Fan Fiction: An Epiphany

YodaThis article is by A.L.S. Vossler.

Fan fiction is the lowest life form of the writing universe.

If you had asked me what I thought about fan fiction about a year ago, that is what I would have said.

I had not always looked down so fiercely on fan fiction.  I was never a huge proponent of it, but I did not always thumb my nose at it, either.

In college, however, I took a creative writing class.  We talked about “developmental” stages of writing, and the most infantile of those stages was the “writer’s personal fantasy.”  The idea behind this stage was that the writer was living vicariously through the characters and only producing, more or less, self-indulgent tripe.  It was presented as a phase that all writers had to overcome if they ever wanted to become serious writers.  The fact that I remember this but none of the other stages says something about how strongly this affected me.

Naturally, one of the forms of this puerile writer’s fantasy we discussed was—you guessed it—fan fiction.  And so, in my eagerness to become a real writer, a serious writer, a mature writer, I became a member of the anti-fan-fic camp.  I freely bestowed my scathing criticisms on anyone who admitted to writing or even merely reading it.  I openly scoffed at a co-worker who met his fiancée through a Grey’s Anatomy fan fiction group.

My Journey of Love and Acceptance

Then, one day about a year ago, I caught my husband in the act—I walked in on him writing fan fiction.

He reacted as though I had caught him in the midst of something far more prurient.  I knew that he read Star Wars and Avengers fan-fics, and had inclemently teased him for it throughout our three years of marriage.  It had reached the point where whenever he was reading fan-fics and I walked past, he would minimize his browser.

It was a bit of a reality check for me.  So, I swallowed my pride, bit my tongue, and decided to support my husband in what made him happy—sort of the way I approach his habit of constantly watching ESPN or not folding socks the way that I do.

I started my journey of love and acceptance by reading his stories.  The plots were not too bad, but my husband majored in music, not English, so his writing was a little awkward in places.  I gave him some writing advice that I had gleaned from my studies throughout the years, and soon he was asking me to read and critique his writing on a regular basis.  It was a uniquely healthy marital bonding experience.

Even more than that, however, it opened a new door to me as a writer.  I realized how important the first stage of writing is.  I had been viewing the first stage as something to be avoided once you were a “real” writer, but the truth is that it fuels the creative spirit.  I was reminded that even though I never wrote much fan fiction when I was young, I still made up stories, telling them to myself and acting them out while walking in circles around my bedroom.  I frequently inserted myself into these stories; I often joke that Legolas was my first boyfriend. (For the record, I liked Legolas before the movies came out.)  I would make up characters as a stand-in for myself.

In creating the back story for one such Middle-Earth avatar of myself, I ended up with my own world, my own story, my own unique creation completely divorced from the world that inspired it.  That story has slowly evolved over the years into something much bigger than I ever dreamed it would be.  Though I have recently put that story aside to focus on my current work in progress, the lesson I learned from my husband’s fan-fic habit actually helped me get past a creative slump.

A Whetstone for Creativity

I was sailing through some rather severe writing doldrums with my novel when I experienced this fan fiction epiphany.  So, swallowing even more of my pride, I allowed myself to indulge in a little fan fiction writing and returned to my former habit of telling stories to myself.   I was blown away by how much fun it was.  My creativity levels soared.  I wrote pages and pages of fan fiction in a few days.  That was when the bonds of writer’s block fell away and I returned to my own novel, my own “real” writing.  As a result, I finished it and am now working on the finishing touches.

Fan fiction is an incredible tool that should be in every writer’s arsenal.  It is a whetstone for creativity in a very unique way.  When you write fan fiction, the stakes are low.  You have nothing to fear.  There is no pressure to be perfect or to impress anyone.  It allows you to explore human emotions and motivations with characters that are already there.  You can apply all of the things you have learned about writing without all of the emotional weight of critiquing your own story and characters.

With fan fiction, you can hone your writing skills fearlessly and have a fabulous time doing it.

So the next time you are choked in your creativity, want to sharpen your skills, or just want to have a great time, try writing a little fan-fic. Pick your favorite show, movie, or book.  Make up a story for the characters.  Let it be as long or as short as you like. Let it be silly.  Let it be self-indulgent. Let it be whatever you need it to be.

You will be glad that you did.

What are your thoughts on fan fiction?  Have you tried writing it?  What writing tools help you in sparking creativity?

About the Author:

A.L.S. Vossler is a writer and homemaker.  You can read her thoughts on literature and speculative fiction on her blog, Lamps and MirrorsCurrently, she is awaiting publisher response on her fantasy novel, Charybda.  Her published works include poetry, short stories, creative non-fiction, and newspaper articles.

