Most people who know me today have heard my “rant” on fanfiction. The basic gist of it is that I think fanfiction is a waste of talented artists’ time and energy. They’re basically focusing all of their skills into a medium in which they literally cannot make a living (the few exceptions like Fifty Shades of Grey are so unheard of it’s not even worth addressing this counterargument–it just doesn’t happen). Beyond that, it also limits the number of truly talented writers out there–because many fanfiction writers are really good at what they do–bringing brand new work to the forefront.
However, all that being said, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t at least admit to the fact that I started off my long-form writing career with fanfiction. The fact of the matter is, one of my favorite characters from The Martyr Series started off as an original character concept I had for the Harry Potter world, and I wrote over 100,000 words of fanfiction to flush her out.
So… while I may look at fanfiction now and see it as a waste of time, that’s not actually entirely true, and there are some huge benefits to starting out writing fanfiction. I figured it was only fair I address them.
It teaches you to focus on storyline rather than setting and characters.
In most fanfiction, the characters are already preset. Very few writers start out with a personal character (and the writers that do add a personal character are largely ignored in the fanfiction space because people read fanfiction to read about the characters they already know and love). No, most fanfiction takes place in a predetermined setting with predetermined characters from the fandom, so the writers get to focus on making a really great plotline rather than having to tie all three elements in at once. This can help writers get really good at developing plotlines for their own stories down the road. It’s like practice!
It also teaches you to keep characters consistent.
Nothing kills a fanfiction like a character acting contrary to how people believe the character would act. It’s not enough just to take a character’s name and appearance. You need to keep that character true to the original work. That means you can’t have a Sherlock character who somehow and spontaneously loses his sociopathic tendencies, and you can’t have a Dumbledore who loses his temper (something the director for the fourth movie obviously didn’t understand). Writing with characters that are already really well established–and writing for an audience who wants those characters to feel authentic–will help writers learn to keep characters in line with their original motives and traits.
It gives you a chance to get your work seen–and get you used to critique.
There’s a pretty big community out there for fanfiction from pretty much every major (and minor) fandom alive. Sure, in many ways that makes it harder for your work to be read by the masses, but you already have a built-in audience looking for literally exactly what you’re writing. Not only does this mean you’ll have more people looking at your work in general, you’ll also have more people commenting on it–good or bad. And man, the fanfiction community can be really nasty sometimes. I have a friend who wrote fanfiction regularly, and some of the comments could be brutal. She also got a lot of compliments, so it evened itself out. Like I’ve said, writers need to have a tough skin, and this is one way to harden yours up.
It helps you practice writing without the pressure of publishing.
The vast majority of people who are writing a fanfiction aren’t doing it for the sake of getting published. They don’t want their work to be put on bookshelf stores. They don’t need it to be distributed to the masses. They’re writing it for themselves and for the community fandom they’re serving. This means they get to practice writing without having to worry about any of the publishing hassles. And, as I’ve said time and time again, the best way to become a better writer is to write more. From my own, limited fanfiction experience, my writing grew exponentially from the beginning of that piece to the end.
So, while I now think it’s a shame when really talented writers keep their skills locked away in fanfiction instead of developing awesome, new stories to share with the rest of the world, there’s definitely a solid and valuable place for fanfiction in an aspiring writer’s world. Besides, if you really love to write it, then good for you! Just keep on writing.