Guest Post by Rob Barba: Fixing a Hole

One of our regular commentors and occasional posters, Rob Barba, is launching his own series.  A long-time fan (as in, he helps make me feel not that old), he's also been around and has given a lot of thought to issues of what fanfic, fandom, worldbuilding, etc. mean for him as an author.  He's written an extensive essay on the subject – and it's one that might just shock or surprise you as he touches on a lot of areas of controversy and some past internet incidents.

So if you've got that indie series a-brewing, here's some advice . . . fix the holes


I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in 
and stops my mind from wandering 
where it will go

– The Beatles

Picture this: you have a series. You have two main characters; both sexy, talented, compelling and obviously your mains for a reason. The two are business partners, friends…but nothing more. One’s even happily married. No, in-universe, they’re not even two ships that pass in the night.

So your stuff is popular. You have fanfics written about your works. You take a peek and…uh oh. Your two main characters are sleeping together. They’ve been ‘shipped. One’s sleeping with the main villain, even though they hate each other in “reality”. The married character’s wife is even constantly murdered or vilified in fanfics, being condemned as a Mary Sue when in truth she’s a well-rounded character whose only tenuous link to the Sue charge is that she’s wed to one of the mains. People have created tons of original characters whose purpose is nothing more than a true Mary Sue avatar to fulfill a writer’s lazy wet dreams.

And when you try to explain otherwise, or even try to correct a fanon problem that will ruin some of your stuff down the road, you’re being told you have “no right” to make changes. You’re “ruining the stuff for the fans.” There’s no way you could be correct about that facet of your work, despite you being the one behind the whole thing. The labor of love that you’ve invested heart and soul in is no longer yours but instead belongs to the “common fabric of mythology”, intellectual property laws be damned.

Congratulations. Your work has just been hijacked.

So what happened? How did that occur? How did something that you spent long hours and substantial brain power over creating slip out of your grasp like so many star systems from Grand Moff Tarkin’s fingers? You went through the motions of doing the research, crafting the work, getting it out there and garnering your fandom. You worked long and hard to nurture that audience, and now you’re seeing the fruits of that fandom in the form of fanfics, people inviting you to cons and following your social media feeds (you are marketing via social media, right?). If you’re really lucky, the bigger companies are coming your way, wanting to publish you in hard copy or buy some of the rights to your work (film, TV, toys, etc.).

Easy: you didn’t fill in the holes. As was explained earlier, world building is a necessary component of many creative ventures, whether it’s writing, creating D&D campaigns, or plots for videogames. You need a place, a time, and characters in order to shape a feasible and plausible world. You don’t necessarily have to follow the bounds of the real world (anyone for floating islands?) and you certainly don’t have to create a world so detailed that the Wiki about your work outsizes Wikipedia itself (Your detailed history on how phlogiston works in your world is nice, but Vol. 1 of 6 is overkill. Really.) And of course, whether or not you’re aware of it, you’re following the old writer’s adage: you must have the strange in the familiar or the familiar in the strange, or else no one will understand and thus no one will care.

But do you have a plan for where things are going? No, I’m not talking about just the storyboard or the makeup of the story arcs, but the plan of details, your world bible, if you will. If not, you have plans to keep this stuff notated or even with a ready explanation of why X does not equal Y or why John has no interest in Mary? No? If not, you’re in for a whole bunch of disasters, trials and tribulations. You will be upended at every turn, beaten back by the hordes who once though you a genius. It could end up in embarrassment, or frustration. It could even cost you your very work.

In short: you must have a plan – even if you don’t mention it at the beginning – to have critical points built and covered so that your fans don’t outpace you and you end up catching up on your own works. To use a phrase I’ve said for years, you must fill in the holes, or else someone else will do it for you and you may not like the results. This is a good way to prevent your own work from spinning out of control; or worse, essentially outsourcing your own creativity to the crowd. It’s especially good to prevent fanon, whether voiced or otherwise, as well as controlling the nastier part of fanworks (bad ‘shipping, snuff fics, etc.).

