The Surprising Things I Learned Writing Fan Fiction

Like many writers I’m a huge fan of many things – from novels and superheroes to anime and Doctor Who. But recently, watching a show with my young daughter, I’ve been pulled beyond a threshold I never expected to cross.

I started writing fanfiction.

It is the best thing to happen to my writing in years.

People look at fanfiction as trash writing where young teens with obsessions play out their daydream fantasies – not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s also an effective way for authors to isolate writing skills they may want to develop.  You can skip over the character introductions, go light on the descriptions, and cut down the worldbuilding that diseases many people in order to focus on character arcs, plotting, and writing style.  For me this was a game changer.

The show is Miraculous Ladybug, a superhero romance aimed at teens. Marinette is the superhero Ladybug, and she’s in love with her classmate, Adrien. Adrien is the superhero Cat Noir, and he’s in love with his super partner, Ladybug. If only their secret identities didn’t keep them apart.  The characters are stuck in a love square with just the two of them, and the audience is in on the inside secret that’s creating most of their conflict.

But this article isn’t about a television show, defending geeky obsessions, or pushing authors to write fanfiction.  The crazy love square between Marinette and Adrien is part of a dynamic – a guiding force between the characters that creates change throughout the story. A good dynamic is like a tension-building machine, and for me, the difference between writing with and without a strong dynamic has been the difference between fun and torture.

Dynamic vs. Character Development

When I began writing fanfiction, the first thing I realized was that I didn’t know my original characters well enough. Marinette and Adrien had bigger personalities, simple guiding motivations, and quirks that I used to consider shticks and gimmicks but now accept as fundamental to developing deeper characters.

But my characters were strong by all of the measures I knew at the time. They had backstories, character arcs, nuance and relationships. But I was building my characters as individuals with their own stories existing side by side together.

But a good dynamic is shared between the characters: Our story, not my story.

I had thought too much about how my characters feel about the government and the magic and the demands of the plot, and not enough about how they feel about another character’s quips, bad attitude, excessive optimism, or showmanship. I had spent all this time not just on plot and worldbuilding, but even on character development, and I struggled to write because I didn’t even realize what I was missing.

Marinette gets flustered around Adrien and annoyed by Cat Noir’s bad puns. Adrien treasures his friends and wants to impress Ladybug. Understanding the dynamic created by these two sentences has made writing this fanfiction fun, easy, and constantly compelling.  Add in any hints of a plot, and the scenes just about write themselves, rich with the tension this dynamic creates on its own.

This isn’t done through one character’s motivations, or by having two characters share the same goal, but by giving characters slightly different, contrasting, intersecting motivations. One character wants to save the world; another wants vengeance on the villain; another just wants to make sure she can eventually rebuild her home town; another wants to rescue his family from the villain’s dungeons; another wants to seal up the villain’s arcane rift polluting the atmosphere. The characters can even be simple and cliché but still build a compelling, page-turning dynamic.

Plot and Worldbuilding Are Not Separate Steps

In Ladybug, the two characters both have two identities, and they’re in love with each other’s opposite alter egos. This dynamic goes beyond character development and into the plot and mythos of the story.  They have two identities because they are superheroes, and they cannot share their second identity because the plot makes it dangerous to do so.

The plot and the worldbuilding are at their best not when they create an epic story that wrecks the world but when they also go into creating a unique character dynamic. You know that the elements of your story come together when you have a character dynamic that can only exist with your plot and setting.  And when you find that, build on it.

Superheroes have fallen in love and struggled with their dual identities before Ladybug and Cat Noir. But the nuances of this superhero mythos are all about teasing the big identity reveal that will close the love square. Using their special powers gives them a short window before their magic fades and their identities are revealed, and the villain wants to take the jewels giving them their power, which will also reveal their identities. The plot and mythos don’t simply create the dynamic but serve to pluck at the tension it creates at every possible moment.

