Original or fanfiction.
My earliest writings were in the form of "journals". You know, those things that your teacher forces you to write. As a new immigrant with no command over the language whatsoever, I followed the structure of: X meets Y. X says, "Go away". Y goes away. Needless to say, the teacher was unimpressed. In fact, she thought I was being abused. Ma'am, somebody who can't communicate in the language cannot communicate his/her feelings, so despite the attractive option of mainstream psychology to explain the hidden meanings of a three-lines-long, barely comprehensible "journal entry" that is most certainly fiction, you should very probably just try to teach some proper English.
Of course, language skills improve with usage. Throughout elementary school, I started building an interest for fiction-writing. The stories were really just an re-enactment of what I saw on TV, change the names, change the physical character design, done! Still no hidden meaning. Yes, Ma'am from my gr. 2 class, children don't really know how to write extended metaphors...
In eighth grade, I realized my English skills were horrible. I also realized that horrible English would compromise my grades, and consequently my chances of entering university. As such, I started taking fiction writing more seriously.
My first fictional story that reached a word count of over 10k was called "Fly Away from Math". Don't let my third-year math prof hear about that - it would give him the perfect reason for explaining why I got a C- on that course. Frankly, it was a horrible piece of writing. Summary: self-insert and friends get bullied, challenges bullies to a math contest and wins so bullies back off. No shit. Even with the very tame summary I gave above, you can see how nerdy and unrealistic and downright ridiculous this story is. But ultimately, this is the first story in which I attempted to dive into what characters think and feel, their motivations and ambitions, and because the characters are those taken from real-life, they have flawed personalities and insecurities.
This exercise, and others involving self-inserts, helped me develop a sense for character-driven story lines. That was also when I started writing fanfiction. It's similar, in a sense, to fiction containing self-inserts, in that characters already have a pre-defined personality and background. The first fandom I chose to write in was Love Hina, which I must admit, was a very lucky choice indeed.
There is something very different about Love Hina and the other fandoms I've written in later on: Inuyasha, Bleach, and Cardcaptor Sakura. If I may so suggest, LH is intended for an older audience. It may be slapped with the "harem" and "romantic comedy" genres, but at times, I feel the comedy or even the events in the manga are more a parody of itself. Whether or not it's what Akamatsu intended, I'm not sure, but it's easy to look for hints of deeper characterization if you want to find them.
My first story in the LH fandom was What is True Strength, Motoko, which I have since taken off the site. It was not of the romance genre, and instead focused on Motoko becoming stronger both physically and emotionally. Come to think of it, I quite like the premise of the idea, although the execution at that time was poor. The character development theme got carried onto Another Promise, which I still shudder when rereading. Despite all the choppy writing and ridiculous events, I do find some redeeming qualities here and there, mainly pertaining to the fact that the characters change with events around them, they interact, and their story is told through these interactions. This is more evident by the later chapters of AP's sequel, Forgotten Promise, where I think the characters have fleshed out into more realistic counterparts, and the story has transformed to being simply about each person's motivations, while the supernatural has taken a lighter support role.
Whenever I talk about FP, I don't know how to describe it. In a way, I'm ashamed of it. In another way, I'm very proud of it. I don't think any of my other stories, original or fanfiction, have managed to build such stark characters. Motoko in this story reminds me of a line from the Tale of Heike: The sound of the Gion Shouja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sarasouju flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. This is the way I see her pride, which while serving as a propulsion for her strength also fates her for decline. I accidentally wrote her in AP as completely devoted to this pride: as a swordswoman, she struggles, only to attain greater strength. Though humble about her skills, she does not doubt this way of life, and in a way, is arrogant enough to think that this is true morality, this is the way others should also live their years by. Here is where I must mention Kenjiro, my OC, which in my opinion is a fairly well-written OC who seems to fit quite well with the alternate universe. Kenjiro, though taking on a completely antagonistic role, is a mirror of Motoko. Sure, he is an ass. He is weak, both physically and mentally, and blames all his failures on other people in order to retain his pride. Why? Because pride is all there is to him, which is somewhat similar to Motoko of both the original LH and of the fanfic series I wrote. And this is reflected by the close ties that are formed between the two of them in FP. In AP, Kenjiro's "love at first sight" is downright ridiculous, but it is not too farfetched to see that love truly blossom in FP because "the fall of Motoko" brings her that much closer to him in terms of experiences. And this is why readers think Motoko might really fall for this ass. Not once. Not once did Kenjiro win a battle with Motoko. Not once did he show off his great masculinity. But what he showed was human weakness. I swear, I didn't even know this was what I wrote until I read through the readers' responses, and after years of not touching this fic, reread it myself. Kenjiro tempts Motoko into giving up that superficial strength and pride for a long-lasting simplicity as a selfish human being. People can only live as a hero in a single moment, but people can live a whole life as just one of the crowd.
