Posted on

How writing fanfiction can help you become a better storyteller.

Following on the heels of my Orson Scott Card post, here is more opinionation about fanfiction… I am not that deep in the fanfiction community, but I still support it 100%. I think it’s a great way for writers to overcome some of their weaknesses in a supportive community, and have Definite Issues with some published authors’ bad faith attitudes about it.

I’m always impressed by the sheer number of fan writers there are — whole communities who love a particular work so much that they want to participate in it. Even more amazing to me is how many prolific — and good — fanfiction authors there are. These are people with day jobs, classes, and families, yet some of them find the time to write multiple novel-length works.

Good fanfiction writers have different strengths than writers of originals. When you write fanfiction, you tend to have a different way of thinking than when you write original stories. Fanfiction has its own set of storytelling challenges, but at the same time, it is often those very challenges that enable you to be completely free to express your ideas.

Though some writers don’t think writing fanfiction has any benefit, I disagree. Thoughtfully writing fanfiction can give you unique experience that you don’t usually get writing original stories. This experience can help you become a much better storyteller.


When you write fanfiction, you are free in many areas where pro or aspiring pro writers are not. Free from the marketplace, free from expectations, free to experiment.

Freedom from market expectations.
Fanfiction writers don’t have to worry about if their story is a sellable length or appeals to the masses. They don’t have to squeeze themselves into one genre or another. No one thinks it’s weird if a fanfiction author starts experimenting with different voices and points of view, or tells the same story over in a different universe.

Freedom from yourself.
Fanfiction also frees you from yourself. With original fiction, there’s always the question of much of yourself you are putting into your characters. Even if your characters aren’t like you at all, you still have to think about it, which can muddy up your stream of ideas.

This goes double if you’re writing anything adult. You have to keep checking to make sure your original characters are really themselves, and not just transparent tools for acting out your own fantasies.

With fanfiction, there is little danger of confusing you and the characters you use. Yes, you resonate with certain characters and issues, which are reflections of you in some way, but you usually don’t have to worry if your implementation of Harry Potter or Willow is an obvious avatar for yourself.

Experience with “sex in character” and believable relationships.
Even better, you get to write sex that is truly in character. Fanfiction makes you really think about a character’s unique sexual expression — the question isn’t only, “do they have sex”, but “how do they have sex, and how do they express their reactions?” Situations inherent in the original works, such as hatred between two characters, really forces you to think about the believable development of a romance or friendship.

Well-written romantic and erotic fanfiction between unlikely characters is always much more engaging, to me, than standard romantic and erotica because of the focus on deep characterization and believable character behavior. Too often, romance characters don’t go beyond the Male and Female archetypes (masculine / feminine are not personalities in themselves!), and the attraction between characters often has no other basis other than the characters’ being ideal specimens!

Trust in the reader.

This is probably the best aspect of good fanfiction — the trust in the reader. When you write thoughtful fanfiction, you get experience at not having to explain anything. The readers already know! You can focus on supplying the relevant detail to your story, but you don’t have to go back and tell their entire backstory. This is so refreshing to me as a reader! So many writers slow their original stories with excessive flashbacks, recounting of history, or explanation.

The success of fanfiction stories isn’t just because the reader already likes the parent work. I have read good stories in fandoms I know nothing about! Even though I was unfamiliar with the original characters and world, I wasn’t lost or confused. The author still provided plenty of detail but trusted me to get it, making for a good story experience.

Intimacy with characters.

During critiques, I sometimes find myself giving the advice of, “Pretend you’re writing fanfiction of your own characters.” Many authors don’t know their characters well enough, so they try to get to know them by working it all out on the page during the story.

But good fanfiction writers really know their characters, including their histories. They’ve thought about them at length, bonded with them, lived with them, and so the writers don’t feel the urge to explain everything as much. When you’re inspired to write fanfiction because you really know and love a character, you’ll have a high standard for your own original fiction.

This is the degree of intimacy you need to make an original character come alive, not just come across like an action figure you’re moving around to suit your story.

Community and courage.

Fanfiction communities are the most supportive environment I’ve ever encountered for writers, especially new writers. So many people get into fanfiction even though they’ve never written anything before. Support is so important for writers — people who really understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it — especially if you’re in a creativity-killing environment most of the time.

This goes double if you write adult fiction. The people around you in real life may not understand your desire to write erotic, horrific, or morally uncomfortable stories, but there are many people in fanfiction who get it. Having this community will give you the courage to release your work.

