Seeing the word “fanfiction” just now either made you smile fondly or put the fear of God in you. Both of those reactions are justified. While fanfiction can be bizarre, horrifying, and weirdly sexual, it can also be inspiring, thought-provoking, and weirdly sexual.
Okay, okay, not all fanfiction is sexual. Just a lot of it.
Fanfiction holds a weird place in the writing world. It’s been heralded as both wildly creative and shamefully derivative in the mainstream, and is simultaneously praised and mocked in the online community. Some people don’t even know what fanfiction is (quick definition if that’s you: stories written and put online for free based on any preexisting work, ranging from the actual Bible to Stranger Things), and many more don’t want to take it seriously. But seeing as the highest grossing book of all time started out as a Twilight fanfiction…
I think we’re past the point where we can ignore or dismiss its impact and effect on our media.
Speaking of media, the definition of media studies is “a discipline and field of study that deals with the content, history, and effects of various media; in particular, the mass media”. This is relevant because while, yes, there is fanfiction for everything from A Beautiful Mind to Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, the majority of fanfiction tends to focus on works that are at least mainstream-ish. To put it another way, in order to have a lot of fanfiction, a decent sized fanbase is required. The works mentioned above, for example, got 4 and 2 hits respectively on AO3. Both were produced by big studios (Universal and Disney, respectively), and were successful when they came out, but they didn’t have that elusive something that sparks a large internet fanbase. Meanwhile, works that are relatively obscure in the mainstream like Supernatural, Welcome to Night Vale, and Homestuck have steady fanbases that are still churning out new content years after the work’s original debut, and are still based on works that are mass produced, like television.
Alright, so we’ve established that the focuses of fanfiction can fall under “mass media”. Let’s look at those three focuses, then.
Fanfiction is much broader than stereotypes would have you believe. As I said before, they aren’t all about sex. They’re not even necessarily all about romantic relationships. That does tend to be a common theme, and we’ll get to that, but let’s break down three points that define the spectrum of fanfiction: canonverse, canon-divergence, and alternate universe. And let’s use a broad work as our backdrop.
A canonverse fic stays within the boundaries of the work, for the most part. It doesn’t seek to add so much as expand. Maybe it explains what Character A was doing offscreen while we were following Character B, like “The Story of How Leia Passed The Time In That Prison Cell”. Maybe it includes a short character interaction that took place after the ending credits, like “The Story of Leia and Han Reaffirming Their Relationship After The Ewok Party”. Maybe it takes a minor character you only see once and creates a whole story for them, like “The Story of That One Watchtower Guy And What Happens When He Has to Pee”. None of these stories contradict the canon — Leia’s thoughts in the cell or the Watchtower Guy’s schedule don’t change the events of the movie. They just add a bit of depth and character development to what is already there.
Canon divergence is the grey area of the three. As I said, this is a spectrum, so there’s a lot of variation on this theme in particular, but put simply, canon divergence is exactly what it says — diverging from canon. An easy example of this is “fix-it fics”, fanfictions that are written explicitly to “fix” things in canon that the fans don’t like, or that just make them sad. “No Jar-Jar” fics or “Midichlorians mean nothing” fics would be an example of the former, and “Padme lives” fics and “let’s ignore the end of Rogue One” fics would be the latter. Really, though, anything that changes any part of the story for the sake of fic would fall under canon divergence.
And all the way at the far end of canon divergence is alternate universe, or AU fics. These are the fics that take the characters and put them somewhere completely different. There are no rules here. Anakin and the gang in high school! Rogue One on Earth in the 1960's! The Prequel Trilogy as an Elizabethan tragedy! As another example, Fifty Shades is an example of an AU Twilight fic — Bella and Edward aged up and made human, where the danger isn’t bloodsucking vampires but BDSM (actually it’s abuse, but don’t tell E.L. James that). These works vary on how tied to the original source material they are, but they’re generally less interested in the original setting than they are the characters, or even just the general idea of the characters.
