Lessons Learned From Fanfiction

In today’s world, many writers start by writing fanfiction. For those who don’t know, fanfiction is original work based on/inspired by existing properties. It is amateur work (although one could make the argument that the expanded universe of something like Star Wars is simply professional fanfiction), written by fans for fans. On the surface, there is no merit to it. Authors will never be paid for their work. That said, it can be a value learning tool. A free workshop in a sense.

I wrote a lengthy fanfiction story for Avatar: the Last Airbender and I will attest to the value in what was a tremendous learning experience.

Many people treat fanfiction with disdain, and it is hard to argue against some of their notions. There are a lot of tales out there full of inserted characters with Mary Sue or Gary Stu qualities who solve everything and are loved by everyone. These insertions are the fulfillment of an escapist fantasy, reflecting the author’s desire to be the hero in an established mythos.

That said, I will defend that my fanfiction is not this, and that my fanfiction is not unique. What I attempted to do (and where the merit of fanfiction lies) was to write original action for established characters. Doing this is a very solid writing exercise.

Character writing is difficult, as I have discussed before. A strong character needs action, which requires motivation, which requires thought. Characters without these three qualities run real risk of feeling one-dimensional. Now, one may think that, because a property is established, that means that the characters are strong.

Not so.

For writers looking to achieve the most out of fanfiction, I would suggest using a property (like Avatar: the Last Airbender) that has strong characters and an established world order. Strong characters are ones possessing the three qualities I described above. An established world order simply means that, in this fictional universe, the rules governing reality are for the most part established.

There’s a reason why Star Wars is so perfect for expanded works.

I list these restrictions because otherwise the writer is in danger of confining a new work to the fanfiction category. If I, as a writer, am using an established property but reinventing the characters (because they were not properly defined) and changing the nature of the world – then I am essentially writing a new story. It would be a disservice to myself and the work.

Writing fanfiction challenges writers to understand character – motivations and thoughts – to craft new actions that seem believable for the character to take. Doing this exercise will put an author in the right mindset for new creations.

Using an established world will likewise strengthen a writer’s own world-building. Seeing something done right can help draw attention to when it is done wrong. Doing this can help a writer think about how geography affects story and the role of climate, as well as how everything has a history. Established worlds never feel like they are only a day old (unless they are supposed to).

Lastly, writing fanfiction can help a writer understand plotting. Every story has a plot. Depending on the level of complication and amount of characters, some plots can be effectively told in a short story while others require spanning chapters. Writing a fanfiction is an exercise in working with plot structure:

plot-elements My Avatar: the Last Airbender story lasted twenty chapters, so writing it required me to keep track of characters, setting, and plot. Essentially, I wrote a practice novel that, because of its association with an established property, garnered a lot of feedback. Reader response is always useful to a writer – whether it is praise or criticism.

Writing my fanfiction allowed me to flex my writing muscles, learning what was strong and what was not. Strengthening writing is not something that can be done by simply reading what other authors have written. It requires practice – exercise. While I personally am unlikely to use the story I told in my own future works, this is a viable option as well.

Fanfiction will not get glory (especially not in the writing community) but it will strengthen writing skills and help advance storytelling talent. That is all it needs to do to be worth it. Writing fanfiction screenplays isn’t a bad idea either.


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