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I Don’t Own ‘Em— I Just Like Playing With Them: An Argument in the Defense of Fan-Fiction

[Disclaimer: As one is wont to do when talking fan-fiction, or FF, this article will contain acronyms and terms that are exclusive to fandom, and may be confusing to some readers. If this applies to you, refer to this helpful primer from Vox to un-confuzzle yourself. ]

When I was a kid, I wrote stories all the time. I wrote and illustrated my first complete story for a fourth grade class project. The teacher even bound the construction paper pages in a cover made out of wrapping paper and cardboard. At the time, I was incredibly proud of it.

As the adult version of myself who found it a few years ago, I have three words.

It. Was. Awful.

That story was the epitome of the word cringe. Thinking about it creates a visceral reaction so profound that I feel the compelled to squirm. It was the first thing I ever wrote, and I’m embarrassed to read it, let alone show it to people. As are the other few notebooks of stories I wrote between that time and the end of middle school.

Yeah, I know, I was a kid with no writing craft knowledge besides basic english instruction, and I should really cut myself some slack… but, trust me on this one. Upon looking back at my work and realizing it was horrendous, I also realized it was also completely plagiarized. Every story I wrote was based on whatever story, book or video form, I was completely engrossed with at the time. And, every one of those obsessions started based on some emotion that particular content evoked in me. Let’s give a big round of applause to puberty for that, considering they were all based on my obsessive and constant crushing on the male of our species.

For years I’ve been considering demanding royalties from J.K. Rowling, as I am convinced that she secretly followed me around as a kid, and Hermione is based painfully and accurately on my adolescence, but now I’m starting to think Loren Bouchard might owe me some cash too, considering I’m clearly the original Tina Belcher.


Tina Belcher, Bob’s Burgers, and her library of Erotic Friend Fiction

Sure, the names may have been different from the original stories, but I was basically writing wish fulfillment by Mary Sue-ing myself into every story, with the love interest being inspired by whatever current crush, either real life or celebrity, that I was harboring at the time. Each one of those stories, including my first (which could best be described a weird amalgam of Game of Thrones meets Beauty and the Beast, considering there were princesses from different kingdoms competing for a crown and one helped a cursed prince), was almost completely based on another story. It wasn’t until I started seriously writing in college and began actually trying to improve my craft that I even wrote a story based on an original concept. Ironically, that’s also the time I began dabbling in actual fan-fiction. Funny enough, it wasn’t until I found my old stuff, that I made the connection that writing FF was really nothing new for me.


“The beauty of writing FF is that you’re already working with something you love.”


Now, I know what you’re thinking, and I agree— yes, every story is basically based on another story, for as Shakespeare said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” So, yes, even my original work has inspiration based on other works. I certainly can’t take credit for inventing super powers, mythology, or magic. But, the worlds I created for them were the closest thing to original a person can reasonably manifest from their imagination. The characters may fit into archetypes, but they are also as original as possible.

And, as a kid, that is what I honestly thought I was doing— I mean, I changed the names and the settings, right? That makes it different.

Marshall, HIMYM

When I first started writing FF I may have not made the connection, but I also wasn’t trying to write wish fulfillment anymore. Well, that’s not accurate, honestly, since what I was writing was what I wished the actual writers had written, the first time, as in correctly.


“Now, I know what you’re thinking, and I agree— yes, every story is basically based on another story, for as Shakespeare said, There is nothing new under the sun. “


As I began to publish the FF stories, I also began to hit obstacles in writing my original content. Writing my own stuff sucked in comparison. FF was easier and more fun for two main reasons:

  1. The majority of the work is done for you.

While there will obviously be some plot and character generation for a story based on an idea of your own creation, the majority of everything else is already done. The characters are already developed. The world has already been established. All the parameters have been defined. That’s why my favorite Author Disclaimer at the beginning of a FF story has always been the line “I don’t own ‘em— I just like playing with ‘em.” When you begin writing a story within the confines of an already established universe, despite the confines of canon (even more so if you ignore it and write AU or Non-Canon), the only real creative currency you have to spend is on the original plot idea, any OCs you decide to include, and dialogue.

  1. Built in audiences of rabid fans willing to give feedback, whether you want them to, or not.

Some FF is amazing! So amazing, in fact it becomes virtually indistinguishable from the original by virtue of its merit. In other cases, it becomes headcannon for readers because everyone can agreed it’s sooooo good and makes absolute sense in the context of the original story.