Before I continue, I must explain that I am not anti-fanwork. I came up from the fanwork field myself, and personally I feel that it’s a great way to start becoming comfortable with the nuances and subtleties required for fiction prose. I’m also not talking about adaptations, though bear in mind that oftentimes what I will refer to below will also apply there; depending on circumstances (i.e. creator input allowed and legal frameworks) the result may or may not be your fault. Lastly, I’m certainly not talking about shared universes (e.g. the Cthulu Mythos, Star Trek, etc.) where one creator or property owner opened it up to a bunch of others within the existing framework, as those are definitely dependent upon the individual writers to stay within the framework (CDR Riker’s name is “Will”) or not (no, it’s “Bill”). I also realize that there are often fanfics (slash and ‘shipping works in particular come to mind, though there are other gregarious examples) which will do their wont upon your work regardless, barriers to entry breached at every pass.

Regardless, you must plug the holes in that may change your work without your own hand. You can create it so that you still have control over your works, so that (for example) the snuff-fic folks may create their works but will have to do metaphorical backflips in order to do so (Seriously, “I love you more than anything, so I’ll chop you to pieces and throw your face in the fridge so I’ll always remember you.” Really?); same goes for the alternate universe folks (okay, if you’re going to have Rukia meet Ishida before Ichigo, you’re going to have to do pirouettes to make it feasible!) I’ll give a few examples: one my own, one of how holes can cause your work to spin out of control, and one of ultimately how things can fall apart.

The first example is my own company’s work, Claude & Monet, coming soon to a website near you sometime this August (cue the shameless plug!) The titular characters in this are Claude Valos and Lily Monet, a pair of mercenaries moseying around the galaxy (yes, it’s sci-fi) righting wrongs and causing property damage in the process. Look! They’re beautiful! They’re smart, cunning and certainly compelling. They’re ripe for the “Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other” trope that has been around from Han & Leia to Ranma & Akane and well before either couple were even first thought of (Ralph & Alice from The Honeymooners, anyone?) Furthermore, they’re constantly pitted against a heavy, Jurgen Brenner, who is also no slouch in the positive attributes department either. It’s clear that their constant proximity, heat of battle and genders would make both Monet and Claude a great couple; furthermore, obviously there’d be some sexual tension between Monet and Brenner…or maybe Claude and Brenner.

Except…we didn’t want it that way. When my wife first envisioned the characters, she’d always thought them as friends and partners, but never lovers; at most, they’re close in the “bickering siblings” way, not the “office spouse” way. As the idea came closer to being developed as something we’d do as a project, she had valid concerns of ‘shipping; that we’d be seeing lemon upon lemon of our characters romping in the space hay in between battles. Lastly, the antagonist is the antagonist for a reason; people might draw Sephiroth as cute and cuddly but in the Final Fantasy VII world, he’s the last person you’d want to cross. So it is the same for Brenner. There were myriad problems as well. As you can see, even during the beginning of a work, there are holes abound: plot holes, continuity holes, characterization holes, holes in holes. While I’m proud to say that we didn’t look like a block of Swiss cheese, we were probably closer to a golf course than I’d like.

Thus, we filled in those holes. For starters, I created Miki, Claude’s live-in would-be girlfriend, as a potential block. She’s a main character, not a Sue meant as nothing more than arm dressing for Claude, and a vital part of the triumvirate that makes our three main protagonists. She looks up to Monet like an older sister, so nothing happening there. And as for Claude/Miki slashes, guess what? She’s underage (note I said “would-be”). Further, she dotes on Claude and tends to be extremely jealous of anyone who she thinks would have designs on him, so there’s that block. Lastly, none of this would happen without some kind of feeling or validation on his part, thus filling that hole.

As for Monet, there’s the above, along with the fact that we’ve made her decidedly nonsexual and for the most part aromantic. She’s that way because of something in her past (no, we’re not giving out spoilers) that plays a great part in who she is. As for Brenner and sexual attraction there, well, simply, she hates his guts and likely vice versa; they’re more likely to put bullets between each other’s eyes before teasing glances. Does that mean there’s no romance for her? No, in fact she has a suitor (one that she’d wish would go away), but for the most part, relationships and sex have become painful reminders for her.

