I didn’t see the original Star Wars trilogy until I was around eleven or twelve, which makes the year 1991 or 1992. I remember watching Star Wars from a VHS recording my parents had made from an edited-for-TV broadcast, so it had commercials to fast forward through and everything.
We had all three movies, but something about Star Wars on its own made me love it so much that at first, I didn’t want to go on with the story. It was enough the way it was, at first, and it provided such a rich environment for my brain to play around in. While I was riding my bike that summer, I staged lightsaber battles in my imagination. While I was helping out with the household chores, I was reciting the lines in my head, but getting them slightly wrong and then letting the story unfold along a new path, because if Obi-wan had said this instead of that, what would Luke have said in response?
The other half of the story setup: I’d gotten a calligraphy set from my parents for my birthday that spring. I’d been practicing my letters on the little guide sheets they gave me, but I hadn’t tried to write words, really, because that required spacing the letters neatly instead of just doing them however. I wanted to write something readable, rather than doing the alphabet a dozen more times.
So I wrote a few pages of what, technically, was my first fanfic.
It was about Azure Skywalker (I was obsessed with that name right about then, because an older girl had just moved in down the street, and she was really pretty, and that was her name.) Azure was Luke’s long-lost sister. (Remember, I hadn’t seen the other two movies yet!) Azure was looking for him, because she’d only just found out he existed. She came to Tatooine before Luke left, and they went through the rest of the basic movie plot as it was, except that Azure was there too, with all the changes my amateur little writing brain thought were needed to make that work.
I wish, I wish, I had photographic evidence that this existed, that I wrote out a Star Wars fic with one of the most blatant self-insert characters ever, in calligraphy, in a mix of blue and red ink as the little cartridges ran dry, on that horrible fake “vellum” that calligraphy kits come with. (Came with? I haven’t bought one since.)
It was extra, so very extra, long before that was part of our vernacular. I would show it to you, if I could, because I know this sounds so ridiculous I’ve got to be inventing it to make an interesting post. I’m not. This actually happened.
I never let anyone read it. I’d already written “books” at this point–we actually had a class project in second grade where everyone wrote a book sometime during the year, because my elementary school had just bought one of those machines to make the curled plastic bindings, so why not use it? I wrote my first “book” about a bunch of snack foods that lived in my pantry and were friends and the pretzels made fun of the Zebra Cakes because they were too big and fluffy to move around easily. (Little Debbie Zebra Cakes were a staple of my lunches in those days. Instant nostalgia if I eat one now.) My second book was a collection of ghost stories I mostly plagiarized from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, with a few twists I threw in to make them “better.”
So I wrote original fiction, and stole original fiction, long before my first fan fiction. Which, to hear dedicated fic writers tell it, is unusual. What’s my point? Fan fiction gave me a new method to explore story ideas. Instead of feeling like I needed to invent something entirely from scratch (like the living snack foods) or tell someone else’s stories, but my way (the ghost story book,) fan fiction gave me ground to stand on while I said “But what if this happened instead?” and explore what that meant.
Without having those examples to set in front of you, because they’re long, long gone, the distinction between my plagiarizing and my fan fiction might seem small, almost nonexistent. Let me assure you, anyone who read my ghost story book would recognize exactly where I got every tale, there was no fan fiction about it. There was no exploration of a different aspect of the story, taking a direction it didn’t go, like with Azure Skywalker and her white lightsaber and my version of Star Wars where Leia was not Luke’s sister, because I had no idea that was coming.
My fan fiction roots never went deep. I don’t recall writing much more than that–I think there was a crappy retelling of Snow White in high school–but it taught me to look at a story that already existed, to take inspiration from it, to play with alternate ideas and create something new from it.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again–in the broadest sense, the What We Need series began as fan fiction. The original inspiration was The Walking Dead: The Game by Telltale Games. Then I forgot to add zombies, so it morphed into fan fiction of Stephen King’s The Stand as well.
The stories I published, after much work and so much polishing, aren’t fan fiction anymore–they’ve diverged enough to be their own thing, inspired by those story worlds rather than set in them. (Also, I never borrowed characters, as straight-up fan fiction does in almost all cases.)
I don’t consider myself a fanfic writer. I don’t cook up AUs about my favorite characters from my favorite books and post them to AO3. But fan fiction was a part of my journey as a writer, and I think for many of us, it’s an important step in that journey. Some people never move past it–but some people never want to. I wrote mine in calligraphy at eleven or twelve years old, and never showed anyone. I’m glad the Internet lets us share it, instead.