OngoingWorlds blog

News & articles about play-by-post games, for roleplayers & writers


Everything you need to know about Fanfiction

Fanfiction characters reading fanfiction about them

This article was first written by Jenn Brown as a talk for Derby Scribes, a group that meet every two weeks to discuss writing. I thought it was relevant to post here to show the similarities and differences between fanfiction and roleplaying.

Fan fiction is a piece of fiction that is set is somebody else’s fictional universe. It can be based on films, television programmes, books, or games. It could be a novelisation of events already dreamed up by the original creator, but is more usually a story of the fan’s own making that simply uses the original creator’s characters and universe for its actors and stage. It’s mainly an internet phenomenon, as the ‘net provides the perfect basis for sharing it with other fans.

For example, a fan fiction for Star Trek might use the Star Trek characters in the Star Trek universe, but tell a story that has never been done before in any official Star Trek episode, film or book.

Fan fictions take many different forms, in many different styles, over many different genres, but the one thing they must all have to be considered a good piece of work is observant characterisation.

If you’re going to write someone else’s characters in your own events, and you want it to be well received by your readers, you need to make sure that you write those characters in a manner that keeps them familiar and believable to their existing fans, and doing that requires you to understand that character very well.

Types of Fan Fiction

Fan fiction is most commonly written for television programmes and seems to be mainly romance – humans love love and fan fiction is a natural medium for wish fulfillment – but it does actually have a very wide ranging portfolio.

  • Fandom – the established universe that is being used
    • Anything you can think of. If it has fans, there’s probably fan fiction. You can find stories for pre-internet programmes like The Avengers, the latest blockbuster films, and even 80’s video game, ‘Pong’.
  • Genre – romance, adventure, drama, mystery, etc
    • Often connected to the fandom – crime shows will spawn crime fanfics, naturally – but essentially anything and everything once again.
  • Drabble
    • ‘Strictly, a 100 word story, but more usually taken to just mean ‘short’.
  • Crossover
    • Mixing the characters and/or universes of more than one fandom. It’s possible, though perhaps not advisable, to have the cast of NCIS investigating a crime at Hogwarts.
  • Alternate Universe
    • Straying slightly from the point of fanfiction, alternate universe fics are usually written by the more ambitious author seeking more originality, and use an established universe with one or two ‘game-changing’ alterations, such as writing human characters as vampires. If the established universe had an event that turned out one way, the fanfic might explore what things had been like had it turned out another way, e.g. changing who won a war, or assuming a character survived something that in ‘reality’ killed them.

Writing Good Fan Fiction

As already stated, the key to good fan fiction is good characterisation, and for that reason, it can be a very beneficial thing to write. It forces you to closely examine the characterisation of professionals and then to emulate it, and in doing so, helps you to develop your own skills. Some of the things to think about when trying to emulate someone else’s character are:

  • Their attitudes – are they aggressive, submissive, kind, nasty?
  • Their voice – what are their phrases and mannerisms? What things can you imagine them saying, and what things can you not imagine them saying?
  • Their reactions – how would they react to the situation you want to put them in? Would they face a monster with a quip and a bullet, or would they run screaming?

A good check is to let the character act out your scene in your head. Does it feel natural? Could you imagine that scene playing out in the real TV show or on the big screen?


Fan fiction gets a bad rap, mainly because so much of what can be found online is, by most reader’s standards, awful. It naturally attracts those wishing to fulfil their fantasies, and so the material produced is often unsatisfactory to the reader. Because of this, it is also often seen as the pass time of the socially awkward recluse. Many fanfic writers are young teenagers, just cutting their teeth and still developing their skills, and so there is the added angle of much of the fan fiction available falling short of the standards seen in professional publications. With a faceless author, the writing gets judged harshly, and there are whole communities who make it their business to poke (usually harmless) fun at bad writing. However, most of them will admit that they have much worse examples in their own writing cupboards from their youth.

Fan fiction can be seen as bad if it makes mistakes with regards to canon – the established rules and history of the original universe, such as who won a war, or what happened in episode 5 of a certain show – or fails to be a believable representation of the universe or its characters. Writing the womanising Captain Kirk as celibate and with a deep respect for women of all species, for example, would not be seen as good. Similarly, most fans of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy would quickly give up on a fan fiction that consistently made the mistake of calling Ford Prefect, ‘Ford Perfect’. When writing fan fiction, you do so under the expectation that you will properly understand your own fandom.

The one main complaint of fan fiction, however, is the infamous Mary Sue. Believed to have originated in a Star Trek fan fiction published in a fan newsletter in the ’70s, a Mary Sue is a character created by the fan fiction author (an ‘original character’, or OC) who takes a major part in the story being told and is unrealistically brilliant.

They may be exceptionally clever, exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally athletic, they will usually be all three. They will attract the love of every canon character except those that the author dislikes, who will hate the OC intensely and suffer for it. They will oust canon love interests and become the lovers of the author’s favourites. They will save the day. They are usually a representation of the author themselves, a ‘self insert’.

None of the above on its own is a bad thing, but when they are all put together, it becomes unrealistic.

The cliché traits of the Mary Sue – or Gary Stu if they are male, but this is rarer – include:

  • Unusually coloured eyes, usually lilac, often different colours a la David Bowie, and/or changing colour with the character’s mood.
  • Irish, or of Irish descent.
  • Extremely attractive.
  • Very athletic.
  • Incredibly perceptive, often providing monologues about two canon characters’ true feelings for each other, that are listened to intently by one of the characters and lead to the characters finally getting together.

Written by Jenn Brown