If you’ve spent any time online interacting with popular books, movies, TV shows, or many other types of media, you have probably run across the concept of fanfiction. At its simplest, fanfiction involves taking already-established aspects of fictional universes, including characters, settings, and items, and employing them in new stories. Writers get to take the age-old question of storytelling – “What if?” – to the next level. What if Kylo Ren were a sullen closing-shift worker at a coffee shop? What if an adult Harry Potter went on a begrudging buddy-cop-style mission with his school rival? What if Sherlock Holmes – and you’d have to be specific about which incarnation of the character – had joined up with Moriarty to form a mob? Plot holes or gaps in storytelling are also creatively addressed; if a particular character wasn’t on screen, where were they and what were they doing? If they are introduced as an adult without much backstory, what was their childhood like?
It may take a moment to get used to the endlessness of these possibilities. Writers from all over the world, and in a huge variety of languages, have been sharing this kind of content online for years, and have been creating it for far longer than the Internet has been around. Popular online publishing platforms helpfully allow for brief synopses to help readers sort through the massive numbers of works, not unlike blurbs for print books. These sites also feature filtering and tagging systems, allowing pieces to be sorted by word count, the characters that are featured, subject matter, genre, and the language the piece is written in, among many others. There are also rating scales comparable to those of movies, making it convenient to quickly opt in or out of sexual or violent content.
When it comes to the actual content of stories, there are very few rules; authors are under no obligation to adhere to any part of the original media. They can pick and choose which characters, relationships, and in-universe rules they want to include; they will readily abandon canon by transplanting characters into completely different situations, transforming their abilities or physical appearance, or simply ignoring some established aspects of a narrative and writing a new story around them. It requires a fine balance to achieve innovation, while still keeping aspects of the original content recognizable. Most often what ends up being preserved, no matter how the setting and situation change, are characters’ personalities and dynamics with each other, even if they are modified. Works can range from only a few hundred words (or even less) to well into the hundreds of thousands. For comparison, Wuthering Heights is around 100,000 words, while something as lengthy as Les Miserables is well over 500,000. In other words, writers are not just offering short stories and flash fiction; they can produce works comparable to full-length novels.
As bizarre as it may seem to an outsider, fanfiction is a huge aspect of how many people interact with popular media and its fan bases, and the concept is not at all new. Retellings and adaptations have existed for centuries, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet taking many elements of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Virgil’s Aeneid takes extensive inspiration from Homer’s Iliad, expanding on the story of the Trojan hero, Aeneas. Today, there are many derivatives of classic works, such as additional Sherlock Holmes stories, Jane Austen retellings – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies comes to mind – and the recently-published Nick, which invents a backstory for The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway. Fanfiction in the form that most people would think of it, however, is generally traced back to Star Trek fans in the 1960s, when fans made zines and wrote their own stories revolving around the show. Fanfiction has since spread to every major franchise and beyond, spawning its own culture and vernacular.
Support from readers and other writers is what ultimately fuels fanfiction. The overwhelming majority is not monetized, so its authors are writing novella- or novel-length pieces for nothing except the enjoyment of other fans, and some feedback. Longer works are often released in chapters over a period of weeks, months, or years, meaning that the author has the opportunity to constantly interact with readers, as well as their feedback and commentary. In accordance with the sprawling nature of fanfiction’s reach, the quality of works varies widely, from highly skilled veterans to pre-teens who are breaking into the world of storytelling for the very first time. Readers can leave likes or comments, and connections between people build up in the form of beta readers and sharing drafts for editing prior to uploading. It requires none of the trappings of mainstream publishing, such as the cost of an agent or difficulties in getting a publishing deal. For the most part, readers will never know an author’s real name; this anonymity allows them to explore writing on their own terms.
Fanfiction achieves the curious combination of being foremost a labor of love, and occasionally an expression of disappointment with the media it draws on; if official canon does not satisfy, fans take it upon themselves to make it so. Such fixes often involve addressing poorly-received plot points, abandoned narrative threads, or story endings that, according to fans, fail to do justice to beloved characters—works that fall into the third category are often dubbed “fix-it fics.” In other cases, the dissatisfaction is more subtle; fanfiction authors may choose to explore characters and relationships between them that are only minimally explored in the original media (or not at all) or interpret characters’ sexualities and gender identities as they see fit. The exploration of characters who are often assumed to be heterosexual and cisgender as LGBTQ+ is extremely common, and identifies a deep-rooted demand to see diverse representation made center stage in mainstream media, as fans take aspects of what they love and blend them with what they wish they could see.
