How Fan Fiction Can Improve Your Writing

For the uninitiated, fan fiction is when a writer takes characters, plots, and locations from already existing stories and writes their own spin on it. From Harry Potter to Twilight, writers across the world have repurposed these stories to their own liking, often reinterpreting the stories in a way that either expands on the lore, or changing up some concepts and plot threads to what they would have loved to see happen in the original story.

Writing fan fiction is a pretty common practice among writers and is often a springboard for writing their own original stories. After all, Fifty Shades of Grey actually started off as a Twilight fan fiction and later became its own original story, which could explain the similarities between the dysfunctional relationships of each story’s respective starring couples.

Now despite fan fiction being a common practice, there are other writers out there who look down upon it because writing fan fiction lacks originality and is considered “cheating.” If you’re one of those writers, you’re not alone, because I was one of them. If you’re a fan fiction writer, maybe this will be a nice refresher or an eye opener as to why what you’re doing is pretty valuable.

The Originality Trap

For a long period in my life, I was overly concerned with being original. I often thought to myself and explained away to others, “why do what everyone else is already doing? I want to stand out, otherwise how else would I ever get noticed?! I want to be original!”

Time and time again, I see a lot of writers and creators get too hung up on wanting to be original because they want to stand out, only to stifle their own creativity because they’re afraid of being a carbon copy of someone else. Having been in that state of mind myself, I can confidently say that this mindset is a surefire way to kill not only your own creativity, but your own confidence as a writer.

This goes for all creators, actually.

Being too concerned with originality could lead to trying too hard to be eccentric and weird to stand out, but then miss out on possibly adding any depth to your work. The harder you try to be original, the more difficult you might make it for others to even comprehend what you’re trying to convey.

This is not to knock on genuinely eccentric work that for whatever reason is difficult to comprehend, and trust me, complexity can be part of the fun in consuming an art piece. It satiates that part of our creative minds that like to think really hard and extrapolate meaning through concerted effort like a puzzle, then feel rewarded once you figured it out, or at the very least created your own interpretation of the piece.

However, I would argue that less is more when it comes to art. This is why a lot of the “simpler” things like pop music and popular fiction can easily be seen as reductive and good for the “uneducated masses.” There’s this huge contention with music where artists tend to start simplifying their music to appeal to wider audiences, and that is often seen as “selling out,” thus leading to people begroaning that “they’re not as good as they used to be.” And, “oh, they just want to make more money so they make whatever the radio stations will eat up like candy.”

In my opinion, this elitist way of thinking of art does a huge disservice not only to ones self, but also the artist themselves that these critics are trying to disparage. Because what if this simplification of their work is actually a byproduct of their genuine desire to change up their style and communicate their message in a clearer way without all the intellectual fluff? Whether consciously or unconsciously.

Again, not knocking genuinely complex and intellectual work. I’m not saying everything should be simplified so everyone can enjoy your work. What I am saying is if you aim to be original you might end up alienating an audience that may have otherwise loved your work regardless of its originality factor.

As consumers, most people don’t really care much for originality no matter how much they claim to. In actuality, people want to connect to a piece of music, a movie, or a book in a way that is personal and intimate for them. No matter how consciously one may claim to seek to be original and only want to consume original work, sometimes the simplest pieces of art become their go to loves for life when they can let go of all expectations and just surrender to what the piece has to offer.

The last thing I’ll say about the Originality Trap is to focus more on what you want to convey—even if it’s been done a thousand times before—in whatever way you feel natural to you. If you have something worthwhile to say, how you convey it won’t matter as much as you simply putting the effort to convey it at all. Any sense of originality and profundity will naturally emerge if you are earnest and honest in your expression, without trying too hard to impress your audience with attempts to seem original and unexpected.

Originality should be the natural byproduct of genuine expression, not a concerted effort.

Learning From the Masters

Originality Trap rant aside, now it’s time to talk about the beauty of fan fiction because it is something I learned how to embrace again recently.

From a consumer’s standpoint, fan fiction can help fans get a little more mileage out of their favourite stories when a fan fiction writer can fill some gaps and provide more closure for a story that may have officially ended long time ago by the original author. We grow so attached to certain characters, locations, and plot threads that maybe we’re not ready to let go just yet, and so fan fiction is usually a good way to extend that story a little more, kind of like how video games now feature mods and downloadable content that extend the lifetime of them.

From a writer’s standpoint, you could be doing yourself a ton of favours by Learning From the Masters. If you are so inspired by another writer’s work that you want to repurpose and re-contextualize your favourite characters in either familiar or new settings, then it’s an opportunity to not only understand their work better, but your own.

Here’s how:

By taking existing characters and writing about them with the conscious, or even unconscious, decision to respect their way of being, you are understanding the nuances of character. If you can accurately write a character in a new situation where readers can say, “that is exactly what they would do/say!” Then you’ve done your job at truly understanding the character’s behaviours and growth from the original series, thus giving you a good insight on how to write your own characters down the line, which we’ll get to a little later.

