Fan fiction: Maligned. Misunderstood. Mighty beneficial.

To coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Tomb Raider franchise, @Lady_Scion has scheduled a different #20Croft celebration every month throughout 2016. These Twitter-centred mini-events have been created in collaboration with other fans and fansite owners. Check out the full #20Croft calendar here

April’s #20Croft focus is Tomb Raider fan fiction, and this post was written specifically for it.


Fan fiction, or the just as commonly used fanfic, is a barbed topic. Apologies to the red-haired step-children out there, but that’s exactly what fan fiction is – the shamed, frequently ignored sibling in the family of fan creative outputs.

AU where Lara and her dad are fanfic writers, not archaeologists. "They mocked my father" still holds.
Fan fiction can be defined most simply as stories written by fans about their favourite characters. It typically explores barely touched (or untouched) ideas and themes. It can go so far as to continue official plotlines cut frustratingly short. Thirteen years on, members of the Tomb Raider fandom are still brooding over the question “What could have been?” and producing Kurtis Trent team-up tales that remedy Angel of Darkness’s abandoned cliffhanger of an ending.

Fan fiction is the text equivalent of fan art or fan videos – those other branches of unofficial creation that stem from passion, and are made with no intention of profit. However, unlike those other two branches, fan fiction is rarely acknowledged by higher ups. And frequently dismissed with a jeer.

Authors can’t read fan fiction, for obvious plagiarism reasons. Some creators downright disapprove, for copyright reasons. I’d bet that media companies don’t like the challenge fanfic poses to their authorised creations (of course words can be that powerful), but they can’t be bothered to summon their legal teams if others aren’t making money off their property and/or severely ruining its carefully managed reputation.

Square Enix bringing out the big guns to protect their intellectual property.
Now there are some exceptions. In late 2015, Mark Millar kicked off a Talent Search, where aspiring comic writers could submit tales based on Millarworld characters. If selected, these scripts would be paid for, and turned into a comic to appear in the 2016 Millarworld annual. In this case, fan fiction actually resulted in a professional credit for talented enthusiasts.

However, as already noted, this is not the norm.

If we use the Tomb Raider fandom as an example, to date the official franchise Tumblr has never reblogged a single piece of fan fiction. Fan Art Fridays, Croft Couture cosplay and fan films are celebrated; fan fiction has never made the cut.

Why is that? Has none of it ever been good enough? Is it too difficult for fanfic to fulfil all the family-safe submission requirements? Does it inevitably always clash with canon in some way, putting Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix in a position where they can't show support for alternate creative visions in case they confuse fans? Hell, has anyone even bothered to submit fan fiction to the site?

Alternatively, is it simply a case of a page of text lacking the visual appeal and rapid, ease of digestion of photos and video?

Regardless, it’s not a stretch to say that in general fan fiction isn’t well-received. Its readers and writers know otherwise, but general perception seems to be that fanfic is appallingly written. Some sites persist in ferreting out the “worst” passages to mock. Alternatively, the pastime is viewed as just a thinly veiled excuse to produce smut.

Thirteen years down the line and still with the groping at gunpoint. Image Source: Alex Croft25
It’s worth mentioning at this point that fan fiction is a predominantly female form of creative expression. Gender breakdowns vary by fandom, but it’s estimated that around 90-95% of fanfic writers are women. This in turn raises a feminist theory that because fan fiction is female creative expression, it is considered a “lesser” field, subject to more ridicule than respect. In much the same way, movies that deal with “women’s issues” typically are scorned, and receive tepid reviews by default. It’s socially acceptable to mock these efforts as inferior. Using movies as examples again, watch every time an actress turns director: it becomes practically a sport among critics to see who can produce the most poetically worded contempt.

But I digress. I do believe that attitudes are changing. Slowly. For example, some hugely successful authors are proudly rising up from the ranks of fan fiction and/or speaking positively about the practice.

In addition, the Scribe Awards are growing in prestige. This board honours the best in tie-in fiction. Despite a long tradition, tie-in books – based on movies, video games and TV series – have had a weak reputation in the literary scene. The attitude is that only bad writers create stories using pre-existing characters and worlds, instead of generating their own work. But hey, what is tie-in fiction other than officially sanctioned fanfic?

