Sometimes, I write fanfiction. Off and on. I’ll go through a dry spell of months or even years, and then the urge hits me again. It might go away when I go pro, it might not. I don’t hate myself for doing it at all, though for me it’s become a more private activity since the early 2000s.
It's very difficult for a casual insider to distill fanfiction, and other creative fannish activities, into purely objective terms so that others can understand why they do them. I'm not very deeply absorbed into the creative aspects of fannish culture, but I'm inside it enough that on some level, creative fannish activities (fanfiction, fanart, cosplay, and whatever) are hard to put into concrete terms, and especially to imagine as something bizarre or strange. They simply are, such an accepted part of my landscape that I can’t imagine them not existing.
So I'm not going to try to define a universal motive behind writing fanfiction or other creative fannish activities; I just want to talk about my own experiences with fanfiction (since my involvement with other fannish creative projects is almost nil), and what I think drives me to indulge in it.
My involvement with fannish creativity probably reached its peak in the Transformers fandom, which was my first entry into “fan culture”. During that time, I would actually read fanfiction, think of my own original characters and settings, and discuss fanfiction with others.
However, my interests in these things whittled away, until I only wanted to deal with offical materials and characters, wrote fanfiction only sparingly, and never read any other fanfiction unless a friend wrote it. I lost touch with the community around fanfiction, too. I don’t regret what I did in the past, but that simply isn’t where my interests are anymore.
Yet when I look back, I understand that my motivations behind these fannish activites have largely gone unchanged. I try to keep a leash on things, to not totally disregard what I think are the rules of "good" writing, but fanfiction is still a self-indulgent activity regardless of how prim and proper I try to make myself, and I’m comfortable with that.
The quote "write what you want to write" is still a useful rule for writers, but writing fanfiction lets you put all this into overdrive. When you write fanfiction, you are writing a version of other peoples' stories that you want to see. You privately paste your own preferences and desires over somebody else’s work, which is a big self-indulgence.
My major reason for writing fanfiction is one of the best examples of fanfic's self-indulgent nature: I’ll end up preferring a minor character and want to write a story exploring them further. I prefer to do this with "side stories", pieces that don't actually upset the canonical character hierarchy but simply tell stories that happen while the main characters are off doing something else.
The thought of actually treating my favourite secondary characters like the protagonists makes me cringe. I still feel like I should respect those canon hierarchies, even if it seems contradictory to want to, when I write stories about the characters I like, rather than the ones the narrative intends me to focus the most on. I don’t only prefer minor characters, and don’t want to write stories about every minor character I enjoy, but it just happens sometimes
A good springboard for a story can be the desire to "fix" things in a character's life. If I feel they got an unfinished arc or a bad ending, I sometimes want to write a story to see what else could have happened, what else could be done. Or I may simply want to see what lies ahead for them in life.
However, something like this is risky. Original fiction writers are taught, and rightly, to not play favourites with their characters, or to spoil any one of them. There's just something so saccharine about the idea of giving your favourite character all they want, like eating too much sugar at once.
Furthermore, perfect stories make for boring stories, and boring characters. So, whenever I realize I want to write a story about giving a character more than what they've gotten, I feel like I'm juggling a flask of nitroglycerine.
To assure myself, I try to give the characters what we're told to give our original creations: make them suffer, make their mistakes, and don't give them everything. I try to know what these characters' weaknesses are, and extrapolate on them. Pragmatism makes a good artist, and too much sugar can spoil the sweetness of the story. To treat my favourite characters as if they were innocent makes me wince. I won’t even use the term “woobie” to describe a pathetic character that I feel for, since they are not innocent even if they are sympathetic.
Doing these things are a way to work out small frustrations, rather than create viable replacements. This doesn’t erase the issue I had with the official story. I am totally baffled when I see fanfiction considered equivalent to canon, or “better than canon”. Canon is always better, simply because it’s canon.
