Fanfiction, by definition, is fiction about a pre-established world or set of characters, written by a fan of said franchise. Some are short one-shots focusing on description and creating a vivid scene; others are long-form serial stories that create a fully fleshed out story.
Obviously, fanfic writers can’t and don’t write to make money. Fanfiction is about appreciating and exploring another author’s story in new ways.
So why should anybody write it? I’d recommend fanfiction for any writer, but especially for newer or younger writers who are still figuring out their own writing style. Besides the fact that it’s fun to make up stories about your favorite characters, I have three reasons for this:
1. It gives you a starting point.
You’re sixteen years old. You’ve just opened a new document titled “My Magnum Opus” and the words are… just not there. The beautiful bits and pieces of inspiration have vanished, and you’re left with a vague creeping feeling that you’ll never really be able to put those ideas into a cohesive story. How do you translate all your ideas to a piece of paper? How do you make a book?
Enter fanfiction. Writing a fanfic gives you a specific world, a set of characters, or even a plot structure to follow. You’re able to borrow an experienced author’s work and just work with one category.
Maybe you want to learn about characterization, but you can’t create a whole world just for your character to live in. So you write about an original character (O.C.) who goes to Hogwarts. Now, you don’t have to invent an original setting or a rigorous magic system; you can just focus on making your O.C. as realistic and interesting as possible.
Or maybe you have a fascinating idea for a superhero plot, but your characters are suspiciously similar to those from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No worries- just drop your plot right into the MCU and work the established characters and world to fit your idea. Now you don’t have to worry about accidental plagiarism or coming up with new character names; you can dedicate all your energy to finding and filling those inevitable plot holes.
2. It forces you to actively analyze an established work of fiction.
One of the best ways to learn any new skill, whether that’s writing a story, making petit fours, or playing an esport, is to figure out how other people do it. High school students analyze short stories in class, bakers learn from established chefs, and gamers study other people’s combos and strategies.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I actually assigned my high schoolers last year to write fanfiction of The Scarlet Letter and Jane Eyre. In fact, one of the final project options was to write an alternate ending to one of these books. Why? Because when you have to sit down and write an additional chapter to an established book, you need to know that book inside out.
If you’ve ever read fanfiction, you probably know that a reader can tell within the first paragraph if the author knows his/her source material well. The best fanfics are those that stick to the original story in some way, whether that’s in the little quirks of the characters, the depth of the story world, or even the style of humor or narration. To make any story ring true, it needs to have that ethos, that consistency, and a fanfiction story is no different.
3. It helps you discover your own writing voice.
Have you ever watched a really awesome show on Disney+ that got you invested and excited, but then the ending Absolutely Sucked and you just know you could rewrite it better? (@Wandavision: whyyyy?) Don’t ignore that feeling; write that alternate ending the way you think it should go. Why? Because that’s a bit of inspiration, and following that inspiration will make you a better writer.
We learn what our artistic styles are in two main ways: 1) by experiencing other similar art and identifying what we do and don’t like, and 2) by experimenting with our own art. Writing fanfiction accomplishes both of those goals. Fanfiction allows us to take what we do like from a story, and then we can add in our own flourish.
And when it finally comes time for us to write our own original Magnum Opus, we will know just a little bit better what we want to write and how to write it. We’ll be able to apply the tips and tricks we learned from writing fanfiction. Our own narrative voice will be muscle memory. Writer’s block will be just a little bit easier to overcome.
So if I’m giving one piece of advice to someone who wants to write their own books someday, it’s this: Write fanfiction. You’ll become a stronger writer, and you’ll have a heck of a lot of fun in the process.
And yeah, I will eventually write that alternate ending to Wandavision.