Fan fiction has a mixed reputation because it is amateur writing. That’s not a judgment of its quality, which can range from juvenile to truly excellent, depending on the individual writer’s skill. Merriam-Webster defines “amateur” as “one who engages in a pursuit… as a pastime rather than as a profession” (www.m-w.com) and that’s exactly what fan fiction is: writing for pleasure, rather than for hire, or with the expectation of selling the finished product.
Fan fiction will always be amateur writing because, for legal reasons, it’s usually not sellable. Fan fiction writers are borrowing other people’s characters and worlds, typically without permission, so fan fiction exists in a legal “grey area.”
One of the hardest things for me when I began to write with an eye towards publication (as opposed to for my own entertainment) was to largely give up fan fiction. I simply don’t have enough writing time to be able to make good progress on my professional projects while supporting ongoing fan fiction series. And, when I made that switch, I found there were some aspects where fan fiction hadn’t helped me develop as a writer, as opposed to other areas where I benefited greatly from what I learned while creating my reams of amateur stories.
What I did learn from fan fiction?
Voices and characterization. As I borrowed others’ characters, I began to recognize when phrases or actions seemed out-of-character for them. This skill helped me develop more individualized original characters. Different people have different manners of speaking, different standards of behaviour, different motivations; once you know these things about a character, you can extrapolate what the character will do in any given situation.
Change comes gradually. If you want to take a character in a new direction, or portray a relationship that’s not explicit in canon, you need to show the changes evolving in a manner that seems natural and logical. Similarly, in my own writing, changes of heart needed to take place gradually and believably.
Tone, mood and theme. When I made up original characters, I discovered that some fit the already-established tone, mood, and theme of the universe, and others really didn’t-even though they were great characters on paper. Some of them even found homes in other stories, where they fit much better.
The value of a writing community. In my early days when I was writing drek, I benefited from having a community of fans willing to take the time to read the drek and offer feedback. I also shared tips with other fan fiction writers. I saw how much more difficult it was to get an audience for original fiction by a beginner author. Having a shared interest in a TV show, manga, movie, or other fictional universe gave me something in common with my earliest readers. The feedback gave me motivation to keep writing until what I produced wasn’t exactly drek any more-at least, not all the time.
What I didn’t learn from fan fiction – coming next post.