Over the last eight or nine months, I’ve spent a lot of time teaching creative writing to children. When I started, I found it a little frustrating that no matter what the prompt or lesson or skill development, almost every child in every class would start off with a Great New Idea, which promptly turned into fan fiction the moment their pen hit the paper.
What started as “a race car driver has to win his final race to save the world from aliens” quickly became Top Gear fan fiction.
What started as “a girl has to find magical mushrooms to defeat an evil monster” was suddenly set at Hogwarts.
I spent far too much of my time trying to figure out how to overcome this “problem”. And then it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t actually a problem at all.
In fact, writing fan fiction was incredibly beneficial to these kids. And the more I thought about it, the more I came to realise that writing fan fiction can be beneficial for anyone — whether you’re a brand new writer or a highly experienced one.
What is Fan Fiction?
Fan Fiction is simply fiction that uses the characters, settings, world, or plot points from an established work of fiction to tell new stories. The characters and worlds are drawn from books, movies, TV shows, comics… if it’s fiction, chances are there’s fan fiction written about it.
For obvious reasons, Fan Fiction isn’t written for profit. It’s written for pleasure by people who either keep it hidden in notebooks or on their own hard drive, or who upload it to one of the (many) fan fiction sites  online.
The joy of Fan Fiction comes from writing about favourite characters and worlds — often in unexpected ways, or by crossing fandoms. (Harry Potter aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise? Han Solo catching Pokemon?) While that sounds like a lot of fun, how does that help us become better writers?
The Elements of a Story
The hardest thing about learning to write fiction is everything.
I don’t mean that it’s all hardt, but that there’s so many different skills that you need to hone in order to be a truly great writer. Individually, the skills aren’t necessarily difficult, but when you consider all the aspects of a story as a single topic, it’s not at all easy. Consider just a few of the different elements that go into writing a piece of fiction:
- Well-developed characters
- Authentic dialogue
- Engaging character arcs
- Interesting plots
- Useful sub-plots
- Language that flows
- A unique voice
- Suspense and tension (and micro-tension)
- Realistic world-building
- Effective description
And so, so, so much more.
One of the reasons that our first novel (or novels) tends to be unpublishable is that it’s practically impossible to work on improving every one of those skills at once. We have to enhance our natural strengths and work on improving our weaknesses.
And there’s where Fan Fiction can be helpful.
One Thing at a Time
It’s so much easier to work on one thing at a time than to try to do everything at once.
- If you want to work on plotting and character arcs, you can use characters and settings that you already know intimately.
- If you want to work on developing your voice, why not re-tell a story you already know in your own words?
- If you want to practice writing description, how much easier is it if you’ve seen the people and places on the big screen?
Fan Fiction can be a way to focus on improving your skills in one area, without having to focus on all the other areas as well.
That’s right, it’s not just a fun exercise in immersing yourself in your favourite stories, it’s a learning tool.
Writing is Writing is Writing
The other, more simple, way that Fan Fiction is beneficial is that it’s writing. The more you write, the better you get at it.
Even more than that, the more writing you finish, the better you get at finishing your writing.
When you’re not having to invent everything about a story, it can be easier to get to the magic words at the end of your story. The mental component of writing can’t be overestimated. The more often you write “The End”, the better you get at sticking with a story all the way through, rather than being distracted by Shiny New Ideas.
After I’d gotten past my frustration with inadvertent Fan Fiction in my writing classes, I came to a point where I realised that there actually were times that the children wrote stories that were based solely on their own ideas. It happened in classes when I wasn’t challenging them to try something new.
When I simply gave them a prompt and let them write, they’d come up with all their own ideas.
But when I taught them a new technique, or asked them to focus on a particular element of their writing, they would automatically fall back into writing Fan Fiction. Not for the element they were working on — they worked really hard at getting that right — but for the other aspects of the story that they didn’t want to focus their attention on.
When their idea turned into Fan Fiction, it wasn’t something to be frustrated about, it was a sign that they were growing their skills, and trying new things. They were using their favourite characters as a way to focus their attention on the areas of their writing they wanted to improve.
And that’s a process that could benefit all of us.
(Even if the Fan Fiction never leaves our hard drives.)
Do you write Fan Fiction? How do you think it could (or does) benefit your writing journey? If you were going to write a piece of Fan Fiction today, which characters would you write about?
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