The great artist
How does a great painter begin?
As a person who knows nothing. He tries, he experiments, he is happy at first to express himself, and then he realizes that what he is making is crap.
What does the painter do next?
He copies. He finds something that he likes and he makes something that looks as like it as he can. By doing so, he learns the elements of light and shadow, composition, and theme. He might then hesitantly try to change something small, like the pallet. Then he will become more brave and try newer things until he makes something that is different enough to be called a unique vision.
What if the painter began to copy a painting and someone said, NO! Don’t copy that. Make original works or nothing. Most people would choose nothing. That, or they would paint the copies in secret.
Why this analogy?
Because “Why don’t you write something original” is the most commonly heard argument against fanfiction. I often read arguments against fanfiction that basically boil down to, “Why are you wasting your talent writing poor copies of someone else’s genius when you could be filling the world with masterpieces of your own?”
Well, the truth is, masterpieces take time. They take skill. A writer isn’t born. She is made.
In order to learn, we need safe spaces. Places where we can play. The world of art is often a critical world. It finds fault with everything we do. How can we then nurture a creative soul?
The progression of a writer
This is the progression of a fan fiction writer. They begin by starting a story. They start with a character or a plot. They start with a story that they know and then they change it. When I was starting, I used fairy tales. I wrote (almost) every version of little red riding hood that you could imagine.
Why write a story that has already been written? Red riding hood has existed for a long time. People know the story, there is nothing new about it, so why?
Because Little red riding hood has a beginning and an end. It has characters that everyone knows. It has a series of plot steps that are easily recognizable. How do I begin the story? I know immediately.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl with a red hooded cape who went for a walk in the woods to visit her grandmother.
Is that the only way to begin it? No, but by having a familiar beginning, I have a place to start. I do not fear the empty screen or the blank sheet of paper. I know where I must begin, and it is a good start, a start that I have read, a start that I would continue to read.
If I want to be fancy, I could change the words or the setting to make it sound more atmospheric or interesting.
Lost in the distant past among the windblown shores of tribal memory, lost among the tales of giants and witches living in the great Germanic forests of old now long forgotten, lies the terrifying tale of Red Riding Hood, a child who left the safety of her village one day to enter the dark and mysterious forest in order to visit her grandmother. One might wonder why her grandmother would live in such an eldrich and dangerous place. Perhaps the place that she lived was once was more tame, but the forest grew to engulf it and the woman was unwilling to leave her cosy cabin for the safety of the closely huddled huts of the town. Perhaps the old woman was herself a witch, living outside for the freedom of it, to perform spells without the prying eyes and judgment of the low and common villains. We may never know. All that we do know is that this was no simple trek in the woods, and a dark and evil fate was to befall the girl and her grandmother among those shadowy and haunted oaks.
Both of these writings are fanfiction, stories based upon a previous work, stories that borrow characters from that other work.
Are they derivative?
Are they worth reading?
That is for you to decide.
Are they worth writing?
Absolutely. Because even if no one but the author reads them, she learns from them. She learns what she likes. She learns what she can and cannot do. The writer is the first reader. The writer first writes for herself. Then, if she is brave enough, she can put her work before others. In this way, the writer learns how to write,
What does the writer get from fan fiction that they do not get from original fiction?
A box. A pattern that is known.
Readers who know the story can say, “I like what you did with the story”, or “It isn’t as scary if you substitute an elephant for the wolf”. Even though the work is derivative, it is still a new creation. It is still crafted by hand. It is still an original work.
Writing fanfiction is like knitting a sweater from a pattern. The pattern gives a person the certainty that they will end up with something that will at least look like what they were expecting to make. Yes it may be puffy in spots and uneven, but in the end you can still wear it.
A fanfiction story may borrow elements of plot and dialog. It may have the same characters as the parent work, but by allowing the author to make small changes here and there, it teaches them what is important in a story and helps them improve their writing.
Before you criticize a work of fanfiction ask yourself, “Could I have written something better?” and if the answer is yes, then sit down and write it.