This is a repost from my DeviantART account, but I’m proud enough of it to put it up here on the blog (along with a few minor edits for readability.) Enjoy!
As someone who’s in too many fandoms to count, I’ve had a lot of dealings with fanfiction over the years; and as someone who loves to read and write it (and have been doing so since grade 1/year 2, when I wrote myself into the Kim Possible world… because, ya know, my name’s Kimberly) I feel qualified to help others in their quest to write fluff, adventure, and all sorts of other things using pre-built worlds and well-loved characters.
Contrary to the belief of some, writing fanfiction is a perfectly acceptable form of writing—no, you might never be able to publish it, but it is good practice all the same. Think of it like a warmup jog. You’ll never make it to the Olympics as an expert jogger, but by jogging you’re building muscles and endurance so that you end up getting better and faster at running and sprinting. And really, you’ll never find an Olympic runner who doesn’t warm up with little jogs and sprints. So don’t feel ashamed that you write fanfiction! After copious amounts of writing the stuff, I’m proud to say I’ve won NaNoWriMo thrice, entered contests with short stories, and been bumped to higher-level English classes because of my love for writing. (That’s not to say fanfiction alone got me there… it’s just helped fuel my passion for the written word.)
So without further ado, I present to you my tips for writing good fanfiction of any genre!
1. Keep them in character, but not too in character… ya feel me? What I mean is, keeping the canon characters in character is important. Obviously Bombur isn’t going to suddenly give up food, nor would Sherlock fall in love in a week, nor would Edward (Elric, not vampire) let one little “short” comment slide. You get the picture. But at the same time, Bombur’s not constantly eating, and Sherlock doesn’t overuse the word ‘obviously’ to the point where it loses its meaning. The point is, I’ve seen a lot of OOC-ness, but there’s also a fair amount of character exaggeration. Steer clear of both.
(Side note: yeah, sometimes Anime characters can do this even in canon. My personal recommendation, though, is to avoid this if you want to make the characters seem realistic—I’m looking at you, Hetalia fandom. Yeah, America loves video games and cheeseburgers… but he wouldn’t be quite that obnoxious about it if he were a real high school-aged guy. Same applies to most every exaggerated character in anime or manga.)
2. Author’s notes are a no-go. How many times has this happened to you? You’re reading through a fanfiction and everything is going smashingly—suddenly, a wild author’s note appears! Author’s note uses Break the Fourth Wall! It’s super effective! Fanfic reader fainted!
… Basically, any author’s note that isn’t explaining the meaning of a term or clarifying something that would have been really hard to guess otherwise is really, really unnecessary. For instance, telling everyone you “laughed out loud while writing that bit” after something funny or “by the way, this character is really short” after they have to use a stool to reach the counter isn’t helpful or needed. Most people just find it annoying and distracting from the story. Think really hard before including an author’s note. (a/n: LOL now I’m using an author’s note to be IR0N1C LULZ !!1!!!1 jk jk, now back to the article lol)
3. So are timeskip notifications. Just skip an extra line and start writing. The reader should be able to infer that time has passed or read something like, “A few hours later, Sam and Dean went to…” No published book I’ve ever read announces when time has passed between scenes. It’s unprofessional and distracting—writing the transitions takes a little practice, yes, but once you get it down it comes easily and flows naturally.
~~~ TIME SKIP BROUGHT TO YOU BY ELEVEN’S BOW TIE LALALALA ~~~ does not look natural.
4. Give original characters strengths and weaknesses. Despite what a lot of fanfiction guides will tell you, original characters are not at all a bad thing. In fact, they can make the world seem a little bigger than just 221B, Mycroft’s warehouse, and perhaps a visit to the police department. New characters can open different doors, send the story in a new direction, and make your story more believable.
It’s when these characters become unrealistic that the problems start.
Mary Sues, Gary Stus, self-inserts… whatever you’d like to call them, these are characters that tend to fulfill the wishes of an author, tend to always know what to do, and they tend to meddle with canon.
A disclaimer: self-inserts are not always bad. Writing yourself into a fictional world is not a bad thing. It’s only when “your” character is very obviously fulfilling a wish or behaving in an unnatural way that isn’t realistic for the story. Reader inserts are also self-inserts–follow the same sorts of rules, although canon relationships are much less frowned upon in these situations.
An easy way to fix this is to give your characters strengths and weaknesses and make the weaknesses actually hinder the character at some point in the story. Sally might be really bad at math, but unless not being able to do math actually has hindered her (she didn’t graduate high school, therefore she’s working in fast food, she now doesn’t have a lot of money) it doesn’t really count as a valid ‘balancing’ weakness. Additionally, it’s not about checks and balances, either. Don’t add a weakness for every strength. There’s no magic formula. Just make sure your character is like a real person. They’ve got their problems and need to deal with them over the course of the story.