If that sounds simple and gimmicky like a kids’ television show, consider that a good plot and world take hundreds of pages to build, as does a character arc and the revelation of his or her backstory.   But the character dynamic all of these things produce are part of the hook apparent in the first few pages.

Connect to an Audience

Novels are sold by the book, but you can post fanfiction one chapter at a time.  If your dynamic is bad in a fanfiction, your readers will tell you, and it’ll suck the drive out of your writing long before you get to any new worldbuilding or plot.

Being connected to an audience closer to real time changes everything.  You don’t have time to tell yourself that you have four chapters to set up your great plot. You have to begin with a payoff for your readers in the first chapter – in every chapter.

The dynamic is that first payoff.  It’s heart of your book.

That also makes it your promise to your readers. What is driving this dynamic, and how will it develop over the next few hundred pages? You’re promising answers to these questions, and a strong dynamic will convince readers that the answers will be just as strong.

Brian DeLeonard writes for the Article Team at Mythic Scribes where he contributes as a moderator. DeLeonard enjoys getting creative with his writing, and he is currently working on his Smughitter series about a sprite who turns pride into magic. After graduating from NYU’s business school with a degree in marketing and economics, DeLeonard spends his days at a standing desk with his laptop, clipboard and a box of crayons as the full-time father of four young children. Message him through his screen name Devor on the Mythic Scribes forums.

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Firefly
Member
Firefly

I love fanfiction. I don’t read it often, but I think it’s definitely more valuable than people give it credit for. Writing in a different setting (like fanfiction) can yield a lot of new insights. I used to role-play in fandom communities back when I was in middle school, and I imagine fan fiction is similar. It’s not for everyone, but the shared sense of passion everyone has for a story is so fun, and the lack of pressure to be perfect and create everything from scratch can really liberate you and allow you to drill down and focus on specific elements of craft. I think that experience taught me more about character voice and writing to an audience than anything I’ve done since.

And, by the way, I’ve been following your Ladybug story for a few months now, and It’s great.

Sheilawisz
Member
Sheilawisz

Great article, Brian!

I started my storytelling life by writing little fanfictions about my favorite cartoon show back then, quite some years ago.

Yeah, many people despise Fanfic and fanfic writers but it's actually a great way to get started in the arts of writing stories. In certain way, it is a rather easy way to start your journey because you already know the characters involved, you already know their world and also you already feel that special something about them, a personal connection that I consider very important in storytelling.

There are many fanfics that remain very simple, but this is not always the case.

I have encountered plenty of fanfictions that expanded their world way beyond the source material. Adding a variety of your own characters, inventing new places and telling about twists and events that would never happen in the source material are all good examples of this. It's all about creating your own twist and personal magic, following your own creativity even though it's a fanfic and this feels great.

In one of my Frozen fanfictions I did this kind of thing.

I just cannot accept (in my personal view) that Arendelle is simply a nice castle and a little town, so in my fanfic I explained that there are many other villages and communities ruled by the Arendellan Crown over a vast territory. This also allowed me to imagine and describe various other settings like the Tannya fields, the Sammel valley and Vardyn Forest, and also I needed to know the distances and terrain involved because of the troop movements, travel speeds and other aspects of the war.

Apart of that, I adapted 19th Century tactics to WW1-like weapons and I included several new characters of my own.

Many years ago I used to criticize Fanfic authors that dedicated a great deal of personal time to writing novel-length fanfics instead of original novels, but as years passed I came to discover and learn just how useful this practice can be. I write novella-length fanfics to keep myself in good narrative shape while I rest from my original novels, and I find it to be not just fun but also quite invigorating.

So yeah, writing fanfics can help a lot and it's a great advice for new writers of stories out there!

ravenowl
Member
ravenowl

An angle I hadn’t looked at so far. Thanks for posting, I’m going to give that a try some time. Its definitely more interesting than most ‘writing excersises’ you find otherwise to help improve writing skills.

