Full disclosure: I don’t write much fan fiction. I have a “Legend of Zelda” fanfic I wrote in high school that’s probably sitting on a forum somewhere. I have a “Centurions” story scrawled out in one of my notebooks. Beyond that, I don’t actually publish any fan fictions (though I know several writers who do). But I do use it – in my own way – to benefit my writing process.
The pros and cons of fan fiction are pretty obvious. I think fan fiction makes for excellent practice – you already have the setting, characters and rules of your world, and many times you have passionate communities willing to give you feedback. There’s even limited opportunities for publishing, like Amazon’s Kindle Worlds. On the other hand, some authors don’t take kindly to fan fiction, especially when the line between fan creation and plagiarism is blurred (like when it’s published). Most importantly, you could just as easily be developing your own project instead of unofficially writing in another author’s world.
When I say I don’t write fan fiction, what I mean is I don’t write it down physically. But I do think about it a lot. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to tell myself stories. So that’s just what I do. I think about stories I’m probably never going to tell anyone. If I’ve feeling particularly inspired, I might write some of them down in a notebook, but that’s rare. Not writing these stories down leaves me free to mash up to the characters, rules and conventions of the world as much as I want. “The Incredibles” meets “Arkham Knight”? Done. “Sailor Moon” meets “The Clone Wars”? Go.
Some of these stories I muse about for a day or two and move on to something else. But there are some stories I keep coming back to, and those are the stories I find myself analyzing the most. I look at what’s working in that story in particular, and then I boil it down until I find the bones of the story. A story’s bones represent the narrative in its most basic form, one which transcends genre and convention.
Ultimately, my mental fan fiction represents a testing ground for my ideas. Once I’ve found the ideas in their most basic form, everything else is window dressing. After the idea is isolated, I can start weaving it until a more original narrative. For me, fan fiction isn’t a shortcut to a less original end – instead it’s a means to an end in a search for quality ideas in fiction.