These days, it's pretty much accepted that fanfiction writers can become "real" authors. Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fanfic and is the year's biggest publishing sensation. Former fanfic writer Cassandra Clare is about to have a huge motion picture of her Mortal Engines series. And tons of major authors, like Naomi Novik, also have written fanfic.
But even the fanfic that isn't secretly written by famous authors can be good — and occasionally great — reading. What's more, reading fanfic can teach you a whole lot about being a better writer.
Top image: Willow Rosenberg via Dark Horse Comics.
If you've never taken a workshop writing class, you may not be familiar with how writing is taught in most colleges. Students bring in their unpublished, often unfinished work to class and the whole group of unpublished students argue about what's good and what's not. Occasionally, the class will critique an actual published work, or the professor will make a pronouncement or give a lecture. It's really a group of amateurs trying to figure out how to be professionals together (and if you think this would be a horrible way to teach doctors or engineers, you're right). Fanfiction websites are like writing workshops on a massive scale, but without the requirements that you read and critique awful things. So what can you learn from reading fanfiction?
1) Anybody can write!
Yeah, sure, we all saw Ratatouille, but this is the first lesson of writing. Lots of writing advice is about overcoming anxiety and writer's block, but guess what? You can write. It's not magic. Hundreds of thousands of people write fanfiction, put it up on the internet and don't die. Nothing bad is going to happen if you write.
Yes, not every fanfiction writer is ready for a publishing contract. But so what? As a reader, you just find something better. As a writer, you take strength in the courage of someone whose sentences might be kind of borked, to just put stuff out there. The only way to learn to write is to write!
And, even more heartening, some of it is just as good, if not better, than stuff that's getting published. If you think that the be all and end all of writing is getting a contract, there's some excellent work out there that proves you wrong.
2) Villains need logical motivation!
A fascinating sub-genre of fanfiction is the retelling of the story from the villain's point of view. Sometimes this is full-on Wicked revisionism, where the bad guy doesn't mean anything bad by his or her behavior, but things get out of hand. Sometimes it's just about letting a character like Loki chew some scenery. But there's tons and tons of fanfiction about antagonists — and that should clue would-be writers in to the fact that villains are super important.
In my own writing group, two of us have had to go back and make sure the antagonists' plots made sense from their points of view. And I just read a published novel where, as near as I can tell, one of the villains was working at cross purposes to himself, a secondary villain started acting completely out of character toward the end, and a third villain's goals didn''t make sense — and nor did their attempts to achieve them. There was a lot of action, but no good reason for most of it. Sometimes things don't click plot-wise, because the big bad is behaving randomly, throwing up problems for protagonists that aren't organic or reasonable. Reading some villain fanfic can help you rethink your story from their perspective.
3) All characters are important!
It's not just villains who get their day in the fanfiction sun. The most minor characters get elaborate life stories, alternate universes devoted to their derring-do, and super happy endings. When a universe works and the characters feel alive, anybody is fair game for being somebody's favorite character. You may love your protagonist, but read some minor character fanfiction to remind yourself that other people may love the protagonist's third-cousin who only has one line. Not to mention that characters, even minor ones, are characters, not props. You may not have time or space to include every character's life story, but they should act, sound and be different people.
4) Go out of character at your own risk!
If a writer (comics, screen, prose) is doing his or her job, you'll never notice when a character behaves out of character. Because the character won't be. But fanfiction writers do this all the time. Sometimes they know they're doing it, call it AU and you just enjoy a different take on a story you like. Sometimes they just make mistakes. Reading OOC fanfiction can be frustrating (What have they done?!), but usually the things that make a familiar character seem "off" are pretty minor. It's like one of those "spot the changes" drawings – the more you look for out-of-character behavior and dialogue, the easier it is to find.
Realizing that characters are defined not just by what they do, but also by what they don't do is an important step toward writing consistent characters. Sure you want your characters to grow and change, but don't want them to be random. Changes should seem to be organic, and writers can strengthen that by making sure they're not writing out of character. Reading about characters you're already familiar with and seeing how writers get it right, or close to, will help you figure out how to keep your own characters in character. Harry/Draco art by Ahpai on Deviant Art.
5) Always explore other plot choices!
A good narrative can move towards its ending in way that can seem inexorable. But lots of fanfiction out there searches for those moments when the plot hinges on a single decision, missed communication or sudden revelation. By altering those moments, plenty of fanfiction writers create narratives that are surprisingly different, while remaining strikingly familiar.
If you can imagine being a fan of your own writing (that should be easy right?) you can find similar places in your own writing where everything could go completely different. What would happen if your characters make different decisions? The story might be just as compelling and the plot more surprising if you push characters to make difficult or strange decisions.
6) Crack doesn't have to be wack!
Crack fiction — the subgenre of fanfiction that usually involves impossible romantic pairings, complete and utter insanity, and lots of fourth-wall breaking — is generally just played for some form of laughs. But here's the thing: the real world and real people are completely capable of being both utterly tragic and utterly cracked out at the same time. Or at least on alternating days.
Sometimes when things aren't working in a story you have to throw caution to the wind and let your story be invaded by vampire alien bunnies. Letting your characters go for a spin in crazytown can help get you unstuck. There are ways to view even the most serious stories with humor and reading some crack fanfiction can remind you not to take your writing so seriously that it doesn't have room for life's absurdities. Image via Fuck Yeah Fanfic Flamingo
7) It's all about the finish!
At this point in my fanfiction-reading career, I pretty much avoid anything that isn't finished or hasn't updated recently. But when I started out, I would ready anything that sounded great or was from a writer I already liked. The frustration of finding something interesting and well written that just stopped –-
Well, it was much worse than that. Fanfiction websites are littered with thousands of unfinished stories and partial novels. Yes, the writers are under no obligation to continue and things happen and plots may not be the strong frameworks they seem to be at first glance. But not finishing is far worse than being a bad writer. Go out and read some unfinished fanfiction: you'll feel sad and frustrated and unsatisfied. Chances are, you'll be able to see where the story could have gone or spot the moment the whole things seemed to go off the rails. You can ask yourself how would finish the story. Realizing that you don't have to finish your own work — but how utterly sad and dejected your manuscript, imaginary characters and theoretical readers are about that — could inspire you to reach "The End" of your own manuscript.