Fanfiction is writing original content based on the work of another artist. Many people invest incredible time and energy into their fanfiction projects, and the potential variations are endless. This post is not to explain what it is, who writes it, where to find it, or any threat it poses to traditional writing, if any (see the links at the end of the post for posts of that kind). Instead, this post will discuss the use of fanfiction to develop essential writing skills.
Fanfiction revives the same storytelling traditions that preserved oral history. A story is told, retold, and frequently adjusted to the needs and tastes of different audiences down the line. Think of a population of people playing “telephone”. Now, in place of sending a story verbally from town to town, people are connected digitally. Their take on the collective story (the “canon” of commercially available official works), as well as their adaptations and wish-list of new features, can be shared directly with a willing audience of fans just like them.
The only real difference between fanfiction storytelling and a fully original work is the existence of a previous framework from the official works. Using the telephone game example, there is a correct first version. When repeating a story, certain major facets are required for the story to be recognizable within the same family. Fanfiction writers select touchstone elements that remain the same from the canon for use within their work, tying it to the original via canon characters, recognizable settings, story mechanics, or backstory.
- Watch it. Read it. Listen to it. Take in the original material from the source.
- Compile the details. Often, others have taken this step already. From source material, fans have assembled comprehensive maps of settings, in-depth character backstories, personality profiles, pseudo-scientific read-outs, cultural guides, language rules, etc. This turns details scattered through episodes or books into a set of functional landmarks within the fiction. (Essentially, it’s decoding the creator’s pre-writing.)
- Find the holes. This isn’t to mean flaws (though finding those is a good exercise too). The holes here mean the places where story can happen. Some fanfiction writers find background characters to develop. Others work on backstory for beloved characters. The setting-focused writers find places in which a story can develop, like a briefly mentioned town, empty dorm rooms whose inhabitants are only implied, or a place where a big event occurs and is then forgotten. Perfectly marvelous minor elements can be used to fuel a whole new story.
- Practice. This is the actual writing part. More on this later.
- Share the project. As in any type of entertainment writing, sharing the work and receiving feedback is all part of the process. In this case, the audience can be narrow. Fanfiction writers write, primarily, for other fans. These are the people who will appreciate the work and its relationship to the official material, but they’re also the ones who will spot inconsistencies right away. The quality for widely-read fanfiction is very high, not just in the writing, but especially in how well the “original flavor” is both mimicked and maintained in the work. A writer’s success in writing in another person’s universe is made clear very quickly, when read by fans of the original.
These steps apply to original concept writing, only with a wider base of reference.
Actually writing the fanfiction is the place of learning. Compiling the details, just like deconstructing a classic in a formal literature course, teaches form, function, and story preparation. Writing the story with the compiled details demands the writer learn to use the tools they’ve found.
Style – The more popular fanfictions lean heavily toward “original flavor”. In general terms, this means a natural-feeling extension of the original content. One of the more difficult elements to get right is the original writers’ style, as it comprises fluctuations in word choice, description patterns, humor style, and repeated (sometimes very subtle) symbols.
One exercise, useful for any writer, involves writing an original scene (or full episode) for a favorite TV show as a short story. Consider how the material will look on the page, translating a visual style to a fully written one. As an example of the diversity of style, how would a Phineas and Ferb fan episode look vs. a fan’s Game of Thrones vignette? Or how would a person describe a setting in a Sherlock fan scene vs. a fan scene for The Avengers?
Dialogue – Characters retain fan followings almost independent of their original context. This is a huge compliment to their creators. High praise goes to fanfiction writers who can effectively reproduce the speech, manners, and inner compass of these well-loved characters. Condemnation often falls on those who fail to produce realistic renditions. To create a realistic character with impact for readers, the combination of uniqueness, relatability, and appeal needs to be well balanced with the demands of the story. How better to learn this than by deconstructing a successful one and figuring out what makes them work?
A common character exercise, often used to develop realistic original characters, is an interview on paper. It’s done by writing questions (sometimes by the writer, other times as another character) and writing the answers as the character would respond. Sometimes this produces natural backstory, other times this reveals some elements of their personal philosophy or some other mental characteristics.
Doing this exercise with an existing character requires focus on other facets. The answers to common interview questions are often obvious from the original content. Instead, the challenge lies in mimicking the dialogue and personality quirks of the character as they answer. Consider the reactions of memorable characters like Adrian Monk, Pippin Took, Pepper Potts, River Song, or Sherlock Holmes if they were asked a few probing interview questions.
Writing fanfiction teaches a variety of writing skills and can be used as a playground, work space, even a spotlighted stage unto itself. These are only two of the many elements to fanfiction. Below are included links for new fanfiction readers, writers, and even those who simply have a passing interest in the genre.
(Quick warning, some fanfiction sites require content ratings on individual works, and others don’t. Sexually explicit content is not only present, it thrives in many fanfiction forums. Read responsibly, and report any incorrectly labeled content for the admin of the site for review.)
Fanfiction Terminology http://www.angelfire.com/falcon/moonbeam/terms.html
Catagorizing Fanfiction http://thefanficskeptic.blogspot.com/2012/08/categorizing-fanfiction.html
A Fanspeak Dictionary http://expressions.populli.net/dictionary.html
Which Type of Fanfiction Author are You? http://www.selectsmart.com/FREE/select.php?client=fanficquiz
5 Types of Fanfic (overdone) http://www.descendantsserial.paradoxomni.net/5-types-of-fanfic-i-cant-stand/
Fanfiction Slang https://www.fanfiction.net/topic/117927/77037518/Fanfiction-Slang
General Fandom and Fanfiction Glossary http://www.theparapet.net/fanfic/glossary.html
- This is an extensive explanation for any who are unfamiliar with the genre, or who have objections to it. While I don’t completely agree with everything it says, it does show fanfiction is no genre. It’s the current version of a long-existing literary tradition, manifest in a globally connected “tribe”.
- A really bristly post, meant to stick up for fanfiction writers.