Then of course, if you choose to build upon an existing plot thread from the story that either left you wanting more because of unresolved issues and unanswered questions, or you see the potential for more storytelling—then once again, doing so can teach you how to understand the importance of stakes in stories and the impact they have on audiences. Not to mention the characters themselves, of course.

Let’s take Cobra Kai, for instance, since I gushed about it in last week’s post about The Paragon of Potential. While this series is an official continuation of the Karate Kid series, the writers of Cobra Kai can easily be seen as fan fiction super fans of the series. Out of all the reboots and sequels in existence right now, in my opinion, Cobra Kai does it just right. There’s a few sprinkles of nostalgia here and there, but fundamentally, the writers have a deep understanding of all the characters and lore the original movie series contained, and so they are well equipped with expanding the universe with a huge new slew of karate students from all the different dojos.

Thirty years later, how would the rivalry between Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso manifest? This is probably the question the writers asked their selves upon the story’s conception. And to think it might have been sparked by a joke video on YouTube about who the “real” villain of Karate Kid was.

It posits that while we were lead to believe that Daniel, the protagonist for the original Karate Kid Trilogy, was the hero of the series, the true hero of the first movie was Johnny Lawrence. He was an ex-degenerate who just wanted to do better for himself upon his senior year of high school, but Daniel’s presence threw a wrench in his plans by moving in on Johnny’s ex-girlfriend and beating him at a karate tournament he held dear to his heart, thus leading to his downfall in life that robbed him of all confidence and self esteem.

This video was made as a joke, but the points made were so valid that they were probably the catalyst for expanding on the Karate Kid series to the extent that Cobra Kai has done.

Now, likewise with whatever fan fiction you write, if you take in account all these important details about the behaviour of certain characters, the issues they have with each other, and the overall effect their relationships have on the people around them, you can end up writing fan fiction that can make readers feel as though your take is a God honest continuation as if the original creators wrote it themselves.

Or at the very least, you’ve had a ton of fun playing puppet master to your favourite characters and laid down the foundation for characterization which can later inform your own original work down the line.

Taking Creative Liberties

On the inverse, writing fan fiction can also mean Taking Creative Liberties with the property. Maybe certain characters who were never originally meant to be romantically involved can be, if you make it so! Actually, this is the most common thing fan fiction writers do. It’s calling “shipping” because you’re pairing two characters into a relationship that audiences may not have expected. The meme ship has long since sailed with shipping being the sole reason for fan fiction existing in the first place.

But memery aside, of course, you can take creative liberties in other ways such as putting familiar characters in fresh new situations they might not have otherwise been in in the original work they featured in. What would it be like for Harry Potter to get shackled to a boring office job in his adult life, long after his adventures in Hogwarts? What would it be like for the Ninja Turtles to upgrade their weaponry to include guns? What would it be like for—

You get the idea.

These are the kinds of open ended questions you can ask yourself when wanting to re-contextualize existing characters in unexpected settings and situations. By doing this, not only do you expand on your favourite story, but you also expand your own capacity for creativity and originality.

As mentioned before, Fifty Shades of Grey started off as a Twilight fan fiction, but obviously characters and concepts were changed drastically to remove the supernatural elements and replace them with more contemporary concepts, but still maintaining that dysfunctional relationship dynamic Edward and Bella had.

Fan fiction can start of as a blueprint for your own original work when you realize the characters you are writing are no longer the ones you’ve borrowed from an existing piece of work. Maybe then you can change their names, their roles, and traits and make them your own. Likewise with the new plots and locations you come up with in your fan fiction writing. If fan fiction isn’t an expansion of existing work, then they can definitely be used as springboards for original work.

In the best case scenario, they’re both!

And don’t worry…

It’s Not Stealing, It’s Borrowing

Almost all creativity starts with as an imitation of other existing works. That’s what they exist for: inspiration, not competition. Being too fixated on originality gives you the mindset that everybody else’s work out there is your competition, rather than your inspiration. It disgraces what you were originally inspired by because there’s a part of you that aspires to do something just as great as they did to create the impact on others in a way you were impacted by it.

And that’s what the real focus should be when it comes to creativity: impact.

Fan fiction can help you understand its importance whether you consume it or write it yourself. When a story affects you so much that you want to expand on it or write something similar, it’s a beautiful thing. It did its job. And as creators, this is something we must all embrace if we want to stand any chance at ever standing out above the crowd. Because it’s not about how original you can be with your ideas.

The originality will come from how you take existing ideas and repurpose them in the way that shows your own individual style and perception of them. The purpose of an artist is to open the eyes of their audience by hyper-focusing on certain details of life and the world that the audience may otherwise miss. It’s through art that you inspire others to expand on their perception, just as much as fan fiction can help you expand on your own perception of not only the work you’re borrowing from, but expanding on the perception of what you think makes for a good story.

Which in turn allows you to create that original story burning inside of you.

Do you read or write fan fiction?

How has fan fiction benefited you as an audience/creator?

Let me know in the comments below!