The rest of FF… isn’t. There is a lot of wholly ungood FF out in the tangled interwebs. In fact, all it takes for me to completely give up on a FF story is badly written dialogue. In my opinion, that is the ONE thing you have to get right— it has to sound like the characters, or no amount of suspended disbelief can get me over the believability hump and allow me to get lost in the story (… which let’s be real here, people— why else are you reading FF?). And, if you’re writing straight garbage, the fandom is gonna let you know about it. The mass collective of fandom, well… to put it mildly, we are an unkind and confrontational people when you mess with our ships or our canons. But, when you get them right, oooooh, when you get it right it becomes an incredible magic so powerful that even Trumpers and Antifa could unite under its banner.

Okay, maybe nothing is that magical, but still, you get the idea. It’s a dozen shades of awesome.


“Slogging through a scene, or worse, a story you are not excited about is the worst. Hell, it’s a sure fire way to get you to stop writing.”


The honest-to-merciful-universe reason I fell in love with writing FF was the feedback. I’m not a perfect writer by any means, but I like to think I have some legitimate talent. When other people responded to my work positively and agreed I had talent, well… that’s just bonus points. But, those bonus points were immensely motivating. They built up my confidence enough to boost my intrinsic motivation to complete those stories. To date, my FF are the only completed stories I have.

Oh… wow. Thanks for helping me to that realization. Best. Writer. Ever.

Shaking that sad fact off, writing FF has proven helpful to my writing in the following ways:

Commencing… List the Second:

  1. It allows you to cannibalize from your own work.

I have stolen from my FF many times. It may be a particularly well crafted joke from dialogue or description in a scene. The best part is it belongs to me, so I don’t have to feel bad about it.

  1. It helps you work through blocks.

I have a complicated relationship with writing prompts. I get bent out of shape because most of the time they get you writing, just not necessarily in line with the story you are already writing. The argument can be made that writing anything is good, but when I’m already struggling to get writing work done, writing something else feels just as counter-productive. But, I don’t feel that way about FF, especially when coupled with the amount of feedback I usually get. Not to mention, the act of completing something triggers that little mechanism in your brain that makes you feel like you accomplished something, like leveling in a video game. It’s gratifying to finish something, especially when working on a big writing project that feels impossible to finish.

  1. It provides easy and fast feedback.

Even if the feedback is specific to your FF story, it’s still feedback on your writing. If you’re not doing a good job of providing description or writing strong dialogue or even plotting a successful arc in the FF, you’re probably not doing it in your original work either.

  1. It allows you to get stuff out of your system.

Sometimes, you just want to write wish fulfillment. As much as I hate it, I’ve fallen into this guilty pleasure trap. But, getting that desire out of your system in FF means that you’re not polluting your original work up with drabbles and fluff, or even the occasional lemon, and you’re writing scenes that actually move the story forward.

  1. It allows you to test stuff out.

When so much of SFF has borrowed concepts, this is a good place to test run for ideas for original concepts, especially if it’s a similar genre to the FF.

  1. It reminds you why you love stories, and why you love writing.

Slogging through a scene, or worse, a story you are not excited about is the worst. Hell, it’s a sure fire way to get you to stop writing. In my weaker moments in the beginning, failing at writing majorly important scenes was one of the things that made me fall out of love with the idea of writing at all. Writing and I have obviously made up since then, but like any relationship, it takes work.

The beauty of writing FF is that you’re already working with something you love. You relate to the characters; you are moved by the events; you’re mesmerized by the world. Not only do you get to play make believe, but you get to do it with your best friends, or at least characters you know as well as the real people in you life.

Writing FF is just plain fun. It’s immersive and open-ended, like a VR sandbox game implanted straight into your noggin. You would never make your characters do or say the things you make your FF characters do because when you’re working on your own stuff it feels to restrictive. Your logic fights against your imagination and tells you that what your writing is wrong or stupid or just plain bad. But, do the exact same thing with someone else’s characters, and suddenly your a FF prodigy.

If you still need more convincing, here’s a way better written article that talks about FF and writing… that I actually found accidentally when I was was trying to find a good image for this article… so, here you go, nerds.

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