Does it mean that someone could turn the story into a soap opera supreme, or some sort of hedonistic literary orgy? Obviously. Have we made it easier? No, and it will just get harder as the story develops. Of course, there’re all the other characters that interplay, and many of them will be ripe for hostile takeover by the fans. Of course, when that happens we’ll plug up those leaky dikes as well. My referential bible of the C&M world is sizable (partially because there’s at least one other series that we’re working on that takes place in the same universe) and while I haven’t drilled down to the most detailed of minutiae (I don’t know what type of toothpaste Monet uses, nor do I have plans for it to be anything more than a passing reference), but I know the basics (height, weight, etc.) and some of the deeper details: transport preference (she’s an antique car collector, mostly preferring her restored 2017 Mitsuoka Orochi GT), musical tastes (mid-20th c. to early 21st c. soul), weapons preference (two custom-made coilguns with 6mm hollow-point rounds), and other details, many of which I won’t mention here for spoiler reasons.

It also goes without mentioning that we’re not the only ones who think in this manner: Piro of Megatokyo does the same (though he would describe it differently), as does J.K. Rowling, who publicly went to battle against her fans over issues such as these. Many, many other creators do so as well, whether or not the tiffs become public. And, of course, there’s the most obvious example of this: George Lucas and Star Wars, who has gone so far as layer his great work with several levels of canon and has a whole division of his company devoted to nothing but tracking everything in his universe.

Why? Because as the creator, it is our right and responsibility to fashion something that the fans want; our creation is not a shared universe and you can bet we’ll want input on adaptations (whether you agree with him or not, George Lucas created and owns Star Wars and is his right to do what he or his assignees/employees change or create). If Claude & Monet gets big enough, fans will create their own fanon (“Monet and Brenner’s right hand man are secretly a couple but are in a star-crossed relationship!”) and will likely get pissed when we plug that hole (“no, she hates Ernesto just as much.”). A friend of mine, also in the webcomic industry, indicated the whole reason for his sizable world bible was for no other reason than to plug some of the holes he knew were coming and that he felt would seriously jeopardize his work. “Not worth the headache of having to explain over and over that no, it’s not like that.”

But again, as a creator, you have both the right and the duty to give them your vision and part of that means plugging holes that may endanger that work. Otherwise, it could cost you. Just as it did several creators out there.

What’s that? It didn’t cost them at all? I’m insane? Ah, but look: amongst the fans are some of the most critical out there when it comes to fanworks. A search on Google (depending on the property, of course), will garner a fairly sizable amount of fans out there, many rabid. The arguments range from the minor (“In panel one, the character’s carrying the katana, but in the next panel a second later, he’s carrying a gun!”) to the significant (Rumiko Takahashi’s infamous lack of world bibles for most, if not all, of her works) to the overblown (a scientific paper has been written about the fanon Ewok Holocaust, something even Lucas has poked fun at). The expanse goes from the occasional slipups made by otherwise thorough creators (George R. R. Martin and J. R. R. Tolkein) to creators with serious issues regarding their own continuity (the aforementioned Takahashi, the recently accused creator of Castle, Andrew W. Marlowe) to breaking out the pitchforks (just listen to any debate regarding superhero continuity).

Okay, so it’s just a bunch of deranged individuals. Um…no it’s not. One only has to look at the fandomsphere to know that these are hundreds of thousands of individuals, possibly even in the millions, all ranging and raging from sites like 4chan to People magazine’s site and beyond. As a creator, these are people who invest time, energy and parts of their lives to making sure the minutiae fits…or they make it up themselves. Remember that we laughed at William Shatner’s “Get a Life” Saturday Night Live skit because it was so true. Those people are out there, and they’re going to want to know why you did what you did in your work. And if you don’t have the answer, it might cost you – dearly. It could end up the worst case scenario: where your hard work and efforts result in your ignominy…

…just like Saratoga Flats. What, you haven’t heard of it? Why, in the 90s, it was the storyline of storylines; Alien Nation meets the Wild West; Cowboys and Aliens before the comic was created, much less the (vastly different adaptation) movie. The brainchild of one Darcy Lanceman, it was wild and popular and all the talk of Geocities, even garnishing a mention on the front page of the site (this, of course was before the Yahoo! buyout and subsequent irrelevance and dissolution). But of course, a good Google search now won’t find you any mention of creation nor creator, not even on the Internet Archives – I know. I checked. Go ahead and do it yourself, I’ll wait right here.

