In addition to getting my name out to hundreds if not thousands of potential readers, my fan-fiction has had another benefit--it has helped me practice character growth.
That's character growth, as opposed to character development. The development is done by the original creators, but I, like many other fan-fiction writers, took the characters in different directions than they went in the actual books. Character growth is important for writing--I've been taught that dynamic characters (characters that change) are better than static characters (who don't). I imagine they're more interesting, at the very least.
Here're some examples from my non-original work:
The Wrath of the Half-Blood Prince
Severus Snape-The tale begins with Severus Snape at around 16, a nerdy, insecure Goth boy attracted to the Dark Side and somewhat clingy toward his female best friend, whom he has more than friendly feelings for. He is also somewhat selfish--the only thing he cares about more than personal advancement is Lily Evans, the friend in question. The events of the first chapter, in which he throws away the Death Eaters as a means of advancement to avenge an attack on Lily, show these priorities just as his submission to Dumbledore in order to protect Lily (and after some prodding, her husband and son) in the actual books did.
Although he never abandons his interest in the Dark Arts and retains some of his ends-justify-the-means Slytherin attitude (something that will prove useful in the coming war), his desire to avoid becoming his controlling, emotionally-abusive father and treating Lily as his father did his mother lead to him mastering his insecurities (the cause of his clinginess), while a new circle of friends and a new rivalry with his former friends Avery and Mulciber and Lucius Malfoy helps him "detox" from the racist and selfish attitudes fostered by the Death-Eater-dominated Slytherin House at the time.
He retains his introversion and intellectualism, but he overcomes his pettiness and propensity for vindictiveness to the point he protects his old rival James Potter from another member of the Order of the Phoenix whom he had taught the Dark Arts and who had gone insane after the death of his fiancee. I figured shared service in the war against the Dark Lord would help heal the breach between him and the Marauders--from what I've read, fighting together can forge nigh-unbreakable bonds between people.
The Marauders-I went into this story primarily pondering Snape, but one of my readers on FictionAlley (a Harry Potter fan-fiction message-board) said that they really liked my Marauders (James Potter, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Peter Pettigrew). They said they grew from "bullies into men of character" and I did this very well.
I figured this growth followed the canonical timeline--James Potter apparently developed from the Gryffindor equivalent of Draco Malfoy into a man who thrice defied the Dark Lord and won the heart of a woman who once scorned him as an arrogant thug, even though his canonical death left something to be desired. Although *how* this took place in the books isn't described, I figured he would seek out the Order of the Phoenix due to his anti-Bloodist and anti-racist views (one of the young James' few virtues) and aggressive Gryffindor tendencies. Service in the war would then force maturation upon him, as it often does.
Lily Evans-The young Lily is not well-developed in canon beyond the fact she was kindhearted and open-minded enough to befriend the impoverished and strange young Snape and later had the moral backbone cut ties with him (her first wizarding friend) when he had gone over to the Dark Side. There is a line in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows suggesting she believes Dark Magic to be intrinsically evil.
However, when your enemy is willing to use lethal Dark Magic and you're not, that puts you at a military disadvantage. Those who remember Lily recall her intelligence, so I figured she would conclude it is better to be willing to violate previously-held taboos in order to defeat an enemy that seeks the degradation or extermination of all her kind rather than be a Doomed Moral Victor (see TVTropes) and allow a wizarding terrorist with aspirations to immortality to win. And she is basically moral enough for this violation of her conscience to take its toll--there is an entire chapter in which Snape tries to cheer her up after she uses Sectumsempra to kill a Death Eater menacing a wounded Snape and falls into guilt and sadness. While Snape abandons his excessively-pragmatic Slytherin thought processes to a great extent, Lily stops being counter-productively rigid and moralistic.
Lord of the Werewolves
Remus Lupin-At the beginning of "Lord of the Werewolves," Lupin is his canonical self. He's someone who is basically decent and physically brave, but a lifetime of social rejection has led him to appreciate his few friends overmuch and lack the moral courage to stand up to them or disappoint them. This we see in his teens, when he refuses to stop his friends from bullying Snape despite him being the prefect, and as an adult when he does not tell Dumbledore that Sirius Black, whom everyone has reason to believe is a Death Eater, is an Animagus because it would show Dumbledore that he and the others had abused his trust to commit a crime (Animagi are supposed to be registered with the government).
However, Lupin has a dark side that can be roused when those close to him are wronged, something we see in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when he and Sirius have the treacherous Peter Pettigrew at their mercy. Sirius rages, but Lupin coldly informs Peter they're going to kill him. In "Lord," when Tonks is injured, denied medical treatment because her husband is a werewolf, and ultimately miscarries, there is no Harry to stop Lupin from unleashing "the wolf" and the prejudiced Healers die like Pettigrew would have.
Forced to take refuge with werewolf terrorist Fenrir Greyback, the one who infected him with lycanthropy in the first place, Lupin falls under his influence. Though Lupin has enough basic morality to not adopt Greyback's vengeful attitude and werewolf-supremacist belief system no matter what atrocities Greyback forces him to commit, living in the werewolf colony cannot help but be an influence on his character. He tones down the self-loathing and becomes more aggressive and decisive, something that manifests itself when he persuades Greyback to lycanthroprize rather than execute a captured Order member and then, during a Valentine's Day sexual encounter, wears out Tonks rather than the other way around.
This new attitude ultimately enables him to stand up to his friends in the Order of the Phoenix when he executes a Valkyrie-style coup in the werewolf colony, unleashes the werewolves on the Death Eaters, and seizes control of the wizarding government while the final battle against the Dark Lord rages at Hogwarts.
I don't think Nymphadora Tonks really has any character growth. She went from her canonical spunky self into some very dark places due to her losing her baby, but eventually fully recovered. I don't think she permanently changed, although the story does explore what goes on in her head during her "emo phase" (in which her hair is brown rather than pink and she mopes).
Hopefully I will be able to put these lessons to work in my original novel Battle for the Wastelands. I have already depicted protagonist Andrew Sutter as a greenhorn hesitant to kill and grown him out of that--one has to in a wartime situation or else one will not survive. The section I'm currently working on depicts the beginnings of him growing out of his childhood racism against "the trading folk," a nomadic Gypsy-like mercantile culture whose members he typically refers to as "pikeys" (a real-life slur against the Irish Travellers).
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