A lot of people have talked about the benefits of fanfiction—the lack of gatekeepers to allow beginning writers to dive right in, the built-in audience for support and motivation, the potential for growth and feedback—and all of these are absolutely true.
But there are a few other significant benefits that fanfiction can bring to your original writing, that I have discovered when I recently started writing it again. (For the uninitiated, “fanfiction” is original writing using characters and settings—and potentially plot points—from another source, such as a TV show; it can be as short as a paragraph or as long as an epic, and it is produced for free and shared online, though it has a more complex and interesting history than just this definition; see this post for more if you’re interested.)
- It makes writing exercises much more fun.
Many writing books advise writing regularly—many even provide prompts and exercises to guide you. But as much as I love writing, I have never been able to get into this habit; I’ve always aimed for the long projects that take a ton of planning before I feel ready to actually write. And so, when I’m in the brainstorming and planning portions of my process, I don’t write at all.
Fanfiction has changed that. By giving me characters and a world already built to explore (not to mention a supportive audience for even my short pieces), I have been writing every day and using the muscles that otherwise lay dormant. Though this form of writing has no potential for “financial” advantages, it is just as valid for learning and growing as a writer—if not more so, because it crafts a community full of enthusiasm and inspiration that can push your limits and creativity to new frontiers.
- It develops your characterization skills.
When you write your own characters, you have to worry about making them interesting, complex, and consistent. When you write someone else’s, you have to worry about all of the same things—but you also have to worry about accuracy, with an audience that already knows these characters (potentially better than you do). If a character says or does something that doesn’t fit, they will know. And that is going to hone your skills better than any original writing could.
You have to match the dialogue style and psychology to the source material, as well as developing that characterization through whatever original scenario you’re putting the characters through. Crafting this balancing act is not easy, but it helps develop the skills of making characters consistently themselves. If you have problems with all of your characters acting and sounding like you, try writing someone else’s characters—matching their speech patterns, thinking about how they acted in the source material. Maybe having someone else’s characterizations as a guideline will help you stop thinking like yourself, and start thinking like someone entirely different—which is one of the greatest gifts that stories can give us.
- It builds an emotional skillset for your original work.
This is the one that surprised me the most—and that I think is the most important of all. Fandom can be a safe, sheltered space of creativity for beginners, but it also mimics a lot of the same patterns of production and sharing as original work.
Every time I open a document to start writing out an idea, I have to make that leap—the creative jump into making something from my own mind and trusting that it’s worth it. Sure, fanfiction provides the foundation, but these are still my words and my ideas taking shape…
And waiting to be judged. Every single time I post something, I feel the nerves of putting myself out there—and I have to hit “post” and do it anyway. Is it easier than submitting to an agent? Sure; it’s lower pressure, and it’s obviously much easier and quicker. But the emotions of throwing your soul out to an audience are the same, and the leap of faith it takes to do so is the same bravery (if in miniature).
So you have to learn to write for yourself. Even if no one comments or likes or responds at all, did you still enjoy writing it? Can you reread it and smile? Did you learn something from the process? The more you put yourself out there in this relatively safe space, the more you learn how to put yourself out there in all creative ways. If you are lucky enough to gain an audience, then you have to learn how to deal with the expectations that comes with that.
But the fun of fanfiction is that it is not the hard-edged and difficult world of publishing, so this emotional armor can be built carefully and gently, and you can strengthen your ability to take that leap before you dive into contracts and paychecks and published reviews. There can be dark sides to this world, of course—anonymous internet hate and being completely ignored and disappointing your readers—but those experiences build an important emotional armor as well.
When you can create in the void, when you can savor your creativity for yourself (even if only for yourself), when you can create even in the face of rejection, then you can create anything.
And that’s the first step to being the best writer you can be.