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4 years ago

Fanfiction is how I tightened up my writing skills, found a community willing to go the extra mile to help an inexperienced writer, and found my voice as an author. It’s been something like 20 years since I’ve written any form of fanfiction, but I’ll never actually knock the practice. Particularly for novice writers, I think fanfiction is a boon…

5 years ago

I ditched original fiction for fanfiction because I got lonely. Fanfiction is a community of people writing for each other, for free. I have made friends all over the world through my writing and reading, in a way that only NaNoWriMo can for original fiction, and people knock both of them for the same reason, that it’s not good enough.

Thing is, we don’t care. Yes, there are some amazing writers producing works I would pay to own. There are teenagers discovering that they love writing. But at the end of the day, if you think that fanfiction is just about honing your craft, you’ve missed the best thing about it, and that is the joy of community.

6 years ago

I was having difficulty writing again. I started writing a fan fic, writing just for fun and to explore an alternate universe idea. It’s helped.

Editing other people’s work also helps me.

7 years ago

I have to agree that there isn’t a lot of good fan fiction out there, but I have a lot of fun writing it. I normally do a one shot when I have a question about a character that the show hasn’t asked, to develop one of the characters more, to theorize about someone’s hidden identity, or to create a character completely from scratch. I’ve gotten great responses and have met some wonderful new writer friends. I would definitely encourage people to try it out.

ALS Vossler
8 years ago

Writing an original novel is tough whether you start out writing fan fiction or not, but I can see how it might seem tougher after writing a lot of fan-fic.  Going from working with the characters and world of others to creating your own is indeed a challenge.  It’s a bit like switching from coloring books to drawing your own artwork. 
On the one hand, it’s tough as heck.  On the other hand, it’s absolutely exhilarating to see something you created start to form on the page. 

As for getting reviews, find a buddy who can read your original work as you go. I frequently call my husband when I’ve finished writing a section and say, “Here honey, read this!” 
You mentioned Cassandra Clare. Here’s something to consider: how many published authors are there who might have written fan fiction but simply haven’t owned up to it?

I would suggest that you would do better not to think of yourself as a fan fiction writer.  Think of yourself as a writer who mainly works in fan fiction.

ALS Vossler
8 years ago

Thanks for your comment here.  I think its important for everyone to remember that no matter how silly something seems, if it’s fun and motivating to you as a writer, do it.

8 years ago

HughASullivanIf it keeps you writing, and you are getting nearly instantaneous feedback, it sounds like a terrific tool for honing your skills as a writer.

8 years ago

I stopped writing for a very long time, and I used fan fiction as a way to ease myself back into it. I’ve been a long-time Star Wars nerd, and out of all of the silly, fun, pulpy universes I could have chosen to write in, it’s the one I know the best. I decided to get back into the writing game via NaNoWriMo this year, but to make sure I could keep up the pace I wanted something that would act as a good writing exercise leading up to it.
At this point the word count on my Star Wars fanfiction is getting close to surpassing the word count on my NaNo project, they’re both just above 70,000 words. I know it’s not exactly high literature, but it’s fun. It’s a nice little writing challenge. And I won’t lie and say that my ego isn’t stroked when I see the view hit counts and get a constant stream of reviews when I post a new chapter.

It’s a silly little diversion for me, but it’s a way to keep my fingers going on the keyboard when I’m plotting and planning out my own work. Which I am currently not doing because I’m reading articles on this site… so I’m just gonna stop rambling now and hit post. 🙂

8 years ago

I am a fan fiction writer and it’s great for the starting stages of becoming a writer but later on writing an original novel becomes a bit tougher since you get so used to having your world building and to a certain extent your characters cut out for you and you also become used to getting reviews after you finish a chapter.

of course this is not to say it’s impossible Cassandra Clare is a good example of a fan fiction writer turn published authour

Steven Irizarry
8 years ago

sometimes they are better than most of their source material

8 years ago

stephenspower Mike Cairns Philip_Overby  I was going to say George Lucas! I thought people would disagree with the definition, so I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking it.

8 years ago

Mike Cairns Philip_Overby Mike, I think you’ve laid out precisely why fan fiction should be acceptable: because not only is every non-canon tie-in novel (such as all the Star Trek novels) essentially fan fiction that has the distinction of being paid for and published, every show writer does exactly what you say: look for gaps in stories and fill them or threads they can weave into something new. Granted, writers for a show are generally very talented, but the dynamic is the same. Unless you’re Aaron Sorkin or David Simon, you’re taking someone else’s characters and world and putting them into your story. Indeed, many of the Star Trek OS scripts were submitted from outside, and for the Star Wars prequels I would nominate George Lucas as the worst fan fiction writer of all-time.

