Fan fiction has a bad reputation on the Internet. It’s usually looked down upon as a pass-time of rabid fangirls living out their fantasies with or between their favorite characters. Poor spelling, poorer grammar, Mary Sues, and slash abound.
I’m not saying that fan fiction doesn’t have these elements because I’ve seen enough to know it exists. What I am saying is there is a lot more to fan fiction than just that.
I used to think that fan fiction was the last resort for people who couldn’t write. A cop-out for people who weren’t original enough, creative enough, or talented enough to be “real writers.” Ironically, no one had defined fan fiction or even explained it to me at that point, so I had only the vague image of teenagers with no lives mangling someone’s characters because they couldn’t make their own. What I didn’t realize was that I had been creating fan fiction ever since I could read. I just didn’t know that’s what I’d been doing.
Star Wars was the great love of my childhood. I spent hours pretending I was a Jedi fighting alongside Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia against the evil Galactic Empire. I was a cocky, ne’er-do-well character with a fast sword and faster tongue when it came to insulting the bad guys. Eventually, I stopped inserting myself directly into the Star Wars universe and began going to a medium personified by Tenko, one of my Guardian of the Magic dolls, and a pair of talking Jurassic Park velociraptors called, imaginatively enough, Raptor and Scarda. At the time, I thought this was a fairly sophisticated leap. As my story-telling abilities increased, so did the complexity of the story and the relationships of my toys and canon Star Wars characters. The stories, as I recall, lost their devil-may-care Robin Hood attitude and became much darker and more serious. These stories were my earliest form of fan fiction, and Tenko, Raptor, and Scarda were my first fan characters, or FCs.
During my later years of high school, I found that my friends PrismElf and StormElf spent time writing fanfics. This puzzled me because I had read samples of their work before and knew it was both well-written and original. So why would a pair of good writers waste their time with fan fiction? It could never be published because the world and characters didn’t belong to them, so why bother? Eventually, StormElf explained that fan fiction was a way for people to show their love for a work or its characters, a way to connect and participate in their favorite stories. They could explore new plot twists, alternate scenarios, study character interactions in crossovers, insert their own characters into a preexisting world or moving preexisting characters into a completely new world.
You can imagine my mortification upon realizing that I had been an unknowing participant since I was seven in the very community I had disparaged. With my toys, I was crafting a kind of fan fiction, one in which I tried disrupting the canon as little as possible, but added an extra layer to it by inserting characters that were completely my own and seeing how they interacted with the canon characters of that world. It is a habit that I have continued ever since. Once I knew what it was, I realized that I liked writing fan fiction and had the skills to turn out decent material. My introduction to Fanfiction.net sealed the deal.
So, what are the benefits of writing fan fiction? Sure, it’s entertaining, but, as I mentioned earlier, if you want to be a writer, you can’t publish fan fiction, no matter how well it’s written. (Unless you get special permission from a series like Star Trek, Star Wars, Halo, and their ilk to publish what is essentially fan fiction. But that is a different tub of tribbles entirely.) I want to be a writer, a published writer, so why am I spending valuable time writing fanfics?
The biggest and simplest reason is because it’s fun. As far as I’m concerned, if something isn’t fun, why do it? That’s the whole point of writing: to have fun and to (hopefully) get others to have fun with you through your story. However, it is also very good practice. To be a writer, you must write. This is a mantra that took years to get into my skull, but it’s firmly lodged there now and won’t go away. And fan fiction gives fledgling writers a unique opportunity to hone their craft.
1) You don’t need to worry about world creation.
The setting, the characters, even the story has been provided for you. You don’t need to make up any of that or worry about it working. All you have to do is figure out how you want to mess with it. For example, I try to disrupt canon as little as possible. I research the preexisting timeline for the story I’m interested in, then slip my own original plot line into those blank areas when nothing really major is going on. I have to make sure this plot line is plausible and interesting, but everything else has been set up for me.
2) You get practice keeping your characters IN character.
One of the biggest signs of an amateur fanfic writer is when the canon characters start doing things or acting in ways that they would not do. Anyone who does something out of character for them has to have a very pressing reason to do so. And when you are working with canon characters, you have to either change the plot so they stay in character or create an event that adequately explains why this person is choosing to act the way they are at this time.
3) You can work on dramatic narrative structure.
Fanfiction.net makes it easy to release your fanfic in chapters. Whenever I write a chapter, I try to end it on a cliffhanger. Not in the middle of the action; the break needs to feel natural, but it has to give just enough incentive to keep pulling the reader along. This is invaluable, especially since in a full-length novel you have to keep your reader’s attention for hundreds of pages rather than a scattered handful of chapters.
4) You can learn your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
Are you good with action scenes but the romantic interludes feel stilted? Are your politicians crafty and devious, but your heroes a little too good to be true? Fan fiction allows you to figure out what skills or knowledge you have in abundance and what you need to work on without having to write a whole book before you find out.
5) You can see what habits you fall into with plot or character creation, and if those trends are helping or harming your writing.
For example, with my female FCs (I rarely create males), they tend to fall within one or two of three basic archetypes: the Ancient Enigmatic Scholar, the Abused and Aloof Warrior, or the Mad but Subtly Dangerous Child. Those types of characters appeal to me and I think that all of my FCs fall within these three categories that I wasn’t even consciously aware of. Now that I know that I have this tendency, I can work to avoid it or mold it into something useful to me.
6) You can experiment with story, plot, or character ideas that you think my work for an original story, but you want to give it a test run to see if you can pull it off.
My fanfic “Hidden Light” features one of my favorite FCs, Hikari. She falls into the Mad Child category and was actually a prototype for Marella, my mad Natural from The Mariner Sequence. Creating a fanfic with Hikari allowed me to see if I could create a mad character and keep her sympathetic and semi-coherent. Madness is tricky and hard to pull off, so I could see what could and could not work with Marella (especially since their respective forms of madness come from very different sources.)
7) Feedback as motivation.
The chances of getting well-thought-out feedback from people passing by on the net is very slim. (It does happen; I’ve been lucky enough to receive some of them.) However, words of encouragement can never go astray. Just seeing a comment (admittedly miss-spelled) that says the commentator liked your chapter and that you should “rite more NAOW!” makes me smile and gives me a fresh infusion of hope and determination. Someone took the time, not only to read it, but also to say what they thought of it, good, bad, or otherwise.
To conclude, I think that fan fiction is an underrated tool for writers as well as a fun playground for your imagination. The main reason I was opposed to it before was out of ignorance; now, I can’t get enough of it. I do spend much more time writing fan fiction than reading it, but there is a deep joy in doing either or both, if you are so inclined. One can only improve through practice and perseverance, so try a little fan fiction of your own and see what happens.