These thriving communities do not go unnoticed by the creators of the original content off which fanfiction is based, and as fanfiction has evolved, their reactions have been mixed. Because fanfiction is simply posted online to be read, without any profit involved, the legal action that can be taken on the part of the authors may be limited (depending on different countries’ copyright laws). But that has not stopped some from taking vocal stances against it. Anne Rice, known for The Vampire Chronicles, wrote in 2000: “I do not allow fan fiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own characters. It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.” While it is difficult to scrub anything entirely from the internet, major fanfiction website FanFiction.net removed all works that were based on any of Anne Rice’s books, effectively banning them. In comparison to other mainstream authors’ reactions, this was a drastic move; many authors choose not to actively seek out fanfiction of their work and disapprove of it being used for profit, but otherwise have fewer reservations. Neil Gaiman, notable writer of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, voiced his support for fanfiction on Twitter in 2017, stating that he had “won the Hugo Award for a piece of Sherlock Holmes/H. P. Lovecraft fanfiction.” (The piece in question was A Study in Emerald, which was awarded the 2004 Hugo Award for Best Short Story).
The divisions between fanfiction writers and published authors are less obvious than one might think; fanfiction has been a springboard for more than one writer to make it into mainstream world of publishing. E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey series famously began as Twilight fanfiction, originally titled Master of the Universe and starring Bella Swan and Edward Cullen where Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey now exist. While Vintage, the division of Random House that published Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels in physical form, claims that Master of the Universe and Fifty Shades always were and continue to be completely separate works; blogger Jane Litte created a post comparing the two texts side-by-side. The resemblance is glaringly obvious, with some corrections made for grammar, and of course the name changes. Litte writes that the plagiarism-detection service Turnitin identified an 89% similarity between the fanfiction and the final product, indicating that Fifty Shades is not simply a derivative of a fanfiction concept or inspired and then heavily reworked—it is essentially the same piece of work. Its subsequent repackaging catapulted E.L. James onto bestseller lists, and while Twilight author Stephanie Meyer expressed her support for James, this does raise questions about what is owed to the original source material. Another example of an author whose career began in fanfiction is Cassandra Clare, who is known today for her Mortal Instruments series. Before her first novel was published, she was writing Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fanfiction under the pen name Cassandra Claire (she altered the spelling of her name for the publication of The Mortal Instruments) and had amassed a significant following. As of today, The Mortal Instruments spans six books, and Clare has penned several spinoffs.
A third notable case of fanfiction making it into the mainstream fiction world is the writing of Anna Todd, where the edges of fanfiction, published original work, and reality begin to blur even further. While lesser-known than the aforementioned authors, Anna Todd’s first novel, After, was originally published on Wattpad, as One Direction fanfiction. Fan works that feature real people – in this case, Harry Styles in particular, though other members are also incorporated into the storyline – skips the moral question of borrowing other people’s fictional creations and goes straight to the significantly more invasive activity of reimagining their personal lives. After in its present form tells the story of college freshman Tessa and her tumultuous relationship with Hardin, the bad-boy archetype whose first name is a thinly veiled derivative of Harry Styles’s. The rest of the band’s real-life members are similarly disguised, rewritten into the narrative as friends of the main characters, attending the same college. The series has been widely criticized and mocked for its poor-quality prose and glamorization of abusive relationships, but regardless of its scathing reception, it has found what many authors struggle to achieve: the support of a publisher and an audience for not only the first book, but its multiple sequels and at least one spin-off, as well as four movies. Regardless of its literary merit, or lack thereof, After is commercially viable, and the prospect of capitalizing on fanfiction may lead publishers to begin looking more closely into online fanfiction communities for new authors.
There is no singular way to encompass the enormity of fanfiction’s presence online and its influence on fan engagement. As Lev Grossman put it in TIME Magazine in 2011, “The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.” Regardless of whether it builds up a huge following and ends up in your local bookstore or is abandoned deep in the bowels of the internet, or whether it is ever even posted at all, fanfiction is part of a dialogue between artists – fledgling, professional, and everything in between. As long as storytelling remains sufficiently inspiring, or dissatisfying enough to merit extended creative responses, fanfiction will persist, adapt, and continue to dive deeper into fictional universes and characters than established canon could ever allow.
The exploration of characters who are often assumed to be heterosexual and cisgender as LGBTQ+ is extremely common, and identifies a deep-rooted demand to see diverse representation made center stage in mainstream media, as fans take aspects of what they love and blend them with what they wish they could see.