Teutevar Saga
8 years ago

Fan Fiction is where my writing passion began!

8 years ago

Philip_Overby Hi Philip.
I agree absolutely. In my, admittedly limited experience, most fan fiction seems to be written in the gaps in stories, or before them, rather than after they end. Many of the Buffy books, although officially sanctioned, were pretty much like this, taking place during the time of the TV series. 

ALS Vossler
8 years ago

Fan fiction is a great starting point.

ALS Vossler
8 years ago

For the most part, I agree with you. I wouldn’t write fan fiction for a tv show if the show was over.  Also, there are some books I would never touch for fan fiction, just because…it would ruin it.

8 years ago

damyantig mythicscribes LOL, I have a short story titled Epiphany! It’s a #military_thriller w/ #paranormal elements. Small world. 🙂

Adam Ross
8 years ago

I started writing because of fan fiction. My stories were so well recieved that I decided to try my own.

8 years ago

I’ve never personally shown a major interest in fan fiction (writing or reading), but I can see why people enjoy it. When people read any kind of fiction they love these worlds so much that they want to see endless stories from them. I believe that is the attractiveness of fan fiction. I personally want to see stories end, to have some measure of finality. For me, that’s why I don’t want to read fan fiction. If a series or book ended perfectly, I feel like I want to keep it that way. Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies of all time. If someone wrote fan fiction about how Andy became an alcoholic and lost all his money after escaping Shawshank, that would ruin the experience of the movie for me. I rather just re-read or re-watch the original stories by the original authors myself. But yeah, if others enjoy keeping the content never-ending, then I don’t begrudge them that.

ALS Vossler
8 years ago

Trust me–much of the bad reputation is deserved. There are very few gems out there.  Most fan fiction out there is not much higher than a 6th grade writing level.  You have to read a lot of fan fiction to find a good one. Every now and then you do, though. 
However, your time would be better spent reading actual, original works.

ALS Vossler
8 years ago

Thank you.  I really like what you said about playing “in your own sandbox.” That is a good point.

ALS Vossler
8 years ago

Mike Cairns 
Something you have hit on, I think, is the idea that fan fiction is more beneficial to the author than the reader.  Whereas writing fan fiction can help spark creativity, reading large amounts of it can place you in something of a rut, stifling creativity or adventurousness (as in the case of your students).

8 years ago

I think that all writers put a little of themselves into all their writing. All the characters also draw on the writer’s personal experience. Fanfiction is these things, just taken up a notch. With fanfiction you can learn to be unabashed in putting yourself in into the writing, and as you develop as a writer, you can learn to pull back and control it.

For myself, I never really wrote fan fic, but as a kid I use to imagine and ‘write’ myself into my favorite TV shows and movies. It was a way for me to connect with those things beyond just watching them, and it hasn’t hurt my writing in the least.

Will English
8 years ago

I don’t have anything against fan fiction personally, but as a writing exercise it’s only good in the short term IMO. At some point, you just have to play in your own sandbox. Good article though.

8 years ago

Hi A
Good post, thanks. 
As a kid, and a shocking loner, I’d do circuits of my junior school playground making up GI Joe stories and narrating them out loud… hmm, not sure I should have owned up to that. Of course, I wouldn’t have thought of them as fan fiction at the time, but that’s certainly what they were. 
I genuinely believe there is a place for fan fiction, just for the sheer escapism of writing it if nothing else, although I don’t write any now. In terms of reading it, I must confess to being put off a number of times just by poor grammar and spelling, but there is some good stuff out there. 
Also, an interesting aside, a number of the students I teach find most of their reading matter online as fan fiction, often based on manga. It’s quite a struggle to get them onto original stuff, but there is definitely an audience for it. The question this raises, of course, is whether those readers will find something original by the same author, should they enjoy the fan fic.

Codey Amprim
8 years ago

When I was in middle school, back when I first attempted any sort of writing, I started writing my own Star Wars spinoff every day during my study hall.

Shawn Enge
8 years ago

I’ve written it more for fun. I often write out the adventures I run for a Star Wars campaign, which I would qualify as fan fiction. I think the big issue most people have with fan fiction is that it emphasizes off the wall ideas, main characters do things that they aren’t seen in the TV show or movies, not to mention poor grammar and spelling .

Tony Dragani
8 years ago

Actually, I’ve never read ( or attempted to write) fan fiction. I think that the bad reputation that so much of it has (perhaps undeservedly) has kept me away.