What about Keitaro, the perfect hero of the original series? In AP, I brought about the prospect of Keitaro giving up on a dream for reality, which relates to what I wrote above. Ironically, it wasn't in AP that this point resonates with Motoko's character fatality, and Kenjiro took on this role in FP instead. Why? Because despite saying that he would give up his dream, he merely continued dreaming by forming another promise with Motoko. You can see early in FP Keitaro's personality did not change. He still puts up with all abuse. He still can't say no to things he doesn't want. He is still more concerned about others, or perhaps his image in front of others, than who he really is. Then he loses his memories. I think it's really after he loses his memories that he starts becoming a real character with flesh and blood. I must say, amnesia in fiction is so cliche that I don't even want to begin talking about it. At first, my treatment of amnesia as a plot twist was exactly the same as those cliches: hero loses memories, angst, angst, angst, hero regains memories. Later on, though, I gave up on this treatment. Keitaro loses his memories so he can't know how to act in accordance to everyone's wishes anymore. He gets to start over and pick with no "promise" to live for. When I started the sequel, I didn't even think for a sec that this was why the title is "forgotten". But now that there is a concrete forgotten theme, we can go on to discuss Naru, who keeps trying to bring up Keitaro's memories, but at the same time really just wants to forget her own.
First of all, I'm not a Naru-basher. In the original LH, she is about as annoying as Motoko in that she never asks questions and just kicks Keitaro into lower-orbit without so much as reason. Thing is, she even sometimes knows that it isn't Keitaro's fault, but she has to be tsundere and be violent to him just because. And in AP, I didn't do a better job at her characterization either. She's a sore loser, that's all. She's just as prideful as Motoko, if not more, and can't stand the fact that she made a mistake and missed out on the opportunity of being with someone who really cares for her. Then in FP, she wants to start over. The memory loss gives her an even better excuse to do it, even if she must take dishonorable side routes to do so. But really, is she dishonorable? She's a little coercive. She's a little vain. But she isn't forcing Keitaro to love her, is she? In that, I'm really starting to like Naru's character development, how she knows she's being a selfish bitch but can't stop herself, because she has nothing left in life. You can't tell her to consider Kenjiro, because he doesn't consider her either, and neither of them are willing to take a step forward into an unknown future, knowing there is a secure past they can turn to now that Keitaro and Motoko's relationship is breaking apart.
Before you start calling me a narcissist for critically analyzing my own fanfic, I'll just end with, "AP and FP are horribly written, but with more than one accident and a decade of work, it has turned into something quite unique." This is why I'm torn between loving or hating this series, because try as I might, I can't get the same feel in my later stories. I've gotten better at writing technique. I've gotten better at research, at plot development, but writing flawed, human characters whose personalities propel the plot line is not something I can do twice easily.
I consciously try to develop characters now, dropping hints, using events to change them. I consciously try to take on a perspective in which the protagonist is perfect, but write to doubt that perspective, or even shatter it apart by making the protagonist fall. Maybe it's because I just never have enough motivation to write something longer, so all these building blocks just sit there with stories dangling off cliffs, but I have yet to reproduce what I have done with AP and FP. It's something I really want to do, but can't do.
This is what I see fiction as: a reflection of life. It's not a moral lesson. It's not a hero play. Good writing, in my opinion, are condensed lives that are relate-able to the readers regardless of setting. Fantasy and action should enhance the story, not overtake its original purpose. The biggest qualm I have with my own writing and that of others is this precise point: the exciting stuff gets pushed above the less immediately exciting, but far more important character development. Perhaps it's just my personal preference, but I read not to escape from reality, I read to reflect on reality. It's that fictional humanity that can draw my anger and tears, smiles and fears. It's what propels me as both a writer and a reader.
While I, in no way, claim to be good at either, this is what draws me and fuels me in this respect.