Why I Read and Write Fanfiction

(Spoiler for Sons of Anarchy, S5)

I had a conversation yesterday with a fellow creative-type friend, who asked me why I write fanfiction instead of original fiction. He himself is a devoted fan of many of the same things I adore—including Sons of Anarchy—but he does not engage in the fandoms, certainly not to the extent I do.

I’ve been thinking about that question a lot now. Why fanfic?

My answer to my friend’s question is multivalent—and gets more layered the longer I think. First, I don’t write fanfic “instead” of writing original fiction. I write both. It feels odd to make that claim because, though I’ve done an enormous amount of writing in my life, I gave up writing fiction years ago, convinced—utterly convinced—that I was incapable of it. Now I know I was wrong, and my desire to write fiction has become, well, overwhelming. Fanfic is how I learned I could do it.

There are several reasons fanfic appeals to me. I started out, as I think most of us did, as a reader. During series hiatuses (I’m a huge Whedon fan), or after a series ended, or when a book or video game I loved was over, I wanted more. Fanfic fills that void, and some of it does so brilliantly.

Then there’s the instances when a series let me down, when I was dissatisfied with the arc of a beloved character, or with the way the plot had turned. Then I would turn to fanfic to find directions for characters and plots I found more satisfying.

In fact, it was a sort of crisis-level unhappiness with a development in a beloved series that finally pushed me over my certainty that I couldn’t write fiction and made me try. (And here’s the spoiler). When Opie was killed inSons of Anarchy, I mourned hard. Really hard. And I was pissed. I don’t think Kurt Sutter, the series creator, showrunner, and main writer, earned that death. It felt to me like Opie was sacrificed to Jax’s story without sufficient respect for Opie’s own really rich and deep story. It felt like an act of expediency and shock value rather than an integral movement in a complex story arc.

I won’t hold forth more about that, but I immediately turned to fanfic to assuage my sense of loss. But nothing I read met my own need. So I started writing. I wrote for a long time without even telling anyone I was writing, much less putting it online for strangers to read. Eventually, though, I started to realize that maybe I had a pretty interesting story, so I posted it. And a new obsession was born.

As an anonymous reader of fanfic for years, I’d really been missing out. Because writing—and this might well be a phenomenon specific to fanfic itself—is about the community most of all. Fanfic writers and readers are fans first. We share the deep bond  of our love for a series, book, movie, game, etc., a love that transcends the boundaries of the original work. We want more, we need more. Our devotion to the characters—especially the characters—is profound. Sharing it, we bond to each other as well. It’s my experience that no one gets me like fans in my fandoms get me. And of those, the fanfic writers get each other best of all.

So, it’s first about community. Our sense of community with the world of the fandom, with the characters, and with each other. It’s also, though, for us writers, about the thrill and satisfaction of our own creative expression. For me, writing fanfic is more satisfying, so far, than writing original fiction. I’ve been thinking about why that is. And I think it has to do with solving thepuzzle.

The hardest thing about writing original fiction, and I don’t think this is unique to me, is world-building. Creating something from nothing and giving it shape, depth, and color. Fanfic is often thought of as “training wheels” for original fiction—practice—because the world is already built. Thinking about it like that, the heavy lifting is done for us fanfic writers. And I think there’s rather a lot of truth in that view.

But here’s the thing. When a writer creates an original world and original characters, the only limits on that creation are the writer’s own. If a writer creates a character and then has that character do something “OOC” (Out Of Character), well, the writer has the option to go back and change the characterization to fit the action, if she so chooses.

Fanfic writers don’t have that luxury. Sure, we can do whatever we want with the characters we’re working with—we’re all just playing around, this is an amateur gig—so if an SOAFF writer wants Happy to be a touchy-feely over-sharer, hey—go for it. It’s your fantasy. But if you want to write a story and characters which are true to the source world, then the first thing you need to do is know, really know that world, those characters. Once you know them, then you can find the sliver of insight which helps you send them on a path you choose, and do so in a way that has integrity—and that your readers appreciate.

If you want a character who is notorious for his coldhearted detachment and ruthless brutality (um, Happy, looking at you again, buddy) to become a devoted husband and father, you better earn that shit. Your readers will certainly call you out if you don’t. And that’s the part that I find most enjoyable and rewarding. I write bad boy romance of the, um, grown-up variety. Figuring out what kind of woman would be any particular Son’s equal, and figuring out how to earn an honest relationship between them—that’s hard work. And more fun than I have words to describe.

When I write original fiction, my characters are entirely my own, and infinitely adaptable to my narrative needs. Sounds great, but it’s actually, for me, constraining. It’s not as much fun to find the hook, because I don’t have to look very far.

I find the limits of the source material, and of the fan-readers’ often encyclopedic knowledge thereof, to be, ironically, freeing. Knowing that I’ve earned the development of my characters’ relationship and kept the source character true to his canon? That’s a rush and a half. The best review I can get is that my source character, and my SOA world, is dead on.

I have learned in a few short months that I’m a decent writer. It’s been a transformative experience, and, yes, I have hopes that I might be able to turn my original stuff into something people might pay to read. We’ll see.

Is fanfic training wheels? I don’t know. Maybe. But the bike is a Dyna fucking Super Glide.