Ah, fanfiction. What a beautiful dumpster fire it can be. If there’s one kind of writing that never fails to get it in the neck, it’s this. I’ve been in rooms full of book lovers who will happily discuss minutiae of sci-fi and fantasy until they’re blue in the face, but mention the word ‘fanfic’ and there’s a tangible recoil. Eyes are rolled, smiles go very fixed, and you can see the other person filing your book-opinions under ‘Not To Be Trusted’. Even working in the publishing industry, where everyone has read everything, you don’t always know what kind of reception you’re going to get when you say you enjoy reading or writing fanfic. It has a bad reputation.
But is it deserved?
When fanfiction is bad, it’s really, really bad, and this is what a lot of people tend to think of when they hear the term. There are some infamously bad fanfics out there. My Inner Life, which contains some of the absolute worst sex scenes I’ve ever read in my life (seriously, the word ‘gushing’ should be banned). Forbiden Fruit: The Tempation of Edward Cullen, which sports some of the worst poetry I’ve ever read and some of the most entertaining typos. And of course, who can forget the goffik granddaddy of them all: My Immortal. They’re all awful. Like, really, really awful, albeit with a silly, slightly Muppet-ey kind of charm.
But this is not the be-all and end-all of the genre. Fanfiction is tied in with a lot of ‘internet culture’ stuff, especially trolling, and it’s often pretty difficult to tell if the really bad fanfics are actually genuine. My Immortal itself is the perfect example of this, because nobody knows who actually wrote it. There’s all sorts of theories. Various people have claimed to know the author in real life, but this mysterious author seems to have been everything from a wannabe-goth schoolgirl to a trio of teenage boys poking fun at fangirls. This all came to a head last year, when someone claiming to be the real author of My Immortal got a book deal about how she wrote the fanfic to cope with the difficulties of the American foster system – and was then exposed as a liar.
As a result of this fanfiction is exposed to a lot of snobbery. People look at stuff like My Immortal and assume it was genuine – which it may well have been, I don’t know. But the difference between fanfiction and other types of writing is that the so-called ‘big names’ aren’t necessarily big because they’re good. Even those fanfics that have managed to break into the mainstream – I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey –
– aren’t exactly celebrated as masterworks of literature. As a whole, fanfiction is seen as a weird quirk of the Internet Era, like eating laundry pods and obsessing over Shrek. It’s not really seen as something that should be taken seriously.
I really disagree with this.
First of all, allow me to put on my history nerd hat for a moment. Fanfiction is not a modern phenomenon. Modern fanfiction goes back to at least the 1970s – we’re coming up on around fifty years of it now. But if you go further back, you’ll find that people have been using other people’s characters to tell their own stories for centuries. The Victorians, for example, used to re-write the endings to Shakespearean tragedies so that the heroes would survive to get a happy ending. That’s not so different from writing a fluff fic where your OTP get to live happily ever after when one of them gets killed in the show, thanks for nothing, Game of Thrones, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME.
But it goes back even further. Look at the Arthurian legends. There’s no one source for stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – as the centuries passed various writers and storytellers added to the legends, gradually building them up into the often-contradictory pantheon we have today. The most fanfic-ey example of this can be seen with the character of Merlin. Before The Vulgate Cycle – which is a group of stories from the thirteenth century, adding to pre-established Arthurian canon – Merlin was a mysterious and ambiguous figure, with no real clarity about his backstory or goals. But then, Robert de Boron wrote a poem all about Merlin which rounded him up to a full-blown edgelord. According to de Boron, Merlin was the result of a demon trying to make the Antichrist by getting a virgin pregnant, but then she had the baby baptised which somehow gave little Merlin perfect knowledge of the past, present and future, plus a bunch of magic powers. This established Merlin as a vital figure in Arthurian canon, setting him up as Arthur’s teacher and advisor, as well as adding famous elements of the mythology like the sword in the stone. And it goes back even further – all the way to the classics, in fact. The Aeneid is essentially fanfiction about one of the minor characters from The Iliad – it just happens to be incredibly well-written and dealing with big, serious subjects like the founding of Rome. When you’re dealing with material like that, it’s kind of hard to remember that it was also written in order to gain favour with the emperor Augustus, and is basically just a toga-wearing NOTICE ME SENPAI.
