through completely different experiences. She’s my character, and whatever initially inspired her, I’ve chucked in all sorts since then. This is how character development works, and it can be very fun moulding these people that you’ve created and watching them grow and develop as individuals.
Write about someone you know and you lose all that.
And yet, it can be sooooo much fun.
If you’re writing friend fic, you’re probably doing it for fun. The best examples of it I’ve seen come from my very own online writers’ group Nanoland, where we have a notorious Like-troll, who besides a desperate quest to gain 1,000 likes on a post (he’s never succeeded in Land, although he did recently manage it in a related group where he wasn’t known and our efforts to foil him consequently failed) also writes highly entertaining friend fiction. In these pieces, various members of the group conspire against him to prevent him acquiring his 1,000 likes, he tries to get revenge on group members who already have, and it’s all a lot of fun.
I’m portrayed as a cyborg with a bear arm in those, if anyone’s wondering. I got the bear arm in a US Supreme Court case arguing about what ‘The Right to Bear Arms,’ actually means. It was a consolation prize after losing the right to arm bears.
The guy who writes these writes them carefully. He only ever includes group members he knows will enjoy and appreciate being in them, the humour is always on point but never cruel (I think everyone who knows me can easily picture me eating Skittles as they’re poured into my mouth through a funnel), he generally checks if something will be ok if he’s not too sure about it, and he’s always changed anything that caused any actual hurt or offence. I find the shenanigans of Cyborg Phil to be hilariously funny, although The Steven, a psychopathic hitman who refers to himself, always, as The Steven, is easily the best character.
I don’t really remember how it started, but around a month ago, a comment on a post led to requests for me to write a Lord of the Rings Nanoland fan-fiction, starring the group members themselves. Never one to refuse a challenge, I went straight for it, explaining why nothing’s been published on this site since the Jack the Ripper blog (and seriously, check that out if you haven’t. It’s on the homepage).
It went down very well, and now we’re going to try and make an audio book of it. Many people have volunteered their vocal talents to help out. I’m even twisting someone’s arm into singing the Nazgul song.
The first thing to note about friend-fic is just how in-jokey it can get. I made myself Aragorn (of course), but my war-cry is ‘I AM GROOT!’ This is part of an in-joke that only the person playing Legolas actually gets…
It also develops itself as it goes. The people you’ve chosen to play characters will comment on each post, and that interaction feeds back into the story itself. The Orcs formed a union. Saruman regularly complained that he was deeply misunderstood and only trying to make things better for everyone (‘We refer to that as “The Liberation of the Westfold,” in Mordor’). Legolas’ desire to sing ‘Pew-pew,’ when she did anything repeatedly drove Gimli up the wall.
It’s glorious watching your characters literally write your story for you.
As friend-fic it’s a very post-modern genre, and I found that this give me space both to satirise the original source material, and society in general. I made Galadriel a Native American lesbian, and immediately knew that I wanted to examine the reaction of fandoms, especially male fans, to any sort of character change. Lord of the Rings is a fantastic series of films, but it is hideously, hideously white. The standard defence of this is that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth was white, and the standard defence of that is that Tolkien based Middle-Earth, or at least the bits featured in his stories, on medieval Northern Europe, where there isn’t enough sunlight for darker skin to evolve.
I’ll spare you how funny that sounds to anyone who’s read The Silmarillion.
Deconstructing why Tolkien had no excuse whatsoever for making Middle-Earth so white you can’t see its inhabitants at all in winter, and the films had even less excuse for following his lead, could be a whole other blog post. I don’t read enough fantasy to keep up with all the politics within the genre, but my understanding is that it’s tried very hard to clean up its act as far as a diversity goes in the last ten years, to the fury of many authors and fans. And I wasn’t really looking at that anyway – I was looking at the way many fans, who by a strange coincidence are usually white, cishet, and male, hate it when someone is cast who isn’t white, cishet, or male.
