I’ve had some hot debates about fanfiction before I started writing it, and some interesting discussions since. My previous opinion was that fanfiction was “cheating” – using someone else’s characters and worlds was too “easy.” I also had this opinion that fanfiction was largely terribly written and mostly people’s secret sexual fantasies written down.
Okay, so those are some harsh opinions and for the most part I no longer believe those things. And during the two years when I was deeply invested in writing fanfiction, my writing did improve.
Here are five ways fanfiction helped my writing:
Remember when I said it was easy to use someone else’s characters? That opinion was both right and wrong. What using someone else’s characters allows is for you to begin writing with a solid, clear idea of that character. In my original fiction, I can sometimes spend the whole first draft trying to figure out who the heck my characters are, and they’re almost never the fullest version of themselves in that first draft.
Being able to use an already full character gives you an immediate leg up into how that character would behave in a given situation, which makes for a far better story.
And the whole thing about “cheating” by using a pre-existing character? In most of my fanfiction, I took pieces of the character: what would this character be like in high school? who would they be if they were dealing with x, y, or z? I wrote multiple fics about the same character, and almost never did I feel like I was writing the same exact character.
2. Writing on a schedule
I used to write whenever the muse took me. (I also used to watch less Netflix). Fanfiction is like writing serial fiction: you will have fans who clamor for more, and if you can deliver it on a regular basis, those fans will be very appreciative. Not to say that I didn’t have a few clunkers or that I had a strict timeline, but I always knew that I needed to get my butt in gear when I was only a chapter or two ahead of what I was posting.
That kind of serial publishing works well for other platforms, like Wattpad, but it does have a dark side (see #1 under the second half of this post).
3. Dealing with criticism
I’ve been a part of a critique group and I’ve received rejection, but when you get criticized on a piece of fanfiction it can turn bad really fast. It’s like the first taste of having a negative book review, only meaner?
It is best to ignore when you know people are just being mean, and keep an open mind if they are bringing up an actual issue. (For example, criticism on my fics helped me to learn the difference between consent and dubious consent, and mostly what the reader wanted was for the fic to be tagged or to include a trigger warning, which I happily provided).
4. Thinking about stories in new ways
In reading Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison, I learned how many varieties of fic there are out there, especially with many stories losing their copyright. The Splintered series by A.G. Howard and The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor could both be described as fanfiction of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A number of classic works could even be described as fanfiction: Dante’s Divine Comedy could be called a self-insert fanfic of the Bible, while Virgil’s Aeneid could be considered fanfiction of Homer’s Odyssey. Even fairytale retellings could be considered fanfiction.
In fanfiction, you can tell a straight sequel to the canon text, a side canon (events happening in the background of the canon text), or change the setting to an alternate universe to keep a similar plot. I’ve heard many times about how there are only so many plots – so why not reuse one?
5. Writing Romance
Until I began writing fanfiction, I had never really written a sex scene. (Well, there was one, but it was not sexy and super awkward and I ended up cutting it from the novel). I’d barely even written kissing scenes.
So, when I began writing a fic with a strong romantic plotline, I learned very quickly that I would need to learn how to write about romance. I did research. And though at first it made me uncomfortable to write these things, I eventually got into the groove of it. It helped that I felt super connected to the characters, and I also began to understand why it often made me uncomfortable to read sex scenes. I realized that I don’t like gratuitous sex, or insta-love. I want it all to mean something. And I also realized I had been avoiding even learning how to write it because I had been so uncomfortable with it.
And 2 ways fanfiction hasn’t helped me…
I’d love to be totally pro-fanfiction, but I can’t be. There are reasons why I don’t write fanfiction (regularly) anymore!
Writing for the fans (fanservice)
The dark side to learning to write to appease fans meant I neglected my original fiction to cater to their demands. It took a while, but eventually I realized that I wanted to write stories that were my own, for me first, before presenting them to an audience. I found that was the only way to find the story path I wanted to take without being a “sellout” and telling the story other people wanted. Fans are also very vocal when you “hurt” their favorite characters in a story. Stories require conflict, and a lot of fans don’t seem to realize that. I was pulling my punches and not raising the stakes, when those are precisely the things that make for a compelling story.One thing I realized when I began the work of turning Waiting Room from a fic into an original YA novel is how much fanservice I put in. “Fanservice” is a term used for extra details meant to please the audience. In this case, I had added a lot of details (mostly sex-related scenes and in-jokes), which I ended up removing.
The work of writing
Writing original fiction is work. Fanfiction doesn’t feel like work. With original fiction, you have to create your own characters, your own universe, your own plot, and it’s hard to go back to something that feels like work.
Ultimately, however, original fiction is more rewarding. You have something that is totally your own. When you get praise from readers, you know it’s about the characters you created and not just because it’s characters they already like.
I would love to hear your takes on fanfiction! Did I miss anything on my list? How has fanfiction helped or hurt your original writing?