By Katie Lewis
As a young child, I filled notebooks with stories based on my favorite television shows and movies. Digimon, Pokémon, and The Land Before Time. In fourth grade, I wrote a horrifically unscientific murder mystery starring Scully and Mulder of The X-Files for a short story assignment. I was twelve when I began posting my stories online for internet strangers to read.
The kind comments and constructive criticism I received on those stories have kept me writing almost nonstop for two decades. Fanfiction is a fun and engaging way to hone your craft, especially when you need a change of pace.
Let me start by stating one crucial fact: fanfiction is a legitimate form of writing. Magazines and newspapers are increasingly recognizing fanfiction as a literary genre. Archive of our Own, or AO3, a hugely popular fanfiction archive site, won a Hugo award in 2019 for Best Related Work. Even whole original franchises have spawned off of an author’s fanfics. (Love it or hate it, the bestselling 50 Shades series started life as a Twilight fanfic.)
With all of that said, I do understand the hesitancy around considering fanfiction “real” writing. I’ve experienced it myself. In 2017 I was attending a convention out of state. I mentioned the name of a fanfic I was writing (no, I’m not telling) while chatting in an autograph line, and suddenly everyone around me stopped talking. You could hear a pin drop. Then, the woman I’d been talking to said, “I’m sorry, can you say that one more time?”
When I relayed that story to my therapist upon returning home, he congratulated me on being recognized in public as an author. I remember blushing and waving him off, insisting it wasn’t the same thing. He looked at me and said, “Complete strangers recognized you and told you they were your fans. That makes you an author.”
I couldn’t think of an argument against that.
In the years since that experience, I’ve found a new appreciation for the place fanfiction has played and will likely continue to play in my development as an author. For instance, certain advantages to working within fanfiction can allow for an unusually close focus on the writing craft.
Restrictions Allow for Built-in Benefits
There are a few rules to fanfiction that may sound stiflingly restrictive at first but bear with me.
The first of these restrictions is simply the setting and the characters. The world and the people who populate it already exist. Anyone else in the fandom is already familiar with the world-building and core cast. As a result, you, the author, get to skip that step entirely. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of fanfics placed in Alternate Universes (or AUs) where the rules are different. Still, like any other part of the writing process, you must know the rules before breaking them.
That might sound like something other than fun to some people. They might protest, but creating my own world is half the fun! That’s true, but think about what is gained from setting up shop in a world that already exists. For one, you have a built-in hook. The audience—the fandom—for your work is already present. The premise must be interesting enough to get them to click on your story. You are left free to focus on that exclusively and not worry about how to explain every nuance of the world in a natural way that keeps the reader engaged. They already know. There’s nothing left to explain.
Additionally, working with a preexisting cast is uniquely challenging. That’s not to say you can’t include Original Characters (or OCs) where necessary. Most readers are invested in the characters they already know. This is one of the most critical lessons fanfiction has to teach. You must write characters the way they already talk and act. Failure to do so makes them feel Out-of-Character (or OOC). It is considered one of the worst sins a fanfiction author can commit.
I assure you, crafting a character to mirror their original incarnation is far more complicated than it sounds. In many ways, original characters are far easier to write because you’re the only one who decides what is OOC for them. In a fandom setting, hundreds of people chomping at the bit to tell you when a line of dialogue sounds wrong or if a description of body language seems out of place. The stakes are much higher when playing with someone else’s toys.
The Joy of Playing in Someone Else’s Sandbox
With all of those rules and restrictions said, I unapologetically love writing fanfiction. I love picking out a side character from a single episode and giving them a full exploration of their life and backstory. I love diving into missing scenes or moments of character growth that could have happened between episodes or seasons. I love taking this already existing thing and turning left where the established canon turned right and discovering how that could change everything.
And if you think fanfiction is a strange, new concept, think again. If you’ve ever read a Star Wars or Star Trek novel, you’ve read professionally published fanfiction. If you’ve watched a direct-to-video sequel of a blockbuster, you’ve seen fanfiction play out on your home television. If you’ve daydreamed about how a movie or novel turned out differently had one character not done that One Thing, you’ve basically done half the work of writing a fanfic.
Fanfiction Isn’t New.
Those are just 20th-century examples, too. My favorite example of fanfiction in action is Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Mallory wasn’t a knight. He was a prisoner who spent his time building upon a hodgepodge of scattered myths surrounding King Arthur. That’s right, the entire modern Arthurian Legend as we know it is a 15th-century prisoner’s work of fanfiction.
More of us have dabbled in fanfiction at some point than we’re willing to admit. You may feel, as I did, that it wasn’t “real” writing and should therefore be avoided. However, I’d like to pose a challenge. If you’re reading this, sit down sometime in the coming weeks and write something for one of your favorites. Think about how the characters act and interact. Think about how the world operates around them. It doesn’t have to be long, but try to write something that feels authentic. Like it came from the original author all along. Go on, give it a try.
And if you have written fanfiction before, I’d love to hear how you think it has helped your original writing in the comments!
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I like to think if Sir Thomas Mallory lived today, he would be a total Star Wars nut with notebooks of drawings and short stories. And he’d go around spouting things like, “Anon! The Force is strong with thee!”