As you can see, there’s a lot more here than just sex. Sex and relationships do tend to come up a lot, though, because they’re the most obvious thing to try and fix or expand upon. These characters claim to be in love but don’t talk much, so let’s write a scene where they have a heart-to-heart and actually bond! These characters claim they aren’t in love even thought they CLEARLY are, so let’s write the scene where they finally confess their love and do the do!
But there’s more to it than just that. A lot of Rogue One fics, for example, focus on what the day-to-day lives of the characters would be, how they would interact and relate to each other given the time and opportunity to breathe. A lot of them diagnose Cassian with PTSD, discuss Jyn’s abandonment issues at length, explain the differences between Chirrut and Baze and how that came to be. This is because in the work itself, we don’t dive too deep into these characters, and don’t even know who they would be outside of a war. That curiosity void is filled via speculation, which gets written down into fics.
This kind of speculation didn’t start with the internet age, obviously. It has a long and proud —
Jordan West wrote a great article on this subject already, but put simply:
Everything is fanfiction.
In the sense of “a reimagining of a preexisting work”, fanfiction has been around since the idea of stories. The Greek myths were told and retold countless times through word of mouth, so not only did things doubtless change because the storyteller wanted to add a bit of flair or something relevant to their current audience, but details most likely got misremembered as time went on, which also changed the story.
To get a bit more technical, though, Romeo and Juliet was essentially a fix-it fic of Arthur Brooke’s The Tragical Historye of Romeus and Juliet. Brooke’s version is mostly unsympathetic to its titular characters, with the story being more of a cautionary tale about what happens when you don’t listen to your smart and wise and always-right parents when they tell you to not have sex, because you will have to poison yourself, and die. Shakespeare’s version, in contrast, paints the titular characters as young and stupid, yes, but in a way that’s sympathetic and understandable because they’re literal children. He also places the blame more on the parents than the children. Rather than fixing the ending, Shakespeare fixed the themes and the framing, and the result is that no one remembers or can even pronounce The Tragical Historye of Romeus and Juliet, but everyone and their mom can quote Romeo and Juliet. A fanfic outselling the original source material, where have we seen that before?
There’s also the original Sherlock Holmes fandom, all the way back in the late 1800’s. Almost from the beginning, the Sherlock Holmes stories gained a huge readership. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually raised the price of the magazines in which Sherlock Holmes was published so they would stop selling and he could get on to writing other things, but the fandom was so dedicated that they bought them anyway, making ol’ ACD both crazy rich and crazy mad. And when he finally killed off the famous detective in 1893 in another attempt to make people read his other work, there was such a public outcry that he published another full Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, in 1901, and finally brought him back to life for good just two years after that. In that interval, and even before, people would write to Doyle, to Sherlock himself, and to each other with theories, praise, and of course, their own stories.
But the fandom that most people will name when you ask them about the start of fandom and fanfiction as we know it, would be Star Trek.
It’s hard to pick just one element that led to the surge and unique type of popularity that caused Star Trek to define many parts of the internet. It really was all of them coming together. The show debuted in the late 60’s, a decade full of pushes for equal rights for many marginalized groups and general distaste for the status quo, with one of the most diverse casts in the history of television, even by today’s standards. It was a mainstream show that wasn’t afraid to get really dorky, both with its lore and its cheesy acting, which was unheard of at a time when most media was concerned with being as inoffensive and mindlessly consumed as possible. It saw a version of humanity that, while still flawed, was still unambiguously a better future than our present. And of course, this didn’t hurt.
Now, this wasn’t the only thing fanfic writers latched onto, by any means. As I mentioned, Star Trek and its seven-billion spinoffs have the time and the desire to create a rich, compelling world that other writers can play around in.
But yeah, this was the big one.
Kirk and Spock’s relationship would serve as the template for other shows in the future who wanted the kind of devotion Star Trek had. Kirk and Spock shared a very close relationship and several intimate moments like the one above, but their feelings were never stated outright. This helped fanfic writers feel compelled to fill in the gaps. The problem then, of course, is that the attention may stop if you DO fill that gap, innuendo not intended, so showrunners will drag it on and on while still putting moments here and there to keep the audience engaged.
