A Fanfiction Primer: What is This Nonsense, Anyway?

Fanfiction. So maybe you’ve heard of it? You might have read this article. You certainly know that 50 Shades of Gray came from a Twilight fanfic. But for all it’s been talked about in the media lately, you may not be exactly sure what it is. A dark hole in the Internet? A lightly disturbing and invasive hobby? An odd, obsessive escapism for people who watch too much TV?

All of these things are true. And not. Much like the rest of the Internet, fanfiction is an outlet for expression, a tool that can be used in many, many different ways. And much like the rest of the Internet, some of those things can be very creepy. But some of them, if you know what you’re looking for, can be absolutely inspiring.

Fanfiction, or stories written by fans featuring characters and universes that have already been published or produced, has actually been around longer than the Internet. In the ancient days of woolly mammoths and communication via the postal service, fanfiction was limited to newsletters sent to fans of certain content. However, with the invention and popularization of the Internet, fanfiction has become a well-known phenomenon.

There’s an art to communicating the essence of a character, relationship or a story, manipulating an existing canon to create a new outcome, and telling the future of a story in such a way that it is of the source-content but also separate from it. Like all things on the Internet, some of it is terrible, and some of it is mediocre and forgettable. But some of it, like all literature, will make you want to live your life differently and see something in a new light. And, in much the way all good writing does, it can make your heart hurt.

Fanfiction is also a great way to be exposed to ideas and concepts that don’t often make an appearance in mainstream media. Because fanfiction is so popular, free, and accessible, it includes many facets of society that suffer from underrepresentation and erasure in mainstream media. Sexuality, gender, race, disability, prejudice, and so many other things that are part and parcel of the human experience but are poorly represented in mainstream media can be found in abundance in the world of fanfiction.

Many authors, however, particularly older ones, are not okay with fanfiction. They think it’s invasive and an assault against their brand, their creation, and their intellectual property. And there are some hairy ethical lines when you consider the sheer number of novels coming out at the moment that used to be fanfiction of a sort. Some authors are fine with it as long as you don’t make any money off of their work. At the end of the day, it depends on why you’re reading fanfiction. A number of authors, such as John Green, have admitted to writing fanfiction of their own. It’s up to you how you deal with the opinion of the creator of your source content, but whatever you decide it is something to be aware of.

Whatever the authors may think, one thing is certainly true: fanfiction readers and writers love the content from which their stories derive. Some of them are looking for closure on a plot arch they disagree with. Some are looking to see their favorite characters embark on a beautiful, romantic relationship. Some are looking to get some fulfillment and closure on abruptly canceled shows, or cliff hanger novels. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you remember the years and years and years and years (okay, maybe just three, but if felt like forever, alright?) between Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. What else was there to do during that period but think about what might happen?

However, it would be wrong for me to let you go wandering around out there without giving you this warning. Beware the porn. Yes, the purple prose, the wide variety of kinks, the characters that you never, ever, ever thought should ever engage in sexual activity. It’s all out there. If you aren’t into it, beware anything tagged Explicit, Mature, NSFW (Not Suitable for Work), or PWP (Porn Without Plot, or Plot, What Plot?). If you are into it, well…enjoy!

So you’re looking to read (or write!) some fanfiction now? Maybe we’ve got you thinking about a conversation you wish two characters would have on your favorite show. Maybe you’re thinking about that last book you read. An event was mentioned and never shown, but you’ve got an idea how it happened. So what are your next steps?

Head to the Internet, of course! Fanfiction.net is a good place to start. It’s been around forever, so what you’re looking for is likely on it in some capacity. It’s a pretty solid place to get your introduction to fanfiction. Another great place is Archive of Our Own, which is, as they say on their home page, “a fan-created, fan-run, nonprofit, noncommercial archive for transformative fanworks, like fanfiction, fanart, fanvids, and podfic.” The site is still in beta testing, but there are hundreds of thousands of works from all kinds of source content. If you’re familiar with Livejournal, there are plenty of fanfiction communities that use that site for hosting as well, and can be found with a simple Google search.

Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it. From AUs (Alternative Universes, which feature your favorite characters in a new plot, universe, or setting), to novel-length prequels and sequels, to resurrections of your favorite characters, it’s all out there on the Internet, waiting for you to read it. And if it isn’t, well, you can always write your own!

Photo by Anastasia Heuer

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