What the fic?!

Fan fiction. This is a topic I’m likely to return to from time to time. It’s something that gets a bad rap, in my opinion. In fact, this struck me during one of my adaptation lectures, for which my lecturer had picked some excerpts for her slides. Now, when I say these were bad, I’m not kidding. But it’s like picking a bad Twilight quote and suggesting that it represents literature. Fan fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. Not all of it is good. Probably not even most of it is good. But in my experience, some of it is magnificent. And it serves a very valid purpose.

Part of the reason I’m uncomfortable with the misconceptions about fan fiction is because I write it, and I know better (yes, that’s the sound of me getting on my high horse). I’ve been writing fan fiction since I was fourteen years old. You may think I’m being defensive and you may well assume that mine is as bad as the very worst. I will accept that I may not be the best; I may even be the worst. One thing I know for certain, though, is that I’m a damn sight better at writing than I was when I started. In my mind, that’s what it comes down to. You are in a situation where there’s a receptive audience; there are people to please. You write and write, and that process comes with natural improvement.

You build upon universes created by other writers. Some of them are the best in the world, of their time, within their genre. There are worlds like those of Harry Potter, Doctor Who and, in my humble opinion, The West Wing that introduce minor characters that deserved a back-story and leave subplots open-ended and tease all the shoulda-beens that never were. There is nothing wrong with wanting to explore all of that. My experience of reading fan fiction has only served to enrich my experience of the source material. Sometimes you come across fan fiction that is better than the canon material. I can’t adequately express the delight I take in being able to give someone that kind of feedback. Even if it isn’t “better”, how many film adaptations are regarded as “better” than the book? They simply serve a different purpose, provide for a different audience or expand the material for the same audience.

What fan fiction does that creative writing more generally doesn’t do is come with a pre-existing audience. It creates an immediacy to the process, removing the involvement of editors, publishers etc. This means that the writer themselves has to serve as all of the above. It teaches the individual to become an editor, to develop the skills of proofreading. In this respect, the learning curve is steeper. It also allows the writer total control over what they are putting out into the world. While this can be done with any online writing, fan fiction also comes with communities that are readily interested in reading the work. Your market, so to speak, is there waiting for you.

The platforms upon which fan fiction is shared vary. There are general fan fiction websites; currently the largest of these is Fanfiction.net (FFN), with in excess of 600,000 stories for Harry Potter alone. There are fandom-specific websites that are often home to other relevant media for a fandom, a modest example is More Than That which exists entirely for fans of The Office’s Jim and Pam (with over 750 active members). Finally, there is the personal blog format, utilising sites like LiveJournal and Tumblr to post fan fiction amidst other blog material. Use of all these outlets is increasing all the time.

Fan fiction is not new, though. Fanfiction.net was launched in 1998, LiveJournal in 1999. Shows like The West Wing, a series that ran from 1999 until 2006, are not exempt from the world of fan fiction, proving that not only has this format endured, it is far from exclusive to worlds of science fiction or fantasy. In fact, The West Wing fan fiction is a mix of old and new with the main resource for older fan fictions, National Library, hosting over 6,000 different stories. These fandom-specific websites often include guidelines and challenges that, despite the bad press, may be used to stimulate ideas. This speaks to the two-way dialogue that occurs in this setting between the writers and readers.

Given how much the experience of fan fiction has enriched my writing process, the disparaging remarks made against fan fiction communities elude me. Writing fan fiction involves a process of deconstruction to the source material. It forces the writer to analyse the importance of character development, distinguishing each character as an individual, pace, perspectives and narration, the layers between page and screen and so much more. It’s often unconsciously done, but the best works are those that successfully and subtly explore those elements. It allows one to understand the same importance in one’s own creative writing. You begin to look for ways to create unique character traits and distinctive voices on the page. You begin to contemplate what narrative voice will be most effective for different contexts. You begin to explore how chronology can affect storytelling. It’s simply another way to learn from the pros.

While you’re writing fan fiction, you’re learning about what is good and bad about the characters you love. In the process, you’re learning about what is good and bad about the characters you create. It allows you a wealth of insight into the creative process, simultaneous to the experience of receiving feedback. Constructive feedback can hugely shape the way a person writes, while vague but encouraging feedback can simply inspire you to write more (and thus improve!). Most of the time, it’s done within a community. It allows you to learn from your peers, which only adds to the motivation. You want to entertain these people, and they want to be entertained. It’s enormously rewarding in this respect. Unlike in the classroom, the reader is willing and motivated entirely by personal interest.

Ultimately, it was my fellow fans that taught me how to write. I promise this: no teacher ever read my work as attentively as some of my readers. For a girl who gets by on mustered faux confidence, the encouragement has been energising. As one of my lecturers frequently stresses, it’s important to identify who the reader is. This experience provides that first-hand. You have a direct discourse with those readers. Once you accept the importance of readership and feedback to a writer, how can you possibly deny the value of fan fiction?

I’d be really interested to read what you think about this, whether a reader of fan fiction or not, so please feel free to leave comments below.