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Fantastic Fanfiction: How to Write an Alternate Universe (AU) Story


Fanfiction has been surging for many years, in no small part thanks to the stratospheric success of franchises such as Harry Potter and Twilight. In fact, some fanfiction has drawn in so many readers that the authors themselves are inciting their own fandoms.

You may be reading this because you have a knack for writing and are a huge fan of a particular fictional universe which you feel, while great, has more storytelling potential. Maybe there's a new and outrageous setting to explore. Or a fresh relationship waiting to blossom between characters who never met in the original universe. Or an alternative timeline in which pivotal events play out very differently. And so, you want to throw your hat into the ring of fanfiction by creating an alternate universe.

Writing alternate universe fanfiction—usually called AU for short—ostensibly means all bets are off when putting familiar characters into a new world. But even while delving into writing an AU story, there are some things to keep in mind to help ensure you're doing justice to the beloved source.

Know the characters as if they were always yours

While this writer deigns to call them your characters, you need to write the characters as if they were your own creations. This is vital if your alternate universe is to stand on its own feet.

The setting in which your story takes place—the place, the time, the social and physical environment of the characters—will likely be a drastic departure from the source material in which the characters were conceived. Because of this, the characters need to retain many of the traits that, well, make them who they are in the first place.

If you turn Harry Potter into a little cowardly blonde-haired boy, or Tyrion Lannister into a monogamous yet hot-headed brute, you've definitely strayed too far from the track. And if you do, you're no longer writing a fanfiction alternate universe account: you're essentially writing an original work with new characters coasting along on brand name value.

Even worse, the nominal characters won't reel in the key audience of your writing: fans of the original universe. If you've lost them because you tore up the blueprint for the characters, you'll be fighting an uphill battle to get anyone engrossed in your story.

You can tweak the characters, but it should be in ways that are consistent with their essence. If the backstory of a character in their original universe involved them losing a close family member or loved one through a tragic accident, you might slightly rework that. Perhaps they instead lose them to a different type of accident—or no accident at all? Maybe they play a bigger and more unfortunate role in the tragedy?

Backstory is just one thing to think about. Other character quirks can be just as important to reverberate in your AU story.

Perhaps there are no snakes in your AU, but if there are, Indiana Jones could still be deathly afraid of them. Retaining the same, or similar, traits will make the character familiar to the target audience—something important to have in a different setting.

You may even go as far as revisiting key character relationship dynamics from the source. Perhaps you want to explore the same relationships through a different plot, timeline or place, and see what changes. Or you could consider slightly changing a relationship and seeing how the difference unfolds over your course of your story.

Whatever you choose to keep from the characters as you bring them (possibly kicking and screaming) into the new world you've created, make sure it's strong enough for readers to recognize. If you make the characters seem completely different, you may as well google a random name generator and slap something new to them.

Choose a world that makes sense, and do your research (if need be)

The world you create for your fanfiction will be best served if it also bears some similarities to the original universe. These similarities don't need to be as strong as they are for the characters, but can help improve your chances of making a successful world choice.

Compare the original setting with your own and record similarities you notice. The list might reveal some shared features that might help your AU go over well with readers. Or it might give you food for thought about things missing from your chosen world, and get you to consider whether you can add them, or should come up with something different.

It should almost go without saying that if you're choosing to set your AU story in a particular historical period, you must indulge yourself in some research.

Even if it seems incredibly wild to place Lord of the Rings characters in the industrial era, it doesn't mean there aren't some associated rules.

You can't completely ignore logic. If you want to throw Frodo Baggins into Dickensian London, you have to comply with the era's fashion, social and cultural norms, and technology. Otherwise, your audience will become confused and question all the details, rather than invest in the characters. Or worse, they'll stop reading.

All of this is not to say you can't unleash your imagination and let it run rampant with your setting. After all, it's an AU story you're trying to write, not a re-creation of the original universe.

If you'd prefer to avoid doing a heap of research, or if history happens to bore you to tears, you can always stir up a fantastical setting loosely based on a certain epoch . Steampunk is a popular example of just such a thing. But in these types of settings, you'll have to signpost things for your readers. If you don't clue them into the rules of the AU—which at least have to make internal sense—then you're destined to lose their interest.

Employ quotes from the original source

AU stories are inherently based in their deviation from the source, but it's important that they relate to the original writing. Sometimes a fanfic writer might need to do more than write the characters to be consistent with the source.

You could consider reusing a popular quote spoken by a character in the original author's work. Perhaps the recurring "winter is coming" quote from Game of Thrones has renewed life in a futuristic setting overrun with AI technology? The "stay with me?" question uttered by both Peeta and Katniss in The Hunger Games is another example that could work: it's simple and memorable, and is something easy for your audience to latch onto when you invite them into your AU world.

Alternatively, you could take a lesser-known quote from the source, as long as it is still a powerful one. Many people will recall the words "even the smallest person can change the course of the future" spoken in Lord of the Rings. However, perhaps fewer remember the equally potent and poetic quote, "moonlight drowns out all but the brightest stars." This quote may be less obvious to some readers, but diehard fans will recognize it, and its beauty will still affect everyone else.

Invent your own introductory hook or phrase

Some of the popular literature and entertainment already mentioned in this article uses this particular technique. It involves including some foreign phrase—a name for an event, person, place, or something else—about which the reader knows nothing, but becomes enticed to learn more.

One example is in the beginning of The Hunger Games, in which Suzanne Collins writes about "the Reaping." Collins reveals on the first page only that Prim is afraid of it. There is no information about it being an annual event at which tributes are chosen for the upcoming Hunger Games event—not yet. That reveal comes later, but the unusual phrase is foreign to the reader, and so through the emotion presented and the powerful and daunting name, they're compelled to read on.

If you do something similar, and introduce a wholly new idea right from the get-go, you still have to explain it sooner rather than later. In most cases where this technique is used the phrase is explained within a chapter or two. Describe it early enough, but hold off for at least a few pages. That way you won't have readers baffled for too long by the idea, but can still get them attached to your characters or plot.

You could borrow a motif or peculiar phrase from the original work and pump it with steroids in your AU story if you'd like. But, along with the story's plot, chances are that this is something you'd want to concoct all on your own. Your AU story is supposed to be a departure from the source, after all.

Enticing potential fans into your AU story means doing justice to a beloved fictional universe while diverging from it.

There's tension involved in doing this and requires a careful balance: you need to maintain enough familiarity with the canon universe in your story to go with the compelling world you create.

Ultimately the audience you want reading your AU story is mostly limited to existing fans of the fictional universe. If you can manage to impress them by getting the balance right, you know you're on the right track.

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