I feel like fanfiction gets a notoriously bad rap. You mention fanfic to somebody, and there’s an implicit assumption that it’s either a) nothing but sex, especially if the source material is notoriously free of sex, or b) unrepentant bullshit, usually featuring an insufferable authorial self-insert as the main protagonist.
And I’m gonna say oh hell yes, there is a lot of boning and a lot of bullshit out there on whichever fanfiction site you care to visit.
BUT—and this is a pretty important “but” here—the same is true of basically all fiction that has ever been written.
Sturgeon’s Law. Ninety percent of everything is crap. James Dickson’s personal corollary to Sturgeon’s Law: a minimum of 1% of the not-crap is probably still about boning in some form or fashion. Also, another 1% is probably about giant robots.
I’d like to say here that fanfiction is a worthy goal unto itself. If you have a story, you goddamn better tell that story. I will hunt you down otherwise. I don’t give a shit if that story takes place in a world you didn’t make up. And the people who do give a shit are the assholes who harp on about originality as though it is the highest and most sacred aim of fiction, when the highest and most sacred aim of fiction is to tell a good story and if you have not done so then you have failed.
To indicate that I practice what I preach, I’d like to introduce you to “GRIT THOSE TEETH!” and “The Ministry of Magic’s Most Wanted”, my two online, cataloged forays into the realm of fanfiction. I also have, hidden on a hard drive somewhere, a fic based on Dig Dug. Yes, the video game. It will see the light of day again, when the stars are right.
I also have a fanfic magnum opus in progress, which has assumed the form of a Mass Effect 3 story exploring the history behind Aria T’Loak and Nyreen Kandros. I have been made to understand that the urge to codify that relationship is, shall we say, not unique. This has not deterred me in the slightest from its eventual completion.
So you can see, particularly with the examples, that I either had a concept I wanted to explore (in the case of “GRIT THOSE TEETH!”) or I had a crossover I found amusing (as in “The Ministry of Magic’s Most Wanted”). And I’m proud of those stories—they’ve aged a bit, but overall I have no shame in claiming them as my own. They were stories that I wanted to tell, so I told them. Simple as that.
I wanted to make sure it was perfectly clear that I consider fanfiction to be a… I hesitate to use the word “legitimate,” because as soon as you begin to separate stories into “legitimate” and “illegitimate” camps you wind up with bizarre stratification among peers and suddenly the realists and the tragedians are looking down their noses at the fantasists and the comedians and nobody knows how or when or why the battle lines were drawn but you goddamn better have your spear ready because shit is about to get real.
So, instead, I’ll opt to say that fanfiction is a complete pursuit, in that there is no need to have any aim beyond the creation of the story.
I say all this because that way, when I say that I think fanfiction is also an excellent place for writers to work out some of the kinks in their craft, you’ll understand that I don’t say that to diminish fanfic in any way.
In a lot of respects, fanfic is like hitting up the machines at the gym, but for writers. Say that you’ve got some saggy plots you need to tighten up before your high school reunion, but you’re feeling pretty good about your characters and your settings. You don’t want to burn a lot of time doing stuff for characterization or setting on plot day, so you go straight for the plot machine on the gym floor.
You choose a franchise, like Harry Potter. It has characters and a setting all locked and loaded. You know both like the back of your hand. This way, you can work out your plotting issues in relative comfort because all the other heavy lifting has been done for you. That’s a huge advantage, and it’s super useful for someone who’s maybe a bit leery of the free weights just at the moment.
So I suppose what I’m saying is: go forth and write fanfic. Whatever kind you want, whether it’s ars gratia artis or to help you hone skills for use on your original material. Write it, share it, love it. And don’t feel a bit of embarrassment for doing so.