When I was in middle school, I had a little obsession: Sailor Moon. I watched all the episodes my mother would allow, visited the fan sites, and even had notebooks with friends where we were each assigned a Sailor Scout (or senshi if you are going to be hardcore about it). As in, we would write notes to each other and sign them as the character. Ok, maybe I was majorly obsessed. In my search for Sailor Jupiter fan sites, I stumbled on new scouts. Ones with names like Sailor Sun or Sailor Earth. And they were made up by people like me! This was a revelation. If they could write their own story lines, so could I.
And so I did. I created a blonde scout dressed in sparkling silver named Sailor Star (original, I know). To make it even worse, she was a total Mary Sue. She was pretty much perfect in every way, and everyone want to be her best friend. Despite these literary sins, she was actually wild popular. She won contests for most popular scout and gained pixilated badges for things like "Best New Scout." I weep for the Internet during the turn of our last century.
Embarrassing? Of course not! I wouldn't be blogging about it if I was. I know there is a huge stigma around fan fiction. For good reason. It is illegal if published. And a lot of it is really badly written. Much of it is written by middle schoolers in their parents' basement.
But that is why it is important. It gives novice writers a safe place to practice writing. The characters and worlds are already built. You just have to focus on the plot and writing. There is something powerful to that. Would I be as good at writing as I am now without fan fiction? I doubt it. Sailor Star, as pathetic as she was, taught me a lot about dialogue, plotting, and the act of sitting in your butt in the chair and writing. I wouldn't trade those hours writing about her magic star powers for anything in the world.
So go ahead and write fan fiction based on your favorite novel or TV show. Just don't publish it. We don't want Shonda Rhimes to take you to court. We know that woman doesn't mess around.