Another reason why fanfic is self-indulgent is that I can go hog-wild with sequels and story lengths. I don't have to worry about whether I’m writing a novel, novella, or short story. I don't have to worry about whether I’m wearing out characters, or if my new story "really" needs to be told. I've declared myself finished with a storyline, only to want to go back to it again and again because I can’t stop myself; fanfiction is just addictive. While this all can make for crappy writing, it’s also liberating.
Original writing is certainly more fulfilling and satisfying for me, but I also get the fanfiction bug because fanfiction allows for a mental break. Sure, there are unique challenges that come with writing fanfiction, but I nonetheless find myself able to write it with ease, to automatically extend less effort but still be satisfied with the results.
Even though I try for reasonable plotting, and loyalty to the character's voices, writing fanfiction is still easier than original fiction, and doing it lets me recharge mental batteries. Writing fanfiction is coloured with this sense of unbridled passion plus laziness.
I've also been a shipper. I try to approach that like I do everything else: I create conflict, I don't spoil my characters, and don't give them everything. In this case, I also don't expect the stuff I come up with to be shown in canon, or put too much energy into defending the pairing to others, not that I've ever had to.
But shipping can be a rich source of character development. I try to set up little challenges for myself as a fanfic writer, to create something that stretches the narrow boundaries I've set up for myself and try to make it work, and sometimes shipping can be just what I need.
I want my final product to feel like it's "just enough", close enough to canon that I can feel satisfied in my own subjective way. Of course, no fanfic can be exactly the same as canon, but I still seek out that sense of “just enough”, that these characters still sound and act just familiar enough that I still feel I've done them a decent, if strange, tribute.
All of this adds up to a writing sensibility that is very vanilla. I know that accuracy and fidelity is subjective, and so are obscenity levels, but my stuff probably doesn't match up with the mistaken perception of fanfiction as outrageous in terms of content rather than concept. I play it "safe", I suppose, but you can’t call it “playing” when it’s what you want to do.
Such a state doesn’t make me better than anybody else. All fanfic writers are freaks, all of us are self-indulgent and screwing around. Sometimes I see some character interpretations that I disagree with on various terms, or things that do personally disturb me, but I don't want to see people stop writing these things, and I don’t want to form an angry mob. This is just how fandom goes. It’s better to assume that fandom will write anything, before you find out. It’s just a way of life.
I have written fanfiction for few properties, while having no urge to write fanfiction for others. Despite being comfortable with writing fanfiction, I view it on some levels as a matter of respect, and if I respect a piece of fiction deeply, I'm less likely to write fanfiction for it, because I feel like it’d be like a peon trying to be a noble.
It also happens because a well-written work has less gaps to fill, and less unexplored angles, so fanfiction would be harder, if not impossible, especially those small, out-of-the-way stories I prefer. If a character has a complete story, with an ending that was powerful or conclusive, I see no need to tell more about them.
This all means I can usually predict with some regularity which canons will inspire me to write fanfic and which will not, but exceptions could be waiting in the future.
Fanfiction isn’t anything bad. It’s harmless to the original work., because fanfiction automatically is a smaller thing than canon. Legally it may be in a grey area, but ethically, I don't find fanfiction problematic. The argument that a bad adaptation doesn't hurt the original is equally, or even more, applicable to fanfiction. It’s just amateurs having some fun. If it helps us as writers, great. If it doesn’t, also great.
I do make a personal distinction between professionally written and guided licensed stories and fanfiction written by casual amateurs, though I know they come from the same wellspring. The guiding hand of the licensor or a professional sensibility can make a lot of difference since, when it's written for personal reasons, fanfiction can be tremendously, wonderfully self-indulgent.
So, I see fanfiction as a way to pay tribute to a thing I enjoy, and to give my writing-brain a rest. I try to do good work, but know it’s fundamentally decadent. And whenever I see a piece of professional media described as "like fanfiction", that's what I picture: a work that charges forward with something just because "it's cool", and restraint be damned.Sometimes, I need a little bit of that.