Why Every Writer Should Start Out in Fanfiction

And just what on earth is fanfiction, I hear most of you say. Well, here, let me google that for you.

In short, fanfiction is the term for stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator.

Say you’re a fan of the television show Supernatural (in which case I say, you have good taste!) and you didn’t like the way an episode in Season 2 was handled. Sam, you think to yourself, doesn’t talk that way. Or you love the Bollywood movie Jab We Met, and you’re endlessly annoyed by the fact that Geet had red nail polish in one scene and no nail polish in the scene immediately preceding it. You want an explanation, and since there isn’t any in the actual film, you decide to provide it for yourself.

This, in essence, is fanfiction. It’s not part of the original creation, the characters and their world don’t belong to you, and—most importantly—you can’t publish it, and make money off it.

So why would anyone want to write fanfiction?

Well, the simplest answer would be the same reason you’d give if someone asks you, ‘Why do you write?’

Because you love it. Because you can’t see yourself not writing.

And the same applies here. I write fanfiction because my muse pushes me into it, with odd thoughts and questions popping into my head as soon as I close the book or turn off the television.

I write fanfiction because I loved the characters and world so much that I couldn’t quite let them go, and my fanfiction is my love letter to them.

I got into writing fanfiction back in the day, when a television show called The Pretender aired on Star World. The show ended abruptly, since it had been cancelled in the middle of its story arc, and I was left feeling like someone had ripped out the last few pages of a book I loved. I had to know how the story ended! So, I did what any teenager in the 21st century does—I went online, looking for any information I could find.

I discovered fanfiction.

It was a new world of stories featuring the characters I loved, and—most important to me at the time—they all had endings! I devoured all the stories I could read, and before long, I was fully conversant with the various terms used to describe fanfiction, like AU (Alternate Universe), and WAFF (Warm and Fuzzy Feelings) and even PWP (Porn without Plot).

At this point, I had been writing, on and off, for three or four years, always a poem or a short story at a time. It was a desultory kind of writing, I wrote when the mood struck me, never showed my writing to anyone else, and there it stayed, shut up in notebooks and journals.

And then I started writing fanfiction. The website featuring The Pretender fanfiction was defunct by then, but it didn’t matter, because by then I had seen the movie Serenity, and fallen quite in love with the incomplete story of two of the main characters, Mal and Inara. I went looking for fanfiction of them, and discovered LiveJournal. I read hundreds of stories, leaving gushing reviews for some and bookmarking many more.

My initial fan stories were all attempts to give Mal and Inara’s story a happy ending. I posted my stories to communities dedicated to fanfiction about these two characters, and many of the authors I had interacted with were kind enough to comment on my writing. And so started my love affair with fanfiction.

I wrote every day, commented endlessly, and became friends with a unique circle of creative, fun, and extremely welcoming people.

So what did I learn from writing fanfic? Why would I recommend that every writer should start out in fanfiction?

  • It’s easy: Fanfic is the perfect place for beginners to start—you have ready-made characters, and a ready-made world for them to inhabit. All you need to worry about in your stories is the writer-ly stuff, like sentence structure, and plotting and pacing.
  • Instant feedback: Sure, you can blog your original fiction on your own website, but when you write fanfic, you have a ready base of people willing to give you instant feedback on your writing. They’ll tell you when your sentence construction sounds clunky, when characters are off beat, when you misspell words like ‘occassionally’. They’ll be your biggest cheerleaders when you get it right; they’ll tell you in detail what lines they loved, what moved them, what made them cry, laugh, and save your story to their bookmarks.
  • Broadening your skills: When you write fanfic, you don’t end up sticking to the kinds of stories you read all your life. I wrote 100 word vignettes for a community on The Lord of the Rings, where I learned how much you can say in just a few words and the turn of a phrase. I wrote stories in the second person point of view, when I realised how immersive they could be for a reader. I wrote stories that explored characters—the villains became misunderstood heroes in their own right, incidents in the original work were described by minor characters, protagonists became antagonists in alternate universes where just a single decision had a profound impact on their lives—it went on.
  • Learning to appreciate—and write—variety and minorities: Whenever I see questions on Quora asking ‘How do I write believable x characters?’—x being female, black, Chinese, Indian, gay or transsexual characters—all I can think about is the wide variety of fanfic I read, featuring nearly every kind of character known to man. And the very best of them all rang true. In the fanfic circles, I read—and wrote—stories featuring same-sex relationships. Being a heterosexual woman, same sex relationships were never something I even thought about before discovering fanfic, but reading about them made me appreciate the idea of telling stories about people different from me. My characters stopped being cookie cutter versions of people; always heterosexual, always looking to settle down and marry and have as many kids as possible. Reading and writing these stories, I realised that not everyone’s ‘happily ever after’ looks the same. And that’s alright.
  • Sense of community: Writing is a lonely business. It’s solitary. It consists of you, in your room, alone with a computer or a notebook, bringing things to life. And no matter how much they love you, sometimes your significant others and families and friends will not understand the frustrations of dealing with a character who just won’t behave the way you want them to, or how horrible it is to be afflicted with writer’s block, or how terrifying it is staring at a blank page. This is where your community becomes your best friend. I’ve bitched about my characters to my fanfic friends, and listened to their own horror stories of never ending tales, and plot bunnies that just won’t die. I’ve asked them to critique my attempts at original fiction, and their comments and feedback has been invaluable.
  • In rare cases, it’s publishable: There are instances where what we would now call fanfiction has been published. To be fair, though, these are all cases where the copyright on the original has expired. Examples include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Mary Reilly, and Wide Sargasso Sea.
  • It’s fun! Perhaps most importantly, fandom is fun. Fanfic is fun. You write stories you never thought you’d write—as virtual birthday presents for online friends. You get the chance to read the exact story you always wanted to read, the exact scene you always wanted to see play out for your favourite characters – for free! You get to experience the joy of creating, and in return you get comments and compliments you wish you could frame and display on your walls, if only more people knew what fanfic was. Fanfic gives you the freedom to be a male character, or a female character, or an elf, or a dark wizard, or mage—whatever you want. Fanfic gives you the freedom to try writing non-linear stories, or flashback fic, or a hundred other things you’ve seen and loved in other writers, but never knew if you could pull off on your own.

In end, nothing I say can ever be really enough. All I can tell you is that fanfic can be a fun and fulfilling way to earn your writing chops, and to broaden your mind as a writer, as a person.

Additional reading: 10 Famous Authors Who Write Fanfiction