Miles Lacey
Member
Miles Lacey

I've written fan fiction. It has it's merits but you're ultimately working with other people's characters and their worlds so there's a lot of restraints as to what you can and can't do with it.

I've written a few Kim Possible and one or two Hogan's Heroes fan fiction stories. I prefer not to speak of these abominations to the world of fictional writing.

Mythopoet
Member
Mythopoet

I have total respect for fanfiction and the people who write it (as long as they maintain respect for the author and source material). But I have no desire myself to write it or read it. Then again, could adapting and rewriting old myths and legends be considered fanfiction on a certain level? If so, maybe I'm deeper in than I though. 😉

FifthView
Member
FifthView

I have very little experience reading fanfiction and have never written it, although I've considered doing so. The only fanfic I've read was a story about the Arthur and Merlin characters from the Merlin television show, called The Student Prince. It was exceptionally well-written; my only criticism would be that it doesn't have much of an over-arching plot for the story, and so it stops short of being something it could have been.

Ewolf20
Member
Ewolf20
Daisy

Since my original attempt to dip my toes into writing a novel back when I was 14, I've only really written fanfiction. But through both writing and reading fanfiction, I've found that there's a fundamental difference between fanfiction and most published novels that can help you develop a lot about your own writing, if you give it a few attempts.

That being that no matter what plot you create, no matter how much the setting you create might differ from the original one, fanfiction that keeps the original characters can help you learn how to write characters, yourself. It's all about the fundamentals of character writing, and the focus on character is what drew me to fanfiction in the first place.

If you take this one character from a show about a school and you put them into a universe where they've been forced to train as an assassin from birth, how much about them changes? How does their character arc change, and what parts of them are so fundamental that they stay the same through iteration over iteration?

What about this one minor thing that was mentioned, but yet never properly addressed in the story? This throwaway remark that could lead to a whole new dimension of the character? What if it brought something entirely new to the table, and there's so much more room to explore?

It's all about getting to know the characters better than you ever had the chance to beforehand.

There's something to be said about having so many stories about the same characters, written by different people, in different genres and different settings, and having that character be recognizably themselves throughout all those iterations. It helps you gain a fundamental understanding about how developing and growing characters works, about what's fundamental to them as people, and I suspect it's part of the reason why it's now the easiest for me to come up with my characters, before anything else.

Another thing is that fanfiction writers are often not tied down by the constraints of setting up a world or a backstory. It's assumed that the reader is already acquainted with these things, so the writer only ever re-iterates those things which are of immediate consequence, when they are needed. And you know what? A couple of times, I've read fanfiction about shows I'd heard nothing about before. And one thing I noticed is that despite the fact that I had no idea how the original world worked and the fact that the writer never bothered to re-establish all that information, I never needed it. What's more, it made it easier for me to follow the story when the writer automatically assumed that I already knew everything I needed to know, never interrupting the story in order to explain to me that 'people don't know about the existence of magic in this world' or whatever else basic worldbuilding information we usually give readers at the start.

And it made the reading experience all the better because of it. I was given what information I needed when I needed it through the context, and everything else was allowed to just flow naturally, and I think that's something that writers could perhaps learn from.

out of curiosity, have you once did something original and did writing fanfiction help you in writing?

Daisy
Member
Daisy

Since my original attempt to dip my toes into writing a novel back when I was 14, I've only really written fanfiction. But through both writing and reading fanfiction, I've found that there's a fundamental difference between fanfiction and most published novels that can help you develop a lot about your own writing, if you give it a few attempts.

That being that no matter what plot you create, no matter how much the setting you create might differ from the original one, fanfiction that keeps the original characters can help you learn how to write characters, yourself. It's all about the fundamentals of character writing, and the focus on character is what drew me to fanfiction in the first place.

If you take this one character from a show about a school and you put them into a universe where they've been forced to train as an assassin from birth, how much about them changes? How does their character arc change, and what parts of them are so fundamental that they stay the same through iteration over iteration?

