Why I Write Fanfiction

The more I thought about this, the more it seemed that a series of questions might provide a convenient format. So here are questions often asked about the writing of fanfiction, and my responses.

So just why do you write fanfiction?

The short answer is that I write to explore character.  I've always been a writer at heart, and many different things inspire me to storytelling. I found the characters of the X-Files fascinatingly three-dimensional and (so I realized later) I'm drawn to situations where something over-arching is at stake: worlds at risk, etc. I also tend to enjoy examining crisis situations that shape and polish character or help to define a person, so in that sense, these characters I'd found so intriguing intersected directly with my usual areas of interest in terms of writing.

But why write about a TV show?  Why not simply watch it like everyone else?

David Duchovny (Mulder), Gillian Anderson (Scully) and Nicholas Lea (Krycek) put much, much more into their portrayals than was given them in the scripts. They made their characters truly come alive: three-dimensional, nuanced, flawed... in other words, very human and engaging, and full of possibility.  Sometimes a character nuance or the hint of a backstory would make me want to explore these characters further, to peer into their nooks and crannies, their odd spaces, memories and desires.  For a writer, this is the germ or breadcrumb trail that leads to a story.

As to 'everyone else' just watching: I'm continually amazed at the number of people who write stories about already-existing universes.  The internet houses thousands and thousands of pieces of fanfiction, and interestingly enough, a surprising number of these authors recall sitting down and writing out stories about a favorite TV show when they were children and completely unaware that there was such a phenomenon as fanfiction, or that other people were writing these stories just as they were.  As a species, humans have always had an innate need to tell stories, and fanfiction is one of the many manifestations of this.

Why not write your own original fiction?

I do that, too. It's precisely because I was already writing that the idea of fanfiction struck me as so odd initially (why would you want to manipulate someone else's characters?) But then I started to find really intriguing, hinted-at corners of this story universe that were never examined on-screen, and my natural curiosity lured me into exploring them via pen and paper... or keyboard and WordPad, as the case may be.

The fact that I was already a creator of original characters has, however, strongly shaped my views about what I will or won't do within a fanfictional universe. Many fanfic writers like to change the characters to fit situations or behaviors they envision--situations which would arguably never be part of a show's universe.  But I feel the need to stay as strictly true to the characters I've come to know on-screen, and their story universe, as possible. My impetus in writing fanfiction, after all, is to better understand characters I've found to be so compelling.  So I employ a kind of environmental approach: respect the characters and the territory; tread lightly, explore thoroughly and leave behind as small a footprint as possible.

Isn't it plagiarizing or something? How can it be 'real' writing?

The proper term is 'derivative'. And it's a common historical phenomenon. For thousands of years, people have made up their own variations on stories common to their cultures, such as the many tales that surround the Greek gods. Even Shakespeare commonly based his plays on stories that were already well-known through the writing of others. Granted, that was during a time when story universes were simply considered to be part of the cultural backdrop of a people rather than the exclusive property of individuals or corporations.

As to 'real writing', what separates good writing from bad, it seems to me, lies not so much in the story material itself but in how--and how well--a story is told. This is obvious in the case of Shakespeare. Nobody accuses him of being derivative, and yet many of his most famous plays were based upon stories that were commonly known in his day. But he made things happen in a way that spoke dramatically and effectively to his audience. His stories moved people (and they continue to move people) long after the versions that originally sparked his imagination had fallen into obscurity.

How do you account for people's apparent desire to write about TV shows?

Episodic television provides a medium that makes it easy to become invested in memorable characters since they're with us over a long period of time, sometimes for many years. When a character piques your interest and has become so familiar, it's easy to start thinking in 'what if's: what would be the emotional fallout for Mulder of being taken off the assignment that had been his life, not just his job--and his only potential road of access for finding out what had happened to his sister? What would Scully do if pushed to the point where her mental and emotional walls simply fell apart from the stress of her job? What would Alex Krycek, seemingly the Energizer Bunny of the dark side of the X-Files universe, do if he were suddenly pulled from the rat race, from his need to escape the ever-falling dominoes in his path, and forced to look critically at his life? What if Teena Mulder were somehow provoked to take a stand in life rather than simply choosing to avoid/deny her past actions and the painful memories that go with them? These are questions that fascinated me enough that I was drawn to explore them in story form.

Do you write fanfic for any other fandom (TV/book/movie universe)?

No. While I've enjoyed other fictional universes, I've never been moved to write for any besides The X-Files. In that respect I'm different from many fanfic writers out there who write in any number of fandoms.

