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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.