Disciplines in the writing field that were once considered frivolous wastes of time have become respected and appreciated by our society. Journalism, novel writing, and poetry are all prime examples. One sizable genre this maturation process has yet to encompass is fanfiction.
Many authors view fanfiction as a blight on the modern literary world—a scourge of copyright infringements and abuse heaped upon beloved characters. But they are incorrect in assuming that this is a modern phenomenon. The Aeneid, a poetic epic written in 20 A.D. and a magnificent work of Latin literature, is in fact a Roman fanfiction of Homer’s Odyssey.
As an author who has deeply enjoyed both reading and writing fanfiction, I believe that fanfiction is a perfectly acceptable way to hone writing skills, as long as you acknowledge your work is fanfiction and it doesn’t bring you any material gain. Here are seven reasons why.
1. Fanfiction Gets You Writing
Anything that pulls you off social media or Netflix and motivates you to write is a good thing. The pleasure of writing about characters you already love can mute the trepidation that accompanies tackling a new project. This is especially true for younger authors (I can name at least four young writers whose first large projects were fanfiction).
The typical fanfiction format is to publish one short chapter at a time, and this can embolden you to finish a project you otherwise would have abandoned. A few years ago, I wrote a 58,000-word fanfiction that I never would have completed under normal circumstances. Bite-sized writing chunks can help you build discipline.
2. Fanfiction Provides Much-Needed Encouragement
Eventually you reach the point in your writing life when your supply of free beta readers becomes exhausted. Your friends stop responding to your invites to comment on Google Docs. Your mom no longer has enough time to keep up with the volume of proofreading you need. And the initial surge of encouragement that followed your first writing attempts fades away to nothing.
On sites such as fanfiction.net, this doesn’t happen. If you write in a popular fandom and your skill is tolerable (and even if it isn’t), the feedback readers leave on each chapter can provide you with an endless source of encouragement. And who doesn’t enjoy hearing compliments on her hard work?
I’ve found that interacting with my audience and replying to reviews can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing fanfiction. Reviewers are also not shy about sharing ideas for future chapters, so asking them for suggestions can harness inspiration.
3. Fanfiction Helps You Focus on the Plot and Timing
Because fanfiction derives from existing characters and worlds, it can give you the chance to concentrate on other aspects of writing, such as plot and timing. This should free up mental energy to develop intricate plots and improve the overall quality of your writing.
The reality is that readers of fanfiction are attracted to a story for one reason only: they love the original characters. This causes most fanfics to be character driven to a fault, so if your story is equipped with both an interesting plot and accurate character depiction, it will stand out as a precious gem.
4. Fanfiction Prevents You from Editing as You Go
The nature of fanfiction online release (writing one chapter at a time and immediately publishing) presents some interesting challenges to authors. When writing a book, you have the freedom to go back and make drastic changes, but with fanfiction, doing more than minor edits to previous chapters will irritate your readers. I actually enjoy this constraint, as it forces me to work within the confines of an already-established narrative.
If the perfectionist editor in you can’t be restrained, you can avoid this situation by first writing the entire story and then publishing chapters once a week to build readership. But without the encouragement of your reviewers, you’ll likely abandon the story as soon as your interest in that series or movie wanes. And you’ll miss out on the lessons you could have learned from completing it.
5. Fanfiction Strengthens Your Style
A wise person once said, “Read at the level you want to write at.” Since adults never really outgrow their childhood tendency to learn by imitation, this is demonstrably true. If you associate with people who frequently swear, you will probably begin to mimic this behavior. After reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, I unconsciously began inserting expressions such as “I reckon” and “it ain’t me” in my everyday speech.
When you immerse yourself in a fictional world, you will unintentionally absorb the language and speech patterns of the characters. If the writing style is worth emulating, you can then take this learning process to the next level by writing fanfiction that imitates the novelist as closely as possible. Note the range of vocabulary he uses, the amount of details he provides the audience, the adjectives and adverbs he flavors his writing with. Observing another author’s strengths and flaws will teach you to recognize your own.
6. Fanfiction Helps You Focus on Characterization
Wait, didn’t I just say that fanfiction is an opportunity not to focus on characterization? Well, yes, it can be. Or it can be a chance to dive deeper into a character’s mind and explore the thoughts behind her canonical actions. If you are writing fanfiction based on a movie, it can be especially fun to explore a character’s internal monolog.
What was Steve Rogers thinking during Peggy Carter’s funeral? Or Peter Pevensie as the White Witch’s army charged toward him in his first battle? And would that dwarf/elf romance in The Hobbit have lasted if the Sons of Durin hadn’t all died untimely deaths?
These are exactly the sort of entertaining questions you can investigate in fanfiction.
7. Fanfiction Helps You Rediscover Why You Love Writing
Writing is hard, plain and simple, and fanfiction is no exception. I’ve written myself into more than a few corners after publishing chapters that weren’t as adequately plotted out as they could have been. But perhaps fanfiction’s most useful purpose is how fun it is. Authors can get bogged down with everything from deadlines to mental blocks, and writing exclusively for amusement can be tremendously freeing.
There are still more reasons to try your hand at fanfiction. You can use it to find closure after the death of a beloved character by writing long variations on “and they lived happily ever after.” Or you can even create a unique birthday present for a friend by writing a self-insert fanfic with him as an awesome Mandalorian warrior (in my experience, this will be received favorably).
For those who still aren’t convinced that fanfiction is a legitimate form of writing, remember that all literature can be considered “fanfiction” of the Author of Life (Acts 3:15). Just as artists practice by copying great painters, writers can improve by imitating great authors.
Have you written any fanfiction? If so, what has your experience been with it? Share your thoughts in the comments!