You may recognize this practice, if you’ve been a queer person who got their hopes up every once in a while. It’s called queerbaiting, it sucks, and we don’t have time to get all the way into it. Suffice to say, in the 60’s there was a risk of violence and losing one’s job that came with writing queer characters that does not exist today, and yet some writers still follow the practice.
But unfortunately, this works. Shows that tease relationships are always fodder for fanfic, but queer ones even more so. The power of K/S literally started everything we’ve come to take for granted about internet fandom, from larger things like “slash” being slang for romance between two male characters, to smaller things like how fandom tends to latch onto (and writers looking for that kind of audience tend to write) pairings with one blond, outgoing character and one brunette, stoic character. John and Sherlock, Dean and Castiel, Arthur and Merlin, Kara and Lena, Clarke and Lexa — they all fall into this pattern that started almost exactly 50 years ago.
The point is, whether you put the starting point in the 60’s or in ancient Greece, fanfiction is nothing new.
“So what does all this matter?” The strawman asks. “Has this even had any effect on mass media?”
In short: hell yes.
For one thing, it’s training ground for those who want to write professionally. As I said before, many if not most forms of writing would fit the definition of fanfiction, but many modern writers got their start in the world of fanfiction as we know it today. E.L. James is an obvious example, but there’s also Cassandra Clare, Naomi Novik, and (ugh) Steven Moffat. Fanfiction used to be a shameful thing, but lately it’s been embraced much more as legitimate proving ground, if not art in itself, and most of all, just plain fun.
These writers tend to bring the sensibilities of fanfiction to the mainstream. The desire for media representation is obvious in how much more fanfiction depicts relationships between people of the same gender. Many focus on men, and one of the reasons for this could be that it allows us to see male characters as vulnerable and emotional in a way they’re often not allowed to be. Characters that don’t get seen (podcasts, books, etc.) are often imagined as POC. Trans headcanons are everywhere (“Sherlock is actually a girl’s name”, anyone?). It can’t be a coincidence that the first generation of writers to grow up with making and reading huge amounts of fanfic is also behind this recent push for ethical, accurate, and sympathetic media representation of marginalized groups.
In other words, millions of people reimagined media in a more inclusive light until the media itself delivered. The difference between Pochaontas and Moana, between 1776 and Hamilton, between The Goonies and Stranger Things, is this social and cultural awareness that came from decades of “What if…?” that extended beyond even slash.
This sort of change is what criticism is all about. Contrary to popular belief, the point of criticism isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) to just hate on someone else’s work. It’s to look at a work, look at its context, and believe in it so much as to see how it could be even better.
If you need proof that fanfiction is criticism, though, look no further than the writers who absolutely hate fanfiction.
[picture not included because I’m not trying to get sued by the lawsuit-happy person I’m about to mention]
Anne Rice is the author of The Vampire Chronicles, whose most well-known titles are Interview with a Vampire and Queen of the Damned. In the world of fandom, however, she’s more well-known for…other things.
Her complete inability to take criticism is well-documented. Anne Rice’s rant of an Amazon review in response to the negative reviews of Blood Canticle was as well-known and quotable around the internet at that time as the “What the fuck did you just fucking say about me, you little bitch?” rant or the entirety of Mean Girls. I distinctly remember having to look up why “you have used this site as if it were a public urinal to publish falsehood and lies” started showing up in all the fanfic message boards.
She also let her editor go after Queen of the Damned, saying (bolding is mine, not original), “She was very reluctant, feeling that her input had value, but she agreed to my wishes. I asked this due to my highly critical relationship with my work and my intense evolutionary work on every sentence in the work, my feeling for the rhythm of the phrase and the unfolding of the plot and the character development. I felt that I could not bring to perfection what I saw unless I did it alone. In other words, what I had to offer had to be offered in isolation. So all novels published after The Queen of the Damned were written by me in this pure fashion, my editor thereafter functioning as my mentor and guardian.”
Put a pin in that last one, we’ll come back to it, but for now let’s move on to her relationship to fanfiction.
