Fanfiction is entering a renaissance these days. A type of fiction written by fans that is based off a pre-existing book, video game, TV show, or movie, the pursuit has been around for decades, most notably beginning with the rise of the Star Trek fandom.
Fanfiction is often associated with the act of "shipping," where fans romantically pair up two characters and hope for their happy ending. But as these words have infiltrated the mainstream lexicon of nerd terminology, the commentary surrounding fanfiction has changed. People with no connection to this creative subculture see fanfiction as silly, while those who do have a connection—like myself—firmly believe it's more than that.
Fanfiction is a form of transformative writing primarily written by marginalized groups to portray the kinds of narratives that interest them. It's also a way to practice one's writing skills and build a sense of community through storytelling.
Representation in Fiction Is Important
As fanfiction has risen in popularity, there's been a lot of outside assumptions about its origin date and the idea that it's a new medium. This is incorrect, as this style of writing has been around in various forms as early as 1967, with the publication of the very first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia.
It wasn't until the early 2000s that fanfiction began to take off as a genre, spurred on by sites like LiveJournal, Fanfiction.net, and later on Archive of Our Own—now colloquially known as "AO3." Both LiveJournal and Fanfiction.net were concentrated locations where fans could upload and find the "fics" they needed. Because these sites collected stories about multiple creative properties, casual readers could also discover new franchises outside of their favorite fandoms, too.
This ease of access to other fandoms helped to create a wider fan network. It also allowed a different sort of fan culture to thrive: one that was primarily dominated by women, LGBTQA+, and other groups lacking representation. During the early 2000s, there was still a tendency to push them out of mainstream media spaces that were overwhelmingly controlled by straight, white male narratives.
In an article posted to Slate, writer Rae Binstock talks about the importance of fanfiction: it creates a safe space for writers to explore complicated feelings around gender and sexuality. These topics are especially important as it relates to the identity of the writers themselves:
For many queer viewers, favorite movies and TV shows offer a world in which complex, dynamic, actively queer people—people like them—do not exist.
However, as history has taught us, queer folk can always make a space for themselves, even in the most hostile of conditions.
This form of transformative writing—where people can act out scenarios in a media landscape that would otherwise ostracize them—is an incredibly important thing to have. I speak from experience.
Fanfiction is also beneficial to women at large, whose narratives were and continue to be a source of derision in male-dominated media. After all, you don't have to look far to find people putting down the romance genre, even when it's the second-best selling genre of books.
However, the very nature of fanfics appealing to women makes fanfiction itself a target. This is not because of the skill level required to write it, but because of who is writing it, as explained by writer Jenny Yau:
It is high time we stopped treating women's interests and particularly the interests of young, impressionable women as an afterthought, and give them the respect they deserve.
By devaluing and dismissing fanfiction, we are perpetuating the idea that some texts are better than others because of the identity of their creators, which is ridiculous in such a subjective field as literature, and also works to further marginalize those who already have to work harder to have their voices heard in a field dominated by white men.
To further this point: even if this writing wasn't being judged by the identity of the authors—and it is—so what if it's not as good as published fiction? "Good" itself is subjective, and there's nothing wrong with using fanfiction to learn how to write.
Everyone Has to Start Somewhere
While fanfiction cannot teach you all the rules when it comes to crafting a story, it can act as a great way to learn the basics of dialogue, interpersonal dynamics, and characterization. Fanfiction also teaches you how to interact with an online audience, as Vanessa Willoughby explained in her defense of fanfiction for BookRiot:
Unlike a writing workshop, these people aren't paid to pick apart your work and thus, will have no problems delivering an honest assessment.
Without that online framework, I myself would have never learned how to interact with others in a community setting. I wouldn't have learned how to take feedback from others in relation to my writing, which is a useful skill to have. Fanfiction not only gives you a sense of purpose, it also gives you a healthy tool to express your personal dissatisfaction with mainstream narratives.
Recently, fans upset over the ending of Game of Thrones started a petition to have Season 8 remade. As of last count, the petition had surpassed 1.5 million signatures.
While many of us can agree that the end of the show was lacking, those of us who are familiar with fanfiction question the effectiveness of this move. After all, why not write for yourself the transformative fiction to express the ending you want to see? The showrunners are not going to rework their finished product, so it's a more constructive use of one's time, and a better way to release one's frustrations.
Fanfiction has a lot of good to it, and it should be treated like a legitimate medium in and of itself—not as an afterthought. I, and others who love the format, will continue to champion its acceptance.
If you're looking for more thoughts on the complex world of fan dynamics, check out our article on why we cling to the "nerd lifestyle"!