Fan-fiction provides a chance for fans to immerse themselves in their chosen universe beyond the limits of official canon. For the reader it offers all-new stories featuring much-loved characters, but what does it offer the budding writer? Is it nothing more than a waste of time, or can it provide valuable exercise?

(For my personal background to this article, and my own effort at writing some fan-fiction, please refer to my earlier post: Sacrificial: A (Star Wars) short story.)

As I discussed in the above-mentioned article my initial gut reaction to the thought of writing a Star Wars story was something along the lines of: ‘…mere fan-fiction? why waste my time on that?’. Obviously I ignored my gut and wrote the story anyway. Why? What could this endeavour possibly offer me when I’ve got plenty of my own stories crying out to be written?

Don’t waste your time…?

Looking at fan-fiction as a negative (and ignoring any issues of copyright at this stage), the prevailing argument I’ve seen over the years is that budding writers should craft their own playgrounds instead of squatting in someone else’s. There’s sense in this: after all, virtually the first lesson that any budding writer will be taught is that character is the most important element in any good story. You can come up with a blinding plot, but if the reader has no interest in the characters then you may as well be writing a dish-washing manual. To use characters that someone else has already originated and fleshed out for you denies you the experience, not to mention the practice, of creating your own fully-fledged, multi-faceted characters.

To a lesser degree the same goes for exploiting an established universe, or using an existing dramatic situation. When writing original fiction, it’s a given that all writers have to go through the process of creating backgrounds for their characters, working out histories for their locations, exploring possible conflicts and situations, etc. There’s an entire process that goes on before a word even hits the page. It could be argued that taking an established fictional event bypasses this process, regardless of whether you develop it further. Again, the writer misses out on a crucial exercise – one which some might argue is actually more enjoyable than the writing itself. (Though I haven’t countered the above argument in the section below, you could propose that what I’ve just written implies that historical fiction is nothing more than fan-fiction.)

Finally, there’s the very practical issue that anything you write as fan-fiction cannot legally be published (but here’s an entertaining tale of a douche who thought otherwise). It may well be that the feedback from dozens, hundreds, or potentially even thousands of other fans is all the recognition you need, but this is not something you’d ever be able to make a career of.

Surely all writing is worthwhile…?

It (almost) goes without saying that writing for TV or film is vastly different from writing for print (however, I always insist there are valuable lessons prose writers can learn from screenwriters, and vice versa: a good story is a good story whatever the medium). Nevertheless, a critical stage for any writer who wants to break into TV is writing a spec script or two. These are ‘demo’ scripts written for established shows that, in theory, prove the writer is capable of writing for characters and situations that have already been created by someone else. Yes, it’s essentially fan-fiction, and the better you are at it the more chance you have of getting a job.

That’s a fairly specific argument, although if you ever wanted to write ‘licensed’ fiction, or ‘tie-in’ novels on a professional basis I imagine a similar process would apply. In any event, my suggestion is that writing convincingly for characters that you haven’t created yourself is a challenging exercise in itself, and arguably one that all writers should try out once or twice. You may find that it helps to broaden your own voice, particularly if you try writing for a character you would never place in one of your own stories.

Speaking a little more from personal experience, I found that writing my Star Wars story was undeniably more liberating than writing original fiction. For one thing I didn’t need to get bogged down in backstory. I could safely assume that, because it was based on Star Wars, and based on a memorable event from the very first film, that almost every person who reads it would already know the backstory and be familiar with the character of Princess Leia. This meant that, aside from a few flashbacks for dramatic effect, I didn’t really need to spend much time setting things up (either in the planning stages or in the text itself). I did still need to do some research of my own, but only for minor details, and only really to satisfy my own pedantry: the main background to the story is already well established in the public consciousness. The principal benefit was that there was little need for exposition.

I could argue that in really good writing the character and background should come from what the characters say and/or do, and shouldn’t need spelling out, but that’s possibly more of a screenwriting argument. In any case, exposition can be the equivalent of literary quicksand for both writers and and readers, so it’s nice to be freed from it once in a while.

There was, naturally, a slightly more mercenary aspect in my approach towards writing this fan-fiction. Since there’s never any chance ever of this story being published, or being entered in a competition, or earning my any money at all, I wasn’t prepared to spend too much time on it. However, neither was I prepared to compromise and write something that wasn’t as good as I could possibly make it. What that minor conflict resulted in was me producing one of my quickest pieces of writing ever – 3400 words in slightly over a week, and a story that I’m fairly pleased with.

I haven’t read enough fan-fiction to provide a quality gauge, but my suspicion is that most writers churn out their stories with little thought to editing and upload them almost as soon as the last word is typed. I suspect this because I’m guessing that most fan-fiction writers don’t particularly want to be professional writers and therefore don’t follow the usual procedures of writing a story. It was partly this theoretical stigma attached to fan-fiction – that it’s rarely done well, so isn’t worth doing well – which briefly stopped me from writing the story, but then the writer took over. It’s likely that, as with all amateur fiction, there’s a handful of truly brilliant efforts to be found, but you need to be willing to work through the rest of it to get there.

Does it need to be fan-fiction at all…?

When my wife read the story a key observation she made, which pleasantly surprised me, was that the Star Wars setting was, in the end, entirely incidental – the nature of the story was such that it could have easily taken place in the real word. As it happens, before I started writing I had briefly considered a non Star Wars scenario, but never gave the idea that much thought. I figured if I’d gone down that road the story would have taken a whole lot longer to write, and I also fancied the idea of dabbling in fan-fiction. I may still look at adapting the story (particularly if I ever get asked by Lucasfilm to remove Sacrificial from my site) but the upshot I took from my wife’s comment is that even when you play around with someone else’s characters you can still, perhaps without even realising it, tell your own stories. To a limited extent it could almost be a useful exercise to borrow characters from your favourite show, novel, comic, or film and use them to test out a scene you want to write. Freed from the constraints of creating characters you can instead focus on how the scene itself works.

To sum up the above, I do think there are good reasons to dabble in fan-fiction, and it can provide some useful exercises. I wouldn’t suggest doing it too often, unless fan-fiction is all you ever want to write (and there’s no shame in that). I certainly wouldn’t suggest ever writing anything more than a short story: honestly, if you’ve got a fan-fiction novel inside you, then it’s worth making it entirely yours and putting your own characters in it.

Also I wouldn’t suggest ever writing a full screenplay prequel to The Thing, or trying to rewrite the entire script for Star Wars: Episode One, or even attempting a Highlander/Angel mash-up – no, that’s not something that I would ever try to do … not ever …

Further reading

I did a fair bit of research on the topic of fan-fiction prior to writing this. Most of my efforts were directed towards trying to find the correct wording for a disclaimer to place on my story: it seems that fan-fiction is an enormous grey area legally speaking. Also, writers themselves (the published type) don’t have a consistent view either. Most tolerate it, a few encourage it, a few actively try and stop it. My understanding is that George Lucas and Lucasfilm don’t mind fan films, but take a slightly dimmer view on fan-fiction – or maybe they don’t mind fan-fiction at all. This might be because there’s only a few Star Wars films out there, but there’s an entire publishing industry churning out Star Wars tie-in novels.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that fan-fiction can have it’s pitfalls for the author – if you don’t respect the author’s right to their own creations then you might find yourself done out of a new book or two from that author, which is what happened in the case of Marion Zimmer Bradley.