Writing boot-camp: Why fanfiction helps
I was on the phone with my girlfriend the other day, talking about writing. (What? We both write. What are we supposed to talk about? Football?) The subject of characterization came up — or, more notably, characterization in dialogue. She’s been workshopping her character voices for the novel she’s working on, and we both agreed it’s extremely important for your characters to not only act radically different, but sound radically different from one another as well. One of the worst things in any book, I find, is bland, lackluster dialogue. If I can’t tell one character from the next in the middle of a conversation, you’ve really missed the mark. You’re not going to convince me that any of these characters are worth reading about if they all come across as one nebulous dude inhabiting various bodies. Sorry.
So, as she was explaining how she’s working up her characters, I said, “This is where my high school and college career spent writing fanfiction comes in handy.”
“You know,” she says after a moment, as though arriving to some strange epiphany, “you’re absolutely right.”
It’s true: I learned how to write from writing other peoples’ characters. It’s helped me more than most classes I’ve ever taken, to be honest. Whether or not you agree with fanfiction on its merits, it can be a valuable tool for the struggling new writer coming into his or her own, trying to learn how to flesh out believable characters. And here’s why.
But I’ve been living under a rock! What is fanfiction?
It’s not-for-profit, free-to-read fiction written by fans, about characters from established properties and franchises. People write it, in general, for their own entertainment. It’s a long-standing part of fandom tradition, a social activity that involves a lot of keysmashing, loud whooping noises and surges of things we call feels. (At least that was my experience, anyway.) Now, to be perfectly honest, most fanfiction is bad. I mean, so poorly plotted, outlined, written and executed as to be offensive to anybody with a functioning frontal cortex. But! When written well, and it can be, fanfiction is a fun and satisfying way to explore beloved characters and stories in new, interesting ways.
If fanfiction is so bad, how can writing it be good for any aspiring author?
Let me put it to you this way: You’re writing a story about Character X. There are ten-thousand people outside your door waiting for said story, red pens in hand, ready to tear you apart for even the slightest misstep. If Character X doesn’t sound exactly the way they want him/her to, they will be angry. They will send you emails. They will talk crap about you on Tumblr. You know that Burn Book from Mean Girls? Yeah, they have one for bad fanficiton writers, and you will be all over that mother so fast it will make your head spin.
This is your first attempt at writing for an established audience, full of people you don’t know and don’t care about your feelings. The pressure makes you careful. It makes you very, very mindful of how you write and how others will be perceiving your decisions. You find yourself really studying Character X, making sure you understand his/her backstory, contemplating your own interpretations of his/her motivations. You begin seeking out the opinions of others, taking these various viewpoints into consideration as a part of your working model. Soon you’ll be bothering your friends, asking them to read over your characterization, making sure you got Character X just right. After all, you don’t want to look like an idiot in front of ten-thousand people. They know your email address and they will make your life hell.
But then, somebody comments: “I love your characterizations,” or “Your Character X feels so authentic, I feel like I’m reading a chapter from the book/watching an episode/playing the game/etc.” And it was all worth it! You have just unlocked fandom street cred and everybody loves you! Or, you know, you learned how to give a story due diligence and pay attention to how your characters read to others. Which is also good.
Why can’t you learn by writing your own characters?
You can, but it’s a steeper learning curve. Who knows your characters better than you? Nobody. Unfortunately, a lot of time that means people reading over early drafts of your work aren’t going to catch as many of the little mistakes you make along the way, or chalk it up to “Well, I don’t know this character that well yet.” If you don’t have a concrete, fully-realized characterization in mind, you will stray, and before long your characters will be weak and inconsistent. It’s totally possible to know your characters inside and out, but you really have to train your brain to think that way first.
But I feel weird about writing fanfiction!
Why? It’s just a writing exercise, like anything else you do in a classroom. (Some of the most celebrated authors in history have written fiction about characters and stories from other authors, just because they enjoyed them so much. No shame in the game.) If you’re afraid it will jeopardize your shiny author street cred when you try for that three-book deal with Simon & Schuster, don’t post it anywhere. Just write something about a character you know and love, and show it somebody familiar with that character as well. Get their opinion and go from there. Simple as that.
Okay, time to put up or shut up: I want to read your fanfiction.
Of course you do. It’s freaking fantastic. But that Star Trek AU novella I’ve written about the life and times of Gary Mitchell, as well as my sweeping period romance about Captain America and Iron Man, will have to wait for another day. (I know, I know — dry your eyes, everybody. We’ll get through this.)
And before the Butt-Hurt Brigade shows up to condemn fanfiction as a form of parasitic voyeurism that steals money from authors’ mouths, I’m obviously not advocating trying to publish fanfiction. (I’m looking at you, E.L. James.) When used correctly, it’s a hobby, social activity and writing exercise all in one. It can be both fun and informative, and if it helped me, chances are it can help others, too.