There’s a definite pattern to learning anything creative. You start by learning the basic techniques with someone else. That someone else forms your early projects because you’re expected to imitate the given style. For some, imitating is just fine because it means they can worry about getting everything right without having to worry about finding their own vision. For others, imitating isn’t satisfying enough, and soon they’re creating an imitation, looking at it through a lens of “What if” and infusing the next attempt at the technique with their own imagination and inspirations.
For these creators, fan fiction is important. Some of them insert themselves into the world to interact with the characters. Some explore the characters themselves. giving them alternate personalities or sending them to explore another story’s world. A few even try to imagine alternate endings or what happened after the story ended.
Some authors rail at this. Those creators who oppose fan fiction (or fan art of any medium) have a valid point. They worked long and hard to create their world, their characters, their storyline. Now, some fan just feels free to step into the world and start playing with the characters their own way. It can feel disrespectful and even insulting, like the original creator’s work wasn’t good enough for the fan. But by playing “What If” with a preexisting character or setting and putting their own twist on the original, the writer is learning about setting and character development from the author’s own techniques.
As the writer continues to twist the original setting and characters, infusing more of her own vision into her work, she starts internalizing those techniques and using them to bring out her own vision. Each step along the path might still show some inspiration from the original creator’s work, but eventually she learns how to create and explore settings and characters of her own design, moving on to original works for someone else to derive fan fiction from. In my experience, she becomes a stronger writer because she took the time to tinker with someone else’s creations, essentially deconstructing them and learning about character and setting development from the inside out.
It’s fine to learn by imitation, but never forget to take a step back from what you’ve made and ask yourself how you can do it differently. Find your own voice and let it shine through each subsequent piece.