Creative Writing in the UCWbL: Fan Fiction

Fan Fiction (n.); fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from, a particular TV series, movie, etc. (Google).

Sounds like a bizarre type of piece to critique in the writing center doesn’t it? However, recently in my WRD 395 course, I heard that newer UCWbL tutors were asked to work with writers on their fan fiction pieces, which was kind of a strange experience for them. Moving away from the idea of an original creative writing piece, how exactly do you go about offering feedback on a piece of work that does not take place in the writer’s original world but rather in an already copyrighted world?

First off, let’s begin with the question: Where did Fan Fiction originate?

There’s no known origin to answer that question. However, fan fiction’s first humble beginnings can be traced back to the ideas of “parody” & “satire”―two forms of literary devices, or genres, that draw on preexisting content to create something new that often makes fun of the original. What Scary Movie 4, 5, & 6 are to Scream as Vampires Suck is to the Twilight Saga.  Comedy, we say. The goal of satire & parody is to poke at the original piece’s obscurities, weaknesses and overall logical fallacies that are left otherwise unaddressed in the original piece.

But isn’t this all considered copyright  infringement?

To a certain extent, yes and no. Copyright claims and the “Fair Use” of others’ work have been long disputed issues; fan fiction itself was never widely popular until the creation of, a website database for the collection of user-created stories. Millions have access to read anonymous users’ stories, all based off a preexisting universe or with already established characters.

The gain from it all? Well, writing and sharing fan fiction connects members of a community who all enjoy a particular series, book, film, etc. and, ultimately, it’s all for fun! It’s just another way to give praise to the story-makers who created such unique worlds to explore in the first place.

Becca Schaffner writes, in In Defense of Fan Fiction, that “fanfiction brings people from all over the place to be more
excited about what they already love, makes them expressive and
creative, and fosters very real loyalties and friendships” (p. 617). It’s the building block that can help them develop―or further discover―their love for writing. Recycling an idea and figuring out new ways to expand on it, or shape it into something new, is just the central part of creative freedom.

Now, with all this, how do you go about critiquing works of fan fiction? Thankfully, many of the same rules that applied to original pieces, as I mentioned in my previous post, still apply here: plot, character, setting, conflict and resolution are all still incredibly important to pay attention to. However, there are a few new concepts/tropes that are introduced, and apply specifically to, fan fiction pieces: Mary Sue’s,  the canon,  Alternate Universe, and In Character vs. Out of Character.

First, let’s begin with the Canon.

The canon refers to the “the works of a particular author or artist that are recognized as genuine” (Google). In terms of fan fiction, we refer to events that have happened in the original work―the universe, the deaths, the romance, etc.―as apart of the “canon”. More often than not, the canon should not be tampered with heavily, otherwise it becomes something entirely different.

Yet how can one create their own original fan fiction piece without tampering with the canon somehow?

Well, by “tampering”, it’s often frowned upon when characters that are assumed dead, MIA, or not relevant to the plot are given a big role in canon events. For example, in The Wrath of Kahn, Spock was killed and his death had a major effect on the movement of the story and its characters. Breaking the canon would be to have Spock stay alive and, thus, create an Alternate timeline to the plot―or an Alternate Universe. While this isn’t necessarily illegal in the fan fiction world, it’s just very much frowned upon by some audiences.

In Alternate Universes, sometimes the setting and plot is changed entirely from the original content, and what only remains are the characters themselves from the original piece.

(Did you know that the novel 50 Shades of Grey actually began as a fan fiction of the Twilight SagaThis is a perfect example of creating an Alternate Universe to place already-existing, or similar, characters from original content into. And hey, it became original enough on its own to become something new and published!)

Now this brings us to a genre of characters in fan fiction: ‘Mary Sue’s.

These little gems fall under the category of “characters”and are usually what you want to avoid in a fan fiction piece. They’re Original Characters, created by the author, that are apart from the canon and serve some new purpose to the story. They’re characters that lose their believability because they’re too perfect. They’re loved by all characters, they have no enemies, they’re the star of the show, they have no physical flaws or weaknesses or phobias, they have a tragic backstory yet it never affected them―basically, they’re a combination of everything you can find in a clichéd character. Sounds kind of like a huge turn off, right? It’s heavily frowned on in the rules of fan fiction, as I’m sure it would be frowned upon in creative writing pieces in general. After all, who wants to read a story about an already full-developed character who has no opportunity to change and is viewed as the “perfect” character? This goes back to the idea of character development. All characters must change, or have the opportunity to change, by the end of the story.

There are a lot of taboos among fan fiction “Mary Sues”, and honestly opinions about what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” vary from person to person. Here are some examples, or questions to look out for, in terms of Mary Sues:

  • Is the OC (Original Character) related to a character in the story they’re basing the fan fiction off of?
  • Does the OC have any strange, or overpowered, superpowers―if the canon permits that?

Coming from someone who writes, and has written, a ton of fan fiction in my lifetime, this is a good list of questions to ask about Original Characters. (A lot of these questions may seem super-exaggerated but trust me, they’re actually necessary. You’d be amazed at the type of characters you find in the Fan Fiction out there…)

This brings us to another area: are the characters from the canon being written In Character or Out of Character?

These are terms that are sometimes used in original works of fiction but are more frequently thrown around in fan fiction pieces. The definition is quite as literal as it sounds: In Character (IC) is used to describe an action, reaction, or choice that would match up with what we already know about the character from the canon piece, while Out of Character (OoC) is an action, reaction, or choice that is completely misaligned with what we would have thought that character would do based on what we have already learned about them.

For example: if a serious, brooding character such as Darth Vader suddenly began acting extremely sweet and familiar with Princess Leia―as if she were his daughter, if you will―does that really sound aligned with what we know of his personality?

In order to avoid making characters (especially canon characters) seem OoC then there needs to be a gradual change in their development in order to feel believable. Character’s personalities should always be shown in the story, whether canon to the universe or original characters. As a reader, you should be able to get a good sense of the character to determine whether an action feels IC or OoC.  If not, then that’s definitely an indication that more of the character’s personality needs to be seen.

Treating fan fiction the same way as an original piece of fiction, and not going in with any preconceived biases about the genre of “fan fiction”, is, I feel, the most beneficial way of critiquing these pieces. Hopefully these general guidelines have helped you understand the genre of fan fiction, if you were unfamiliar with it, and gain some strategies for working with these pieces in the future, should you run across them!


Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Karina S. says:

    This is really helpful. I haven’t worked with anyone on fan fiction yet, but I’m prepared now.

  • Maggie J. says:

    Where was this when I was 13 and had a Quizilla account? As a fellow fanfic writer and consumer, thank you for writing this!