I was about twelve, when I first discovered fanfiction or, rather, discovered I wasn’t the only one.
If you’ve never heard of fanfiction, also referred to as fanfic, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Enthusiasts – fans – take the characters from a preexisting world, be it movies, books, television, comics or, on occasion, real people, and they model their own storylines, relationships and obstacles within that world. Fanfic gets a bad rap and I don’t think it’s deserved. In fact, there are many elements of fanfiction that aid writers – amateurs and professionals alike.
It is not a new nor original concept, with history dating its origins back to the 1960s, where fanzines for Star Trek enthusiasts got a taste of what it would be like to be in the pilot’s seat for plotting. These stories, considered the inception of fanfiction in its modern iteration, including a common term – shipping – where fans created a relationship between the two main characters of Spock and Kirk. So it’s not new, but with the rise of the Internet, it became significantly easier to find fellow fans in general, and with that came a place to display the artistic content created within a pre-made universe.
Now, there is terrible fanfiction. In fact, a lot of it is terrible. While some of the more diehard fans refer to BETA reviewers and edit their work at a professional level, many of the fanfiction writers don’t. And many of the writers are young, really young. As I mentioned above, I started posting my fanfiction when I was twelve. I had been writing it for years before that. Factor in the crutch of a pre-existing world, and many authors forgo the basics of storytelling, characterization and grammar.
But on the flip side of the coin, there is really, really good work out there too – work so good it has come to the attention of authors and screenwriters, work that has become entwined in our minds with the original story, for its character depth, commitment to canon (the official or original content of the media), and story elements. On more than one occasion, I have stumbled upon fanfiction stories where the author is so good I want them to write full-length novels.
So, why don’t they? What’s the big appeal of writing what some consider fiction to fall on the wrong side of the fair use question? Why spend hours – and hours and hours and hours – playing house with another author’s characters? Well, there are many answers to that question.
Have you ever watched a movie or read a book where you loved 95%, but the ending just missed the mark by a mile? A lot of fanfic is about righting what the writer considers to be story flaws, retelling scenes or ending the novel how they felt it should have been ended. Fanfiction provides an outlet for that audience frustration and gives the fanfic writer a chance to end the story the way they want to.
In a similar capacity, fanfiction allows the writer to hang out with their favorite characters and tell them what to do. Romance is a fundamental element of the fanfiction medium, as you can see with the Spock and Kirk origins or the prevalence of Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter stories. Now, part of the reason it has the reputation is does, is because it’s often used for writing what is considered literary pornography, referred to as smut or PWP – Plot What Plot? In my early days, we called it lemons, which goes a long way to dating me…
The thing is, there is a remarkable amount of sexual content in fanfiction, so the reputation isn’t undeserved. But the uneducated often miss an important element of why that sexual content is important, instead of just depraved. In my experiences and many of those shared by friends and other fans of the medium, the sexual nature of fanfiction is a safe place for young people – especially young women – to explore their own desires and interests. It doesn’t have the overbearing misogyny of the porn industry, nor its impossible standards, and it invites us into a space with characters we recognize in a universe we know.
Does every 15-year-old writing know the intricacies of safe and consensual sex, definitely not. But it’s still a world where readers feel safe and comfortable to find the kinds of relationships and sexual experiences that they desire. There is very little wonder about the correlation between the readers and writers of fanfiction who go on to become readers and writers of romance and erotic romance novels.
I’m explaining why people read – not why they write. Here’s the long and short. It’s fun. It breaks down writer’s block and it provides a forum for people to respond to your writing with praise or critique. For several years I wrote long form stories with achingly long hiatuses between chapters, and I reveled in the congratulatory reviews and did my best to appease the critical readers. It was a great place to showcase my work to an audience I felt would appreciate it.
I don’t write fanfiction anymore. Truth be told, I don’t have the time. I left several unfinished stories behind in search of the greener pastures of my current three novels in progress. Writing to me is a business, not a hobby, and so I should be spending my time on original content that can be sold, rather than delving back into the fanfic world. But though circumstances have drawn me away, I have no less respect for it. It is a medium apart, but fundamental to the writers, readers and enthusiasts of today’s world.
If you want even a hint of the impact fanfiction has, check out a little series called Fifty Shades of Grey – a Twilight fanfiction. (Just in case you were wondering why it was so atrocious.)
When I was writing fanfic in high school and early college – and I wrote a lot – my dad would point out that I should be writing my own work, instead of playing around with someone else’s. But the benefits of doing just that taught me an incredible amount about character development, relationships and story arcs. Using pre-made characters in a pre-made world allowed me to utilize my creativity to the fullest extent, without worrying over the important fundamentals that create a world.
And it worked.
Because twelve years after I started posting my fanfiction, I am the published author of four novellas and three short stories, with two completed novels in the publishing process. I owe much of that to my fanfiction days, to the writing skills I developed and the support I gleaned along the way. By no means is fanfic a perfect media, but it is a remarkable tool for any writer to utilize – and a lot of fun.
So next time you thinking about knocking down the folks who write it, why not check it out instead – there’s something for everyone. ♦