This is one of those topics I consider writing about every few months, but never pull the trigger. I’m not sure why. It always feels like I’m walking into something whenever I talk about fan fiction, and I do know there’s a lot of voices both for and against the practice. I can’t in good conscience come out against fan fiction, because that would make me a hypocrite. The first completed stories I wrote were fan fiction. No, you may not see any of it. I’d actually be rather surprised if I could even find it any more, and no that is not being issued as a challenge. What value is there in fan fiction? Is there any value? And how does one move from writing about established characters and settings to original ones?
The first question to ask is: why are you writing fan fiction? Are you just writing it to be part of that community? To show off your ideas for what could happen to your favorite characters? Well, that’s great and fine. I once said in a blog post that writing isn’t like other art in that people don’t tend to do it just for themselves. That’s not entirely true when it comes to fan fiction. Some authors are writing it just for their own sense of gratification. Others share their work through online sites, forums, or trades, which is fantastic. There’s a wonderfully supportive online community for fan fiction. There’s always a writer willing to try something just a little new and different, a reader willing to read, and community member willing to comment. I still remember those days, though I was writing before fanfiction.com became a thing, and I remember the friendliness and support in the community. Hell, even when I got into meta-fiction built around mocking other fan fiction, targets typically had senses of humor about what they’d written and were supportive of my derivative efforts.
If you want to be part of that, that’s great. I have nothing I can say but good luck and have some damn fun.
Is there a weird underbelly to fan fiction? The people who give it a bad name? Certainly. I’m not talking about those people, because I suspect you aren’t one of them. Because I think the best of people that way. You’re not the person attending a copyright panel at a convention and asking how to protect your fan fiction work from being stolen by the original author behind the world. Though if you are, don’t be that person. Please. There is good within the fan fiction community, but that’s the quickest way to give it a black eye.
Are you writing fan fiction with the dream of being a tie-in novelist? I can’t go into this. My impression from panels is that it isn’t the way to go, that tie-in novelists need to be established first. And that being a tie-in novelist isn’t nearly the fun and games it may appear to be.
Are you writing fan fiction to become a better writer in general? Aha, here is the meat. This is where I think there is some tangible benefit to fan fiction writing. There are freedoms when it comes to writing fan fiction that are helpful to the new writer, but can become seductive. First, so much of the work has already been done for you, things that can be taken as a given. The writer is a fan, the readers are fans, so everyone is on the same page. “Riker walked into Ten Forward.” Fans of the show know who Riker is, know what he looks like, know his personality and swagger. They know what Ten Forward looks like, the people likely to be in there, the placement of the bar and tables, the windows. This is character, setting, and even world building wrapped up in paper with a nice bow and delivered to the fan fiction writer.
You know what? That’s fantastic. It means that someone getting into writing can focus just on plot, plot, plot. Get to know that one word, get to love it, and learn how to tell compelling stories. At some point all the world building, character development, dialogue, and description will break down if there’s not a central plot.
Learning to use pre-built characters is also a first step towards creating and using your own characters. Working on what makes them tick, keeping their motivations internally consistent. There are exercises in character dynamics, exercises in character interactions, exercises in character voice. All are lessons to be gained from fan fiction, all are lessons any writer will need to learn.
I said that things like setting, characters, and world building can be taken as a given. That doesn’t mean should. Use pre-built locations to gradually ramp up your descriptive skills. Yes, we know what Ten-Forward looks like, but what makes it different this particular day? What’s the atmosphere in there? This is how to learn the telling detail. And Riker “walked” in? No. Perhaps he swaggered in, since he is Riker after all. Or he staggers, saunters, strolls, strides. All of these are ways to walk into a room, but all have slightly different connotations about the character, his personality, and even his body language. Telling details and more powerful verbs are both subtle but powerful tools, and both can be learned through fan fiction.
The other trick is evolving, and knowing when to move on from fan fiction. If your plan is to write for a commercial market, eventually you’ll need to throw off the crutches altogether, wean yourself from the teat, and write your own characters and settings. There’s no need to go cold turkey. Just like a smoker with nicotine patches, there are ways to step down dependencies on precreated worlds and characters. Create a new character and have them interact with established characters. Then do it again, but not make the character a Mary Sue or Gary Stu. Create a new environment and have established characters interacting with it. Then take your new character, take your new setting, remove all the established stuff, and send them out into the great unknown with a sack lunch and those stories you’ve learned to tell by playing with other people’s toys. The biggest danger is getting too comfortable. Always do one thing in your story that makes you just a little uncomfortable as a writer, it’s the only way to grow.
So is it possible to break into the industry entirely writing with characters and worlds already on television? Yes. It’s called spec scripts. But that’s not exactly fan fiction, and probably a subject for another day.