If there’s one writing technique I’m fond of, it’s imagining alternate universes. To consider how differently events would turn out if one key concept were changed, be it one small event (Bruce Wayne was shot instead of his parents, as per one comic series) or a larger idea (what if Hollywood, but in a fantasy setting?). And if I can ever get to Stephan King levels of fame and be able to publish a story and then publish a literal AU of that same story, believe you me, I will feel like a god. Expect maniacal laughter.
Now, you may wonder why I referred to this specifically as a writing technique. I do so because imagining AUs can be useful for a variety of purposes, be it developing characters or practicing new genres without flinging oneself completely into the unknown. Imagining an alternate universe can even lead to entirely new stories, such as how the Temeraire series and the Fifty Shades of Gray books were originally AU fanfics of Master and Servant and Twilight respectively. But how exactly can imagining AUs help?
From a character perspective, I’ll use a fantasy character I’m developing as an example. Karmonis Mordai is a tiefling (i.e. looks like a satanic demon without actually being one) who was unfairly exiled from home, forced to become a ranger for hire in his travels. I ended up playing him in two different games, so one version of him found a small band of adventurers to travel with on a quest, while the other settled into a city and is now fighting to protect a larger populace of people in his new home. One setting helps me develop his faith and small-scale interactions, and another puts him in a position of power as a rebel force and weighing his impulses against the needs of his people. Developing him across two worlds with one key difference—did Karmonis overcome his guilt and allow himself to find a home—has helped me develop his character immensely.
For AUs as a method of trying different genres, I’m going to consider fanfiction for a moment. Fanfiction is where I first started writing, and instead of rehashing the familiar, I took to writing AUs as a way to contribute something new. One of my first forays into original fiction was to take the mechanical trappings of my favorite fandom (a popular video game series I will not name, out of sheer embarrassment) and put them into a gritty dystopia. The characters and world were new, but with the same basic rules in place, I still had fellow fans who were interested in reading and providing me feedback. A later example was taking the characters from an urban fantasy tale and putting them in a more high-fantasy setting, allowing me to practice the trappings of fantasy rules through a familiar modern lens and characters I already knew how to write.
In these cases, both techniques can be applied to our own original fiction. Have a character you’re having difficulties figuring out? Imagine them in a fresh setting, how they would react with a different role in the story, or even if a key aspect of their identity was shifted. Interested in a different genre? Take characters you’re familiar with and write them in such a setting, so you can focus on what’s new instead of having to build it all from the ground up. Don’t have time to write it all down? Even just daydreaming can help get the creative juices flowing.
(I myself have a tendency to put my characters in different games, be it a dice-rolling tabletop game or a video game. They can lead you surprising places—imagine my terror when I realized that a character of mine would totally side for the main antagonist of Fallout 4 because of the importance he places on family.)
Amusingly enough, most of my upcoming novel “Bones and Bourbon” can be attributed to me imagining AUs in one way or another. Retz and Jarrod Gallows were originally characters in a webcomic I was writing, but they kept stealing the spotlight from the main characters, so I considered giving them their own story. Around this same time, a friend sat me down to watch Supernatural for the first time, so I started to imagine what the Gallows brothers would do if they were in the Winchester brothers’ shoes. (And yes, those early drafts of the series did read a lot like a Supernatural fanfic, and thus are horribly cursed.)
Other characters joined the cast as they were given the AU treatment; what if this manipulative vampire was instead a lamia, and what if this girl and her monster friend from a Monsters and Other Childish Things game were monstrous siblings and on the run in a setting where they weren’t the only paranormal beings running amok? Even antagonist Nalem started as a benevolent god in an earlier story of mine, stripped of the mundane upbringing that had taught him kindness in his original series as he was tossed into Retz’s head for “Bones and Bourbon.”
Feel free to change things up, even just for sake of daydreaming. And if the changes you make actually stick? Don’t be afraid to run with them. The multiverse is the limit, dearests.