Does Fanfiction Encourage Bad Writing – The Case for “Yes”

Writing this post was more of a challenge than the previous one because I love fanfiction. I enjoy reading it, I’ve dabbled in writing it, and I’m strongly in favour of anything that turns fandom into something creative rather than just consuming a product.

But that doesn’t mean that fanfiction teaches good writing. I feel like there are genuine issues with developing your craft through fanfiction, and I hope you’ll bear with me while I explore those issues. Starting with…

Those characters aren’t yours

If you write stories about characters and worlds that have been created by someone else, then half the work has been done for you. This can be great if you’re just starting out, or if you want to focus on something specific, like maintaining a consistent character voice. But it won’t teach crucial skills like character development or world-building.

It also means that your writing is more likely to reflect the existing media landscape rather than changing it. Your favourite Hollywood blockbuster franchise might be a great starting point for a fanfic, but the voice of Hollywood executives is not your voice.

Tropes, tropes tropes

Avoiding clichés – anything that is overused or unoriginal – is one of the first and most obvious lessons for a writer to learn. But in fanfiction, these clichés are called “tropes” and positively celebrated.

The thing is, a lot of people read fanfic for comfort. If you’re looking for something to read that’s challenging and subverts your expectations, fanfiction.net probably won’t be your first port of call. But if you want something fun, soothing or heart-warming at the end of a hard day’s work, it might well be.

This means that familiar situations where the outcome is obvious are popular in fanfiction. But they aren’t so popular with publishers, and they may not be popular with someone who’s just spent £7.99 on a novel.

Bad romance

Being dismissive of fanfiction is often seen as being dismissive of genre fiction. Fanfiction snobs are all literary writers who don’t understand the joy of a good sci-fi or thriller, right? Well, if you look broadly at fanfiction – both at the quantity of fics and the most popular ones – there’s really only one genre that dominates, and that is romance.

Because “shipping” (pairing characters up with each other in a romantic/sexytimes way) is such a big part of fandom, every fantasy series and mystery drama seems to get turned into a smooch-fest.

Of course, if you want to learn how to write romance, this is ideal. But if you’re more interested in other genres, there are limits to what you can learn. I won’t blame fanfic for the way so many writers shoehorn lacklustre romantic subplots into stories, or use overly flowery language when describing appearance (“obsidian eyes”, etc.) but, honestly, I think it plays its part.

Queer stuff, hooray?

People often talk about fanfiction as a beacon of LGBT+ inclusivity, and it’s true that the most popular fanfics tend to be novel-length M/M romances. What better way to learn how to write complex and thoughtful queer stories, right? Well…

Unfortunately, LGBT+ content in fanfiction has a clear hierarchy. Stories about M/M pairings tend to receive more attention and feedback than F/F, and stories about trans or intersex issues are often undervalued. Asexual and aromantic stories aren’t popular either, because who wants to read about characters not hooking up?

Also, a lot of the M/M romance is written by women, many of whom are straight. And while this is a contentious issue (lots of women write M/M romance to help them work through queer feelings of their own) there are potential pitfalls to this.

For example, there’s a tendency to take two canonically straight male characters and make them fall in love with each other with zero exploration of queer identity. Nothing about coming out, dealing with prejudice or being part of a queer community. Regardless of how cute the love story is, this doesn’t reflect the reality of LGBT+ people.

Fanfic bad?

There are definite disadvantages to learning to write through fanfiction, but personally I’ve never met a writer who expected to go from fanfic to a bestselling novel in one swift leap. It’s just one tool for developing writing skills, and I still think it’s a valuable one.

Also, we need to stop pigeonholing fanfiction as writing practice. Many fanfic writers are already published authors of original work. Others have no intention of getting published – they just write for fun, or to be an active part of the fandom community, or because they think Bridgerton would be better if it was mashed up with Doctor Who.

So, what’s your thinking on learning to write through fanfiction? Do you think it develops vital skills? Encourages bad habits? Both? Neither? I’d love to hear your opinions and experiences in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Does Fanfiction Encourage Bad Writing – The Case for “Yes”

  1. I adore certain tropes and include them in my novels. I think there’s a place for them in original fiction too, but then I’m looking to self publish 🙂

    Worldbuilding is also tricky to learn from fanfiction: Unless you write AU fanfiction and take the characters and throw them into different settings.

    As a writer with a massive fanfic background the leap between fanfic and original stories was huge, and I had a lot to learn. Still do, in some ways, as my stories tend to be fast paced and gloss over detail too much. I find fanfic really helped the emotional side of my stories though, and because I enjoy it so much the pros outweigh the cons 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point, I never thought of AU fanfiction in terms of worldbuilding. Though it seems like a lot of AU fic has a “real world” setting, where SFF elements are removed.

      I’m sure fanfic helps a lot of people with the emotional side of stories. I feel like it gives characters room to express things that they don’t necessarily have time to in canon!

      Liked by 1 person

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