Recently, a friend of mine uploaded a video talking about some of the common misconceptions around fanfiction, and mounting a comprehensive rebuttal of those. It made me think about my own history with fanfiction, and I wanted to contribute my own defence of a practice which I think is unfairly maligned.
My experience of fanfiction began around the age of fourteen. I had fallen in love with the world of a popular anime, and was desperate for more stories from it. Looking for this led me to fanfiction, and I discovered the astonishing range of stories people were writing—stories encompassing every eventuality you can think of, and plenty you couldn’t, in every fictional universe that existed. Yes, the quality was variable, but there was plenty of genuinely great writing to be found on the sites I explored, and some of the stories were long, novel-length, representing serious commitment.
Full of my own ideas, it wasn’t long before I wanted to try my hand at writing, not just reading. Some shorter pieces to begin with, and then I embarked upon a more ambitious story, uploading each chapter as I finished it. I picked up some readers, and felt for the first time that buzz of a stranger reading and caring about my writing. I was totally hooked. My story eventually ran to 50 chapters, and over 200,000 words, and I learned a lot in the process of writing it.
What do people have against fanfiction?
There are a lot of assumptions people tend to make about fanfiction, many of which are brilliantly described and debunked in Josie’s video—that it’s all smut, that it’s lazy, that it’s exclusively written by obsessive teenagers, that it isn’t real writing and/or it’s all terrible. This last is the most baffling to me, and I think it must be parroted by people who haven’t actually read any fanfiction, except perhaps some cherry-picked examples chosen to ‘prove’ the point. If you go looking, you can find examples of awful writing in any genre.
I’m not going to refute these arguments point-by-point, although I will say that fanfiction contains as diverse a collection of themes, ages and quality of writing as any bookshop or library. What I am going to do is give you a list of things that you can learn through writing fanfiction, which I think make the case for it being a useful experience for any writer who finds themselves tempted to experiment with it.
Fanfiction teaches you… that it isn’t enough to just create a character.
One of the things that people say about fanfiction is that it’s not like ‘real’ writing, because the characters all exist already, so you don’t have to come up with them on your own. But writing a compelling story, fanfiction or otherwise, is about so much more than just coming up with the characters and shoving them into a scenario. For one thing, you have to know that character deeply in order to put them into situations and have them respond in a way that feels true to them, and that’s an exercise in empathetic imagination which I don’t think is lessened if you use a pre-existing character. For another, the best stories involve characters growing and changing in response to their environments and the situations they find themselves in.
Given that the premise of most fanfiction is ‘what if’—‘what if these two characters met?’ ‘what if this major event from the source material hadn’t happened, or had happened in a totally different way?’ ‘what if all of the characters existed in a different universe to the one the original story was set in?’—by its nature it’s dealing with scenarios that haven’t been explored in canon, and so the fanfiction versions of characters tend to develop in different ways to the originals.
Sure, writing fanfiction means you don’t need to spend time coming up with your characters so much, but there’s a lot more to writing characters than dreaming them up.
Fanfiction teaches you… about audience expectations.
By its nature, fanfiction tends to draw a passionate crowd, and they aren’t shy about telling you what they want to see. If you post a multi-chapter fic, you’re going to get plenty of opportunities to see what it is that your readers expect, in the form of alternately gleeful and wary comments speculating on the direction you might be taking the characters in.
For the most part fanfiction readers are generous readers, perhaps because many of them are also writers, and they also tend to be willing to be surprised, which removes a lot of the fear that can come with knowing you’re writing something that’s going to go against what your audience thinks they’re getting. The chapter-by-chapter format of fanfiction gives you a fascinating insight into which parts of your story the readers are picking up on, which hints they’re seeing and what they’re reading into moments that you might not have intended anything by.
Fanfiction teaches you… about planning and plot, and whether you need an outline.
Somewhere around the chapter 40 mark of my fanfiction I realised I had introduced a lot of characters and plotlines that I had no idea how to resolve. In order to work towards a reasonably satisfying conclusion, I had to carefully comb through my earlier chapters and figure out how to wrap up some of my unresolved (or, in some cases, completely forgotten) plot threads. It was frustrating, but I came out of it knowing some of the things I needed to watch out for the next time I attempted a similarly in-depth piece of fiction. It has dramatically improved my outlining process, and the way I approach subplots in all of my subsequent stories.
It turns out I’m a plotter, through and through, but I imagine there have been any number of writers who discovered through fanfiction that they thrive off the play-it-by-ear approach.
Of course, I could theoretically have learned this lesson by writing 200,000 words of a completely original story, but this brings me to something which I think might just be the greatest strength of fanfiction:
Fanfiction teaches you… that you are capable of committing to a story.
I begun my major fanfiction story at the age of fifteen. I had definitely never written anything of that length before, and finishing the story took almost two whole years. There were periods of time where I stopped writing for days, weeks, even a month or two—but every time I came back to it. That was partly due to the vague feeling of unfinished business that hung over me when I left it alone for too long, but I’d be lying if I said my motivation to finish the story was entirely intrinsic.
A huge part of what kept me going back to it was the email notifications that would come in, streaming in upon the initial posting of a chapter, slowing to a dribble, and then just a steady drip-drip of maybe one every couple of weeks if I hadn’t posted in a while. People commenting on my story, people who were invested, people who wanted to know what was going to happen next. It would not have been the end of the world for anybody if I hadn’t written an ending, all of those commenters would have gone about their lives quite happily without a conclusion, but if they cared enough to leave a review (and they did, evidently) the least I could do was go back and come up with another chapter for them.
And then it was finished. Twenty-two months, fifty chapters, hours upon hours upon hours of work, and I had a story with a beginning, a middle and (most astonishingly of all to me) an end. It was imperfect, occasionally downright sloppy, disorganised and probably incredibly problematic, but it was finished. The most significant creative project I had ever started, and I hadn’t abandoned it, even when I wondered how on earth I was going to make sense of all the elements I had introduced. Is it a great story, or an example of great writing? Probably not, but I’m proud of it anyway. Flawed as it is, I consider it an accomplishment, and that sense of accomplishment has stayed with me and given me a confidence in my ability to stick with a project that I don’t think I’d have if not for fanfiction and the support of an enthusiastic built-in audience.
There will always be people who look down on fanfiction
I feel a little nervous about posting this, aware that some people will think it makes me a less legitimate writer, aware of the sneering response that fanfiction tends to draw from some people. But I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of in writing fanfiction, and I hope that it will become more widely accepted as more people talk openly about the way writing fanfiction helped them to develop as writers. I suspect we’re only going to see more authors over time who found their first audiences through writing in other people’s worlds, more authors who learned early lessons in writing through experimenting in sandboxes from other imaginations.
Personally, I think there’s something beautiful about one person’s imagined world giving rise to so much creativity in others. Long may it continue.
Have you ever written fanfiction, or read it?
Do you disagree with any of the points I’ve made, or do you have lessons of your own that you’ve learned through fanfiction? Share your own experiences in the comments!