RPGs (either pen-and-paper or online) and fanfiction are hardly the greatest sources of literature available, and have suitable reputations among the literary establishment for being exactly the opposite. You can easily find some of the worst writing you have ever seen among either community, and without much effort. The vast majority of role-playing stories, forum roleplay, or fanfiction writing tends to be written by young adolescents playing at writing stories.
There is of course some excellent fanfiction to be found, and a number of authors such as Cassandra Clare and Naomi Novik began as fanfiction writers. I’m sure there are more that just don’t admit to it. I’ve written my own share of fanfiction here and there and actively roleplay on a number of games.
I’ve always thought that both have a great potential for being good educational resources for aspiring writers: both as a way to practice by dabbling in a universe not your own and without pressure, and as examples of what not to do.
So here’s a few lessons taken from these incredibly humble proving grounds:
- The Character’s the Thing:
- While a decent plot is essential, a good character is what people will remember first and foremost, and really good characters can keep readers interested even at points when the plot itself may be a bit weak. Good, believable, multi-dimensional characters, much more than plot, can be the foundation-stone of your story and can hold it up on their shoulders when it gets weak.
- Avoid the dreaded and despised Mary Sue! A Mary Sue (or sometimes Gary Stu/Marty Stu for male characters) is usually a self-insertion, but a self-insertion of the way the writer wishes he or she really was. Perfect, popular, loved by all of the other characters in the story, capable of solving every problem, and with no faults whatsoever. Where a good character can carry a weak story, the Mary Sue will send even good stories crashing to the ground.
- Self insertions can work, if the character is believable and three-dimensional and realistic, but it is generally not advised in any situation.
- There Are No New Stories, only New Tellings of Old Ones:
- Your characters won’t be the first to fall in love, go to school, have sex. They won’t be the first to find themselves in the middle of a war, to fight an evil tyrant of whatever mundane or fantastic abilities, or be the first heroes to ever save a life. Some of the best stories are where the author finds the common thread at the center of those old and over-used plots and twists it. (An excellent example of this is the TV series Dexter, which takes the now cliche and over-done forensic detective series and turns the hero scientist into a serial killer.)
- Sometimes the bad criticism is the best kind:
- As flattering as it is to get a hundred “OMG I LOVE THIS FIC!” type reviews, they don’t really tell you a whole lot about how you actually did or how good your writing is. Embrace the bad reviews. Love them. Whatever you do, don’t ignore them! Even the most malicious may have at its core some good suggestions for how you may become a better writer. At the very least, you can use these reviews as an impetus to keep writing and keep getting better to prove that reviewer wrong.
You can learn as much (and possibly more) about writing from reading bad fiction as from reading masterpieces. Unfortunately, fanfiction, in particular, tends to raise the ire of publishers (less so with most actual authors) due to intellectual property issues. The fanficcers are generally doing it as a way to dabble in the worlds that they had grown to love and to keep that all-too special magic of a good story going just a little bit longer, and never get any money from it, but publishers see plagiarists and imitation is only a sincere form of flattery when you’re not going to get sued for it.
I would love to see fanfiction used as a tool in the classroom, as a way to encourage creativity and a way to practice writing skills. I think it could be a wonderful resource, even if using it just to compare the good writers with the bad and what makes each work or not work. When a young writer can identify what doesn’t work in someone else’s writing, they’re one step closer to fixing what doesn’t work in their own.