Whichever corner of the internet you spend your time lurking in, you have no doubt encountered fandoms – and by extension, fan fiction.
At the time of writing, fanwork mecca Archive of Our Own (AO3) has published well over five and a half million works of fan fiction, spanning every genre of fandom imaginable.
Despite its seemingly overwhelming popularity, though, fan fiction carries a heavy stigma, even after AO3’s groundbreaking Hugo Award win in 2019 for Best Related Work. But why?
The disdain for fan fiction and those who write it stems from the poor quality and often sexually explicit content of many works on offer. Like every generalisation, this is equally true and false: given that fan fiction is often a stepping stone for young, inexperienced writers, there’s little wonder many of the stories fall victim to common writing faux pas.
But these are not the be-all-and-end-all of fan fiction. There are quality stories out there with tens of thousands of readers, whose authors have spent countless hours crafting their own narrative to further explore the themes, characters and relationships introduced in the source material.
Writing fan fiction can help you become a better writer by providing a fun means to experiment with characters, genres and ideas. Whether you’re looking to strengthen your craft, take a break from your current manuscript, or find inspiration in something new, fan fiction might just have the answer.
Read on for the top five benefits of writing fan fiction.
Benefit #1: Experimenting With Different Styles And Genres
Fan fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. First-person, second-person and third-person narrative; 100,000 word epics spanning multiple instalments; quaint little drabbles written in ten minutes or less. There’s crime, romance, paranormal, contemporary drama – effectively a style and genre for everyone.
Most writers work within their own niche. Dark fantasy writers don’t generally churn out bestselling romance novels on the side. That said, just because you’re working on a deeply introspective psycho-thriller doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with sci-fi by writing about the adventures of a rogue Jedi in a galaxy far, far away. In fact, you should.
High-stake dramas often need comic relief to cut the tension in the same way romantic subplots bring an extra layer of excitement to your favourite YA fantasies. As such, dappling in a bit of cross-genre fic-writing can be a fun and useful way to bolster your main project.
Working with anything new and unfamiliar can be offputting, which is why fan fiction is a great pathway into exploring new genres. Whether you’re looking for specific fandom-related inspiration or prompts for different genres, browsing sites such as Tumblr and Pinterest can help you get things started.
Fandom prompts are many and varied, ranging from single-word inspirations to lines of dialogue to detailed scenarios. Some are focused on specific emotions like ‘angst’ or ‘hurt’, providing an opportunity to practise those tense, gut-wrenching scenes that punch readers right in the feels.
Timed writing prompts are a great way to get into the habit of working in short bursts; lyric-inspired challenges provide you with a chance to bring some poetic finesse to your prose; and character/reader fan fiction is a great opportunity to practice the equally rare and difficult second person style of narration.
Prompts shared on Tumblr encourage participation and, as intimidating as that may sound, interacting with a fandom is yet another benefit this underrated practice has to offer.
Benefit #2: Gaining Experience In Having Your Work Read
Like anything, dealing with criticism of your writing is a skill that needs to be learned. So before putting your manuscript through the beta reading process, it’s a good idea to learn how to best handle constructive (or perhaps not-so-constructive) feedback.
If you’re not ready for your manuscript to be judged by outsiders, then interacting with readers in the fan fiction community can help ease you into the critique process.
Bear in mind that there’s a good and bad side to everything, though. While some fandoms are warm and welcoming, others can be a little standoffish to newcomers or even hostile towards outsiders who don’t adhere to the ‘fanon‘. In my personal experience, however, I’ve always found interacting with fandoms to be fun and enjoyable.
Back in the good ol’ days when LiveJournal was king and I infrequently shared the odd fan fiction online, the post-upload hours were excitedly spent pressing the ‘refresh’ button and waiting for comments. As a keen writer, I was completely open to constructive criticism – even going so far as to encourage it in the footnotes – but sadly, casual fan fiction readers were not so forthcoming.
Hang around long enough and you might get the odd constructive point, but more often than not, most comments will be sprawling paragraphs of excited flailing or a brief word of thanks. This, however, is not without its merits, especially if you’re the kind of writer who loves having their work read. Fantasy author Bonnie Wynne found this experience encouraging:
“Writing fanfic was my first experience with having people outside my schoolteachers reading my work. Even a simple comment like ‘can’t wait to read more’ was massively encouraging to me.” (interview with Bonnie Wynne, 2020)
Like Bonnie, I too found these small expressions of enjoyment hugely motivating. Most, if not all writers, have struggled with impostor syndrome or general feelings of inadequacy at some point in their career, whether they are just starting out or successfully published authors.
As such, praise for or interest in your fan fiction work is as encouraging as it is validating. I was always more motivated to update a fic after reading a couple of comments and likewise, I’ve been more consistent with working on my manuscript after working with beta readers.
So, if you’re feeling a little down on your writing and in need of a pick-me-up, heading to your favourite fandom gathering and sharing a few quick drabbles might just provide the pep talk you need to get on with your main project.
Benefit #3: Learning To Improve Your Craft
Just as young artists trace and copy their favourite drawings and budding musicians practise covers before composing their own songs, writers can expand their wordsmithing skills by ‘borrowing’ pre-existing worlds and characters.
Three of the most essential pieces of a story are the characters, the setting and the plot. Some writers are fantastic world-builders; others have a knack for crafting believable characters; and others have a special talent for weaving idea threads into an immaculate plot tapestry.
Getting each of these in perfect balance takes a lot of work. Writing fan fiction enables you to break up the necessary components of crafting a good story into pieces of a pie, focusing on each element one slice at a time. While some might dismiss it as ‘lazy’, utilising certain pre-made parts gives you a chance to really have fun with your strengths – or improve your weaknesses.
If it feels like the characters in your own novel are puppets floating in white space, it might be a good idea to learn how to master setting. In describing an established world through fan fiction, you can learn how to emphasise what features make it unique, or devise new ways to explain common vistas.
A popular subgenre of the fan fiction community is the AU – or alternate universe – where known characters or likenesses are deposited in new worlds. K-pop idols become knights in a medieval fantasy; Marvel heroes are salaried office workers who meet for dates at coffee shops. The possibilities are literally endless.
Because the characters have been developed for you, you can free up extra time and mental space in order to work on creating intricate worlds and scintillating plots. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re slacking off in the character-building department, either.
Working with established characters, Bonnie Wynne suggests, actually makes you work harder:
“If you’re trying to write a pre-existing character and make them sound and feel authentic, you sort of have to break that character down into the nuts and bolts. You have to really understand them. What kind of words do they use? What are their values? How would they react to any given situation? As a reader, it’s easy to gloss over that stuff, but as a writer you have to pay attention.” (interview with Bonnie Wynne, 2020)
Knowing another creator’s character on such a level forces you to think about your own darlings and what is involved in reaching the same level of understanding. Spend enough time examining the inner workings of your favourite characters and soon it will be second nature to scrutinise your original creations in the same manner, bolstering their authenticity.
Benefit #4: Rebooting Your Love Of Writing
They say a change is as good as a holiday, right?
If you’re looking for a side project where you can explore different genres or searching for that elusive cure for writer’s block, fan fiction might just have the answer. As well as gaining the aforementioned skill boosts, interacting with a fandom can also remind you why you like writing in the first place.
For the most part, writing is a solitary experience. Whether you’re hesitant to share an unpolished draft, or your friends and family aren’t particularly interested in your preferred genre (or books in general), a huge part of your writer’s life is likely to be spent alone at your computer.
The whole process can be very isolating and, in turn, demotivating. You become frustrated with seemingly endless plot holes; all your characters are suddenly infuriatingly obnoxious. As such, it’s tempting to walk away from your manuscript – or all things writing, forever.
If you find yourself in a moment of disdain for your current project, taking a step back to write other, less intimidating works can be refreshing. However, if you’re hugely involved with characters and character-driven narratives, it can be difficult to find the same level of investment when writing short stories from scratch.
But writing about characters you already know and care about can help reinstate regular writing habits, as well as your love for the craft itself. Sharing your creations with the fandom might also provide you with the motivation boost you need to get stuck back into your main project.
It might feel like you’re wasting time pouring your hours and words into a fanwork, but a change of pace will allow you to return to your novel with a clearer head, armed with an array of sharper skills.
So, if fan fiction is what keeps your creative muses fluttering, then go for it, guilt-free. At the end of the day, writing anything is better than writing nothing.
Benefit #5: Unearthing The Foundation Of A New Work
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Whether you’re digging through your old notebooks for any scrap of genius you may have previously overlooked, or exploring the more subtle nuances in the work of your favourite creator, the foundations of your next big project may just jump out at you.
When working on fan fiction – particularly stories with an AU setting or original characters you’ve crafted to interact with that world – you could very well find yourself creating something more.
Popular erotic romance series Fifty Shades of Grey had its infamous beginnings as Twilight fan fiction. Jace and Clary from Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series are arguably the same as the characterisation of Draco and Ginny in Clare’s popular Harry Potter fan fiction stories.
When talking about the inspiration behind her debut novel, The Ninth Sorceress, Talem Press author Bonnie Wynne confesses it too found its beginnings as fan fiction based in the world of Squaresoft’s 1999 PlayStation classic, Final Fantasy VIII:
“I always found the sorceresses the most interesting part of the game. Something about them, their power, their loneliness, the way they’re hated and feared – it really appealed to me on an imaginative level. My sorceresses are a little different, but I kept this idea of them as semi-mythic, once-in-a-generation tyrants.” (interview with Bonnie Wynne, 2020)
As the project evolved, Bonnie reveals, the resemblance to the original fan fiction began to fade, but a number of subtle indicators still remain for fans familiar with both works.
It isn’t ‘cheating’ to upcycle a fan fiction into a manuscript of your own. Given that there is a limited number of story archetypes anyway, chances are you’re going through this process even if your novel idea didn’t explicitly start out as something else.
After all, a common question when submitting manuscripts to agents and publishers is ‘What book would you see as a comparison title to yours?’ Even if you are avoiding fan fiction because you want to create an entirely ‘organic’ story, you will still have drawn inspiration from other stories you have consumed – even if it was not intentional.
As such, if the avatar you’ve created to navigate the dark fantasy world of Dragon Age starts screaming at you for further development, don’t be afraid to follow it through. You never know where you might end up.
Fan fiction cops a bad rap. But while the internet is laden with trope- and cliche-ridden fantasies written by amateur hobbyists, the practice itself is not innately terrible, or without merit.
If you find yourself still deeply engrossed in the world of a TV show, book, movie or video game, why not try writing some fan fiction of your own and see what you can bring to the fandom?
Even if you don’t have the need (or courage) to share, you can still reap the benefits simply by participating.
Because really, in the (edited) words of Sigmund Freud, time spent writing is never wasted.