By Brooke Thompson
If you were ever a teen on the internet, you probably have encountered or have partaken in fan fiction (or fanfic, for short). Fan fiction writing is a unique subject and a bit of a grey area in literature.
You often hear books nowadays starting off as fan fiction and being transformed into its own story. Examples of these include Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series where it was originally a Harry Potter fanfic and the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James, which started off as a Twilight fanfic. Or, maybe the more recent (and widely successful) After by Anna Todd, which started off as a Harry Styles fanfic.
But what exactly is fan fiction? Why is it so popular? And should it be encouraged?
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What is fan fiction writing?
Fan fiction writing is when a person takes a fandom, like the Avengers or Harry Potter, or even bands and celebrities, and writes their own story about the characters/people.
These stories are often posted on websites (like Wattpad, FanFiction.net, or Archive of our Own), blogs, or even on YouTube to be enjoyed (or ridiculed) by their respective fandoms.
Here are the following forms fan fiction often takes:
The forms of fan fiction
1. The author injects themselves into the story through the use of an original character (or OC) and interacts with the setting and characters.
A well-known example of this type of fanfiction is “My Immortal”, an infamously horrible Harry Potter fanfiction.
In this gloriously incoherent story, the main character Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way is a vampire that attends Hogwarts with the rest of the Harry Potter cast. She dates Draco Malfoy, makes half the cast including Harry Potter Slytherin goths, and fights Voldemort on numerous occasions.
2. The author takes the stories’ pre-existing characters and changes the narrative, such as a protagonist turning evil or two characters dating each other.
The latter of these options is called shipping, which is where you take two characters and make them romantically involved with each other, which may or may not be canon within the fandom’s universe.
This subset of fanfiction writing is also known as slash fiction, marked by the / or x between two characters’ names (i.e. Black Widow/Hawkeye or HarryxHermione).
An example of this type of fan fiction is “Flowers in a Box”, which is a slash fiction of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Especially wacky, this one involves time travel through skulls and Dr. Watson hopelessly pining after Sherlock. It is quite an entertaining read, if you can get past the grammar mistakes.
3. The author makes their own original characters (or OC’s) and has adventures in that fandom’s universe outside the story’s timeline.
An example of this type of fan fiction is “Conjoined”, a Warriors story about two cats being, well, conjoined, and the challenges these two face in a society of cats that live by a “warrior code” while taking care of their respective clans. While it is not as well-known as the other two on this list, it is quite a fascinating read.
Why are authors divided on it?
This is a special issue that divides many authors. Some, like Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling, encourage it as long as it is not published as someone else’s work. Gaiman even wrote once that fan fiction is a good writing exercise for those writers who are starting out.
Other authors, like Anne Rice and George R.R. Martin, are against it. Anne Rice is so much against fanfiction writing that there is a restriction on FanFiction.net of using her works or characters.
George R.R. Martin has said that he does not condone fan fiction as it’s considered “lazy” writing. He states that an author should create their own worlds and characters, instead of borrowing someone else’s.
Given the nature of how some fan fictions end up being published like in the aforementioned examples of Mortal Instruments, After, and Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s understandable why authors would not want to condone fan fiction.
However, what made these three fanfics become “originals” was the changes these authors made to their worlds and characters. (Hence, why fan fiction is a bit of a grey area in literature).
For example, in Mortal Instruments, Cassandra Clare removed the Harry Potter cast, wizards in general, the British setting, and anything related to J.K. Rowling’s works to form her own story.
Clare then adds in Shadowhunters: super humans that hunt demons. She places the setting in New York City and has her own cast of characters. These changes are so different in fact, readers can barely tell how it used to knock off Harry Potter! This allows her stories to avoid any copyright lawsuits.
Mortal Instruments is a prime example of how a person can make an original story from a fanfic. Same thing can be said for After and Fifty Shades of Grey. All their authors had to do was change the names and locations, and they had an “original” (publishable) story.
Can it be beneficial or detrimental to writing?
As mentioned in the prior section, Martin considers fan fiction writing as lazy writing. For example, it is easy for an author to say when they are first introducing a place “I arrived at Hogwarts.” Normally, they would not give a description of the setting or what Hogwarts looks like as their audience already knows what it is.
However, many authors claim that they used to write fan fiction when they were younger. A lot of them have stated that writing fan fiction taught them how to craft a story. As Neil Gaiman describes it, fan fiction is like “training wheels” for writers.
Fan fiction helps authors get their ideas down and expands their imaginations. The writing may not always be the best, but it allows the technique to mature and gets their creativity flowing.
Fan fiction also allows for experimentation, understanding what works and what doesn’t. Especially when authors post fanfics online, the readers definitely tell them what is or isn’t working in the story. (Check out the reviews of any story on FanFiction.net. People are brutal).
The experimentation and constant feedback allows for the writing to mature and gives the author a means to make the story their own, to the point that the fan fiction starts to become its own story.
Therefore, fan fiction is more beneficial to writing than detrimental. Sure, it might encourage laziness, but it could also later teach young writers how to create effective descriptions and compelling plots.
Should we encourage or eradicate fan fiction writing?
While fan fiction has its drawbacks, it allows people a chance to explore their creativity and expand their imaginations, especially those who are just trying to find their footing in storytelling.
While George R.R. Martin makes a valid point that we should try to use our own characters and worlds to experiment with, fan fiction isn’t necessarily bad. (Provided, the author does not try to pass off the borrowed material as their own).