For writers, especially “serious” writers, fanfiction can feel like the elephant in the room. Everyone is aware of it, and many of us have tiptoed into it. Yet, because of the stigma that clings to it, we avoid talking about it.
The genre (if it can even be classified as one) has no gatekeepers or editors, and readers often use it to extend stories they love—usually with an odd or disturbing twist. You could fill a library with all of the erotica and overdramatic depictions of the worst tropes (consider yourself warned). Several popular mainstream books-turned-films began as fanfiction, including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Jane Austen’s delightful novel repackaged with zombies and zombie fighters) and Fifty Shades of Gray (a smutty mutation of Twilight minus the vampires).
As a writer, you’re probably afraid that these assumptions will be applied to you, so you either keep your enjoyment of fanfiction a secret, or you cringe at the thought of even accidentally daydreaming about the stuff. But fanfiction shouldn’t be cast aside as the black sheep of the writing community. It can be redeemed as a motivation and creativity booster, which is what it’s become for me.
1. Fanfiction Drove Me to Complete My First Novel
Everyone has ambitions to write a book, but to craft a finished product that’s cohesive and compelling, you need to ace plot structure, character arcs, theme, and dozens of other moving pieces. That’s why many people don’t move past the idea stage. It’s a massive undertaking requiring vision, discipline, and pure grit.
Back in college, I turned in a handful of short story assignments and haphazardly worked on dozens of other writing projects whenever the muse struck (a rare occurrence because of the classes that crammed my schedule). But I lacked direction. I’d never accomplished a full-length novel, nor did I know how or even if I could. Like running a race, the first few miles were bearable, but once I reached chapter two or three or five, my inspiration petered out.
The first novel-sized manuscript I managed to complete was a fanfiction piece I started for no other reason than because I wanted to. Since it sprang from a fully formed story, I didn’t have to synthesize one on my own. And without the imminence of a publisher’s appraisal, I felt no pressure to perform—merely the joy of creating. As my word count rose, the experience acted as the training wheels that kept me upright while I learned about the mechanics of storytelling. When I clocked in at eighty thousand, I’d gained the confidence to pursue writing more seriously.
If you doubt you have the patience and perseverance to write a “real” novel, try fanfiction. Choose a story you obsess over, give yourself a flexible time frame, and have fun. You won’t have to worry about pleasing anyone except yourself (and those kind fanfiction readers leaving feedback). As you write, edit, and write some more, you’ll discover the techniques that are effective and ineffective. And you’ll strengthen your abilities as a writer.
2. Fanfiction Honed My Characterization and Voice
Characters, with all of their faults and virtues, are the lifeblood of a novel. Without them, all you have is a sequence of interesting (or boring) events loosely slung together. Shaping a nebulous concept into a relatable, three-dimensional being involves, first and foremost, an understanding of human nature.
As a beginning writer, I struggled to balance my authorial voice with the dialogue and thoughts of an entire cast of characters. Fanfiction, however, provided me with familiar faces I could insert into different settings and circumstances. Because the original stories established the characters’ personalities, behaviors, and voices, I had a clear pattern to follow, which not only taught me to be consistent but also how to distinguish the characters from each other and myself from the characters.
Once I successfully handled character development in three fanfiction stories, I pushed beyond those boundaries and carried the lessons into my other works-in-progress. I’ll never forget the moment that I paused at the end of a romantic scene I’d typed where a gruff man escorted his wife on an elaborate date. The male lead seemed to glare at me and mumble, “I’d never do that.” I willingly deleted those beautiful two thousand words, but I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t understood my characters deeply enough to realize that the sappiness was inaccurate.
If you’re concerned that your characters are flat, or fleshing them out overwhelms you, revisit your favorite books and films. Extract the characters, take them on adventures from your own imagination, and pay close attention to their reactions. As you guide them through their arcs, you’ll see the points you need to hit and the details you need to include to transform names on a page into people readers will care about.
3. Fanfiction Prevented Me from Quitting
Writing, like any creative endeavor, can lead to burnout, especially when stress and disappointment and loss descend on you. The desire to quit is disheartening. You wonder if you made a mistake and diverted from the path God set for you. It’s a sinkhole that every writer has fallen into at least once (and probably more than once).
During the pandemic, I wrote an article containing tips on how to continue writing when hardships drain your mental energy. My final point explained that quitting is always an option. I’ve gone through three distinct moments when I couldn’t bring myself to peck at any of my ongoing projects. Each time, I returned to fanfiction while I contemplated what my next step as a writer ought to be. The stories became a haven where I had the freedom to indulge in trope-y goodness, explore my passions as a writer, and let my strengths (dialogue) and weaknesses (melodrama) emerge.
The last two years of my life have involved a global pandemic, a conversion to Catholicism, a move to a new city, and a novel that’s crumbled in innumerable places. Amid all the turmoil, fanfiction reminds me why writing captured my heart all those years ago in eighth grade.
Maybe you’re worn out too. You’ve treated writing as a job, and you’re not sure it’s for you. Fanfiction offers a safe arena to uncover who you are as a writer and who you aspire to become. And whatever you decide about the future, the experiment will either rejuvenate you to resume chasing your career goals, or give you peace of mind that writing is only a hobby for you.
All Writing Has Value
Fanfiction is a powerful incentive because it’s based on readers’ attachment to characters who cracked them up, made them feel less alone, or demonstrated that anyone can be a hero. Fanfiction writers revel in these emotional experiences, so much so that they can’t stand for the stories to end.
As Christians, our stories are a type of fanfiction derived from and inspired by God’s narrative. We replicate and complement His designs in various forms. Although much rot needs to be pruned from fanfiction (erotica and melodrama), we can also glean insights to sharpen our skills if we’re humble enough to learn.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.