For some, fanfiction provides a fun distraction or catharsis for story events they felt had gone awry. For others, it fills the gaps that games don’t have the time to cover, letting their imagination run wild. But what about providing wonderful practice for aspiring authors? Inspiration for original works? Would it surprise you that compelling characters can have their beginnings as OCs (original characters) in fanfiction? Fanfiction is more than just a misguided foray into fantasy – it can be a springboard into genuinely creative literature.

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I began writing fanfiction as a teenager, enthralled by the B-horror of the Resident Evil series. After completing what at the time I considered an epic action tale of horror and intrigue (which these days would make slightly less sense than the story of Resident Evil 5 – and with far worse grammar), I moved onto Final Fantasy VIII. One 20-something chapter story later, I had a gang of OCs and an entire made up country. Even between these two stories, I found my style of writing changing, along with my characterization skills. Characters became more like actual people, and the twists in the story came from a more natural progression than simply “because I said so.” The original characters stuck with me so long that creating an entirely new world felt like a natural progression. However, I would never have gotten to that point without my videogame fanfiction.

At the simplest level, I have fanfiction to thank for simply giving me a reason to continue writing – practice may not make you perfect, but at least it makes you better. A huge part of becoming a writer is simply sitting down and setting pen to paper on a regular basis, and you can’t do that without a topic that keeps your interest. Odds are you’ll pick up some of the technical skills of writing as you go, or may find some pointers in books by seasoned pros. (I recommend Stephen King’s On Writing for a bare-bones approach to the craft.) Like any other vocation, it takes continued effort to keep those technical skills sharp, and if adding your own spin to a videogame story motivates you to write more, then it’s a good thing.

But beyond providing a reason to keep writing, fanfiction offers a solid jumping-off point to improve your skills. Take “Mary Sues,” for instance – a term for flawless, idealized characters whom the plot revolves around. Mary Sues – or Marty Stus, if the characters are male – become part of the “main gang” almost immediately, have unusual facial features or hair and some sort of special skill or power that will inevitably save the day. There are legions of them in fanfiction, and indeed, some of them make their way into original fiction as well. But writing fanfiction doesn’t necessarily mean resigning yourself to creating the same flat, predictable characters over and over again. There’s always a way to take the blueprint of what could be a Mary Sue and build an interesting three-dimensional character out of her.

Mary Sues are appealing to novice writers because they’re an outlet for wish fulfillment – it’s easier for the writers to put themselves in the shoes of a character with no real flaws. But powerful original characters often have profound flaws that make them who they are. To go from fanfiction to engaging original fiction, you must think about your characters’ history and how that colors their thinking. Let them make mistakes and be wrong (without pages upon pages of angst and regret over it). Take that one thing that helps you really relate to them and let that inform how they’d react to different situations. It’s a balancing act, believe me, but always thinking of characters as individuals will help keep you away from Mary Sue territory.

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One of the main strengths of writing videogame fanfiction is that it helps budding writers learn how to handle larger casts. Many videogames, especially RPGs, star an entire ensemble of characters, and sometimes the best story ideas come from how wildly opposing personalities interact. Being able to create interesting stories requires seeing the world through the eyes of drastically different characters and figuring out how they would think and act.

Remember that every character has his or her own quirks, speech patterns and tics. The cheerful mechanic girl might flit about while covered in grease and drop the letter “g” at the end of words like “getting,” while the taciturn warrior might not use contractions often and respond with one word answers as much as he can. The longer you write about them, the easier it becomes to hear each of their voices. Keeping in mind how all these personalities bounce off each other makes it all the easier when writing your own groups of characters. The ability to put yourself in different character shoes, even ones that you created, is more familiar for the time that you spent writing with videogame characters.

To speak from personal experience, my first serious forays into writing were fanfiction. Ideas came fast and furious, often too fast for me to get all of them down. This consistency prepared me for sticking with original ideas later on. I was able to stay excited about a story from my time writing fanfiction.

In my Final Fantasy VIII fanfic, I wrote about a caustic and emotionally unbalanced young woman that had to deal with a past she didn’t fully understand. During the story, the game’s main characters all had their own missions and problems to deal with. Looking back, this character was a Mary Sue, ingratiating herself into the main characters’ group immediately and having the main story revolve around her. Even though she had negative traits, the rest of the cast was all too willing to overlook them – those that hated her initially ended up liking her or even obsessing over her.

Years later, I decided despite all that, there was something about the character worth writing about. I took that caustic gal and put her in her own fantasy world. When I did, I found that an ensemble cast was still what I wanted to work with. So I created other characters to populate this world – some of them laid back, some cheerful and some stoic. All of a sudden, the story wasn’t all about this one girl, and she worked better as a foil for the main character. Without the time I took to get used to giving all the cast of Final Fantasy VIII a time to be themselves, this original ensemble cast would have felt a bit overwhelming. The project’s still unfinished, but I’ve made huge strides, and the story wouldn’t even exist without its Final Fantasy VIII roots.

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In fact, not only did Final Fantasy VIII allow me to create the character that started my original work, but it also gave me some basic story ideas. Just as you transplant characters from fanfiction to original fiction, so can you with story elements. It’s simply a matter of figuring out the story’s skeleton without all the game references and going from there. For instance, my Final Fantasy VIII story was a mystery involving a new sorceress and how it tied to one character’s past. It expanded into a somewhat clichéd new sorceress war, but the basic ideas (with a few tweaks) were completely workable in its own world. For every situation you can think to put the videogame characters in, there’s a way to insert your own characters. A lot of the fun of writing comes from putting interesting characters in tough situations and seeing how they get out of them. In a way, it’s not too dissimilar from playing a videogame.

Fanfiction gets a lot of derision as the efforts of people with too much time on their hands. And let’s face it: There’s a ton of badly written and truly odd stories that people come up with. There are just some stories that you wouldn’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole, and for some writers, no amount of practice will allow them to write better stories. However, the jokes and the air of geekiness shouldn’t make people overlook some of the truly useful aspects of writing fanfiction. It’s a fun way to practice the craft with some of your favorite characters, and with some talent, you don’t have to keep your OCs in those already made worlds. Who knows what kind of tales of heroes and villains could spring from their fanfiction beginnings and capture the imaginations of their own group of fanfiction writers?

Vanessa Cohen likes to think of herself as an artistic jack-of-all-trades and aspiring voice actress. She spends a lot of time playing videogames and tabletop roleplaying games. Her website is www.vanessacohen.com, where you can see her art and links to her blog.

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