I’m going to first say that not all fanfiction is horrible, or even made to give an already established world a badly done comb-over; in fact, I know of several people who not only enjoy reading fanfiction, but writing it, as well. Fanfiction is a way for someone to express their writing skills in a safe, established environment without having to worry about creating too much original work such as world-building. For some young (in terms of length of time writing, not age) writers, fanfiction is the best way to hone their skills, getting some feedback from readers who both do and do not know the source material well. It’s good practice for the world of publishing as a whole, with the minor fact that it doesn’t deal with quite so much institutional bureaucracy as a publishing company does. More to the point, I have written fanfiction.
In the past I’ve been part of a few online fan organizations devoted to Star Wars, and throughout my time with nearly each of them, I would write stories. Whereas a lot of fanfiction revolves around established characters from the source material, most of mine were about original characters of either my own or someone else’s creation, thus making a somewhat unique, yet familiar, setting. There were times when I used established characters, but they were for very minor roles, so as not to draw attention away from the “main” characters of my stories. I feel that this is the best way to create fanfiction: write from the perspective of the unknown, the unseen, the unheard individuals in the established continuity.
For every good piece of fanfiction out there, there are loads more that are just bad to the point where I want to gauge my eyes out. It’s not so much that I have a problem with most of the plots or ideas behind a story, but it’s the execution that really brings it down for me. A story can have such a great plot, with great characters—established or original—but if it isn’t told in a way that makes sense, it just doesn’t catch my attention. It’s rather sad, to be honest, to see such great ideas go down because of how a person chose to write them.
And, let us not forget the ever popular pairing of unlikely characters for the sake of shock value. I have no problems with shock value, it can be a wonderful tool, but it also needs to be believable; you cannot take two characters that are diametrically opposite of one another in terms of personalities and have conflicting experiences with one another and suddenly turn them into a lovey-dovey couple. It just does not make sense to me, and if it doesn’t make sense, then it doesn’t tell a good story.
The (Somehow) Published
The hardest aspect of having fanfiction is getting it published legitimately. Because of fair use laws, most stories cannot be published with the intention of acquiring profit—that’s why such sites as FanFiction.Net can exist without being prosecuted for their contents—but there is one way to get around those laws: get the approval of the copyright holder. It’s not an easy thing to do and usually it is the copyright holder who asks the writers to create such stories. In fact, this is how large universes such as Star Trek and Star Wars work. Authors are asked to contribute to the whole. Some might argue that this isn’t really fanfiction, but rather a professional establishment; however, I want to point out something concerning that. Have you read all of the Trek and Wars books that are out there? I haven’t and I’m a rather large fan of both, but the one thing I have observed is that there are several novels and short stories that are legitimately published in both franchises that just plain suck.
There are only a handful of books within the Star Wars Expanded Universe that I truly enjoy, with several more being an “okay” read, and with a few more being at the bottom of the pile with writing skills that make me want to cringe. In comparison, the vast majority of the Trek books, which don’t interconnect like the EU does, are just outright horrible, with only a few—mostly written by Peter David—grabbing my literary attention. The point I’m trying to make is this: I’ve read several fanfiction stories that are superior in storytelling and characterization than those that have been published under these two science fiction giants. Fanfiction can be, and is, published for the reading masses, but that doesn’t make them worse—or better—than the ones on the Internet.
So, if you’re a fanfiction writer—and you’d be surprised how many of us have written such things in the past—try to remember that it shouldn’t be considered a means to an end. Use your pieces as a way to hone your skills for when you want to write something original. We need more good writers in the world.