The Good, The Bad & The Ugly of Fan Fiction

Mary Sue

You don’t improve your skills in anything unless you practice. Baseball players go to batting cages, tennis players use automated ball machines, shooters go to gun ranges. Where do writers go? In recent years, a lot of fans of popular media have been writing short pieces of fiction based in the fictional worlds they enjoy. While fan fiction isn’t by any means a form of writing meant to generate any sort of revenue – most fan fiction writers go out of their way to ensure readers know they didn’t create these worlds – it can be seen as a viable means for a writer to hone their skills and weed out bad habits. Backstories for MMORPG characters fall into this category. Regardless of the inspiration, however, there are some very clear things that separate good fan fiction from bad fan fiction.

By the way, in case you’re new to this, works of fan fiction are referred to as ‘fics’, and an established fictional world and the characters within are referred to as ‘canon’.

The Good

Getting into the mind of a ‘canon’ character is an interesting exercise. Some of the best fics have very little action and are introspective, with a main character of the canon thinking about something that’s happened or might happen. Since no major events are taking place that might upset the canon, these exercises are ultimately harmless provided the thoughts and feelings of the character are consistent. For example, a short story on Harry Potter’s deepest thoughts and feelings in the wake of someone’s death can be a touching and powerful work, provided he doesn’t think about how he could have done the deed better or how he’s got the hots for Bellatrix LeStrange. More on inconsistencies later.

If you have an idea for an original character or group of characters in a canonical world, by all means bring the idea to life. Give them a personality, history and world view and set them lose in a playground defined by the rules of the world’s original creators. Take the time to flesh them out in your mind or in your notes before you begin the fic in earnest. Locations and situations of the established world provide the backdrop and drama for your character or characters. Role-playing guilds in a MMORPG fall into this category, and if you can work together to establish the rules and circumstances of the disparate characters gathering, the result can be a rewarding and satisfying one for everybody involved.

The more you write, the better your habits in writing become. Just as a slugger, tennis player or hunter grows more confident and more accurate they more they practice, so too does a writer develop more skill with the language and a unique voice to the more they write. Fan fiction’s a good way to get this practice, and if you have a means with which you’re comfortable for you to get feedback, so much the better.

The Bad

It’s fun to think of how a relationship between canon characters might turn out. But if you’re going to write about it, keep their behavior consistent with what’s been established. Don’t try to turn the hero into a psychopathic murderer or a loving husband into a wife-beater. Putting a villain in a sympathetic light can be tricky, but it can be done if the villain’s motivations are kept hidden from the audience and can be elaborated upon by the fic writer. However, if the canon character is a blatantly evil jerk who delights in putting cute things through wood chippers, you’re going to have a hard time getting an audience to side with them in the course of writing your fic.

When it comes to original characters, be very careful in how the interact with those established within the canon. Avoid it if you can, and if it’s absolutely necessary, keep the conversations short and the behavior of the canon character or characters consistent. If a canon character wouldn’t like the kind of person your original character is, for any number of reasons, be certain to show that, rather than the canon characters simply adoring your original one just because you’re writing the story. The more canon characters you bring into your story, the greater the risk of your original character becoming a Mary Sue.

The Ugly

New writers that haven’t developed good habits and go entirely with what comes out of their heads run the risk of creating main characters that are little more than Author Avatar for whom everything goes right in the end and can’t seem to stop getting attention from members of the opposite sex. Another bad habit that can come from undeveloped writing styles include not doing proper research even if they claim they have. However, if the author in question has gotten hold of a good agent and is establishing their own canon that abides by their own rules, not only can they get away with these atrocious habits, they can become insanely popular.

I can’t really understand it either, but I suppose in some cases, success can justify quite a bit.

1 Comment

  1. Putting a villain in a sympathetic light can be tricky, but it can be done if the villain’s motivations are kept hidden from the audience and can be elaborated upon by the fic writer. However, if the canon character is a blatantly evil jerk who delights in putting cute things through wood chippers, you’re going to have a hard time getting an audience to side with them in the course of writing your fic.

    HA! You just thought he was putting cute things into wood chippers. Also, you never actually witnessed kitten-into-chipper action.

    Or maybe he just played yo’ punk ass.

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