So fanfic is far from a modern phenomenon. Writing your own works set in someone else’s universe is a fine literary tradition going back thousands of years. Once you acknowledge that, it becomes pretty tricky to keep holding onto the perception that it’s no good as a genre. There are a lot of good fanfics out there – and I’m not just talking about The Aeneid – which get unfairly overlooked thanks to the reputation of titans like My Immortal.
But there’s something else we need to acknowledge about fanfic as well: it’s incredibly useful for writers.
Fanfiction is a great way to start off if you’re interested in writing but don’t really know where to begin. Writing is a weird, isolating hobby that has a tendency to attract a certain tweedy kind of snob. That’s really intimidating. If you’re faced with a room full of people talking about how they write about the intricacies of life and death, or the fundamentally Marxist nature of the human condition, or a controversial take on the banality of mankind, admitting that you want to kind of want to try it too can be excruciatingly embarrassing. There’s a lot of intellectual snobbery about first-time writers, or genre fiction, or women’s fiction, or YA, and wading straight into that before you’re really sure what you’re doing can be a really horrible experience.
But fanfiction has far less of that. Yes, fandoms as a whole can get pretty weird – I’m looking at you, Superwholock – but when you start writing fanfiction you’re starting off in a place where everybody already loves the thing you want to write about. That’s a huge confidence boost. The overall world you’re working in isn’t going to be questioned on principle, because everybody else is working in that world, too. This is hugely helpful for a first-time writer because it allows you to focus on other elements of storytelling.
So: what can writers actually learn from fanfiction?
- Characterisation: Fanfic teaches writers how to write consistent characters and stick to an already-established personality. It’s essentially an exercise in character-writing, with the added bonus that you already know the character really well before you start.
- Setting: Fanfic shows writers how to fit within the boundaries of an already-established world and in some cases, how to expand on it, too. More importantly, it allows writers to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. Worldbuilding is hella difficult and it’s actually extremely tricky to put together an original and coherent world with its own set of believable rules. Working in a pre-established setting is excellent training for this.
- Plotting: Fanfic allows writers to push the boundaries with their plots and try new things. You can experiment – see what works, see what doesn’t, and see what completely blows the universe apart. These are important things to learn, and you’ll likely have to learn them all over again for original projects, but having an established framework for your first few tries makes it a hell of a lot easier.
- Structure: Fanfic sites encourage users to post stuff on a chapter-by-chapter basis. This encourages writers to think about structure – you’re thinking about how to write a strong opening, how to end a chapter so your reader will want to keep going – and this is something that isn’t always considered when writing original projects.
Are these things that you can learn from writing your own original projects? Yes. But that doesn’t change the fact that fanfiction can be a really valuable tool for writers and you can really learn a lot from it. The instant feedback you can get from fanfic sites is really valuable because it’s actually pretty difficult to get feedback as a writer. Asking your friends to read your stuff is really nerve-wracking and unfortunately, even if you do ask they just might not have time to read it. You can always submit to competitions and magazines, but that’s a hugely scary thing to do and these types of publications don’t always have the time to give you constructive feedback if you don’t get far in the competition. This is where fanfic sites can really give you a leg up, as you can get encouragement and advice on every chapter. It’s impossible to improve as a writer without constructive criticism, and if you don’t take that first step you aren’t going to get any better.
But there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned so far.
It’s just fun!
Writing doesn’t have to be a super-serious thing – neither does reading. Yes, talking about craft and feedback is important but you can also just have a good time. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy fanfiction and anyone who makes you feel bad about it is being a snob. It’s still reading. It’s still writing. You do not have to be a tortured artiste starving in a garret in order to produce anything of worth, and you do not have to be wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches and smoking a pipe in order to have valuable opinions about what you read. If you want to read or write fanfiction, you go ahead and do it. If you find that it starts up a love of writing or reading that you want to take further, that’s great! If not, that’s great too! Just enjoy the stuff you like to read or write and don’t let anyone try and make you feel bad about it.
Don’t get me wrong. Fanfiction, when it’s bad, can be an absolute pile. But to say it’s bad as a whole is an unfair characterisation of a genre. You get good and bad fanfic in the same way you get good and bad sci-fi. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that a) it’s not the misunderstood brainchild of Tumblr, we’ve been doing this for centuries and b) it has some very real benefits. Things don’t have to be deep and meaningful to have value – they can be fun, or silly, or over-dramatic, or just really really smutty, but if you enjoy them, that is all the value they need. Some people find fanfiction gives them some really useful tools as a writer, and can start themselves off down the path to original fiction – I know that was the case for me. Some people don’t. Either way, that’s fine. You do you.