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.

Who the Hell is Mary Sue?

A while ago, I noticed a very frustrated guy on Twitter threatening to block people for using the term “Mary Sue” to describe female characters. I was surprised. I’ve used that term myself, and never thought it particularly controversial, but apparently it has become so.

What did “Mary Sue” originally mean?

When I was a young whippersnapper, “Mary Sue” was a commonly used term in fandom. It referred to a too-perfect female character, without any flaws or nuance. These characters were often found in fanfiction, where the author had written an idealised version of herself, but they also slipped into professionally published books and other media.

So, what is a Mary Sue actually like? Well, she’s the best at everything without even trying. She’s endlessly competent and has many skills that she seems to have acquired magically rather than through hard work. Everyone loves her, but of course she doesn’t care about popularity. She always gets what she wants in the end, despite being totally selfless.

Appearance-wise, there are two options. The first is that she is stunningly beautiful, often with striking features such as unusually coloured eyes. The second is that she is average-looking but for some reason, all the men fancy the pants off her.

As you can probably tell, I find Mary Sues annoying. Most people do. The term was originally intended to make fun of lazy, unprofessional writing. It was frequently employed by women in fandom to say “Hey, stop writing two-dimensional female characters! Give us relatable women with flaws and complexity.”

What does “Mary Sue” mean now?

Unfortunately, there seems to have been a sea-change in the way the phrase “Mary Sue” is employed. Perhaps it’s inevitable that, like any criticism directed at female characters, it has been seized upon by misogynists, who use it indiscriminately. So, while “Mary Sue” used to refer to a female character who:-

  • Is unrealistically perfect
  • Is completely unrelatable
  • Solves every problem without any difficulty or sacrifice

It now seems to refer to a female character who:-

  • Gets shit done
  • Is more capable than most/all of the male characters
  • Gets what she wants

Examples are everywhere, from Game of Thrones to Star Wars. We finally have female characters in lead roles, playing an active part in proceedings rather than sitting around looking pretty, and misogynists are all too keen to dismiss them as Mary Sues – a young girl’s fantasy rather than great characters.

There’s a huge double standard at play. Plenty of male characters are presented as unrealistically capable without anyone batting an eyelid, but we’re less used to questioning the abilities of able-bodied white dudes. The male equivalent of a Mary Sue is a “Gary Stu”, but you rarely hear this phrase tossed around.

So, what do we do?

I have no definitive answer on what to do about all this, and you’re welcome to share your own thoughts in the comments section. But I do have some ideas on how to tackle the over-use of the phrase “Mary Sue”.

The first is to yell “You’re using it wrong!” whenever someone gets the wrong idea of what a Mary Sue is. The phrase was invented to make fun of shitty writing, not to mention the idea that the only way to be a “strong woman” is to be an idealised fantasy rather than an actual person. As a writer, a feminist and a pedant, this approach appeals to me.

However, I’m also a realist and I know this approach won’t work. Misogynists will never admit that they don’t like a female character because she’s a woman getting the job done. They will claim that a talented woman has “unearned skills” or that a girl saving the day “doesn’t seem realistic”. They will always claim they are critiquing writing, not women.

Another approach is to fight fire with fire, and start referring to every strong, capable male character as a “Gary Stu”. So, this Tony Stark is a billionaire, a genius, a playboy and a philanthropist? Sounds like a daft, fanboy fantasy to me.

Tempting as it is, this approach would be exhausting. Strong and capable male characters are a dime a dozen and I can’t be arsed to tear down almost every superhero movie, plus huge swathes of sci-fi and fantasy. It also seems a tad mean-spirited.

The best advice I can give to writers

Just keep creating female characters who kick arse and take names. We don’t shout “Gary Stu!” at every awesome male character because we take it for granted that a man can be anything – a warrior, a genius, a saviour of the universe, whatever. We just need to normalise the idea that women can be all those things too.

Perhaps, eventually, there will be so many female characters in lead roles that misogynists will get bored of tearing them down. Until then, the phrase “Mary Sue”, in its new, unfortunate form, is probably here to stay.

As annoying as Mary Sue can be, I’ve decided to go a little easier on her. A too-perfect character isn’t empowering, but these characters came from fanfiction and were never about empowerment anyway – they were about wish-fulfilment.   

The idea that girls only fantasise about romance and weddings is wrong – we grow up dreaming about saving the world just like boys do, and why the hell shouldn’t we indulge these fantasies in writing?

I’m not advocating lazy writing of female characters. Give them flaws and complexity and darkness. But don’t tone down their awesomeness out of fear of the Mary Sue label. Let them win the fight, save the day and get the boy/girl/pet dragon of their dreams. Let your female characters be whatever you want them to be.