Witness the way Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, was hounded off social media if you don’t believe me.
So, Galadriel is revealed to be Native American and a lesbian, and we immediately cut to a bunch of angry fanboys complaining to the Narrator that a Native American lesbian is a completely unrealistic thing to have in a story with Elves, magic rings, wizards, and Balrogs. All of which they’ll accept, of course.
Obviously, much of the satire is in-group, and probably wouldn’t translate at all to someone outside the group (like when our pet Like-troll, playing Gollum, ruminates with Frodo and Sam that people who’ve blocked him over his quest for 1,000 likes really haven’t got the point at all). And the fact that a maximum of 100 people will actually find this funny is explored at times. As much as I think we’ll all have a blast hamming up our lines for the audio book and putting on silly accents, it’s only ever going to be a private project. Too much of it wouldn’t be funny to people who aren’t from a particular friendship circle within Nanoland.
Even then, to make it acceptable and funny, I stuck very closely to jokes about people that we all already tell. The satire could be biting, but it was aimed at specific targets like fanboys who hate diversity in fiction. Within the group it was more a gentle fun-poking, that everyone could join in and laugh at themselves. Friend-fic is never supposed to get nasty. You want your friends to laugh along with it.
All the cast were chosen from within the group, and in one particular scene I looked at why it wasn’t right to use people from outside it. One running joke was that no one was playing Arwen. Having made myself Aragorn I didn’t want to give myself a love interest, even a satirical one, so there are various work-arounds in the story to explain why she’s never identified as anyone (‘The King left her veil down for health and safety reasons’). In one scene, Aragorn and Elrond discuss why I don’t make her a woman from outside the group I’ve discussed having unrequited romantic feelings for in the past. Hopefully the answer (that that would be really creepy) is obvious to everyone… this story is written within, and for, a specific target audience. Using anyone from outside that audience isn’t fair on them. We’re right back into never write about anyone real territory.
Authors who write fantasy sex scenes between thinly-veiled versions of themselves and thinly-veiled versions of women who’ve rejected them in the past… urgh. No, I’m not doing that, but I can use the friend-fic medium more intelligently to explain why I shouldn’t, and won’t, do that. Friend fic allows you to critique writing, and the ways writers approach it, in a way that other genres don’t. I mean, you can do one of those proper lit-fic novels where the protagonist is a struggling writer… but often those protagonists bear such a strong resemblance to the writer that the stories are essentially self- and friend-fic by another name. Apparently it’s the highest of highbrow to rename everyone and make them depressed in modern-day Manhattan, but the lowest of lowbrow to keep everyone’s names and set it in Middle Earth… but I digress. With friend-fic you can get properly outside the writing, because you aren’t trying to sell the world to anyone.
Everyone knows I’m not Aragorn (and anyone who’s ever seen me fight in a reenactment event knows that the idea of me as an unstoppable warrior is hilarious), so instead of trying to sell you that reality, I can laugh at myself for making myself into the badass hero. And then I can laugh at the filmmakers for making the Orcs so easily killable that you don’t take them seriously as a threat. I can satirise the list of ‘Military Tactics in Lord of the Rings That Really Shouldn’t Have Worked,’ without breaking the Fourth Wall because, really, there is no fourth wall.
That’s the great strength of Friend Fic then, the freedom it gives you to satirise and critique yourself, and the bad habits of writers everywhere. The big weakness is that, like I said above, it really limits your creative freedom if you’re just writing about your friends all the time. They can’t grow or develop as characters, because they aren’t. They’re real people.
The place of satire is to mock the powerful and complacent, and in writing, that’s the writer. So the place of Friend Fic, in writing, is to make people laugh, and keep you and me honest about our own bad habits. It might never make sense to more than a handful of people, might never go beyond our circle of writer friends (and, let’s be honest, probably shouldn’t). But as an exercise in writing, it’s fun and useful, and if it makes those people smile and brightens their days for a moment, then… well, that’s the point, right?