The Anatomy of Fan-Fiction (And How it Can Help Us Write Better)

Posted: November 30, 2012 in Writing
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I recently admitted to some of my online friends that my exposure to fan-fiction was fairly limited. Once they learned that I hadn’t read some of the “classics,” and after some stunned silence and a lot of “omg omg omg,” they gently nudged me down the right path, with the promise to take me under their wings.

The first one they had me read was called The Shoebox Project. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a novel-length Harry Potter fic about the Marauders – James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter. The fic basically shows us what kind of relationship those four friends had with each other, how they got mixed up in the Order of the Phoenix, and what happened that made Peter betray his best friends to the Dark Lord.

If you’re interested, you can go to this website and read the fic for yourself. It’s extremely well written, and the characters pop out of the page at you, fully-formed and in color. It’s also an easy read, but be warned that, although it falls in line with Rowling’s books, you may be surprised by what happens in the story. Many fans consider this to be something of the official un-official backstory to the Marauders.

All that aside, it really got me thinking. Why does fan-fiction work so well? Why do people spend hundreds of hours writing it? Why do hundreds of thousands of people read it? Why is fan-fiction becoming more and more popular amongst those who enjoy reading books and watching television/movies?

And, most importantly, what can we learn from it as writers?

ONE. Fan-fiction isn’t afraid to break the rules

One of the drawbacks to immersing yourself in fan-fiction is that it’s not always well-written. That’s certainly a problem, but I’ve found plenty of fan-fiction that was poorly written that I couldn’t put down. And I’ve read plenty of published works without a single typo that put me to sleep each time I cracked them open.

The thing with fic is this: it isn’t afraid to break the rules. It doesn’t have to worry about critique partners and editors and agents and publishing houses. The authors of the fic aren’t always aware of the rules, of when to use a semi-colon or even what “syntax” means. And they don’t care. And sometimes this works really well.

The best example I can give is the dialogue in Shoebox. An editor probably would’ve thrown the entire MS in the trash if he took a single look at it. But it works so well for the story. So well. There are whole paragraphs full of run-on or half-formed sentences. And the entire book is written like that. But it’s used to convey the nervousness and doubt and excitement of the characters. And it’s so realistic. Most of the time if you read dialogue out from a book, it’s a little too perfect. It doesn’t sound natural. And although this dialogue is chopped up and crazy, it sounds exactly how a 17 year old boy would talk. It’s perfect.

TWO. Fan-fiction doesn’t do anything more than simply write a good story.

The previous point logically leads into this second one. The writers aren’t worried about making everything perfect. They’re not worried about pitches and query letters and trying to land an agent. They just want to write a good story.

There’s a lot of freedom in fan-fiction. Sometimes that’s a bad thing. Sometimes people get carried away. But sometimes, when the planets align and the wind blows in just the right direction, sometimes this is a very, very good thing.

When you’re not worrying about anything other than the story, your story comes alive. It’s not weighed down with doubt. There’s no worry about it needing to impress someone. Whenever we write and edit knowing that we’re eventually going to pitch this story to an agent, there’s that nagging feeling of did I do everything in my power to make this as perfect as possible? And sometimes that’s what makes it so imperfect. Readers can often tell when the writer places every word carefully, rather than just letting the story develop on its own.

I liken it to those Hollywood stars with the perfect hair, the perfect clothes, the perfect makeup, the perfect smile. It’s nice, they’re pretty to look at it, and you do kind of envy it. But it’s not natural. You know they’re putting on a show, and at the end of the day you’d much rather surround yourself with real people.

THREE. Fan-fiction gives us what we want.

The people who frequently write fan-fiction know what the readers want, because it’s what they want. They’re readers first and writers second. And I think a lot of the times we forget that we should be that way too. It’s as they always say, don’t write for the market. And that’s solid advice. You want to write for yourself and your readers, not your agent and not your publishing house. After all, they’re not the ones who, ultimately, will be putting the cash in your bank.

The other thing that I particularly like about fan-fiction is that anything goes. Sometimes that rule can get a little out of hand, but if handled properly, it can really be a beautiful thing. For example, in Shoebox we see the development of a pretty surprising romantic relationship. And yet, the authors do such a good job of giving you that slow burn that by the time it comes around, you’re half dead from wanting it so badly.

There are a lot of slash fics out there to back up this point. It’s strange, but there’s something wonderful about seeing two characters that you would never, ever imagine together put into a story where they fall in love (or just simply get together). People love to read and write about these pairings (ie. Harry/Draco from Harry Potter, Quinn/Rachel from Glee, Stiles/Derek from Teen Wolf) because people like stories where the characters defy all odds to be together.

