While fan fiction swarms the internet, its forays into traditional publication have been met with tempered resistance.
In her early teens, Fatima Banglawala started writing a Harry Styles fan fiction titled Lost Faith, which would eventually conclude with nearly seventy chapters of varying length and a Wattpad readership of around three million. A few years later, she was approached by a publisher with a book deal, which she eventually decided to turn down. Now in her twenties, she is writing a new book that is not fan fiction in the hopes of getting published. She is still using Wattpad as her outlet, and many of her readers are those who followed her previous writing.
For a lot of authors, writing and sharing fan fiction online wasn’t something they did as teenagers simply because it did not exist at the time. Back then, the only option available to young fans of a work was to scribble stories and doodles underneath homework assignments, passing their notebooks among friends to share their work. Even before that, people gathered around fires and retold stories based on myths, legends, or embellished factual accounts. Those stories, which contained beloved characters and settings under varying circumstances, would now be called fan fiction.
Passively consuming content, it seems, has never been enough. In that sense, writing in response to a fictional work as a pastime is not a new phenomenon — that writing has just moved online now, where it can sometimes be read and discussed by millions of readers.
In simple terms, fan fiction, or fanfic, is content created by fans of a work, where the writers take existing characters and established settings of the original work and spin them into something else at their discretion. Up until recently, it was usually published online and for free. According to fan culture writer Elizabeth Minkel, it is “original work with largely unoriginal foundations.” Fans have the liberty to rewrite the story with endless possible variations, both within the laws of the original universe as well as outside of it. In this 2011 article, Lev Grossman goes into the history of fan fiction and some of the issues surrounding it, then illustrates some of the many ways a story such as Harry Potter can be reshaped and retold.
Fan fiction is no doubt a divisive and thorny subject. While many authors see it as flattering and encourage any and all fan-created content, there are a few that are decidedly not in favour of the practice. Writers often spend years creating worlds and characters, and at the end of the publication process they may feel a sense of ownership over them, an almost parental protectiveness. This explains why some of them are uncomfortable seeing their characters made to behave in ways they wouldn’t necessarily approve of.
However, in this day and age it is even harder to maintain control of what people do with your creation once it is out there. Romance author Elyse Springer, who also reviews books at Just Love Reviews, believes in the notion that all works of creation are open to re-appropriation: “I feel like if you give birth to an actual human being, once they grow up they belong to the rest of the world. It’s the same with a book — you might nurture this book from the start, but when it becomes published, it is no longer yours. It is everybody’s.”
Emma Pass is a young adult author who recalls filling up piles of notebooks with ‘fic’ about her favourite worlds. “All of the stories I wrote as a kid were sequels to novels and films I was attached to. My first ‘novel’ was a sequel to Jurassic Park,” she says. “I wanted to stay in that world, and live on with all my favourite characters.” She acknowledges that there is an air of snobbery surrounding fan fiction and thinks it is “absolutely stupid.” For her and a lot of other writers, it was also a way of learning how to write; it is much easier for a young writer to use familiar characters and settings when they first attempt to master the craft. “You don’t learn in a vacuum,” she says. And it’s true — artists being formally taught are told to create work in the various styles of established painters to hone their skills and find their voice. “Why should writing be any different? It’s a craft.”
With the internet and sites like fanfiction.net, Wattpad, and Archive of Our Own, there’s the added benefit of community. Writers get access to continuous feedback and encouragement, transforming the act of writing from a solitary one into a much more social experience.
Fan fiction allows writers to explore paths that the original creator, for whatever reason, did not or would not go into. Such imaginations tend to probe at the story from different angles and fill gaps that, realistically, the original text was not able to cover. This ranges from the obvious practice of simply writing erotic scenes between characters to the more political and cultural explorations. For example, if Hermione was black in the Harry Potter universe, it adds an entirely new layer of meaning to the mudblood storyline by playing with the themes of racism seen against nonwhite people and those with “impure” heritage in the real world and the wizarding world respectively.
In the same vein, fan fiction also grants readers the ability to address the overwhelming lack of representation they see in a work they admire. They may project one or more personal traits onto the hero of their favourite story to make it more relatable. This is common within the LGBT+ community, where fans of canonically heterosexual characters rewrite them with different sexual orientations and pair them in more sexually diverse relationships.
Attempting to pin down one single reason that drives people towards reading and writing fan fiction is futile. Whether it is understood or not, the fact remains that fan fiction will continue to be made. Instead of asking what fan fiction is or how to stop it, the question now is: how should the literary world deal with it?
