While sifting through my personal archive of old high school newspapers and library newsletters, I somehow ended up looking through the old files from my family's old desktop. This would be the computer we used through those wonder years of middle school to mid-high school. I found on both the computer and in one of the newsletters evidence of one of my staple hobbies through those years: fanfiction. (My other hobby during those years was forming a mock singing group named SMACK. The scary thing was we actually performed in public spaces.)
So is fanfiction a good or bad thing? Opinions on the subject vary. On the negative side of things, some see it as a violation of copyright and a poaching of established worlds and characters. This is basically true. It's plagiarism to take the words and ideas of another person and present it as one's own. Some people feel it treads on the rights of the creator or that it corrupts a given world and/or characters. Then there are those who feel it's just plain lazy on a would-be writer's part to dabble in fanfic. After all, such writers have a big bulk of the work done for them -- they've already got a world and a set of characters to work with. Another thing that gives fanfiction a bad rep is the sheer amount of fanfic there is out there, and I'm not going to lie, not all of it is good. In fact, a lot of it is on the wince-worthy side of the spectrum. And let's face it, when you read a fanfic that is particularly bad, something that butchers both your beloved characters and the English language, it's going to leave an exceedingly bad and lingering taste in your metaphorical mouth.
On the positive side, people also see it as a creative outlet for showing appreciation towards established worlds and characters. There's that saying that mimicry is a form of flattery, and in fanfiction's case, it's mostly true. The subject of fanfiction--whether it be a TV show, movie, book, or person--is so beloved that fans just can't help but want to be a part of it. Sometimes they want to see characters go on more adventures or delve into what makes characters tick. Other times, people want to know more about side characters or about events that happened before the start of a series. Then, there's closure. Ever watch a show or read a book and wish there was more? What happened to the kingdom after the Big Bad was defeated? Did a certain supporting character get a happy end? Did a man suffering from an apparently terminal illness die by the time of the epilogue or is he still alive? (On this last point, Alz knows what I'm talking about. I want to know, damnit!) Well, fanfiction is there to speculate on those questions. Plus, supporters of fanfiction see the practice as all done in good fun (and that's what disclaimers are for). It's a form of discussion and bonding among fans over a mutual subject.
Fanfiction can also be seen as a way of practicing writing and receiving feedback (good, bad, and constructive). For example, if characterization is an issue in your original work (i.e. your characters all sound the same, or you're really tempted to make a character do something--because YOU CAN--that would otherwise be viewed by others as wildly out-of-character), you might use fanfiction to help you out. In a fanfic, characterization would/should be based on the characterization in the original work. You would be constrained by the character markers and actions from the original work (as well as fans' expectations for recognizable characters), which may help you learn how to write characters distinctly. This skill can later be transferred to your original characters, who will benefit from your ability to make them sound like distinct and different people.
Both sides of the issue have merit, but what does all this have to do with me? Well, like I said, I found some fanfiction on my computer--my fanfiction--and it severly tested my will power to STOP myself from deleting everything in a fit of blind editorial rage. It also reminded me of all the hilarious, crazy, and fun times I had with my co-writers in middle and high school when we created these abuses against the English language. The stories were fun and outrageous--just the way we liked it--and the characters were, well, very exaggerated and not at all well characterized. But hell, it was FUN, and sometimes the plots were well thought out, and mostly they were freaking hilarious to us. The best part was I found stories I'd sort of forgotten and I still found the ridiculousness of their plots LOL-worthy. My co-writer and I remembered how much laughing was involved as we discussed plot over the phone, and we realized that we STILL found the exact same things funny.
It's been a long time since I've written any fanfic (though I suppose abusing Alz's poor characters counts...), but I do still sometimes read it (re: closure). If anything, fanfiction represents a distinct period of my tween-teenagehood. It also shows, as Alz so sagely remarked, my growth and improvement (oh heavens, the improvement) in my writing. Like, seriously.
In any case, I think the dual nature of fanfiction is best exemplified by the wise words of one of my fandom-participating cohorts, "You have to wade through a lot of shit before you find the good stuff."