Her official website has a section dedicated to general statements she wants her fans to know. Most of it is “No, I’m done with Lestat, so stop asking”, but right at the bottom she states, “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.” There’s no date for this quote, but I can glean from the date of the messages above that it was sometime before November of 2008. It’s in line with her actions at the time — in the early to mid 2000’s, Rice was trying to get Fanfiction.net to delete any and all Vampire Chronicles fanfiction from the site, claiming it was a copyright violation. This was an ongoing battle around the 00’s, which might seem surprising now since most content creators react like Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright in the above tweets, but it was a real issue at the time, and Anne Rice was one of the loudest voices against it.
Now, to be fair here, Rice has softened considerably on this issue. In an interview with Metro from 2012, she says, “I got upset about 20 years ago because I thought it would block me. However, it’s been very easy to avoid reading any, so live and let live. If I were a young writer, I’d want to own my own ideas. But maybe fan fiction is a transitional phase: whatever gets you there, gets you there.” A bit dismissive, still, but no longer actively hostile. And if you followed the link to that “work work work” post, there’s an addition from August of this year, saying of her editor, “I respect her insights mightily. I respect her responses mightily. — — And over the years, I’ve been less threatened [by] detailed criticism. — — I still believe in the solo voice with all my soul, and when a reader tells me that she loves a certain paragraph or a certain chapter, I must know that I am indeed the sole author of that paragraph, that chapter. But I have become more secure, more able to handle my editor’s insights and requests.” This is important to note because she never said anything in the original post about not being able to take her editor’s criticism. It was obvious, but not directly stated. But here, we have proof, in her own words, that Rice at least used to have a problem handling criticism.
Most of the fanfics I found of The Vampire Chronicles have a few common threads. 1) There’s a LOT of sex, more than usual, 2) the most popular pairing is Louis/Lestat, aka the POV narrator of Interview who escapes his abusive lover(?) but ends up losing everyone else he loves due to his abuse, and said abusive lover, and 3) basically everything after Queen is outright ignored. Part of number 1 is par for fanfic course, but the sheer volume of it is due to the fact that Rice’s vampires are basically an extreme form of asexual. Lestat has a canon love interest, Nicolas, but at the time of this recording, there are only 29 fics with that pairing as opposed to the whopping 342 for Louis/Lestat. And as I mentioned, Queen was the last book before Rice abandoned her editor and the series got squirrely. This paints a clear picture of where the audience differs from the author. The audience doesn’t believe vampires have no interest in sex. The audience thinks there’s more chemistry between Lestat and Louis than Lestat and Nicolas. The audience thinks you need a goddamn editor.
Looks like criticism to me.
Fanfiction has also evolved, like any area of study. The 00’s fanfic world was absolutely teeming with blissfully ignorant bigotry. If people weren’t complaining about every female character being a Mary Sue just because she was good at a thing, they were complaining that there were TOO MANY female characters getting in the way of their “yaoi”. Characters like Christine from Phantom of the Opera, who dared commit the cardinal sin of not loving a guy back, were instantly deemed sluts and bitches and bombarded with accusations that they were ungrateful or selfish or shallow. People who enjoyed slash fic often called their work “dirty” and “sinful” and ironically called themselves “trash” for writing/liking it, even if it was just two guys sharing a quiet breakfast together, because gay = dirty, always. The only time transness ever came up was if it made the sex “even sexier”. I’m not saying all of this still doesn’t go on, but in the 00’s, this was the norm. It was relentless, and hardly anyone stood up against it or even saw it as a problem. It’s amazing to think that this same group of people would go on to become so aware of systemic prejudices as to be deemed SJW’s.
Fanfiction, along with the internet in general, has allowed audiences to have a stronger voice than ever in not only their interaction with media, but their choices of media. Feedback on the new episode of a show is near instant, and coming directly from the viewers instead of from a focus group or from that one critic in the paper. Bad reviews on social media helped tank movies like Brüno and After Earth before opening weekend even ended, and excitement about media representation has helped shows like Steven Universe and movies like the upcoming The Shape of Water reach far beyond their target audience. And for every queerbaity show that refuses to let the couple get together, there are at least a dozen fanfics that make it happen in a way the show’s writers may not be capable of. As weird as it can be, I highly recommend any writers whose work has created fanfiction to at least skim it.
You just might learn something.