I think we forget about that sometimes. There are so many unwritten rules when it comes to writing that when we finally do pick up something that shatters all logic and gives us something new (something we didn’t even know we wanted), it’s refreshing. More often than not, that’s going to come out of fan-fic, because these writers aren’t afraid to be a little daring. They don’t have higher-ups to answer to.

FOUR. Fan-fiction does characterization right.

Fan-fics are in the lucky position of already having established characters to write about. They know their personalities, their quirks, their habits, their secrets. This makes writing their scenes so much easier.

But I’ve often noticed that the authors add their own spins to the characters, their own little quirks and habits and personality tics. This does a great job of making the characters a little more vibrant, a little more memorable.

We could all learn to do something like that. To reference Shoebox again: We already know these characters. Maybe not as well as we know Harry, Hermione, and Ron, but we do know the Marauders fairly well. From scenes with pensieve and from conversations with people that knew them, we’re aware of their personalities.

But Shoebox develops that further. It’s like the universe just exploded and expanded outward and pelted you with star light and cosmic dust. You can see these characters. You can feel them. They’re so unbelievably real. We know why Sirius is antsy and energetic and angry all the time. We see Remus’ love of books and his quietness and the way he deals with his condition. We feel the love between James and Lily, and we feel the sadness and loneliness of Peter.

The base was already in place thanks to Rowling’s books, but the authors of the fic added layer upon layer upon layer to make the characters even more naturalistic, even more relatable. The base was enough, it was adequate and it worked, but fan-fiction writers love to be in the moment. They love to immerse themselves (they’re generally some of the biggest fans to begin with, so this should make sense) and love to know what the character is thinking and feeling. That attention to detail is something that I don’t always see in published works. And it’s something we should all strive to accomplish.

So, after all that, what’s the bottom line?

It’s this: that although fan-fiction isn’t the cream of the crop when it comes to writing, it can often teach us things that we’ve forgotten: to listen to those basic instincts that some writers have naturally, that some develop, and that many forget.

Fan-fiction is there to entertain, to tell a story, to make you laugh and cry and get angry. So many times we are caught up in making sure our sentences have the right amount of commas, that we haven’t repeated that verb too many times, that we don’t have superfluous words. When, in the end, we should really just worry about writing the damn story already.

But I want to know what YOU think. Is fan-fiction something to be ignored, something that can’t be considered real writing? Or do you think that we can learn some lessons from it? Are you like me and sometimes forget that writing is more about telling a good story than about whether or not you used that semi-colon correctly?

  1. There are some fan fics that are so worth the time. A friend of mine used to write General Hospital fan fic the way she wished it went. It was awesome! In fact, now that you mention it, I’m going to have to touch base with her and see if she still does that kind of thing.

    If you think about it, Alexandra Ripley’s “Scarlett” is published fan fic…as are all the Bourne books after “The Bourne Ultimatum”…in fact, the last Bourne movie was based on that fan fic.

    • Karen Rought says:

      Oh wow, I didn’t know that! There are some published works that definitely could be considered fan-fiction, I think. Wouldn’t you say something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would fall under that category, maybe? If not, what would you call that? Is there and established category for that sort of thing?

      • No, not that I know of. But I was just thinking. When another writer takes over where the originals left off…isn’t that what fan fic is all about? Robert Ludlum & Margaret Mitchell were dead & someone took over where they left off. First, you don’t usumally do that if you’re not a fan. Second, you do it when you think there’s more of the story to tell, right?

        • Karen Rought says:

          I think that’s also called ghost writing, but I definitely agree that it’s some sort of fan-fiction as well. I never thought about it like that before!

          • Actually, ghost writing is when someone else writes a book credited to someone else…like a lot of the celebrity autobiographies. They tell their story to someone else, then that person (who has a talent for writing) puts it out there for them.

  2. Zen A. says:

    As a now-retired (maybe) fanfiction writer myself, I have to say that you put your points forward well. When I was writing fanfics, all I cared about was writing a story that would keep readers hooked, and I often posted chapters without even proofreading them. Sometimes readers picked up errors, but they were nice about it and more often than not just complimented me on the great story. It was through fanfiction that my writing developed and I was able to write stories of my own. Some of the reviews I received were the kick I needed to start writing original stuff. I always look fondly back at them. =]

    I’ve never heard of the Shoebox Project, but I love the Marauders so I’ll be sure to check it out soon. =D

    • Karen Rought says:

      That’s awesome! And thanks for commenting as someone who has experience writing fic.

      Shoebox is really good and is the sole reason I felt motivated to write this post. I think writers who haven’t read fic before might be a little put off by it, but if you’re used to that sort of thing then I think you’ll notice how well the story is done. You’ll have to tell me what you think of it once you’ve read it!

  3. […] The Anatomy of Fan-Fiction (And How it Can Help Us Write Better) […]

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