Fan Fiction: My Thoughts
In one of my creative writing classes the other night, a student asked why I didn’t allow fan fiction. I thought that maybe my answer would interest some of you. I also realize that my response will probably irritate or even anger those of you who write fan fiction -- and that’s fine; you’re allowed to feel that way, but I hope you can see my reasoning, whether you agree with my conclusion or not.
One reason I don’t allow fan fiction in the classes is that it’s a violation of copyright. Yes, I know the arguments on both sides, so just hold your fire. I do understand that those who write fan fiction are first and foremost *fans*, and that one reason to write fanfic is as a tribute to the original canonical work. Yes, I know that some writers (but by no means all) even encourage the writing of fanfic in their universe, and that’s also fine for them. For myself, if someone wants to write fanfic based on one of my books, I certainly won’t stop you, but please DO NOT tell me about it. I don’t want to know about it, I don’t want to see it, I won’t read it. I won’t go looking for it, either: I won’t be googling for fanfic of my own stuff, nor asking anyone about it. If you post it somewhere for your friends to look at, it’s fine as long as I have plausible deniability. However, if you do shove it in my nose anyway, you’ll be getting a “cease-and-desist” letter, because there *are* legal implications if I ignore fan fiction of my work.
But... the legality is the least important of the reasons why I don’t allow my students to write fanfic for the class. The BIG reason is that I strongly feel that writing fanfic is not the best way to teach someone how write their own original fiction. In my opinion, writing fanfic is the fictional equivalent of painting by using a “paint-by-numbers” canvas.
That’s not to denigrate paint-by-numbers. In my childhood, I did a few myself. They can look quite nice, if someone with half-decent painting skills does the work. But you’ll notice that at the university level, no one teaches fine art students how to paint by using paint-by-numbers. No one in the Music department teaches their guitar students how to understand their instrument by having them play Guitar Hero.
And you shouldn’t expect to teach someone how to write fiction through the use of fanfic.
Why? First, let me lay out a terrifically incomplete list of the skills that a beginning writer of fiction needs to acquire before she or he can start to produce publishable fiction:
1) the ability to craft characters who are believable, who are complicated, who are interesting, and whose character arc we will follow. Going along with this is learning how to use Point of View to ‘filter’ the view of the story for the reader;
2) the ability to create believable, consistent, and solid settings in which the characters move. This is especially important in speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc) where you’re building an alternate world which may not follow the ‘rules’ of our world, but has to be logical and internally-consistent within its own boundaries -- that skill, in my genre, is called ‘worldbuilding’;
3) the skill of inventing a believable and consistent crisis or issue that that will affect the characters in that setting (the plot);
4) learning how to lay out a thematic ground on which the story rests;
5) learning how to properly (and subtly) foreshadow everything in the story from the very beginning;
6) learning how to give the reader the background and backstory that affect the motion of the plot and the development of the character(s) without using horrible infodumps that stop the story dead in its tracks;
7) the skill of creating a smooth narrative flow through the story (which is part of #6, too).
Again, this is an entirely incomplete list, but it will suffice for my argument: that writing fanfic doesn’t generally help one learn those skills. Why not?
First, with some possible minor exceptions, your characters (along with their background) are provided for you through the canonical text: you’re not learning to invent an interesting, compelling character from the ground up, creating her or his backstory, learning the character’s strengths and foibles, understanding what drives them, and learning how to layer all of that into a story through the process of characterization. Instead, you’re *given* the great bulk of the characters: already made-up and complete. You don’t have to learn the process of characterization, as your reader is already intimately familiar with your characters before they even start reading.
You don’t have to know how to build a believable world and solid settings: again, that work has already been done for you. The canonical author has already constructed the world, figured out how it works, where things are and what they look like, and again the reader is already intimately familiar with the world before they start reading your fanfic. You don’t learn how worldbuild, how to construct a solid universe, how to layer in the specific telling details that will bring that world leaping into life while you avoid infodumps, or how to seamlessly and within the context of the story explain the differences between our world and this fictional one.
Even from a plotting standpoint, oftentimes a plot is handed to the fanfic writer as well, as there’s a tendency for the fanfic writer to ‘borrow’ minor sub-plots from the canonical work. You don’t have to invent your own crisis for the character, just pull a somewhat unexplored one from the book.
As I said above, for the most part fanfic is literary paint-by-numbers. The bulk of the heavy lifting a writer has to do in creating the tale has already been done—by the writer of the canonical work.
Look, with every art, one of the ways you learn is by imitation. There’s no escaping that, and I’m not saying imitation is bad. We all stand on the shoulders of the writers who came before us and who we loved. We try on the voices of the writers we admire -- but we play with the sound, mixing it with this author and that author until the chorus of experimental voices blends into our own individual authorial voice. We write characters who have similarities to the ones we enjoyed in someone else’s work -- but we change them, combine them, and alter them so that they’re only ‘similar’ and not identical, and we add in characteristics from our own experience with people we’ve met -- and in time, those characters are entirely and uniquely ours. We try settings that bear some resemblance to the places we read about and loved -- but we use our own travel experiences, our own research, and our own imagination to make them distinctly our world, not someone else’s.
Imitation eventually yields to invention.
Writing your own characters, settings, and plots mean you can bring that story into a class or a workshop, and we can discuss how to revise and allow those characters, settings, and plots to come into full, breathing life. We can talk about the skills you need to hone in order to polish and buff your draft into a piece that an editor wants to publish -- that may in time become a work that someone else will read, admire, and dream of one day writing something half as good.
Here’s the bottom line: if you like to write fanfic, write it. It’s not going to hurt you, and if it gives you pleasure, wonderful. Go for it. Just don’t expect fanfic to give you the critical skills and chops necessary to create original work that will resonate, that will garner good reviews from the critics, and will gain you readers who look for your work. You’re not going to get that from fanfic because those specific writing muscles never get sufficiently exercised.
Instead, you have to use your own imagination. You need to create your own worlds, your own characters, and you have to learn the entire array of craft skills that will allow you to take that stuff in your head and morph it into words that sing to the reader from the page.