Here’s a confession. I used to write fanfiction. For the one person reading this that doesn’t know what that is, it’s when an author writes a story set in another (usually successful) author’s universe. There’s a slew of “fanfics” out there on the Internet from all sorts of people, and there is a huge community that reads and creates new stories in existing worlds with characters they already love.
My fanfic wasn’t my first foray into writing (that’s a trilogy of novels that will never be published because they’re terribly cliche) but it was certainly my most successful. Unsatisfied with the vague ending of the excellent Square RPG Final Fantasy 7, I wrote a sweeping 70,000 word novel that took place shortly after the game’s closing cutscene. It wrapped up loose plot threads, introduced new threads and a new villain, and continued the epic journey Square started in a way I found fun.
Then it turned out people actually liked it.
After it was hosted on RPGamer (a popular site for many fan creations, including fanfiction) the results were encouraging. At least 400 people (if not more) tossed me e-mails telling me how much they had enjoyed my story, made encouraging comments on plot points and characters they liked, and also gave me the best feedback a writer can ask for, which was simply “I enjoyed reading this”.
Then administrators of other sites started asking if they could host my fanfic, and off it went around the Internet. The positive response to that first fanfic was what convinced me to seriously tackle an original novel set in a universe of my own design. It’s what inspired the first draft (one of eight) of my first published fantasy novel. I learned a great deal about the writing process by writing that single fanfic.
Was it my best work? Absolutely not. I was still learning to be a writer and continue to learn to this day. But my desire to see Final Fantasy 7 continue motivated me to create a complex story with interwoven plot lines, a diverse cast, an interesting villain, enjoyable action, and a satisfying conclusion.
If the experienced developers and writers at Square hadn’t first produced the world, characters, and plot, I’d never have written that fanfic, nor would I have had that terrific opportunity to learn and improve as a writer. Square generously provided me with a fully realized world and well-developed characters so I could concentrate on the basics. Learning to tell a good story.
Here’s the parallel. My entry into my career as a professional game designer mirrors my foray into fanfiction. My first real game design experience (what most refer to as “modding”) was for LucasArt’s original X-Wing. I got an editor (XMB) off my local BBS and created a brand new 12 mission campaign for the game. I uploaded it to that same BBS. Three people downloaded it and thought it was awesome.
My brand new X-Wing campaign was, essentially, X-Wing “fanfiction” created in its game engine. LucasArts gave me a fully realized world with existing game mechanics, enemies with scriptable AI, and a good variety of existing mission objectives, and all I had to do was design and script my missions. From there I branched out to build new content for Doom and Neverwinter Nights and Quake and dozens more games, improving with each new project. Each experience allowed me to further hone my skills until I reached the level of a professional game developer and, eventually, shipped my first AAA title.
Could I, as a newbie developer, have created a new X-Wing campaign if I’d had to program a graphics and physics engine from scratch, script the AI, design the UI, and model the ship assets in 3D? Absolutely not. I simply didn’t know enough yet to pull that off but that didn’t matter. XMB enabled me to take an existing engine with game mechanics designed by experienced developers and simply learn “how to tell a good story”.
In the same vein, fanfiction is the modding of the writing world. Just like people who play X-Wing, or Doom, or Skyrim, become inspired to create their own content (new textures, new missions, and even new game mechanics) people who write stories set in the worlds of Harry Potter or Westeros or Pern are modding books. They are learning to be writers like modders learn to be game developers, by building on the work of experienced writers and learning one skill at a time. We should let new authors do that and even encourage them.
When a new author writes fanfiction, the groundwork for their story is already complete. The barrier to entry is low. A talented and experienced author (who has spent years honing their craft) has created a world, characters, and mechanics that are clear and compelling. New authors can focus on whatever skill they want to develop – writing dialogue, creating interesting situations, or building on existing ideas with new ones – in an existing playground. They don’t have to make a game engine from scratch.
Writing a good novel is hard, and learning to do everything at once (worldbuilding, characterization, dialogue, mechanics, and everything else) is a daunting task. It’s much easier to build on a solid foundation and learn all the different elements of professional writing at your own pace. This is why I think even prominent authors should tolerate fanfiction written in their worlds by their fans, even if they (understandably) don’t read it.
The benefit of inspiring more people to write and giving them a venue to do so outweighs any perceived drawbacks of having fanfiction on the Internet. Fanfics, like game mods, are created by fans, shared among fans, and completely free ways to inspire new authors. Just like we encourage prospective game developers to mod games, we should encourage prospective authors to write fanfiction.
They’ll get better with our help. They’ll use the starting point we created to learn and grow as writers. If we’re lucky, the fanfic writers of today will become the authors of exciting original worlds tomorrow.