We Can Rebuild You: Fanfic and Character Development

As John Appel pointed out recently, writer Twitter can be counted on to have a flare up of Bad Takes and Reactions to Bad Takes like the rising and setting of the sun (just with more memes and gifs). One of the most recent takes to garner a lot of attention — exactly as its author knew it would — was about fanfiction, which the thread author defined as “a form that actively teaches you to write worse.” (I will spare you a link back to the original thread; a little Google homework should reveal the full argument, in all its snide tones.) This particular flare-up of The Discourse is timely, at least for me. I’m preparing the first weeks of my creative writing workshop course, a class in which I actively encourage students to write and read fanfiction.

John Appel wants to check the schedule for what the next Bad Take Discourse is, please and thank you.

Writer Twitter has by now come out in force to box the original thread’s ears. The fisticuffs cover all sorts of exasperations about why it’s wrong to say fanfiction “is bad” or “teaches you to write worse.” Why crap on other people’s joy? Why not learn the mechanics of writing a scene or dialogue in this way, the better to use them in your own original work later? Why not celebrate different imaginings of characters and storylines that speak to larger communities? Why not praise a medium that actively draws writers together and may constitute a first workshop experience for many of them? Why insist on categorizing everything as “good” or “bad”? Why pit the literary world against the commercial? Why deny the meta-references, fanservice, and “retellings” rampant in famous texts of the literary world? (Hell, I teach Paradise Lost as biblical fanfic because it’s true.)

Why argue about any of this?

One rhetorical “oh, for f*ck’s sake” rebuttal I haven’t seen yet is the core reason I recommend fanfiction to anyone looking to improve their craft:

Writing fanfic can help you create deeper, more fully realized characters.

First, let’s agree on something basic: writing characters is hard. Sure, they’re fun, these imaginary friends and frenemies, but they’re slippery, too, full of potential contradictions and worrisome gaps in backstory. They demand faces, voices, points of view, attitudes. They’re an awful lot of work. For many young writers, they’re the most elusive work of all. Constructing a better understanding of characters by reverse-engineering from what already exists, though, can put the elusive within reach.

In the same way that writing fics can help you practice the elements of writing we might otherwise take for granted (“How should I handle a scene transition? What dialogue tags actually work? How do I work description or exposition into this moment? Where’s a good place to end this chapter?”), they can help you explore elements of stories and characters the original creators themselves may have taken for granted. In order to write that slash fic between two characters who aren’t paired up in canon, you have to understand them well enough to imagine what would make them partners. Even if you skip the whole “how do they end up together?” arc and jump straight to them being together, you have to think about what character traits make them an interesting, successful — or maybe deeply fraught — couple. In order to explore a “what if?” story that fix fic’s something in the core narrative, you need to think about what the characters want, need, are willing to do, are afraid of — all the emotional baggage that goes into their decisions, and therefore, the consequences of their decisions. You can’t “fix” the story until you understand deeply how we arrived at that moment in the first place and deconstruct it, informed by some other theory of character and plot.

image copyrighted by American Libraries Magazine

I tell my students not to be ashamed of their fanfic work, if they have any, and if they don’t have any, to daydream about what they would write. Writing characters and giving them satisfying arcs (not always “happily ever after” stories, but earned stories, satisfying stories) is perhaps the hardest thing to do when you’re a writer. It requires not just building characters from the ground up, but building up the circumstances that will challenge and shape them. By taking a character (or characters) who already have a groundwork to explore, early career writers can think more closely about character motivation, growth, change, and challenge without worrying about whether the basic character design itself “works.” That bedrock can provide the traction needed to take longer, more challenging writing leaps.

Rewriting a scene to produce a different outcome requires careful reading and dissection of that scene and the characters in it.

A self-insert that interacts with the canon characters can encourage the writer to explore group dynamics and character chemistry.

Friends-to-Lovers or Enemies-to-Lovers-ing characters require a deep understanding of their inner worlds and close thought about what it would take to change them.

A coffeeshop AU might show us who a character is when their guard is down.

A fanfic with no observable conflict at all could be an exercise in perfecting character voice as the canon characters enjoy a night of pizza and witty banter.

Every bit of writing you play with — every idea, every character, every notion — teaches you something. And, as with most learning, you start with some text or goal or idea outside yourself to work on. 

You give yourself something to work toward.

I wish I could say it’s surprising that “let people enjoy writing and learning how to write” has to be argued for, or that another writer would cheerfully dunk on others for believing something so decent and mundane. But, if there’s anything writing reminds us of time and again, it’s that everyone wants an audience. It would be nice if certain writers didn’t decide setting themselves on fire was the best way to get one. 

Well. Everyone needs a hobby, I guess.