I’ll never forget the time when, in a meeting of my old writers’ group, we had to explain fanfiction to a writer in her seventies. We told her that sometimes people take the characters from their favourite films, books and TV programmes, and write their own stories about them. She seemed both baffled and charmed by the idea.
If you’re younger or nerdier than her, you probably have a passing familiarity with fanfiction and might even be aware of the small twitterstorm it provoked recently. Basically, someone said she was appalled that so many new writers were cutting their teeth on fanfiction, because it actively promotes bad writing.
An army of fanfic writers vehemently disagreed. And though I personally developed my writing the old-fashioned way (by writing stories about dragons in old exercise books) I was on their side. People who trash fanfic always seem to be writing snobs who think you need an MFA for your work to be worthy of attention.
But then I chewed it over for a while and realised her points weren’t all that easy to dismiss. I decided to explore this question – Does fanfiction encourage bad writing? – from both sides. I’m starting with “No” because, frankly, I’m a massive fangirl and this is my knee-jerk response. Here are some reasons why…
Instant audience = Quick feedback
The writing world is full of gatekeeping, much of it financial. Writing workshops can be expensive. A degree in creative writing is hella expensive, especially since it prepares you for a job that doesn’t have a salary. Writing groups are cheaper but can still be inaccessible for other reasons, e.g. if there aren’t any in your area.
Because of all this, it can be difficult to get any kind of meaningful feedback on your work. But if your story features Iron Man or Captain Kirk, you already have an audience for your work that is global, diverse and enthusiastic.
Granted, most of the feedback you get is likely to be along the lines of “OMG great story I love it!” but if you’re looking for more detailed constructive criticism, just ask and ye shall receive. Many fanfiction readers genuinely appreciate the free content and are happy to provide free critique in return.
Also, every “like” or positive comment is a little bit of encouragement, which is often what newbie writers need the most. Let’s face it, writing is hard, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a little validation to keep you going on the long journey of developing your craft.
Learn the art of reader satisfaction
Many young or inexperienced writers think writing is all about self-expression. And sure, if you don’t plan on publishing, it absolutely is. But if you want readers, you need to give them something they’ll actually enjoy.
It sounds obvious, but so many writers talk about writing as if the whole point of it is to be very original and impressive and win fancy awards. If that’s your goal then fine, you do you. But traditional publishers want to turn a decent profit. Consequently, they’re unlikely to publish books that no-one will fall in love with, regardless of how elegant the prose is.
Fanfiction readers know what they want, and are well-placed to convey this to writers. If you write enough fanfic, it can help you learn important things like how to craft an interesting narrative, convey a relationship that’s intense yet realistic, and bring a story to a satisfying conclusion. These are all things that please readers and publishers alike.
The perks of anonymity
Most fanfiction is published anonymously, with writers keeping their fan identity pretty separate from their real-life identity. This anonymity gives writers freedom to take risks and write more courageously.
It’s a myth that all fanfic is light and fluffy. Many fanfic writers explore challenging topics like mental illness and childhood abuse, in an environment that’s much more welcoming than your typical online forum. And we can’t talk about the perks of anonymity without discussing…
Queer stuff, hooray!
So you’re a young (or not so young) LGBT+ person who wants to write queer characters and relationships. The idea of sharing your work in a “real life” situation is pretty intimidating, and I speak from experience here. What if you have to come out? What if your audience is hostile, or just doesn’t understand?
If you’re anonymously writing fanfiction, much of that pressure is removed. Fanfic websites are full of queer content, and frequented by people seeking that content. While you still risk the odd nasty comment, bigoted voices are likely to be drowned out by supportive ones.
The fact that you’re writing about familiar characters rather than ones of your own creation can also be useful. It allows writers some distance, which can make us braver in exploring feelings and experiences that we might not be ready to accept. It’s surprising and heart-warming how many people have figured out stuff about their own identity through fanfic.
Okay, I know I sound like an unabashed fan of fanfiction, but next week I’ll be exploring the flipside of the argument and the problems with learning to write through fanfic. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the pros of fanfic. Do you write it yourself? Has it taught you any important writing skills or lessons? Feel free to share in the comments.