(Although, for the record, tie-in writers are almost never plucked from fandoms; to land a job you pretty much need to be an established professional wordsmith with an agent promoting you).

Officially sanctioned fanfic... Can’t the same be said for most comics and TV series too? Writers are almost always coming on board to create stories for already iconic characters. They’re putting their unique spin on creations that didn’t start with them – and they're receiving praise if their vision is a success. Look at someone like Gail Simone, who has built a reputation on the reinvigoration of decades-old comic franchises like Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Red Sonja.

The realisation seems to be setting in that something doesn't have to be wholly created from scratch to be really good.

"Alexander and Hephaestion? I ship it.".
Hopefully some of this goodwill rubs off on fan fiction. I say this, of course, as someone with a vested interested in the practice. I count my first book as a novel-length piece of fanfic. And nobody who has put hours and hours of work into something (three years in my case) wants to be the butt of jokes because of that activity.

I firmly believe that fan fiction, as misunderstood and maligned as it is, has a lot to teach writers. Let’s look at those lessons now.

Writing is writing
Personally, I write fan fiction to relax. I find it a great form of stress relief. I can disappear for hours while essentially playing dolls with my favourite characters.

On a more serious, professionally developmental, note, fanfic is a great way to get creative juices – and the words in general – flowing. Writing for me is something I need to do continually. If I take a break for whatever reason, getting back into it is a struggle. I compare it to a wheel that has started to rust at the axle. Writing fanfic helps me to get the wheel revolving again, shed the rust and build up a good, reliable speed. Once it starts spinning, everything comes far more easily. Even ideas.

Big wheel keep on turning. Writer brain keep on learning.
Fan fiction can be to writers what a quick sketch or doodle is to artists: a creative warm-up. It’s fun and (should be) low stress. Outputting original fiction can feel painful at times. It’s easy to become paralysed by the placement of a comma because everything you put down onto the page seems so monumentally important.

This isn’t to say that fan fiction isn’t important, but it's like building a model ship with an assembly kit as opposed to a piece of wood and a chisel. The materials are all there. As a fan you already know the characters and the world they inhabit. You don’t need to create all that from scratch. You can simply concentrate on telling an engaging story while accurately conveying the canonical voice of the characters.

You can also try out different story structures, narrative voices and general styles. It isn’t the end of the world if you discover something doesn’t work for you. Move on to the next story and try something new. With fan fiction it’s a lot easier to experiment.

Think of producing fanfic as a focused workout for fiction writers. It’s an arms and shoulders day. You’re developing your technical writing skills, as well as the absolutely crucial quality of commitment. You won’t get anywhere without that.

Practice in private and see improvement in leaps and bounds.
Never forget that any writing practice is beneficial. This is true whether you have grander professional ambitions or simply write fanfic as a highly enjoyable hobby.

For the record, I know many non-English speakers who treat fan fiction as an effective way to improve their language skills. This is true whether they are reading, or writing themselves.

Continual feedback
Fan fiction is not only good writing practice but unlike conventional fiction writing, you have feedback on tap.

You write your story, you upload it to, Archive of Our Own or one of the other fic repositories, and people can post their reviews. Even before that, you can reach out to a community of sharp-eyed beta readers to check your work before you release it into the online wilds. It’s incredibly helpful and enlightening.

Personally I think that if anyone is going to become stuck in writing fan fiction, and never progress to creating their own original stories, it’s for this reason. Once the stream starts (and it may take time to win some vocal readers, I’m warning you now), feedback can be addictive. You may find that the only thing motivating you to keep writing is reader responses, and “harassment” about when they can expect the next chapter. The latter may be irritating at times but it still works – presenting you with “deadlines” to meet.

"So when can we expect the next update?"
Now obviously writing your own stories is a far more solitary affair. If you’re working on a novel, it’s going to be an even longer time before you can show the world something. The trick then, if you need feedback to keep yourself motivated, is to enlist a couple of trustworthy readers to beta that in-progress book for you. Let them play the role of a fanfic reader community.