Welcome back. Anyway, it was a huge story (one she’d mostly written before applying it to the web), taking over nearly all of her site and then some. Back in 94 and 95, anyone who had access to the interwebs was at Geocities, and if you were looking for those ur-examples of web creativity, you likely came across Saratoga Flats. For someone like me, writing fanfiction back in the 80s (yes, I’m carbon-dating myself) before fanfiction as it is today even existed, was glad to see someone whose successes contributed to a sizable fandom. Talking to Darcy herself, publishers were looking and a gaming company was looking to create an RPG based on Saratoga.

In Saratoga you had the small town of Saratoga Flats, Nevada, home to the nastiest bunch of desperadoes and valiant gunslingers, who came across a group of shapeshifting alien slaves seeking asylum from their masters. Many of those aliens shifted into humans, glad to take refuge just as their masters attacked. During the course of the epic story, heroes became villains, desperadoes became chivalrous knights in black, cowboy and Indian became a united army under the banner of Col. George Custer to fight off the unnamed slavers at any cost. It was a beautiful work that no longer exists (and as far as I know, Darcy is now out of the running).

What happened? Well, Custer wasn’t her idea – it was an idea of a fan, one she implemented at the tons of emails she received (remember, this was before you could tweetbomb someone’s account), because the name of the mysterious savior who would come to unify them all was yet unnamed (a critical hole that should have been filled from the very beginning). At first, it seemed like a good idea, a way to keep the fans going and interactive in “their” fandom. Of course, she then took more and more ideas from the fandom to plug the holes, essentially outsourcing her own creativity. Saratoga Flats, Nevada, with a description close to that of the real-world Elko, Nevada (she never mentioned this, another hole left open), suddenly became Saratoga Flats, New Mexico because someone had a storyline for her; I was told by a fellow fan this ruined continuity and a few ideas Darcy had. Despised and hated slaves running away from the South (because it was plausible and accurate for that time) suddenly became (i.e. had always been) African American sheriffs and soldiers welcomed by the populace because slavery didn’t exist in the United States (despite mention of the Civil War four chapters later); this idea was because a fan felt slavery was wrong; explaining it one way or another would have been a hole that would have been covered). Even the vicious slaver aliens at one point were just humans from the future but then turned out to be aliens (a hole created by “guest writers”, explaining to them whether they were or not would have solved that). And because Darcy was using her fans’ suggestions, she naturally assumed the fandom was tracking all of this to begin with. And all would be right.

Well, suddenly, publishers backed away because, honestly, who owned the material at this point? Fans who never knew her original plans suddenly accused her of being a sellout when she’d always intended to publish hardcopy from the beginning. Meanwhile, while the whole drama session played out in bright flames of arguments, fans began to see other works out there (or created their own) and melted away, heading for better and brighter shores. And in the end, Darcy either quit or abandoned the site, but by this time, I was already one of those gone, myself headed for my own fanfiction works on my site on Geocities and thinking I could interest people in my own original creations.

You could argue that Saratoga was a victim of a maturing internet fandom; I disagree, as if you look long enough, there are fandoms out there for everything. You could say that it was a legal failure on her part to put a disclaimer: anything created in this universe belongs to me; while that could be true, the signs were there that she’d lost control of it long before internet law (and “internet lawyers”) existed. But the whole thing, in my opinion, is that she had holes that she never plugged, never covered, and others filled in for her. Some she liked, others (moving Saratoga Flats from NV to NM) she didn’t, and in the end it overwhelmed her, her series and like a tree choked out by too much brush and vines, it withered and died.

Granted, in the end, all of this is opinion and advice. Some of you may want those holes. Some of you might not even see said holes. But like anything else, creative business is still both creativity (yours) and business (yours as the person in charge, regardless who owns the property) and like any creative venture, too many chefs spoil the broth. In business, oftentimes design by committee is a recipe for a death sentence.

Don’t let that disaster be yours: plug the holes.

Rob Barba is a long-time veteran of fandom and despite this, he still enjoys it.   A harried writer and artist, he's the head of Megami Studios (, a multimedia company producing its flagship work, Claude & Monet, after seven years of…whatever.  Look for Claude & Monet coming in September at