Fanfiction is a fascinating phenomenon. Yes, yes, I know that there’s still a huge argument going on between the people who think it’s all right to do and the people who consider it illegal, unethical, and unprofessional, but I think it’s a rather silly argument, on the whole, and I certainly don’t want to get into it here. What I want to talk about today are the ways fanfiction can be instructive for writers.
The first and most obvious use is as practice. Even if you don’t take seriously the old saw about having to write a million words of crap before you can write anything publishable, some amount of practice is generally a Good Thing, and it is ever so much easier to do the practice pieces if you’re doing something you can show to eager readers. Nowadays, you can even get actual feedback and responses from people you do not actually know, which is even better (at least, it is when the feedback is positive).
The value of fanfiction as practice has been tacitly recognized for a really long time. Even back in the 70s and early 80s, when fanfiction was about as acceptable as thirteen Hells Angels at a highbrow Southern garden party, it was quietly acknowledged that quite a few writers (and some editors) got their start in the business writing, editing, and publishing fanfiction. As fanfiction slowly inches toward respectability, more writers are willing to let people know that they started off writing fanfiction, and there are quite a few who are willing to admit that they still write the stuff for fun.
The thing that fascinates me about fanfiction, though, is the way that it models the decision tree that writers go through (whether consciously or unconsciously) to get to their final product. For those of us who do this part mostly unconsciously, it can be interesting and instructing to see the multitude of alternate paths that a story could have taken, all laid out more-or-less neatly in different authors’ fanfics. The main character’s horrible childhood could have been much worse, or much better, with interesting plot-consequences either way. The protagonist could have chosen to trust a different wise mentor figure or companion, or to go it completely alone. Different aspects of the background are brought forward or pushed back, sometimes changing the whole feel of a story even if the basic plot remains much the same. The main character’s decision to take – or ignore – a particular bit of advice, to provide – or not provide – a bit of crucial information to someone else a few chapters earlier, an impulsive or better-considered act by anyone at all results in the plot veering in a completely new direction. Friends become enemies; enemies become friends; goals and objectives and results shift and change.
The enormous number of alternatives are easiest to see in those fandoms that have a correspondingly enormous number of fanfics available – things like the Harry Potter books, or The Lord of the Rings. And if one can manage to mentally adjust for the wildly varying levels of skill that the different fan authors have, and their frequent obsession with romance, etc., it becomes even clearer just how many completely different stories one can get out of a single situation and set of characters.
I think the whole question of alternatives is key to understanding the mixed-to-lukewarm reception a lot of fanfiction gets from authors. I rarely read any of the fanfiction based on my own books (never, unless it’s been recommended by one of the five people I trust to screen for me), and a large part of the reason is that I, like most writers, know a whole lot more about my characters and my world than the stuff that gets into the books. I can’t let go of that when I read the fanfiction; consequently, there is about a 95% chance that even the best fan story will “feel wrong,” because the author has no way of getting the unpublished details right. I suspect this is a problem for a lot of writers who squirm uncomfortably when they’re asked about fanfiction.
My other problem is that if, by some miracle, the fan author does get it right, their story tends to slide into my head and take up residence as “what really happened.” Which creates all sorts of potential for legal problems if I ever hope to write anything else in whatever the base series is. It’s much simpler to just avoid the problem, and to be able to say truthfully that I don’t read it.