Just keep their number small, because you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with comments. Too many cooks and all that can wreck your self-confidence, making you second-guess every chosen word. You certainly don’t want that. Also, it's helpful to give your chosen betas focus guidelines like “Please look especially at the dialogue in this chapter. I’m not very happy with it. Does the conversation order make sense? Is the flow and progression credible?”

Winning readers
Right, say you write your first novel and slap it down in front of people – why should they pick it up? You’re an unknown as far as they’re concerned. Untested. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some “early adopters” (to use marketing speak) of your work out there? People eager to read what you have to offer? Well, this is where fan fiction comes in.

Writing fanfic is a great way to develop a loyal reader base. If people like your style, your grasp of character, plot and pacing, maybe you can earn some fans of your own, who will migrate with you from project to project. There may not be a lot of them, but it’s still reassuring and confidence-building to know that when you attempt your own original work, there are actually people out there who are eager for it; waiting with money in hand. Fan fiction can result in your own pre-existing readership who will potentially spread the word about your work. If you are going the self-publishing route, this becomes crucial.

Reader squad goals.
On this point, though, I believe there are two things to bear in mind.

A) Don’t hide behind online anonymity too much. If you are writing your fan fiction under a pen name, or nick, let people know your real name at some point, perhaps via your blog. Have a presence outside of your author listing on, Archive of Our Own, or whatever site you’re uploading your work to. You want readers to make that real name association because, of course, you’re not going to publish as Larasbootynomnomnom.

B) Consider the link between your fanfic and your original work. If people love you for your high-octane, galaxy-bounding Mass Effect fics, they might not necessarily be enamoured with your first book about a brutal custody battle set against a backdrop of grimy reality. Some may disagree with me here but I believe, at least to begin with, you should consider your genre carefully if you want your existing audience to follow. Never give readers exactly what they (say they) want. However, you should be cognisant of their expectations.

Fan fiction could lead to a bestseller
Hey, it’s a longshot, but it worked for EL James. Let’s ignore the quality of her writing for a moment and just acknowledge that the woman took a saucy piece of Twilight fan fiction, reskinned it, gave it a slight plot tweaking, and produced the global publishing phenomenon that’s the Fifty Shades trilogy.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a novel-length piece of fanfic and reworking it to create your own original work. Hell, you’ve done a large percentage of the grunt work already.

In addition, it’s worth remembering that you can use fan fiction as a writing sample. Turn that story into a comic script for example, and you have a something perfectly respectable to show your capabilities to an editor.

Maybe don't read it with your Mum.
In conclusion...
The biggest downside of writing fan fiction, as far as I can see it, is that it can become a comfort zone that you never venture from. If you’re writing fanfic solely for fun, that’s no problem. If you want to pursue writing more seriously, at some point you’ll have to assess the amount of time you commit to the activity.

As many fantastic fic ideas that you have, you’ll have to cherry pick which ones you actually write – as much as it aches to do so. Hours in the day are limited, and you absolutely have to create your own characters and worlds to develop your reputation. Fan fiction won’t seamlessly transition into paid writing work. As yet.

However, don’t for one second accept the notion that creating fan fiction is a worthless time sink. We’re not quite at the stage of starting a meeting or letter to an agent with “Look, I’ve written X pieces of well-received fanfic.” However, when you’re writing, you’re honing vital technical skills while building both a fan base and portfolio. That is professionally sensible and market-conscious thinking that I believe will stand you in good stead no matter how far you take things.

If you need proof of this, you can find one such example in the relatively small Tomb Raider fanfic community. After years of writing stories in the Legend and Reboot universes, Asynca, AKA AE Dooland, took the step to write and self-publish her own novels. Her success story will appear in the upcoming official 20 Years of Tomb Raider book.

So it is possible. If you’re been flirting with the idea of fic writing, give it a go. You can only grow from the experience. And like Lara, you may be surprised where that experience takes you.

"Sam and I did WHAT?!"


Cassey Toi said…
Great post :)

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