You must read a lot of fanfiction.

Actually, I don't.  As with any other endeavor where there are no restrictions on what's produced, the quality of fanfiction varies greatly.  A lot of it is from inexperienced writers and poorly written or characterized, and I happen to be a picky reader, even in terms of published/printed works.  That said, there are some amazing examples of impressive, impactful writing within fanfiction if you know where to find them.  Even published authors have been known to write fanfiction under a discreet screen name simply for the fun of it, or for the opportunity it offers to experiment with writing approaches that may not be commercially viable.

If you enjoy writing so much, why not focus on something you could publish and be paid for?

Ah, if getting published were only that easy! There's absolutely no guarantee of being published just because you've written something, and the reality of today's ever-more-consolidated publishing industry means that less original work than ever before is seeing the inside of a bookstore.

In today's society, the prevailing mindset is one that values creative pursuits done for money while giving little shrift to any done for the sheer love of doing them. I strongly disagree with this position. That said, I do write wholly original stories when the inspiration strikes, and would love to see my work in print. But I don't see a story project as less valuable, valid, or 'real' simply because I know at the outset that money or print publishing will not be involved.  In the meantime, the fanfic writing I do offers me the opportunity to continue to polish my craft.

Writing fanfiction must be much easier than writing original works, right?

Actually, it's different but not necessarily easier at all, especially if you're going to do it well. Fanfic has its own unique challenges. It's true that many people attempt fanfiction as their first foray into writing in the mistaken belief that it will be easier to write because they won't have to create characters. However, the reality of fanfiction is this: that you're writing characters and a universe that your audience already knows intimately. Therefore, a lot of care must be taken in order to portray those characters accurately. Many writers aren't able to achieve this, just as replacement writers hired by a TV show will sometimes betray a lack of understanding of the dynamics of certain characters in their early writing efforts. Spot-on characterization in fanfic involves knowing your character's motivations thoroughly along with his or her speech patterns, history, body language and other salient characteristics, then crafting the character's action and dialog so that the reader both hears and sees the character they know so well from the source material.

If you're not doing it for money, what are you getting from the time and energy you put into writing fanfiction?

Some of what I've gained from writing fanfiction:

  • It's given me a chance to further polish my writing craft.  Granted, many people write fanfic just for fun, or their own amusement, and consider their work 'just fic', but I strive to improve my writing with any story I work on.  I don't ever consider my fic 'just', and wouldn't put any less effort or care into it than any wholly original piece I was writing.

  • Writing fanfiction has provided me with an audience.  And the web audience experience is both dynamic and interactive.  While you rarely have the opportunity to dialog with the author of a hard-copy book you've read, you can easily reach a fanfic writer by e-mail.  And of course this works both ways.  I've been blessed to receive feedback that has been very encouraging and gratifying... and which has sometimes led to deep discussion of the story and characters, and even to longstanding friendships.

  • Being part of a rather close-knit online community has also put me in contact with other writers with a similar focus, giving us the chance to exchange ideas on process, characters, and other aspects of the writing experience.  Writing is an essentially solitary pastime, and it's great to have quick and easy access to other writers like oneself, an opportunity not often available offline.

  • I've got betas!  A beta, in the parlance of fanfiction, is a reader who serves as an editor for you, reading and critiquing your work and offering suggestions.  The help I've had from dedicated, thorough betas has definitely improved my writing, and I'm very thankful for their input.

  • I've learned a lot through fic-based writing exercises.  For example, one form unique to X-Files fanfiction is the 155-word vignette.  If done carefully (and if you stick religiously to the 155 words and don't fudge on your word count) these very brief pieces can convey a much larger story than the short number of words would seem to permit.  It's a lot like writing within the constrictions of the sonnet.  You're severely limited in your options, so you learn quickly to make each and every word count.  Like strenuous exercise, it can leave you much stronger for your efforts if you're willing to brave the challenge it poses.

  • It has provided an outlet for my inherent desire to tell stories, and has given me the opportunity to create and share those stories without having to go through a restrictive, fiscally-based distribution system.

As a further resource, if this exploration of the whys and wherefores of writing fanfiction interests you, don't miss Jane Mortimer's classic (and very literate) essay on the subject: The Advantages of Fan Fiction as an Art Form. Or this very compelling comparison of the fanfiction phenomenon to the Jewish tradition of interpreting the Torah's source material: Modern Midrash.


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