This situation isn’t unique to adult fanfiction. Even if you write original stories about puppies and kittens eating candy, there will always be people waiting to cut you down. If you have experience in the fanfiction world, it can give you the mental toughness you need to release your original stories, which usually make you feel more vulnerable.

Creativity because of limitations.

I’m an amateur electronic musician, and electronic music is all about working with limitations. Some of my best work was done because of limited choices or bad technology, not in spite of them. If I’d had unlimited access to money, time, or technology, I would have been either paralyzed by the infinite choices, or drowned in an ocean of minutae. I certainly wouldn’t have been as clever, decisive, or thoughtful in my choices.

Fanfiction is like doing a cover or remix. It gives you boundaries and limitations to work with, not work against. Those restrictions are what generate ideas. There are always gray areas left unexplained by the original work, things to wonder about, bits of tension never resolved. These restrictions ask story questions that you wouldn’t have thought of in your own original work, and you can really stretch your storytelling skills to answer them.

Challenges can really make you work.
For this reason, I love to read challenges. Fanfiction writers are willing to leap out of their comfort zones for even strange and bizarre scenarios, and the results are often surprisingly good. Perhaps the best challenges are those that make writers consider material that is uncomfortable for them, such as morally abhorrent situations. In art, discomfort is growth!

Of course, not everyone is serious about good writing in the fanfiction community. Some people use the characters as a way of expressing themselves and their fantasies. They do not worry about good storytelling or good writing — just like a guy who has played guitar covers for twenty years but hasn’t gotten any better.

But thoughtfully created, fanfiction offers some unique challenges and benefits that can help you get to the next level. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, but what say you? Leave your comments below.

21 thoughts on “How writing fanfiction can help you become a better storyteller.

  1. […] couldn’t have put it better than this: How writing fanfiction can help you become a better storyteller Good fanfiction writers have different strengths than writers of originals. When you write […]

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by adelejournal: How fanfiction can help you become a better storyteller:

  3. What an amazingly well-organized, well-written and insightful piece of blogging.

    Thank you for taking the time to do this!

  4. Thanks for coming by! Blogging is my way of making sense of my own thoughts, and I’m glad they made sense to you. I really had to rein myself in… otherwise I’d go into “full on rant” territory.

  5. Hehe, I started out writing fan fiction after several years’ hiatus from writing at all (life, you know).

    Not only did fan fiction help me leap the hurdle of actually putting my stuff out for people to read, it also resulted in two original characters, one of which grew quite loud about herself and resulted in the birth of a series.

    When I’m having trouble advancing on any of my original works, I take a break and write fan fiction. I still feel productive (i. e. am writing something), and it usually results in a fresh mind able to tackle whatever the problem was.

    Great post! 🙂

  6. Hey, thanks for your note! I also use fanfiction for blowing off steam and creative frustration.

    I was actually introduced to it because I auditioned for writing the script of an animated movie, a few years ago. One of his audition pieces was a fan fiction assignment. He told me to write a short scene with three characters from other TV shows or movies and attempt to capture the essences of the characters. (I chose Wolverine and Spock babysitting Alice in Wonderland, who gets lost in the city and ends up at a news stand.)

    It was a really creative challenge for me, and totally flattering as I actually did get picked to write the script from hundreds of entries. Unfortunately, the movie couldn’t get enough funding… no big surprise there.

  7. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by pinkbagels, Stacy , Fragile Little Human, Trina, Fanficers Anonymous and others. Fanficers Anonymous said: RT @Mrs_Robward: RT @fragilehuman: RT @BubbleCow: How writing fanfiction can help you become a better storyteller – […]

  8. This was great; you really put a good deal of thought. You highlighted just about everthing I like about fanfiction. 🙂

    It’s a lot of fun to write fanfiction, and I fine it relaxing. I don’t have to work out an entire universe and a whole cast to write it, and a few times I’ve gotten some great ideas for original works. I also find it a lot of fun when people take a new spin on some characters, some people are really creative.

    You’re right about the fanfiction community being supportive, too. Some of the nicest people I’ve met online have been from the fanfiction ares. I’m fairly new to writing, and I like to use fanfiction for practice and expeirimenting, and I get a lot of good critque and nice reviews from people.

    Thanks for posting this. 🙂

  9. Thanks for commenting! I haven’t written much fanfiction — just a few short pieces — but I’m totally in love with how the ff community keeps works alive. If I ever wrote anything popular enough to generate a lot of fanfiction, I’d be so happy to know that people would carry on long after I’d stopped working with my own characters or world.

