Michael J. Martinez: What To Do About Fan Service

Mike Martinez is a good dude and a damn fine writer and he wanted to pop by today to talk about a conundrum he had writing his latest book — how much does a writer need to consider the wants and service of the fans of the previous books? What’s the balance there? Mike has thoughts.

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I’m gonna talk about fan service and creativity today, and because many of you know my host from his work on Star Wars, I’ll start there. Buckle up.

When The Force Awakens came out in late 2015, well…it was a simpler time. American democracy remained relatively intact, for starters, and we were just happy to get any Star Wars whatsoever. What we got was comfortable – a very familiar story with some new characters, loaded with the tropes we remembered from the original trilogy and updated with the best movie magic tech around.

Fans were served. There was general rejoicing. Star Wars was back! Yes, there were some who complained that The Force Awakens felt like a re-tread. Totally valid, because it was. There was a certain faith that had to be reestablished with fans, and some reminding to do as to why Star Wars as a whole was awesome. The Force Awakens did what it was supposed to do.

Fast-forward two years, and oh my. The Last Jedi was just so very different from what came before, and treated iconic characters in unexpected ways. It took me a few viewings to really grok what Rian Johnson was trying to do, and when I did, I was deeply appreciative.

Of course, certain segments of fandom were…less appreciative. But it’s a credit to Rian and others who made The Last Jedi that they stood by their choices in the face of (insane, over-the-top, toxic, stupid) criticism. Because in the end, The Last Jedi served Star Wars fans just as much as The Force Awakens did – but this time, by turning it on its head.

“Fan service” is kind of a dirty word when it comes to creators – whether it’s books or movies or whatever. There’s a sense in there that the creator is pandering to fans, serving up the same reheated stuff like grandma’s mac-n-cheez because they know they’ll eat it and love it. And you know what? That’s fine! Eat up. Grandma’s got more.

There are times, for both creative and business reasons, where you want to give ‘em what they’re asking for. Heck, it’s safe and, usually, profitable to do so. And if you’re establishing something new or you want to reaffirm your audience’s faith in what you’re doing, give them what they love. This isn’t a sin. If that’s where the creator feels the story should go, it should go there. We want people to buy into what we’re doing, after all.

But we’re creators, man. We’re not slaving away in a story factory, wearing gray coveralls and churning out canned story meats all the time. Sometimes, we want to wreck the machine and throw the meats against the wall and puzzle out new plots from the splatter patterns.

And you know what? That’s serving fans just as much, if not moreso.

We all want our comfort food. But when the creator makes a left turn and blows stuff up, think of the passion that generates. How many people were furious with George R.R. Martin after the Red Wedding? They got over it, of course, though let’s face it – George had already established his murderous intent early on in his work. (RIP, Ned.) But still, he was willing to upend the narrative and blow people away with his choices. The fans were upset – but ultimately, George got far more fans than he lost.

So when do you blow up that narrative? When do you serve the fans by potentially pissing them off?

There’s no easy answer to that, of course. I wrapped the last book in my MAJESTIC-12 series, the aptly-named MJ-12: Endgame, with some head-turning changes. Friends were foes, heroes died, people changed sides. I mean, it’s a spy thriller, so if you don’t go in expecting that stuff, shame on you, right?

I figured I might lose a fan or two with some of the character choices I made. Someone could be angry that a certain character lived or died, or that someone else was hiding a major secret. So be it. I was happy with it. That’s because my primary approach was that of a fan. I am indeed a fan of my own work! And why not? I WROTE IT. IT’S MINE. I should like it. If I didn’t like it, I’d change it or just stop writing it.

So that, to me, is the simple-yet-infinitely-complex solution to serving your audience and writing for fans – be a fan of your own work. Make the decision to change the narrative based on the story you want to tell, because you’ve lived with the story and those characters more than anybody else on the planet could. If you want to write something comforting, then by all means, go for it. If you want to blow shit up, have at it!

Not everyone will like it. But it’s the most honest way to go.

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Michael J. Martinez is the author of MJ-12: Endgame, the final volume in his MAJESTIC-12 series of spy-fi novels, due out Sept. 4. He’s also written other stuff and will continue to do so until someone stops him. He recently relocated to California, where the sun beats down unrelentingly but somehow, the people remain super friendly. It’s annoying all around, but he’s adapting.

Michael J. Martinez: Blog | Twitter | Facebook

MJ-12: Endgame: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound