I wrote a piece last week titled “I am a Writer”; in it, I mentioned how I used to hide in my closet and scrawl myself into my favorite worlds and characters, because I had this misplaced sense of wonder about worlds far away.
Little did I know at the time, that I was writing “fan-fiction”.
Fan fiction. It gets a lot of flack. It’s sordid. Creepy. Weird. Secretive. It’s the guilty pleasure of geeky, nerdy anime freaks. And when I was in school, it was weird enough that I watched anime, let alone write about it.
But write about it I did! And I’ll say it proudly now, because I don’t really give two shits what anyone thinks about it now – I seek no one’s approval on the matter – I wrote fan fiction.
Dudes, I still write fan fiction. It’s a good writing exercise.
I wrote with my best friend. We had these notebooks in school and I’d play a character and she’d play a character and we’d write about them and create our own adventures about them. We’d pass the notebook around and scrawl little scenes during classes and soon, soon, we had stories. Full-fledged stories. With beginnings and middles and endings and plot twists and romance and cliffhangers.
With the internet came this budding realization that other people wrote fan fiction too! So… during some downtime, we’d google other stories, fascinated that other people could share a similar hobby.
There was some bad writing out there. Weak plots. Plots that made no sense whatsoever. Characters that acted, well, out of character. There was terrible formatting, people who didn’t seem to have any clue on how to organize a good story. People who didn’t even spellcheck and actually posted their terribly spelled and terribly formatted stories on the web for everyone to see. And people read it.
But. Through the roughs, we found several diamonds. Stories that were, while still fan fiction, absolutely and irrevocably believable. Well-written, well-developed. We soaked them up, read them again and again, studied them. We wanted to be those writers that wrote excellent stories. And in order to be that, we had to study the greats. Since we wrote fan fiction, that was the genre in which we had to study.
I’m not here to preach whether fan fiction is good, or bad, or should be encouraged or discouraged. People have all their own different feels on it. There’s even fan fiction I won’t read – like Harry Potter fan fiction, because people write sordid details and I just can’t with those characters. But don’t delude yourself into thinking that no “real” writer has written fan fiction. Anything that’s an “adaptation” of something is, in essence, fan fiction. All those Disney princess movies? Damn right, that’s fan fiction – Disney has taken characters and interpreted a story from it and wrote it out.
What I am here to tell you, is what I personally learned from writing fan fiction. Every great writer learned their craft from somewhere and in the future when I’m a famous writer, all you blog fans will have been the first ones to know – I learned my craft from writing loads and loads and LOADS of fan fiction. Remember that – you might be interviewed about it.
It was through fan fiction that I figured out my style, my writing voice. I found that I tended to lean towards characters who had a sense of humor, someone I could write and have them break the fourth wall occasionally. There were times when my best friend would say “Let’s write about these two characters!” and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t become the character – I couldn’t find their voice, because it didn’t mesh well with my style. I like to talk – as many of my friends and family know well – and so I needed a character that could either talk a lot, or talk to themselves. That was my style and if I wanted a good story, I needed a character that fit that style.
Building on that, I discovered a lot about character development through my explorations of fan fiction. What sells a really excellent fan fiction is the writer’s ability to stay in character. Like drama or acting – it’s more real if you can become the characters and really get into it. Fans do not like it when a character does something unexpected without reason or growth – the point of fan fiction is to feel like you are reading an extension of that character’s adventures and if that character does something weird, it’s jarring. It pulls your reader out of their zone and it’s a huge red flag for them. It’s usually little things too, like dialogue or word choice. Character development became pivotal. Good character development is essential when writing any story. Any, fan fiction or not. I can say with absolute certainty that I can create a excellent character. How? Why? Because when you write good fan fiction, you need good characters. How did I do it?
Research, research, research.
How does that character walk and talk? What are their relationships with other characters? What does that tell you about them as a person? How does that character handle a rainy day? How do they handle stress? How do they act when someone pisses them off? What are their biggest dreams? What are their fears? What are the elements of their personality? What are their character flaws, what about their quirks?
These are just some of the elements I had to think about when I was playing characters, because often, I’d write them into a plot that they might not have ever faced before, so I can’t know for certain how they’d actually react. It’s a challenge to play a character that’s not your own original character – and play them well. More challenging still, is taking a character you’ve only seen on a TV show and writing them, giving them more depth, giving them an inner voice (which, as I stated above, has to match my inner writing style because if it doesn’t, it’s that much harder to keep them character).
Fan fiction gave me a platform to work on characters and work on them well. Everything I had to learn about writing good – already established – characters, is an excellent platform for writing original characters. The quality of a good character is how well you write them; and how well you write them is dependent upon how well you know them.
I took a few writing courses in high school and in college.
I learned many things about writing. I was able to take the things that what I’d learned in school and apply them right away – through fan fiction. It gave me an avenue to practice. One of the aspects of writing I learned was this concept of “empty writing” or “empty sentences”. Every sentence in a piece of writing must contribute to the writing itself. For example, you can see I crossed some things out already just in this paragraph – empty sentences, sentences that do not contribute to the piece.
I took this concept and I applied it on a larger scale to writing stories. Every scene must contribute to the story. Every character must have a purpose. There is no room for “empty scenes”.
In 2011, my best friend and I wrote our first fan fiction story that had an overarching plot. One giant, consistent problem, one consistent villain. Before that, we just wrote for the sake of writing and we’d just throw bad guys around and they didn’t have any substance. The stories were entertaining, but they kind of went scene-by-scene. That one story, in 2011, was a turning point for us. Since then, we’ve tried to establish an overarching plot into each of our stories. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Recently, we’ve begun to experiment with the overarching plot not being a “villain” or “good guys versus bad guys” but more about the internal struggles of people – their inner demons.
Fan fiction has helped us grow and develop our ability to plan and outline our stories. What’s been great about using fanfic as the platform: we don’t have to worry about world building. We have a question about something in the world, we look it up on the internet. Without world building, we’re able to focus on the more important elements of writing a good story. Like structure and plots.
Having said that about world building, fan fiction is GREAT practice for eventually building your own world. My best friend and I have this one anime fandom we’ve lived in for five years now. Five years. We’ve written seven stories. SEVEN full-length stories. Out of those seven, four have been using ORIGINAL characters, with ORIGINAL storylines.
Because we’ve lived in this world for so long, we got it DOWN, man. The world is already built for us – we just started sticking characters into it, building them, working on character development, story structure, style, all without the pressure of needing to think about the world. We’ve had all that great practice.
Now, seven stories is A LOT, so we are now just beginning to create our own world. It’s a work in progress right now, but you know what? Having written in fanfic for so long, through so many stories – SEVEN in ONE FANDOM – we know how to build a world. We know what we want in a world, we know what kind of depth we will require, how to set the stage. We know how to write in such a way that assumes our readers know what we are talking about. Nothing is more boring than reading a story where the author feels compelled to tell you every little detail about the world.
This is helpful when it comes to our own world building. Once we’ve created the world, we can just write in it. Our readers will figure it out on the way.
We’ve studied the greats, we’ve studied the theory, now, we are ready to set sail.
So, what’s the POINT:
I can, right now, list twenty fanfics I’ve written.
TWENTY. Full length stories.
Not to mention all the little one-shots I’ve written. Little scenes to help exercise the writing muscles.
People will say fan fiction is a waste. That it’s weird and creepy and illegal, after all, you can’t publish it.
I’ll tell you right now, though, that none of the stories I’ve written have been a waste. Every single one of the stories I’ve written has been an exercise in practice, in trial and error, in creativity and development. For me, writing fan fiction was a catalyst to writing original works. I found my voice, my style, my preference, all through fanfic. How many fresh authors are just starting out on their own with TWENTY stories written? Granted, twenty unpublishable, fanfic stories.
But I’ve had twenty different plots.
Twenty different sets of characters.
Twenty different settings.
Twenty different personalities.
I’ve had the practice of writing twenty stories. Twenty times to try, to fail, to try again, to succeed, to rewrite, to practice all over again.
Probably more than twenty. I keep thinking of more as I continue to write this. More like, twenty-five, twenty-six?
If you write fan fiction, don’t let anyone tell you it’s a waste. You are practicing your craft. You are learning more about yourself as a writer. Don’t let your writing be a waste. Seek to practice what you learn, read more, absorb, grow. Practice on those characters that aren’t yours, it’s okay to not commit. Because when you’re ready to commit and ready to create all original writing, it’s gonna be kick-ass writing, because you’ve been able to practice on something that’s not your own, and that’s okay. Musicians don’t start with original pieces. They start with Hot Cross Buns and learning covers of the greats. Artists practice copying and practice other people’s techniques before they develop their own. Chefs cook recipes before they learn to create their own unique dishes. Martial Artists are taught patterns and forms before they are allowed to make up their own displays. Everyone has to start practicing somewhere.
Writers start with fan fiction.
And that’s okay.