For more tips on making people actually like your character (and not flame you with comments accusing you of writing a Mary Sue), please read MissLunaRose’s guide on making your character likeable: Nobody Loves My Character! It’s a great guide, and I don’t think my little point here can do it justice.
5. For the love of Loki’s hair grease… pay attention in English class. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are just as important as plot and characters. If I click on your fic and find a huge block of text, no entries between new people speaking, or (God forbid) improper capitalization (shudders), I’m going to skim and then click away; or perhaps, if it’s salvageable and I’m feeling patient, comment something about how it was good but your grammar needs work.
6. Under no circumstances should you re-write an existing canon scene to include a new character or romantic interest. “How it should have ended” sorts of things are fine because they don’t introduce any new characters, but sticking an OC or even a reader in a reader insert into a situation that already happened in the movie, show, or book is unoriginal and screams “Sue self-insert” like the Nazgul screeching from the rooftops. What happens nearly every time without fail is that this new character ends up saving the day, becoming an integral part of the plot and changing the canon story completely, or just generally adding a whole level of OOcness to the canon characters that cannot be matched by anything. It’s a mistake that beginners make often—the problem with writing a new character in is that it becomes breeding grounds for OOC canon characters and Mary Sues.
What I’m talking about, if you want more specifics, is literally taking the same dialogue and action sequences and then tweaking them to include your character. This does not make me think, “Oh, what a great idea! If only Kassy Mae had been there with a rocket launcher in canon!” I mostly think that whoever wrote the fic probably had a little too much time on their hands if they had time to go re-read or re-watch something just to type the actual words and actions used.
(A side note: this tip mostly applies to things that have a universe where this is plausible. Let me explain—most reader insert fanfictions I’ve read of The Hobbit take place with the company on their journey, and the reader helps out in canon situations like riding barrels and such. That’s become acceptable in the fandom-verse because it’s really hard to write in the reader on the journey without having actual canon events taking place. In Sherlock, on the other hand, it’s pretty easy to write the reader into the universe without borrowing other plot lines. A lot of it is dependent on the fandom culture in this case, but it was the best example I could think of. If you’re writing in one of these situations, it’s still best to avoid actual dialogue from the canon work. Paraphrasing is your friend.)
7. Buildup, buildup, buildup. How many times has this happened to you? You’re doing some boring, mundane task, and a cute guy shoots a look at you for no reason. You blush, and the guy comes over. Suddenly, you’re making out and nobody in the public space minds at all!
… Sorry for using that whole infomercial opening again, but
I think it’s funny it demonstrates my point. That’s never happened in the history of the universe. So why should it happen in a fanfic? Sure, things like reader inserts sort of represent what you wish would happen… but there’s a concept called “suspension of disbelief” that all authors need to be aware of. Basically, the reader trusts you to give them a story that could actually happen—they’re going into the story with an open mind. By doing something totally not plausible, you’re breaking that trust and their suspension of disbelief.
This happens especially in romantic fanfics, where all sorts of seductive glances are thrown around willy-nilly until the sexual tension builds beyond belief and suddenly—random make outs! There’s another idea for a guide from me: proper romantic buildup. Alas, I must concentrate it into one point. If you’re going to try and build romantic tension, try your very best to do so naturally. Would he really get nervous around this random woman at the car wash? Would she actually give him a kiss after the first date? If they made eye contact, would both of them really get this flustered? Try reading some well-written romance novels or “good” fanfiction (I’ll mention some notable examples here at the end) to get accustomed to what natural romance is like.
That just about wraps it up for this general guide to fanfiction. 🙂
One of the most important things you can do is read good-quality fanfiction or literature with the content you want to produce. For romance, Christian fiction is actually the way to go—it sounds weird, but even if you’re not religious there’s some pretty great romance (and take heart—the novels aren’t meant to convert, so they hardly ever get too preachy). Many authors go to Christian fiction when they want to find examples of well-written buildup and such. A great author to read is Dee Henderson—she does an excellent job of tying an interesting plot (usually murder and other crime mysteries) with romance. As for good examples of fanfiction, I’d recommend reading one of the 50k word ++ Dramione fics on Fanfiction.net. All of those are fantastic and amazing; some of my favorites are Broken, Knowing You, Isolation, and The Cure for Crupulus. (Warning: all of these are NC-17 except for Crupulus.)
The other most important thing for writing good fics is to keep writing. No matter how much you feel like your stuff sucks, it can only get better. By continuing to practice, getting feedback from others, and reading others’ fics, you’ll grow and get so much better at writing. I believe in you (and so does the tiny potato)!
Keep making awesome fan content, and don’t give up!