  10. An article that praises fanfiction instead of tearing it down, what a nice change. I’ve written it on and off for years and can say with completely honesty that it’s helped me become a better writer.

  11. Hi Vanessa. I’ve actually heard way more in favor of fanfiction than against it, but then again, I hang out with positive and creative people…

  12. I suppose I’ve been looking in the wrong places because most of what I encountered over the years outside the communities has been negative or at least very cool. It’s been a while since I looked up people’s opinions on the matter, though; eventually I just made a habit of avoiding any writing topic that mentioned fanfiction because I figured I’d hear the same arguments against it.

    Glad to hear that it’s better received then I thought.

  13. Vanessa, who counts as “outside the community?” Are you mostly talking about pro or aspiring-pro writers? I’m outside the loop as a passionate, dedicated amateur. In my crit group, we mostly write for enjoyment — there are a few people who want to get published, but generally, we’re a bunch of purists and academics.

    I’m sure that some of the older people in my group think fanfic is a bit silly, but they’re very laissez-faire about other people’s writing practices. The only real rancor I’ve encountered has come from random, immature responses on Yahoo Groups or something, and a few outspoken big-name authors.

  14. I guess I’d classify anyone who doesn’t read or write fanfiction as being outside the community, though I specifically meant aspiring pro writers who don’t read or write fanfiction. I’m terribly out of the loop myself and my experiences are based more on observation than participating; I’m more of a lurker than anything in most writing communities and am actually just now try to get back into writing after a few months of being away.

    I wouldn’t say I’ve seen rancor but there’s definitely an attitude of why bother, you’re wasting your time, you don’t get anything out of it from some aspiring pro writers, even if a person says they’re just writing it for enjoyment. The thought process seems to be you could come up with an original, publishable story in the same amount of time. And of course some people just consider it right out plagiarism.

  15. I always wonder why people care. If they’re not writers themselves, and they don’t feel directly threatened by fanfiction, why should they worry about what other people are doing?

    I think I’ll write a post on this.

  16. […] don’t get that: 1) Fanfiction is actually a great way to hone your writing skills with the right mindset. In martial arts class, we had the option of doing full-contact fighting with our classmates. Our […]

  17. Thanks for this, Kat. I’ve written for years in a medium where it’s quite normal to take other people’s characters and use them to tell stories. It’s what happens in every soap and long-running series on telly. Ok, so we’re well paid for it. And it fails the freedom test. (You’re not free to write anything you like). But most of our best known original tv dramatists learned their trade by operating creatively in a world dreamed up by someone else. The day the phone rings and your agent asks you to set aside the play you’re working on to write an episode of Desperate Houswives then you’d better put on you fan fiction shoes and start to dance.

  18. Yeah — for some people, somehow being hired to write with someone else’s characters/story world isn’t “fanfiction,” though it is essentially the exact same thing. Many of the best fanfiction writers (that I’ve talked to, which is a small sampling of the whole field) also don’t feel free to write whatever they want. They try as hard as they can to make it seem like it could be official.

    Is it true that TV series are written, a lot of the time, by a stable of writers and directors that can change from season to season? I know it’s the same with animators working from someone else’s character designs.

    I get the feeling that writers are much more like “islands” than other artists. Way less collaborative, way more possessive of their creations. Maybe because it is possible to write something all by yourself, but multimedia works are cooperative in nature?

    I’d freaking LOVE to create a shared universe that people could write in. Then again, I’m more of a game designer type than a linear writer, so there you go.

  19. This is thoughtful piece. Thanks for sharing it.
    I agree. I do use fanfiction to experiment, be it writing style or writing subject,
    What I do like about writing FanFiction is that there is ready pool of readers and anonymous websites you can put your work into.
    Also, unlike original fiction, you can get feedback to help you develop your writing skills.

  20. Thanks for coming by!

    Unfortunately, try as I might, I am *terrible* at fanfiction! I wish I could be one of those people who can extend and develop existing characters, but maybe my ego is just too big? I don’t agree with Orson Scott Card’s moral stance on fanfiction, but it’s quite hard for me, personally, to play in someone else’s yard.

    Maybe I need more practice.

  21. […] is therapeutic, not to mention it’s a chance to practice your wordsmith talents. Does writing fanfiction enhance your appreciation of a game, though? In some ways it does. It allows the player to explore […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *