Sometimes, creativity and inspiration can be elusive things. Though I’d like to think I’ve come close to mastering how to evoke my imagination whenever I need her, I still run into instances where all of my flowing thoughts and ideas dry up. Then I’m stuck metaphorically banging my head against the table of whichever coffee shop I’ve chosen to haunt that day until something comes out. When this happens, and it does to even the best of us writers, we must take up the task of reigniting that creativity.
One of the ways I’ve done so in the past, and continue to do in some form today, is through online fan culture. Though admittedly intense at times, fan culture or fandoms, are incredible wellsprings of inspiration and creativity. The love and devotion to something that has had a profound impact on our lives fuels the creation of something new, even within an established universe.
And today, that’s where we’ll draw from.
The following are three fan-culture creations, of sorts, that have been invaluable in helping restart my creative engine, and a few ways you can use them in your own writing pursuits.
Role-playing games (RPGs) are excellent tools of inspiration for a multitude of reasons. You not only get the opportunity to create a completely original character within an established universe, you get to see how that character interacts with others and even receive feedback on them. For me, the Harry Potter fandom has always been one of my favorites to be a part of. As a handler on popular Harry Potter RPG site Pottersworld, I had the opportunity to truly pour into each character I created.
Though I started off with just their names, their age and that “mysterious letter” from a wizarding school, it quickly ballooned into entire backstories. Each post allowed me to get to know my character(s) better, their likes and dislikes or why they reacted to people the way they did. Eventually, I was building their whole lives with help from the friends I’d made in other characters’ handlers.
Ways to use RPGs: With a world already built for you, take the time to focus just on your character(s). Start with a simple feature or attribute or age, whether in a play-by-post online format with a global community, or on your own with a few friends. Regardless of the format, try developing your character in real time. Place them in a circumstance and write their reactions to it, then another characters’ reactions and so on. It may not be the story you end up writing, but it’ll give you the opportunity to roleplay your character(s), learn how they interact with others and the world around them, and give you inspiration for how to write them in other settings.
Some of the most beautiful stories and writing I’ve ever read have come out of fan fiction pieces. And I have always marvelled at what others are able to pull out of their imaginations and put on the page. Fan fiction can work as fuel for creativity both from the perspective of a reader and a writer.
As a reader of fan fiction, going through stories that others created within the given universe was awe inspiring and gave me a new perspective on plot lines and characters that I never considered before. Being a reader also gave me the opportunity to give feedback on other writers’ stories. This opened me up to even more creative possibilities as I helped make their stories the best they could be. As a writer of fan fiction, I put my imagination to work using the established world as a jumping off point.
Ways to use fan fiction: Though you are bound to the laws and limitations of a specific universe, your limits of what and who you create within it are endless. Whether as part of an online community or completely on your own, try weaving new characters or already established characters into a completely new narrative. Either start by having them make a different choice than what was made in canon, or tell the story from a different perspective. This way, you are giving yourself the opportunity to be creative, regardless of it being within an already built universe, that can eventually inspire you to branch out into one of your own design.
Visuals, whether you physically see them or they’re described to you, can inspire entire epics. They’re also what can pull whole characters, themes, and stories together, rounding out who and what readers are interacting with. It makes the entire experience more concrete—cue graphics making.
As an admirer and user on The Dark Arts forums, I was exposed to countless images created and manipulated by the site’s artists that had my imagination on overdrive. And when I needed an avatar and signature image for my RPG characters, or banners and chapter images for my fan fiction stories, there were always artists I could work with to bring those visions to life. Contrastly, as an artist on the forums, I was given the tools and know how to create my own work, no matter how unpolished in the beginning. The whole purpose at the end of the day, was to use these finished products to spark creativity, whether it was to start a story, pull it all together or convey another character’s story.
Ways to use graphics making: Like the already established universes RPGs and fan fiction rely on, use graphics making as a jumping off point. Scroll through online galleries of artists within your fandom of choice (sometimes googling “fan art” is enough to bring up numerous options) to help get your wheels turning on parts of your stories or characters you’re stuck on. To take it a step further, try creating something of your own with free programs (like HeroMachine 3 for fantasy characters or GIMP for general graphics creation).
When I can’t think of how to describe a scene or come up with a character’s full backstory, I oftentimes open my graphics programs and put something together. No real direction or particular method, but by the end, whether I like what I’ve created or not, my imagination is ready to breathe again.
The lesson here isn’t to take what someone else has done (either the source material or a fan-inspired creation) and pass it off as your own, but to use what was created before to inspire what you’ll create next. Because online fan culture is absolutely beautiful. In addition to being an incredible source of community, it is also teeming with some of the world’s most creative individuals who continuously inspire the rest of us to create. So, whatever you’re a fan of, be it Harry Potter or something else, be sure to take stock of the tools it’s giving you and how you can use them to cultivate your own creativity.
Jenn Walton is a writer, editor and storyteller based in Washington, D.C., whose fiction works are housed mainly in the speculative genre. She is currently working on her first novel project that explores, through the lens of a failing utopia, what happens when society gives in to its fear of the other. She previously wrote for a communications firm where she drafted and edited sponsored and organic content for top-tier academic institutions, Fortune 500 companies and leading philanthropic organizations that has run in The Washington Post, USA Today and the Atlantic. For more from Jenn, please visit her at her website or on Twitter.