Why Fanfiction Should Be Taken Seriously as a Medium
There has been a lot of debate over whether or not fanfiction, also known as derivative fiction, is “real” writing. Some argue that, since it often borrows heavily on its source material, it is cheating or lazy writing. Additionally, since it is often based in fiction which is copyrighted, it can rarely be published unless it is for free, frequently with a disclaimer that the characters are the intellectual property of another. But, regardless, I posit that these restraints should not affect fanfiction’s classification as “real” literature, nor should it detract from the quality of the writing presented.
Fanfiction is Good:
No, really. I have read fanfiction that I would rank among some of my favorite literature. These are full-fledged novel-length stories with subplots, complex character development, and excellent writing. These stories make you think, make you question, make you wonder. These are the stories that I have read over and over again, that I pull out on a rainy day, and that I can’t stop thinking about weeks after I have read them.
Is every fanfiction a gem? No. But neither is every novel. Remember that the majority of fanfiction is published without the aid of a professional editor to help polish the work. Despite this, the quality of writing is frequently very high. And they are free!
Fanfiction is Useful:
Fanfiction is a good medium in which to practice your writing skills. There is an old adage that says, to be a writer, a person need write every day. Well, fanfiction is a great way to do this.
In many ways, it is easier to slip into a universe that you know and to write for characters that you are already familiar with. Here you can practice dialogue, conflict, subplots, descriptions, or anything you wish without having to start entirely from scratch every time.
On the other hand, in many ways it is actually harder to try to enter into someone else’s universe. The way the characters act and interact, as well as, the physical setting have already been set. You suddenly have to try to write in character for characters that aren’t technically yours. And, unless you want to slap a “OOC: Out of Character” warning on your fic, you have to do some serious ground work and long term, plot-driven character development to justify why your version of these characters aren’t acting the way they are expected to. And, if you don’t, readers will call you out on it.
Which leads me to my next reason why fanfiction is good practice for writers; it is a great way to expose your writing to critique (both positive and negative). Because there is likely already a fan base for the franchise you are writing for, there is already an audience waiting to read you work. The typical fanfiction can easily get 100-1000 hits in a few months on sites like Archive of Our Own and Fanfiction.net. And, a large number of these readers will leave a comment on the work.
Using my own work as an example, my most read fic has 10,051 hits and it has 78 comments as of today. With a little rounding and reducing, that is roughly 1 review for every 125 hits which is about 0.8%. That is actually a really great ratio for getting free feedback on your work. How many readers of the typical novel go out of their way to leave a review of it on a site like Goodreads? Probably not that many.
These readers care about these franchises and will tell you, no holds barred, what they liked and didn’t like about your writing. It is a good way to learn how to deal with negative criticism, to learn what may need to be improved in your writing, and to learn what you are already doing well.
Fanfiction is Being Published:
The argument that literature has to be published to be “real” is a ridiculous one for many reasons. Regardless, there are a lot of way to get fanfiction publish in a more “official” way than just posted online. The first way is to simply change the character names and other copyrighted material. Often fanfictions only use characters and locations for the framework of the story the author wants to tell. There is even a category of fanfictions known as AUs (Alternate Universe fics) which don’t even take place in the local set up by the original material. Change the names, and the writing becomes virtually unrecognizable as a derivative and ready to be published as its own work. A popular published work of fanfiction is Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley which was published on Interlude Press. It started as fanfiction for the popular TV show, Glee, and has gained a following in both its fanfiction form and published form. For a more mainstream example, consider Fifty Shades of Gray which began life as Twilight fanfiction.
Another example of published derivative fiction is parody. There are tons of Twilight parodies out there, like Nightlight. These too, are often required to change the names of the characters, but these parodies don’t deviate that much from their source material. They want you to know what they are mocking.
Official fan works are another type of published derivative fiction. It is rare, but sometimes fans will be hired on as official writers for a franchise to generate content. Star Wars and Doctor Who are two that pop to mind. There are a handful of books, TV show spin offs, radio shows, comics, and more for these shows which are not technically a part of the main canon material. Just because they were made official doesn’t mean they started out that way. Often, these content creators began as fans creating stories about an intellectual property which they enjoyed.
Lastly, there is a lot of already published fanfiction out there. Anything that is a derivative work of an intellectual property which has outlived its copyright can be published. For example, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Peter and the Star Catchers (it should be noted that Peter Pan’s copyright still holds in the UK). Or, how about the popular TV show Sherlock?
Fanfiction isn’t Harming the Author:
There has been a lot of drama in the past years about authors attempting to sue fanfiction authors for defamation of their intellectual property. And let me say this flat out, I hope this trend dies off. I think that too often people forget that fanfiction is written by the fans of a franchise because they genuinely love the franchise. Fanfiction, and other derivative works like fan art, are a labor of love. For an author to hear that their work is so loved by a fan that it inspired them to start writing (especially a young fan who may be just starting to consider the idea of being an author) and to turn around a sue them for defamation is insulting to their audience. It can also be devastating to that individual, discouraging them from writing all together. Thus, not only has the author lost a fan, but the world may have lost a potential author. Authors and artists should be encouraging each other to be creative, to mess around, and to have fun while they practice, not tearing down a fan because they want to write about how Spock and Kirk are in love. This brings me to my last point.
Fanfiction is Important:
A lot of the backlash against fanfiction is because of something called slash fiction. The slash refers to a pairing of a couple separated with a slash in the typical notation (e.g. Spock/Kirk) and is more frequently used to describe a pairing which is homosexual in nature. As these pairs are typically non-canon, they are more likely to exist only in fanfiction. Why is there a backlash against this? Homophobia most likely. The idea of “changing” a character’s sexuality to pair them in a romantic relationship with a member of the same sex is offensive to some, either because they don’t like the idea of the character being non-straight or because they don’t like the idea of changing a canon trait of a character. The problem is, characters are typically assumed to be heterosexual unless specifically stated as otherwise. The fans which are writing slash fiction argue that just because a character is shown flirting with a female doesn’t mean that they aren’t into guys too. Bisexuality exists.
This is why fanfiction is important. It is a chance for representation. An individual experiences a character in media and they interpret them in a certain way, whether or not it was the way the author intended, and then they write fanfiction using this interpretation. This interpretation may be as a member of the LGTBQIA+ community, or as autistic, or as someone who is struggling with depression or PTSD. Fanfiction is a place for these personal interpretations to flourish so that others may find them. This allows a person who is confused about their sexuality or their mental health can find comfort in the idea that their favorite character from their favorite book or TV show may be the same as them.
Lately there has been a small surge of canon non-heterosexual relationships in mainstream media (outside of the sitcom genre) such as the lesbian pair Clarke/Lexa from The 100 and Magnus/Alec from Shadow Hunters, but this is still a relatively small portion of relationships (especially since they killed off Lexa). With so little representation for these types of characters out in the public, fanfiction is a space to explore these connections and to find like-minded people who just think that the two main male characters of the show happen to have more chemistry than the canon heterosexual romantic couple. And that is great.