Fanfiction – and why it’s a good, good thing.

At Galacticon3 over the weekend of 25/26 May, fellow author Sarah Madison and I, along with Jennifer Robison (who betas for the Stargate Atlantis Legacy tie-in novels) led a panel discussion on fanfiction.

I cut my writerly teeth on fanfiction, the way that so many writers do. I still do write fanfiction, as it happens. I wrote a short story in the Lancer fandom last Friday evening that really I’m very proud of. It has everything I want for my pro writing: a recognisable world, characters the reader can empathise with, and a plot where the conflict comes from the PoV character’s clashing past and future. It even has a resolution by the end.  And all in less than 3000 words.

Which proves, I hope that fanfiction writing is as real, as legitimate, as everything I’m doing with the Shield novels. Fanfiction isn’t something furtive and amateurish that we should be ashamed of and that’s done in the margins, but it’s all grown up now (actually, the title of our panel).   It’s creative and transformative and a hugely important way for fans to express love of their favourite shows and books. It’s written by thousands of people. Sometimes—often—it’s written badly. But sometimes it’s incandescently brilliant: there are some fanfiction writers whose stories I’ve read far more often than their canonical source material. Those writers **sing**, and what they write should never be dismissed as ‘only fanfic’.

Preparing for the panel, I was forced to think about why I write fanfiction—why anyone does.  For me, it has a lot to do with how well-built the world is and how complete it is, and how compelling the characters are, but mostly and importantly, how much potential there is to explore more. The canon material needs to have possibilities, gaps and spaces where a fanfiction writer can work to expand on this idea here or subvert that canonical pairing there. It doesn’t mean that the source material is inherently flawed, but that it has places for writers to play in.

Take a TV programme. Any TV programme. Usually the script writers have 50 minutes to get across their story – world, character, plot, dialogue. In those 50 minutes, they must do their world building and exploration of character (if there is any) and all they have to use is action and dialogue that has to be fast and snappy. In some ways that takes a skill I wish I had, in others it’s limiting because they operate in a world where what they write is played out in a visual medium that’s mediated by the actors speaking the lines, the sets, the angles the cameraman takes, continuity (or the lack thereof), the network policies towards contentious issues and the demands of the advertisers who fund the network (and hence, ultimately, the show itself).

Those limits are what the fanfiction writer likes to push and pull at. Fanfiction is more inclusive of ‘difference’, for example, and tries to embrace it through slash, BDSM, writing people of colour etc in a way that the source material often still struggles with. How many shows do you know where BDSM is featured? Or where sexuality and societal pressures can be explored by utilising a bit of gender bending? Because fanfiction isn’t beholden to the advertisers, it can be brave. And it can be shocking. That’s a freedom mainstream writers might envy.

The existence of fanfiction doesn’t mean that the source material is bad, but that it has the potential to be stretched in a way that no TV programme can do if it wants to keep its advertisers happy and the funding rolling in, or no mainstream book can manage if the writer wants to find a publisher. I think it was writer Sam Starbuck who said that good canon generates good fanfic.  

He’s right.

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10 comments

  1. I’m so happy to have read this post, because fanfiction will always hold a special place in my heart. I started writing it when I was in third grade, before I even realised what it was. I think even my younger self discovered how much easier it was to borrow a world and its characters. Fanfiction helped me grow, so much and I’m forever grateful for it. I loved the thrill of developing original ideas on a source, and best of all I loved my readership, the idea of an audience. Though I don’t write it much anymore, my memories of it are so fond that I feel sad I’m not as active anymore!

    And I completely agree – there are amazing fanfiction writers out there. It’s such a pleasure to read some stories (although some are not that spectacular). I think most fanfiction writers, when they break into original fiction, struggle with the scary idea of creating a whole new world and characters. We’ll fumble for a bit but hopefully we’ll get there in the end, because fanfiction helped to build us up.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    • Yes, that’s it. For many of us, fanfiction has helped us grow as writers. And for many of us, we did a heck of a lot of world building and characterisation of our own, despite playing in the original canon sandbox.

      I have another post planned on fanficcer turning pro, and lots to say about world building and characterisation. I like writing occasional posts that are about the process of writing, so may inflict those on people this way…

      Thank you!

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  2. Another (former) fanficcer here. I’ve pretty much left it, since all my canon sources have ended. Of course, that doesn’t mean the end of fanfic possibilities — in some ways, it opens them up. As a friend said when a major canon ended in 2007 (maybe you can guess what it is :D), “It’s complete. Now it’s ours to play with.”

    One problem that fanfic has caused is that I used to read such good stuff for free on the web that now I compare original fiction to that, and most of what I read falls short, honestly. I was lucky enough to stumble onto amazing fanfic writers, and while I’m sure they have their equivalent in the original fic world, I guess I haven’t found them yet. But that’s not fanfic’s fault. 😛

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    • The lovely thing about closed canon is that you can’t get Jossed! All three of my fandoms are closed – original BSG, Lancer and Stargate Atlantis. All three are still going, although BSG is grinding to a halt more than 35 years since it was originally aired. Lancer is even older, coming up to 45 years this September, and is still going strong. That’s the wonderful thing about fandoms: the love for them and the energy and creativity they inspire never has to die.

      There is an awful lot of original fiction that can’t hold a candle to some of the best fanfic. I do think that reading lots of fanfiction, of all qualities, has made us both better readers and better writers.

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  3. I love this post–I’m so glad you posted your thoughts here–this is exactly what we were trying to get across in the discussion panel, though you know as well as I do, that what you have planned and what actually gets covered aren’t always the same because the very nature of discussions is the free flowing of ideas and thoughts. However, you touched upon it at the panel and I think you did an excellent job of explaining why fanfiction is such a strong entity and why so many of us write it.

    I hope you continue this series of posts–I really want to see what you do with your meta on characterization and world-building and so forth. I learned a lot from you at Galacticon!

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    • It’s hard in a discussion panel, isn’t it? People fly off on the wildest tangents. But I thought over all it went well.

      I want to write something about filing off the serial numbers and definitely something on worldbuilding. That will be a lot of fun to do.

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  4. I loved the comment about the wonderfully “incandescent” writers of FF. I have read fanfic that made my heart break it was so beautifully done, and I’ve read published fiction that makes me flinch it’s so poorly written — some of it in NYT Bestsellers. I’m proud to be a writer of fanfic, and I’m thrilled that it has grown into a genre recognized by the creative community.

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    • I’m very proud of my fanfic, too. Some of my very best work is there, usually in small or dying fandoms though, which keeps its audience small. Sometimes that aspect of it grinds hard, I’ll admit.

      In the unlikely event I make it as a pro writer, I’ll still always write fanfic. I think the two complement each other perfectly and fulfil slightly different needs for me.

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