I used to write fan fiction for the Marvel comic book and movie universes, particularly the X-men. I probably still would if I hadn’t decided to force myself away from it to concentrate on producing original stories. My brain still comes up with intriguing possibilities, like the story I would desperately love to write about the movie Wolverine: Origin, about what happened to Victor and Logan after they ran away as boys and before they became professional soldiers.
Sadly, one of the steps of becoming a professional writer is stepping away from work which might get you sued by a major corporation. But I stand by my fan fiction career, even if some of it makes me cringe now because of the bad writing. Writing fan fiction trained me for writing my own work.
1) It taught me how to make characters sound different and how to ensure each character stayed consistent. Fan fiction readers knew the characters I was using. If I made Beast into a slobbering moron, they would quite rightly call me on it. Staying inside a characters limitations is a challenge, particularly when having them act just a leetle outside of character could solve a potential plot problem. But I learned to avoid those temptations and how to keep multiple characters in my head so that they sounded authentic in the page.
2) It taught me discipline for world-building and plotting. I needed to stick to the rules of the Marvel universe, like Daredevil works alone and coming back from the dead is apparently easier than making dinner reservations. That limited what I could do but I found a way to make something interesting within those boundaries.
3) It taught me how to finish a story. Before I began writing fan fiction I had dozens and dozens of half-finished stories. I would get excited about an idea, start to work on it, hit a creative dead end or get excited about something else, and then nothing more would happen. The very first novel length story I wrote was fan-fiction. Doing it gave me the confidence to try writing my own novel.
I still love the Marvel universe, though I’m glad to now be exploring my own. There’s a little piece of me that still hopes they’ll call and ask me to start writing actual stories for them. (In case any Marvel professionals are reading this, the answer is: Yes. Yes, I would. And please don’t sue me if you find any of my stuff still online.)
I understand authors who get upset about fan fiction. They feel it infringes on the stories they want to tell and sometimes the fan fiction can take on a life of its own, becoming more authoritative than the actual author’s works. There is no way to argue that it isn’t a form of plagiarism, taking someone else’s work and incorporating it into your own.
But at the same time, those stories exist because of readers. Readers who thought and lived the characters and the stories until they became so real they took on a life of their own. That’s something special and wonderful. It should be part of the goal of every writer.