I have a confession to make that may forever alter your opinion of me (those of you who have wandered onto my blog for the first time are currently thinking, Umm, I don’t have any opinions). I love reading and writing fan-fiction. I currently have two fanfic accounts on the internet, which anyone with a semblance of intelligence can locate. Go ahead. You can google me. I am not ashamed of my secret life. I will, however, warn you that some of my stories were written when I was a teenager, so go gentle on the content and craft.
While fan-fiction has been around for decades, with some people attributing the Star Trek fan-base as the creators of this enterprise, it still has to this day a mostly negative connotation for anyone not in the fanfic community. While there are perhaps some less than savory aspects to fan-fiction, I cannot understand the derision that many people have for this form of writing. George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, has infamously lambasted fan-fiction as not being “good practice for writers,” (among other not so polite comments). Back in the early 2000s, Ann Rice demanded any fan-fiction based on her work be removed from the huge fan-fiction aggregate fanfiction.net. Creative writing professors will bemoan how fan-fiction impedes world-building and characterization as authors play with worlds and characters already established. And the list of naysayers goes on.
I contend while some of these arguments are valid, the critics of fan-fiction are missing the point. Fan-fiction is not the end-all be-all of writing. It’s a stepping stone to loftier, more ambitious goals. Just ask authors like Cassandra Clare, E.L. James or Marissa Meyer. All three started as fan-fiction authors, and all have gone on to sell millions of copies of their original manuscripts. Regardless of whether you like their stories or not, these ladies used the skills they had honed while writing fan-fiction to help them get published.
Let me take you back to early the 2000s. A teenager (gee, I wonder who?) is watching The Avengers, the British television series from the 1960s, ad nauseum on a now defunct satellite channel. She’s frustrated that Mrs. Peel left the series and was replaced by the sophomoric and far less sophisticated Tara King, and she can’t believe that the last episode of the entire program saw Steed and Tara launched into space in a rocket (it was the 1968; everyone was obsessed with the space race). So she sets out to rectify the situation. This plucky teenager has no idea how she’s going to fix it, but in a state of catharsis, she opens a Word document and just starts writing a scene. The scene turns into a chapter, which turns into a multi-chaptered fan-fiction.
Were the characters my own? No, but I put them in situations they had never been before, and I had to purposely problem-solve to decide how they would react in each circumstance. Did I create a whole new world? No, but I did have to research London to get some of the geography correct. Was it the best thing I have ever written or will ever write? HECK NO. I’m I glad I did it? HECK YES.
For the last 18 years of my life, I have been involved in fanfic writing. For me, it is the best tool I have for honing my craft. I use fanfic to work on characterization, to develop tone, and to polish my sentence structure and overall writing style. If you read all of my fan-fiction in chronological order (I wouldn’t recommend it), you will see how my writing improves with each and every story I write. My sentences become more varied and interesting. The wit is sharper, the stakes are higher, the internal monologues are more resonant.
Could I have achieved the same ends by only writing original stories? Of course! But sometimes as an author, your inspiration runs dry. You have no original ideas, and you can’t think of anything to write about. But if you borrow the characters and world of someone else, the most difficult part has been done for you. You can work on your craft and combat writer’s block at the same time.
Which brings me to the title of this post: I firmly believe teachers should use fan-fiction in the classroom. In fact, many teachers might already be using fan-fiction, and not even know it! Imagine reading Mary Poppins in the classroom. For their assignment, the students must write an additional adventure that Mary and the Banks children went on that wasn’t featured in the book. In the world of fan-fiction, we call this a “missing scene,” fic. Or imagine reading Hatchet or Hunger Games to slightly older kids, and then having them write an interview in which they are the reporters asking the protagonists their tips on survival. The students will need to find their own voice as a reporter, as well as the voice of the character. Or ask the students to imagine themselves in the world and situation of any book and write about how they would behave. That’s called a “self-insert” fic in the fan-fiction community.
Are the children creating worlds from scratch? No. Are the characters original? No. Is it a bad practice as George R.R. Martin postulates? NO. Because any time a child writes anything, he or she is improving as a writer. Educators say that to become a better reader, you simply have to read. The same maxim holds true for writing. The more you get the kids writing, the better they will become at it. And fan-fiction takes off so much pressure from young shoulders. As a teacher, I have noticed that for many young writers the hardest part is coming up with an original scenario. A lot of students freeze at the prospect of creating their own character and world. By including writing exercises in your curriculum that are in essence fan-fiction, you are giving those struggling students an opportunity to develop their craft without all the anxiety world and character-building can cause. Eventually you will want to include lessons that are strictly exercises in creating original characters and worlds, but you need to start small. Get the students writing, even if it’s “only” fan-fiction, and watch their craft evolve.