What about this one minor thing that was mentioned, but yet never properly addressed in the story? This throwaway remark that could lead to a whole new dimension of the character? What if it brought something entirely new to the table, and there's so much more room to explore?

It's all about getting to know the characters better than you ever had the chance to beforehand.

There's something to be said about having so many stories about the same characters, written by different people, in different genres and different settings, and having that character be recognizably themselves throughout all those iterations. It helps you gain a fundamental understanding about how developing and growing characters works, about what's fundamental to them as people, and I suspect it's part of the reason why it's now the easiest for me to come up with my characters, before anything else.

Another thing is that fanfiction writers are often not tied down by the constraints of setting up a world or a backstory. It's assumed that the reader is already acquainted with these things, so the writer only ever re-iterates those things which are of immediate consequence, when they are needed. And you know what? A couple of times, I've read fanfiction about shows I'd heard nothing about before. And one thing I noticed is that despite the fact that I had no idea how the original world worked and the fact that the writer never bothered to re-establish all that information, I never needed it. What's more, it made it easier for me to follow the story when the writer automatically assumed that I already knew everything I needed to know, never interrupting the story in order to explain to me that 'people don't know about the existence of magic in this world' or whatever else basic worldbuilding information we usually give readers at the start.

And it made the reading experience all the better because of it. I was given what information I needed when I needed it through the context, and everything else was allowed to just flow naturally, and I think that's something that writers could perhaps learn from.

Ewolf20
Member
Ewolf20

then again, no wonder my writing is absolutely garbage. i have never did fan fiction in years. maybe i should take a jab at it every now and then.

DragonOfTheAerie
Member
DragonOfTheAerie

I recommend writing fan fiction to almost everyone.

Don't have any ideas, but want to be writing and to have an audience? Here you go. People have literal lists of easily exploitable prompts and AU's that you can borrow from for just about any story and go. Everything's there already, and people are hungry to read your stuff if you can hold their attention. You might have to fight for that, but that's good practice.

Ewolf20
Member
Ewolf20

I've made this clear in a lot forums and chat rooms that i don't like writing fan fiction. if i did do fan fiction, none of the characters would have been canon ones and most likely take place somewhere else. the reason i do this is mainly because i find writing other people's characters….cringe worthy. very, very cringe worthy. It's just my opinion but i prefer not to write premade characters but rathter my own. that's why i like it when fan fiction writers jsut use the world they writing in than use the world's characters. I'm not interesting in reading fan fic about sonic, i'm interested in the side stories that expand the world in some way.

there is a time in place for fan fics but i'm just not into them. I find it way more fun to make my own characters.

Kessie
Guest
Kessie

This is exactly the reason I love writing fanfiction. It forces you to strengthen your weak areas, because a boring story means zero readers. Or displeased readers, which is worse. And fanfic readers are REALLY forgiving. And now you’ve made me want to hunt down Miraculous Ladybug.

FifthView
Member
FifthView

"You have to begin with a payoff for your readers in the first chapter – in every chapter."

This sentence addresses my own burgeoning sense of dynamic, although strictly speaking I don't think the only way to accomplish this is through interpersonal character dynamics. Your example is one way to do it.

Dynamics for me necessarily involve the reader: the reader's sense of dynamic. A first chapter, second chapter, third chapter, may focus primarily on only one character—other characters are support or background in those chapters—and still be written to offer the strong sense of dynamics. Something changes in each chapter, or throughout the chapter. But this is a change experienced by the reader, regardless of whether the character is conscious of the change. The character probably will be somewhat conscious of this shifting circumstance, or more or less conscious depending on the chapter; it's just that what's most important is for the reader to be aware of the shifting.

Sometimes I think this reader awareness can be thought of in terms of energy, borrowing from physics. There is kinetic energy, which may be experienced by actual movement/action within the chapter, but more importantly there is potential energy. An explosion or sudden movement might lie in the future should that potential energy be released; it is latent but oh-so-present.

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