I was probably about fifteen when I started writing fan fiction. I say ‘writing’, but that’s something of an exaggeration. When I was fifteen, most of my writing happened in the back of my head. (This started when I was about five, and only really stopped when I started writing novels full-time.)
Anyway, I’m not going to tell you who I wrote fan fiction about, because even now it feels too private, and you probably won’t have heard of some of the people I wrote about anyway. When I was fifteen, it was intensely private. When people ask me, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I usually talk about how sometimes a story or a character feels like they belong to you, the same way a book or a film sometimes does. Someone will tell me a story, or I’ll meet a character, and I’ll think, “You’re mine. I’m going to write a book about you.” (I have pictures which have been sitting in my head for fifteen years, waiting for me to write a book about them.)
So, the fan fiction was private, partly because I was slightly embarrassed about it, and partly because there was something incredibly personal about these characters who had asked me to write about them. I wrote fan fiction based around three or four different worlds, one science fiction, two fantasy and one realistic, and in all three cases it was a particular character who leapt out and said, “I’m interesting. Write about me.”
(And yes, all of the characters had had traumatic events dumped on them by their authors. I haven’t changed that much.)
Fan fiction was appealing because so much of the work had already been done for me. I didn’t have to come up with something which interested me. I didn’t have to invent a character, or a world. Although actually, I did used to end up inventing a lot of characters, because one thing I was really interested in was back story – what was this character like as a child? What was this bit of story which I haven’t seen because I wasn’t watching the soap at that point like? So I did end up inventing a lot of mothers and fathers and siblings. That’s one thing fan fiction made me realise – how much of the process of inventing characters comes from necessity. You can start with Interesting Tragic Hero, but eventually he’s going to need some parents, and a friend, and a girlfriend, and …
Another thing fan fiction taught me was how much of comedy is about character. You may think you can’t write comedy – and it’s one of the things I find hardest – but try writing a scene with Jeeves and Wooster in it which isn’t funny. You just plonk them down – well, anywhere, really – and let them react to the world around them.
I don’t think fan fiction taught me how to be an author. (I’d been telling stories in my head for about ten years before I started writing it, remember.) But I think it helped solidify those stories. The structure of the telly programmes and novels I was writing about reminded me to give those stories a beginning, a middle and an end. (The soap was particularly good for this.) And it taught me something about how stories fit their medium. I mostly wrote scripts for the telly programme characters and prose for the novel characters. When I tried crossing them over, it felt weird and bits started to fall off the stories.
I went to a talk by Meg Rosoff once, where she told us to steal our plots. So I now pass on this bit of advice to you. Steal your characters. Or borrow them, at least. Because that’s the best thing about fan fiction. There’s no way you could – or should – make any money out of these worlds (unless you get very lucky and are asked to write tie-in novels or something) and so your interaction with them is always strictly about fun.
And that’s the best sort of writing there is.
Sally Nicholls‘ latest book is A Lily, A Rose, published 1 March.