I am an avid reader and writer of fanfiction.
Note: Basically, fanfiction is a work of fiction written by—you guessed it—fans of a particular show, movie, book, band, and so on. There are many genres, tropes, and structures typical of the various types of fanfictions. Read some; you’ll see what I mean. But also know that one of the distinctive features of fanfiction is acknowledging the source; i.e., not plagiarizing!
I’ve been writing fanfiction for as long as I can remember. When I was seven years old, I wrote a fanfiction for Goosebumps in which the old dilapidated mansion the children encountered was a whopping, ancient 15 years old. Over the years, as I learned proper grammar and structure, plot sequences, characterization, and that mansions generally hold up well even after fifteen years, among other things, my stories have definitely shown marked improvements.
Fanfiction as a genre is rife throughout the Western literary tradition: Dante’s Inferno is a self-insert fanfiction, for example, and Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic biblical fanfiction. Virgil’s Aeneid is a continuation of Homer’s Iliad, and Joyce’s Ulysses is just a super complex modern adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, just with all the characters’ names changed and set in Dublin. More contemporary works of fanfiction include literally any story that “retells” the Arthurian legends or includes the Greek or Norse pantheons. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (which I still haven’t seen, gosh darn it!) is a fanfiction of the founding father Alexander Hamilton. Almost every work of literature incorporates some elements of fanfiction (which is a nice way of saying plagiarism to some, but remember that fanfiction is not plagiarism as long as it does not infringe upon the franchise, or steal the characters, setting, plot, etc. to pass off as one’s own!).
On my Facebook post sharing something I’d written, someone once commented:
“I think fanfiction is terrible. It’s just wish fulfillment and it shows a lack of respect towards the original writers/author. Instead, create your own story with your own characters. Don’t steal already established and published material.”
Oh-ho. My friend, you’ve just opened the floodgates.
To be fair to me, I was very much restrained in my response:
“Tell that to Milton, Dante, Tolkien, Lewis, Shakespeare, Disney, the author of Fifty Shades of Gray, etc.
Virtually all works are fanfiction. Stargate could be considered fanfiction of Egyptian mythology—wish fulfillment that they were really aliens despite all real-world evidence to the contrary.
I don’t think fanfiction is disrespectful at all. It shows that we care so much about the show and characters that people take time to continue stories, put them in new situations, etc. Fanfiction is so powerful that the TV show Supernatural started using suggestions from fans, such as recording the incantation for exorcism and playing it to get rid of demons.
You can have your own opinion, but you should recognize that fanfiction is and has always been a huge driver of creativity, especially in the Western world.”
I’m glad I took a screenshot of that, because he blocked me. But c’est la vie.
Now that we’ve firmly established that fanfiction is a huge, mainstreamed deal already, let’s talk about why I call it the great pathway into writing:
- Writers already know the characters. Coming up with your own stuff can feel really daunting. You might feel insecure—is this a likeable character? Are people going to identify with or relate to this character?—or, as often happens, you have already taken a character you know and given them a different name and outward appearance for your own writing, making a sort of template. The great thing about fanfiction is you don’t have to change anything about the characters, so that’s one step done before you’ve begun! Now you have the freedom to do whatever you want with these characters, and you can even mix and match with characters from other writers! For example, there’s nothing stopping you from having Harry Potter meet Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, and Jimmy Neutron, the boy genius. Nothing at all.
- Anonymity. When you write fanfiction, you don’t have to share it with anyone in real life. And, if you do choose to share it, you can make an online pen name, like Pig_Rabbit_123. It can be very comforting to know that your work won’t be traced back to you, so you are free to write things you might not normally—such as graphic violence or swear words.
- Leisure activity. Unlike essays and book reports and translations, fanfiction is something you do on your own time, when you feel like it. It’s well known that you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink—you can force a student to write, but they won’t like it, and might not even try their best! Fanfiction is an opportunity for people to not only write comfortably, but to practice and improve without necessarily realizing that that is what they are doing.
- Supportive online communities. Fanfiction sharing sites like FanFiction.net and ArchiveOfOurOwn.org, as well as fandom-specific sites such as GateWorld or TrekFanfiction, tend to be very supportive communities. People here are leisurely readers and writers, so there is a foundational and mutual understanding between most users. This is especially important when it comes to the fact that nearly 80% of fanfiction writers are teenagers just starting out in their writing careers.
- Produces feelings of accomplishment. Completing minor tasks like making your bed in the morning can feel like a huge effort sometimes. Personally, I love to read and write and draw, but it can feel overwhelming to have to create an idea, a character, and a plotline from scratch, from my own imagination. When I feel depleted and unmotivated, I turn to fanfiction. Even writing drabbles feels like I’m being productive, like I’m getting something done—especially when people read and enjoy those drabbles.
- Can you think of any other benefits to fanfiction writing?
Especially for young readers and writers, fanfiction can be a great way to develop writing skills, find and build a sense of community, and foster a love for both reading and writing.