Fan fiction. Stories written by fans, inspired by their favorite pop culture material. There are millions of stories online for any genre or media you can conceive–even fanfics about real-life celebrities. Even Biblical fanfics.
Nowadays, in the mainstream, “fan fiction” is a pejorative. It’s shorthand for bad and amateur writing. Nothing but endless stories with poor editing and grammar, where established characters are pitted against or romantically involved with self-insert characters. Millions of stories by amateur authors who’ve started writing and think their characters have to be amazingly talented, stunningly gorgeous, and a bare reflection of their own personalities, while leaving little to no room for a genuine plot.
And some say that fan fiction is inferior in quality to published stories. It’s like there’s a wall between professional, talented authors and masses of undeveloped kids typing away at their computers whose writing will never progress. Some authors, like George R.R. Martin, even complain about fan fiction, saying that they don’t appreciate others playing around with their personal creations. Not to mention a host of legal issues involving copyright and trademark infringement, which goes far beyond any author’s distaste.
As a writer with some professionalism, I’m cautious about fanfics because of the widespread low quality. But it’s for that same reason that I also cherish their existence, even if some stories drive me insane with how bad or offensive they are.
Back in high school, I was a fanfic writer, though I never put anything online. That’s how I started to translate my lifelong passion for books into writing fiction. And yes, it was awful. It was a series of Star Wars/Lord of the Rings crossovers centered around a Mary Sue-type Jedi Knight named Beren Teleriand who was the best at everything. I stopped after graduation, at which point I’d written over a thousand pages in the “Teleriand Saga.” Thankfully, that collection has long been deleted and forgotten. But as bad as it was, I’m glad I wrote it. As a young author, I was able to develop my self-discipline for writing and see how I could improve my work from there.
And truth be told, that’s why I think we shouldn’t automatically put down fan fiction. For many people, it’s their first time writing a story. Yes, you’ll find plenty of grammar and spelling mistakes. Yes, the plot will be a tangled mess and the characters won’t be that interesting. But with the right community of readers and editors, that awful material could become better over time. It takes a lot more dedication and patience than most first-time readers and authors are willing to give. But we don’t have to put down creative self-expression even while we point out every flaw and inconsistency in a story.
Now, when it comes to legal ownership of content, I’ve always held that copyright should be cited and respected when it comes to playing around with someone else’s work. But as an author, I don’t abhor the very existence of fanfics. So what if some kid decides to write a story for Fanfiction.net where she bashes my main character or puts him in a romance with her self-insert character? It won’t change the way I write or the success of my story. And maybe some day, that same writer will use her first attempts at storytelling as an inspiration to become a better writer.
But more importantly, I believe in fan fiction because it’s a way to explore storytelling. For every nine awful fanfics about shipping and reinterpreting characters, there’s one really great or touching narrative with a strong Internet following. For every My Immortal, there’s a Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It’s not unheard of for authors and publishers to even officially approve of some character or story that was born as fan fiction (a more recent example being that the bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a Twilight fanfic; now Amazon wants to cash in on that trend with Kindle Worlds). Thus the stories that were fanfics become official narratives in their own right, which inspire fan works of their own and perpetuate the cycle.
To this day, in between working on my Flash Fiction for the site, my reviews, and the rest of my career, I’ll still dab my toe into the water and write a Doctor Who or Red Vs. Blue fic just to explore those worlds and give myself something new to try. They’re good exercises for any writer. And to be fair to my own readers, should someone want to write their own story about one of my Flash Fiction tales, they’re more than welcome to do so thanks to their Creative Commons licensing. So long as the writers acknowledge me as the original source and don’t try to sell it, they can take my plots and characters in whatever direction they want. Whether good or bad, I’ll be pleased to see that they’re making the effort to write and write well.