I completely agree re the importance of technical skill. Too much fanfic that I’ve read is lacking in that. On the other hand, it seems to me that much commercially published literature is not written with as much technical skill as was common, say, thirty or forty years ago. Maybe that’s just me being middle-aged and crabby, but that’s how it looks to me, at least. Something else that I think is important in the specific context of fanfic is the ability to do well-executed deflection points. Let me explain what I mean.
In many ways, fanfic is like alternate history fiction. In an alternate history fiction, you have a world just like ours but the American colonies never broke away from England, or Hitler won WW II, or Russia beat us to the moon, or whatever. Usually in such works, there is a key point that goes differently–a deflection point–causing the divergence. For example, in “The City on the Edge of Tomorrow”, Edith Keeler is saved by Dr. McCoy. Because of that, she lives and spreads her movement; which causes the U. S. to delay entry into WW II; which allows the Germans to build nuclear weapons; which means Hitler wins; which means there was never a Federation; and so on. All because of one event.
Likewise in Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, Giuseppe Zangara succeeded in assassinating Franklin D. Roosevelt. With FDR dead, the depression continued and the U. S. became isolationist and refused to enter the war; so the Nazis won.
The common factor in both of these is plausibility. Neither of these things actually did happen (Edith Keeler wasn’t even a real person), but both scenarios have a feel of plausibility. They didn’t happen; but they could have happened; and if they had happened, we can believe that history would have diverged as described. Both points of deflection or divergence are realistic. By contrast, suppose someone wrote a novel in which the Nazis won because FDR just decided not to enter the war after Pearl Harbor. Now one can hypothesize that happening; but nothing we know about the political milieu, the personality of FDR, and so on, leads us to believe he would have so acted. Such a deflection point is not at all plausible.
So, back to fanfic. It’s not always the case, but a lot of fanfic is like alternate history in that it takes the basic scenario and does a “what if”–what if Harry Potter had fallen for Hermione, instead? What if Luke Skywalker had turned to the Dark Side? And so on. This is the glory of fanfic; but it can also be a problem. The problem, as I see it, is that a lot of fanfic doesn’t give plausible deflection points. Rather than taking a character we know and explaining why he or she does X instead of the canonical Y, and doing so by careful writing, the writer in essence just asserts that the character does X, period. Sort of like saying, “What if FDR just decided not to enter WW II?”
For example, if Bob is established in a series as a staunch pacifist, and the fic writer wants to write a story in which Bob is a kick-ass warrior, the writer has a responsibility to explain how Bob, well-established in canon as a pacifist, ends up becoming Rambo. He has to take the Bob-of-canon and explore what things could happen that would plausibly result in his becoming a fighter. That could be done; but it would take careful thought and good writing. Otherwise, you just get a character who is “Bob” only in name, but bearing no other relationship to the Bob the fans all know and love. Too many writers do just that, however.
This kind of poor deflection seems particularly common with shipping (setting up canonical characters in relationships–“ships”–with each other according to how the fan thinks it should have been, for those uninitiated into fanspeak). For example, it wouldn’t be too implausible to have Harry Potter ending up with Hermione Granger or Cho Chang instead of Ginny Weasley. It would require tweaking, but not a lot. To ship him with Ron would be trickier. After all, there is nothing in the canonical portrayal of Harry and Ron that indicates they’re potentially gay or bi. However, a skillful writer could probably delve into their psyches, work out a plausible divergence, and pull it off. But for those who ship Harry and Draco Malfoy? (and yes, they exist) Wrong orientation; two characters that hate each other, anyway; and two characters that, even if they were the right orientation and didn’t hate each other, give no indication that they would even hypothetically be interested in each other on any level. It’s hard to see a way of writing such a ship while plausibly maintaining the integrity of the characters as established in canon and explaining how they end up as a couple. It would be like an alternate history of the U. S. in which the Founding Fathers vote to make Basque the official language–how do you plausibly do that?
In a lot of fic, ships (and other divergences from canon) are, in short, just asserted, by fiat, without the author doing the heavy lifting of explaining why the divergence occurred. Sort of like saying, “Well, FDR just decided not to enter WW II!” Apparently, the animal magnetism of one character is sufficient to draw the other, no matter how canonically implausible a relationship would be. Alternately, in a non-ship context, apparently a character does X instead of Y just because. God forbid someone should explain it!
In fairness, I should note that I’ve read alternate history fiction that didn’t do a particularly good job of deflection points, either. That’s understandable–it requires a lot of thought and work to do a convincing divergence. Nevertheless, if you’re going to write alternate history–or fanfic–it’s a skill you have to have; and one that not everyone who writes in either field does have, unfortunately. I’d conclude by saying that if you’re interested in writing fanfic, or already do so, take to heart developing good technical skills and plausibility in writing divergences–shoot for the best! If you’re a reader of fanfic, demand good skills and good divergences–demand the best!