Years ago, when discussing fan fiction, I would make the analogy that it’s like babysitting your neighbors’ kids: You get to practice with these characters for a few hours, see what it’s like, and then give them back. In more recent days, I’m coming to see a flaw to that logic. Because no two children are alike. Ergo, borrowing Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s adorable twins for a few hours and taking them out for ice cream may not exactly prepare you for when you bring forth the Bad Seed, who only knows the word “no!” and gains great glee from seeing you accessorize with mashed peas.
Writing fan fiction does not necessarily prepare you to build your own stories from the ground up, because — to use another metaphor — you’re renting a furnished apartment, walking around in rooms someone else has already designed. There’s only so much you can do with those walls…even if you’re writing a coffeeshop AU (alternate universe) or setting The Avengers in high school. You’re constrained, you learn to write within certain confines and your authorial voice takes on a certain tone as a result. It’s, dare I say it, almost like coming out of a college creative writing program where everybody expects you to write literary fiction and be as obscure and artsy as possible. There’s a…sameness, not necessarily in content or theme, but in structure and in how fic writers handle characters.
When you write fanfic, you assume your audience knows your characters already. So, invariably, the “getting to know you” portion of events is excised. Physical description, emotional back story…a lot of it hits the cutting room floor, because the TV/book/movie canon covered that territory already and fic is there to fill in the cracks. And I’ve found that, when I’m writing original fiction, I fall into a similar trap. I keep things in my head that should be on the page. As though the character’s past was Season One and my story is set in Season Three. Writing as if your reader knows your cast already isn’t a deal-breaker, by any means, but it can often distance people who aren’t used to reading a story built that way.
I feel like there’s a pattern that’s starting to emerge, where you can see, clearly delineated, writers and readers who come from Fandom and those that don’t. There’s an echo in stories that makes you wonder, “Did this start out as fan fiction?” even when it’s not as talked about as E.L. James’ infamous opus, or as in-your-face with its pop culture ties — yes, City of Bones and Anna Dressed in Blood, I’m looking at you. I honestly haven’t the faintest clue if Kendare Blake has written Buffy and Supernatural fic, but her debut page-turner does read like she comes from a generation of fan fiction writers. Those markers are stamped all over her story. Even setting aside characters named Cas, Anna, Chase and Will Rosenberg, ADiB feels like well-written AU fanfic. Something you’d get in a cross-fandom fic exchange like Yuletide. And, make no mistake, there is some damn good fanfic out there. Better than a lot of original fiction that gets published. But it’s different. It’s written differently and read differently as well.
Certainly, there is a large segment of the general reading audience that has responded to fiction structured by the fannish experience. Hi, hello, The Book Formerly Known As “Master of the Universe.” And there are quite a few authors who have made a smooth transition from writing fan fiction to going pro, with their audiences none the wiser…opening the doors for others to try and do the same. But are we shortchanging ourselves as writers when we make that jump? Are we skipping steps in our narratives, because we’ve gone to a different writing school? Or are we just changing the paradigm for genre fiction as a whole? As Fandom becomes more and more mainstream, will it actively impact how stories are told and consumed in the future?
When writers are upgrading from our rental to our very first house, what are we taking with us, and what are we leaving behind?