Honing Your Craft by Writing Fanfiction
I was nine or ten years old when I became obsessed with Sailor Moon, a popular Japanese anime series about a girl who uses the powers of the moon to save the earth from forces of evil. After watching the first three seasons and reading the original graphic novels, I realized only a fraction of the Sailor Moon story was available in English. The rest, in Japanese, hadn’t been translated yet. Online searches led me to fanfic sites where like-minded enthusiasts had written stories of what they wanted to happen to Serena and Darien (the main character and her love interest) after Season 3. After poring over their stories, I started to write my own, and on a whim, I posted them on the now defunct ASMR, better known as A Sailor Moon Romance.
I didn’t know it yet, but writing and posting Sailor Moon fanfiction was probably the best practice I could have given myself as an aspiring writer. I’d basically been given cheat sheets on worldbuilding and character analysis, with an established universe to draw upon, and characters that I knew intimately and adored. Most importantly, through writing fanfiction, I learned how to develop character and how to write with voice.
People often say voice is the most elusive, but also the most important thing about writing. I agree: a good narrative voice is what gets me to invest my time from one page to the next. Writing fanfiction is a great place to start practicing.
Pick a fandom you love. It can be anything: a movie, a TV series, a book, a comic, a video game. Now, pick your favorite character. Picture what they look like, how they walk, what tics they have (Aladdin rubs the back of his head when he’s feeling embarrassed, Ariel chews on her lip when she’s nervous), and how they talk (Scarlett O’Hara likes to say “fiddle dee dee” when she thinks something is nonsense, and Holden Caulfield tends to tack on “and all” to his sentences). Think about their motivations (Scarlett will do anything to save her home, Tara), their relationships, and conflicts. The creators of these characters gave us a roadmap to start off with, but the beauty of fanfiction is we get to make these characters our own.
As an exercise, write about something mundane, like getting up for school, but in the voice of the character you’ve chosen. But before you start writing, put yourself in your character’s shoes.
For instance, Sailor Moon is always late for everything, and often sleeps through her alarm and doesn’t wake up until her cat Luna pounces on her stomach. But as she gets up, maybe she begs Luna to let her sleep in since she’s been out late the previous night fighting demons—which is surely more important than school, right?
As an example, I rewrote Sailor Moon and her friends as mermaids, and the anime’s original setting in Tokyo became an underwater kingdom. You don’t have to change yours that much, or you can change it even more. But I’m a big believer in the saying that constraints breed creativity (Orson Welles is reputed to have said “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations”), and for me when I write fanfiction, I strive for the work to be recognizable, but original, to a reader familiar with the fandom.
Without further ado, if you’re not already convinced, here are a few more reasons to write fanfiction:
- Writing fanfiction allows you to dabble with different voices. You can rewrite Harry Potter from Voldemort’s point of view (an excellent way to develop your skill at writing antagonists while getting a feel for a dark narrative voice). Perhaps an alternate reality adventure where the Star Wars characters are thrust into a Jane Austen world (and you have to make Han Solo speak with a fancy English accent). The possibilities are endless.
- Mimicking is a great way to learn style. I’m a new mom, and I’ve noticed that my baby has started mimicking the sounds my husband and I make in her efforts to learn language. We learn by imitating what we’re familiar with. By paying attention to how your favorite characters speak and think, and then by trying to put that on the page, we learn about how to infuse character and voice into our writing.
- Writing fanfiction gives you more confidence to develop your own voice. Learning to write creatively is like learning a language. We get shy when we’re starting out, because we know we’re novices and we don’t want to embarrass ourselves. By borrowing a world and characters we’re familiar with, we can practice writing with something familiar and spot our own weaknesses better. A simple “that doesn’t seem like something such-and-such would do” is an incredibly valuable realization when it comes to character building, because it forces you to think, “what would such-and-such do? And how can I write that better?”
- Take advantage of the community. When I first started posting my stories, a chapter at a time, I was floored by how supportive and encouraging the community was. Even a simple note like “hey, I liked your story” meant the world to me, and kept me going even when I was starting to lose faith in my writing.
- Fanfiction makes writing fun. This is probably the most important. The best writing practice is simply … writing, and you’re more likely to do it if it’s fun. So go forth and write!