Q&A: Fanfic

Why do fanfic have a bad reputation when some of it is actually good or better than than the source material? Is writing as a guest for TV shows or writing a reimagined fairytale not fanfiction?

The key word here is, “reputation.” There’s a lot of really bad fanfiction out there. That reputation is earned. It’s not new. While particular “luminaries” of Harry Potter or Twilight fanfiction may immediately come to mind, we get things like the term Mary Sue from a Star Trek fanfic originally published in the 70s. This has been around for a long time.

The other side is: yes, some fanfiction writing is excellent. As with writing in general, this is the extreme minority. I’d argue that quality writing in fanfiction is rarer than most forms, because the author is likely to “graduate” from fanfiction into something else.

Writing for a TV show is not like writing fanfiction. A fanfic author can do, nearly, anything they want. They have their interpretation of the setting they enjoy, and complete freedom to explore it. If you’re signing on to write an episode of a TV series, you’re already constrained in a number of ways.

First: attaching to an existing property means you’re also going to have to contend with the style guides and setting bibles. In some cases, being attached to a tie-in novel means you’ll be fed your entire plot outline, handed documentation, and told, “write this.”

Second: as a writer in Hollywood you have the least influence on the final product. The director will take your script and then, kinda, do what they want with it. Along the way, the producers, the network, and actors may all influence it as well. Some of your ideas will end up on screen, but it’s not your work anymore. It’s a team effort. (Depending on your exact relationship with the director, your experiences may vary.)

The fantasy is that you will have freedom with the characters that you love, and your material will become entrenched in the canon. The reality is that you won’t have that kind of creative freedom.

Now, if it sounds like I’m being too harsh here; that’s what you give up. Many fanfic authors have broken into the industry because they were okay with giving up some creative freedom to professionally work on the properties they loved. There’s nothing wrong with someone doing this, but in the process they’ll be departing from fanfiction and moving into a professional writing gig.

Re-imagining a fairy tale, legend, or myth event can be fanfiction, even in commercial releases. You’re not wrong about this one.

Remember, I said the fanfiction reputation is earned. There’s a lot of bad fanfiction out there. However, that’s not the criticism it sounds like. In the range of statistics completely unmoored from empirical study; I suspect the vast majority of fiction writers begin with fanfiction. Even if I’m wrong about that, many do.

It’s important to understand that writing is like any other skill. You get better with practice. New writers make mistakes. Good writers learn from their mistakes, and grow.

Fanfiction becomes a safe environment for a new writer. It lets them experiment without having to take on the heavy lifting of things like world building, or creating an entire cast of characters from the start.

For many writers, fanfiction is a temporary home. You’ll outgrow it. Some choose to stay, it’s hobby, not a career, but they’re the minority. Most who try it will either move on to creating their own work, or decide this isn’t for them.

The result is fanfiction sees all the mistakes of new writers, and very little of experienced writers. Mocking someone for having been a fanfiction writer is a bit like mocking someone for having attended high school. It probably happened, wasn’t their finest hour, and doesn’t reflect on who they are now.

The thing about re-imagining a fairy tale is, while you’re not wrong, we all do that. The truth about fanfiction is none of us exist in a vacuum. We all read, we all watch things, we all draw inspiration from things we encounter. The media we consume shapes the media we create. In that sense, fanfiction is just the first step to making something of your own.

Don’t be content with who you are, when you can be more.

-Starke

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