The Anatomy of Fan-Fiction (And How it Can Help Us Write Better)

This post, by Karen Rought, originally appeared on her The Midnight Novelist blog.

I recently admitted to some of my online friends that my exposure to fan-fiction was fairly limited. Once they learned that I hadn’t read some of the “classics,” and after some stunned silence and a lot of “omg omg omg,” they gently nudged me down the right path, with the promise to take me under their wings.

The first one they had me read was called The Shoebox Project. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a novel-length Harry Potter fic about the Marauders – James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter. The fic basically shows us what kind of relationship those four friends had with each other, how they got mixed up in the Order of the Phoenix, and what happened that made Peter betray his best friends to the Dark Lord.

If you’re interested, you can go to this website and read the fic for yourself. It’s extremely well written, and the characters pop out of the page at you, fully-formed and in color. It’s also an easy read, but be warned that, although it falls in line with Rowling’s books, you may be surprised by what happens in the story. Many fans consider this to be something of the official un-official backstory to the Marauders.

All that aside, it really got me thinking. Why does fan-fiction work so well? Why do people spend hundreds of hours writing it? Why do hundreds of thousands of people read it? Why is fan-fiction becoming more and more popular amongst those who enjoy reading books and watching television/movies?

And, most importantly, what can we learn from it as writers?

ONE. Fan-fiction isn’t afraid to break the rules

One of the drawbacks to immersing yourself in fan-fiction is that it’s not always well-written. That’s certainly a problem, but I’ve found plenty of fan-fiction that was poorly written that I couldn’t put down. And I’ve read plenty of published works without a single typo that put me to sleep each time I cracked them open.

The thing with fic is this: it isn’t afraid to break the rules. It doesn’t have to worry about critique partners and editors and agents and publishing houses. The authors of the fic aren’t always aware of the rules, of when to use a semi-colon or even what “syntax” means. And they don’t care. And sometimes this works really well.

The best example I can give is the dialogue in Shoebox. An editor probably would’ve thrown the entire MS in the trash if he took a single look at it. But it works so well for the story. So well. There are whole paragraphs full of run-on or half-formed sentences. And the entire book is written like that. But it’s used to convey the nervousness and doubt and excitement of the characters. And it’s so realistic. Most of the time if you read dialogue out from a book, it’s a little too perfect. It doesn’t sound natural. And although this dialogue is chopped up and crazy, it sounds exactly how a 17 year old boy would talk. It’s perfect.

TWO. Fan-fiction doesn’t do anything more than simply write a good story.

The previous point logically leads into this second one. The writers aren’t worried about making everything perfect. They’re not worried about pitches and query letters and trying to land an agent. They just want to write a good story.

There’s a lot of freedom in fan-fiction. Sometimes that’s a bad thing. Sometimes people get carried away. But sometimes, when the planets align and the wind blows in just the right direction, sometimes this is a very, very good thing.

When you’re not worrying about anything other than the story, your story comes alive. It’s not weighed down with doubt. There’s no worry about it needing to impress someone. Whenever we write and edit knowing that we’re eventually going to pitch this story to an agent, there’s that nagging feeling of did I do everything in my power to make this as perfect as possible? And sometimes that’s what makes it so imperfect. Readers can often tell when the writer places every word carefully, rather than just letting the story develop on its own.

I liken it to those Hollywood stars with the perfect hair, the perfect clothes, the perfect makeup, the perfect smile. It’s nice, they’re pretty to look at it, and you do kind of envy it. But it’s not natural. You know they’re putting on a show, and at the end of the day you’d much rather surround yourself with real people.

THREE. Fan-fiction gives us what we want.

Read the rest of the post on The Midnight Novelist.