This article is based on a comment by Reddit-user phantomcat, who published a post in the /r/Writing subreddit describing what they’d learned after writing over 400,000 words. In response to a question, phantomcat outlined how writing fanfiction has benefited their original fiction writing. Here are the links to the original post and phantomcat’s fanfiction comment.
We’ve heard the scoffs, seen the eyerolls, and felt the skepticism from friends and family. But we shrug it all off. Because we’re fan writers. And fan writers understand how fanfiction enriches the lives of so many readers each and every day. The best part, though, is how it also motivates us to get better at our craft. Whether it’s teaching us how to structure plot, establish character motivation, or use dialog tags, fan writing has immense creative benefits that extend well beyond fandom.
Here are just a few of those creative benefits:
Investment in Characters
Fandom is all about affect. We fall in love with fictional worlds and the characters who inhabit them. Since fan writers have already watched every episode or read all the books in their favourite series, there’s no need to worry about what happens to our favourite characters. Closure is freeing and perhaps the biggest motivation to sit down, plan out a story, and start writing. It gives writers creative license to go back and explore all of the “what ifs.” Then again, problems may arise when you discover a new fandom and your attention begins to wane. Many fan writers find they have to regulate their media consumption habits to ever get any writing done at all.
The most exciting aspect of writing fanfiction is the possibility of creating something new in an established world. Creative innovation is the heart and soul of fanfic: when the material is already well-known, writers are forced to be imaginative. This is particularly true with crossover fics, where the writer must figure out how to meld two different worlds together while retaining the internal story logic. Questions like “How do the rules of magic line up in Harry Potter and Final Fantasy?” or “How does flight technology overlap in Star Wars and Firefly?” are fun (and often mind-bending) to answer.
Without the immense task of world-building, fan writers can focus on plot structure. It’s the fan writer’s job to draw readers to their story – to create a plot (and, importantly, a plot summary) compelling enough to attract attention in an ocean of a thousand fics. Many writers learn the fundamentals of narrative structure from reading a wide range of fanfiction; learning what works and what doesn’t. Then, when it comes to writing their own stories, they understand the importance of the three act structure, plot points, and “beats.”
Although writing with pre-existing characters is liberating, it can also pose a huge challenge. Fans have expectations for their favourite characters, so writing a fic where Hermione acts more like a Luna can quickly alienate your readers. Fan writing forces you to be consistent with characterization. Using canon as the base, writers quickly learn how to create compelling character arcs that stay true to the canonical character’s habits, motivations, and relationships. Much like learning how to structure a plot, fanfiction teaches you about the Hero’s Journey and other successful character arcs.
Writing fanfiction develops your ability to use dramatic literary devices effectively. Foreshadowing, pinch points, false victories, and moments of truth are immensely fun to write, but notoriously difficult to pull off. In all genres of writing, story pacing is key. It is the writer’s job to take readers on a journey of rising and falling action, with plenty of intriguing signposts along the way. Fan writing trains you to use these devices correctly, a skill that carries over into other forms of storytelling. And, more than that, fanfiction teaches you the more technical writing rules, like how to use dialog tags or when to break up paragraphs.
Every writer knows the long process of planning, writing, and publishing a book is pure agony. It can take years – decades even – to bring a story to the bookshelves. With fanfiction, however, writers reap quick rewards by publishing online as soon as the final edits are complete. The immediate gratification that comes with each new review or “kudos” can help motivate the author to keep writing. The life of an original fiction writer can be arduous and isolating, so receiving some much needed encouragement through fanfiction communities can carry over into other creative endeavours.
Those are just some of the creative benefits of fanfiction writing. And, it’s strange: when someone from “outside fandom” discovers you write fanfic, one of the inevitable questions asked is “Why are you doing this if it won’t make you money?” Yes, the idea of “giving away” something for free that you’ve worked tirelessly on can be a baffling notion to many. But, for most of us, we do it out of joy. We do it for the encouraging feedback that motivates us to write more. Most of all, we do it because we love. Yes, we give our work away. But we can always count on fandom to give us something back.