Adapting an Existing Character Without Angering the Fanboys
Greetings once again readers. First and foremost, I must apologize for my lack of a post last week, as personal and technical problems kept me away from the blog. But those problems appear to be solved now, so I’m back up to speak on a rather difficult aspect of writing and adaptation- writing about an established character. Oftentimes, there are literary characters that can have legs in multiple stories and setting, or can do with a reboot, so writers can feel a desire to write about them. While in the wrong hands, it can come off as bad fanfiction, or worse, cause a legal problem, it can be done well, so long as you follow a set of proper standards.
#1 Legal Issues
To begin with, you must follow the legal aspects of adapting a character. Any current character is off-limits due to their owners still have copyright. You could get around this by communicating with them and getting legal rights, but it is a long and lengthy process. However, the age of the original story does make a difference. Any story over a hundred years old falls into public domain, meaning that those character no longer have any copyright. So while you cannot put Bella and Edward into your story, Dracula is no problem.
#2 Getting it Right
Once you have a character you can insert, you then have work at getting their core aspects done properly. Remember, this is a character that people have expectations of, and writing such a character improperly will result in sever backlash. Study the source material, see how the character acts, what his or her motivations are, and how they work. This is an absolutely vital part of the process- imagine a Broadway Phantom of the Opera, where all the writer had to draw from was the name of the story. Even if he or she got close to the source material, they most likely create something that was far removed from it and anger fans’ expectations. Sequels can also try to add on story, and this has had mixed results, such as The Phantom of Manhattan (which was also made into a musical, Love Never Dies). And there are certainly parodies and satires, but for any of these to work, there must be an understanding of the source material for the tone to function.
#3 Knowing Reactions
The other reason for knowing the character is to be able to work them into your story. You are taking this character out of their established element and putting them into your own. You need to know how they would react. I can give an example of my own here; early on, I attempted to write a story about Dracula being resurrected by a Twilight fan. To prepare, I first read Dracula over, taking notes on his behaviors, and the general tone of the story. That way, in my story, where Dracula is brought back as a teenager, I knew that he would use that form to his advantage, and be planning how he would adapt to this new world.
#4 Making The Character Yours
This is the hardest part. As any screenwriter will tell you, an adaption needs to balance both the true nature of the character, and have some stamp of the writer involved. Going too far in either direction can spell disaster. Again, I faced this problem with my own writing. I needed to have some way to make Dracula different, and give a new feel. Even as a teenager, I envisioned him to be the same- charming, dark, and always thinking. So instead, I delved into the original, and gave Dracula a chance to speak his mind on the heroes that had vanquished him. Here, I added some comic touches, having Dracula reveal how idealized the heroes had been- Harker became an overly-pretentious Englishman, Dr. Seward a cold, studious, purveyor of lunatics, and Van Helsing a disgraced professor willing to help anyone for food. And at the same time, I gave Dracula great respect for Mina, saying that she was the one who ultimately caused his death by outthinking him, a rare feat. In that way, I gave the readers a different look at the original story and of Dracula himself.
Using an established character is a risk, but with proper care, it can be make a story have tremendous depth. I have seen H.P. Lovecraft thrown into Ninja Turtles, Transformers, and G.I. Joe, with each succeeding because of the respect and accuracy given to the source material. Any writer trying to do this must treat the character as they would a loaned tool- give it care, but use it to effectively complete the job. And above all, remember that you are touching a legacy when you use another character- it is not a chance for you to impose your own vision of them, but rather a chance to uphold the legacy that already exists.