It’s not unheard-of for authors to get their start writing fanfiction. Even if it’s a seven-year-old’s My Little Pony original character going on adventures with Spider-man, fanfiction can be a very accessible entry point for writing. The side characters and setting are already created, all you need to do is provide a plot and maybe add your own main character.
It’s a little like taking a cookie recipe and adding walnuts, or maybe an orange glaze. Then as you begin to understand the building blocks of baking, you can start creating your own recipes from scratch.
Not every writer starts this way, and fanfiction is more than just the “training-wheels” it’s sometimes described as. There is a special skill in crafting a story around existing constraints, especially if you’re writing within canon. It’s an art form of its own.
But for me, fanfiction was also a gateway to improving some crucial writing skills, forcing me to explore character in a way I never had.
How Fanfic Explores Character
The core driving force of fanfiction is character. When I read a fanfic, it’s because I want to spend more time with those characters, even if they’re transported to an alternate universe. I love seeing the exploration of a villain stuck running a flower shop, and a writer who can make that character recognizable and consistent in a different environment has a very special skill.
I wrote a bit of fanfiction in high school, most notably L.J. Smith spinoffs and some Sailor Moon pieces. They were one-off fun projects that I scribbled out, shared with friends, and set aside. But around the time I started getting serious with my original work in 2015 or so, I also started and completed a novel-length set of connected fanfiction short stories.
This fanfic was based around an ensemble video game series known for its layered and dimensional characters, each with their own goals, fears, mannerisms, and dialogue styles.
When I started that fanfiction, I knew I had to nail these characters or the whole thing would fall flat. So I played the games again and analyzed speech patterns. One character had an ethereal, poetic cadence to his speech and frequently used alliteration. Another character had a very particular dialect that’s a bit reminiscent of a cockney twang but still her own unique way of speaking. Some characters avoided contractions for a more proper style, another used sarcasm in most of his lines. Notably, one often spoke in iambic meter.
Then I dug deeper:
- What goals drove each of them?
- What were they running from, or afraid to admit about themselves?
- What traumas shaped those fears?
- How does their culture shape their personality?
- How do they relate to the other characters? Whom do they trust or dislike? Why?
Having all of the answers to these questions in place already was a great exercise. Developing a whole web of original, interconnected characters can sometimes feel daunting for a writer. This is especially true in genre fiction like fantasy or sci-fi, where you have to build an entire world as well.
In the same way a child can take apart and reassemble a piece of broken electronic equipment to learn how it works, dissecting these aspects of pre-existing characters helped me figure out what elements my own characters needed. It gave me better tools to craft my original book’s cast with more depth, breathing life into them.
Even if you don’t plan on writing fanfic, you can use this as an exercise. (Especially if you’re struggling with character development). Pick a piece of media you love and know well. A movie, a TV show, a book, a video game. Then go through that above list with a few of your favorite characters. Look at how they talk, how they present themselves. Their mannerisms and tics.
This may help you apply those sorts of elements to deepen your own characters. Before I wrote fanfiction, I struggled to fill out those character-building questionnaires you find on various writing resource sites. Afterward, it became easier to dig into the heads of my original characters, too.
If you do this exercise, I’d love to hear what characters you chose and your answers in the comments below! Did it help you with your own original fiction as well?