There is a presumed war in which fan fiction is the unmentionable, sex-crazed intruder taking resources away from the more civil conventional written work.
Like all aspects of fanfic, this has people divided. It is undeniable that fan fiction draws in millions of readers, and publishers have picked up on that and eagerly moved to monetise it. Authors of the most popular fics have been approached with book deals that were wildly successful. There are those who fear that this is bringing on a literary apocalypse, where fan fiction will take over ‘original’ creation. Herein lies the first uncertainty — just because a piece of work did not start on a fan fiction website does not necessarily mean it is strictly ‘original.’
Many people argue that there is no such thing as originality, only authentic execution. This mindset is not a new one; Mark Twain famously wrote that “all ideas are secondhand.” Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t the only one who thought so. Voltaire said: “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed from one another.” Thomas W. Higginson, William Ralph Inge, Edith Wharton, Pablo Picasso, and many others have reiterated the same idea in different ways. All works of creation, whether in the form of art, technology, or literature, are influenced by their creator’s experiences and exposure to other existing works. Therefore, we can say that the “fanfic vs. original content” dilemma is not even properly labeled to begin with.
There is a presumed war in which fan fiction is the unmentionable, sex-crazed intruder taking resources away from the more civil conventional written work. Publishers and book reviewers alike agree that fan fiction definitely shouldn’t be underestimated, but it is hardly a threat to traditionally created content. It’s also entirely possible for there to be masterfully crafted fan fiction and badly executed original fiction.
While it is certainly true that a lot of fan fiction can be needlessly tacky, it is equally indisputable that there are some gems to be found on Wattpad and elsewhere online. At Open Ink Press, for example, the belief is that fan fiction can be a good starting point for a published book, but not without further development. A spokesperson for the press says that “fan fiction is merely that — one fan’s fictionalised account of another person’s work. I don’t necessarily think it should be taken seriously for publication unless it is retooled and redeveloped to include its own unique story, world, and characters.”
With the publication of fan fiction, there is the danger for the final product to still have obvious parts of the work it was originally based on, resulting in awkward storytelling and particularly hollow characters despite going through the editing process. A common habit of fan fiction authors is to forgo the character description and development when writing, because readers already have that information going in. When the story then goes to be published, the characters simply undergo a name change, causing them to become painfully flat without the context of a pre-existing character to fill in their traits.
Fan fiction has slowly but surely crept into the mainstream, largely thanks to popular success stories like Fifty Shades of Gray and The Mortal Instruments. Still, these and other cases of fan fiction going into publication and being wildly profitable are not clear of controversy. There has always been a line that fans do not cross in the making of fan fiction out of respect for the creators, which is arguably just common sense. “Fanfiction is supposed to be free and on the internet, which is the unspoken deal we have with content creators, and when you take that and publish it, you’re blurring that line,” says Elyse Springer, who is “overwhelmingly supportive” of fan fiction authors getting published, but not necessarily for the fan fiction they wrote online. “I think if you have the talent to write amazing fanfic, then you definitely have the talent to write brand new content for publication.”
Fatima Banglawala is one Wattpad author who puts that philosophy into practice. Like many adolescent girls at the time, Fatima was a part of the massive One Direction fandom at its peak, and she saw the fan fiction community on Wattpad as a way for her to make lasting and meaningful friendships with people who shared her passions. She purposely wrote her main character, Faith, as an overtly dominant female lead, because she felt irritated by the “shy, submissive, spineless girl” trope she was seeing in all the fic she was reading. Based on the comments she received, her readers felt the same way and enjoyed the refreshing turn of events. She also says that writing to an interactive audience that constantly gave her feedback in the form of messages and comments helped her learn what her readers wanted along the way. “It was still ultimately my story and my call, but sometimes it was helpful to get an idea of where they’d like the story to go, and I think the fact that I started off as a reader of fan fiction made me more sympathetic in those terms,” she says.
Although Fatima is now in her twenties and has long since parted ways with the world of One Direction fan fiction, she still continues to receive at least fifty new comments on the book every day. She recalls her excitement when she hit the milestone of a million readers and got offered the book deal. It was a time when a lot of people on Wattpad were getting signed by publishers who were catching on to the sheer popularity of books like Lost Faith, which already came with a pre-existing and plainly eager fan base.
Her decision to turn down the offer came about due to several reasons, one of which was her reluctance to change the story according to the publisher’s terms. She was told to change a lot of the heavy themes included in the book, such as rape, self-harm, and general violence, which she felt would compromise what the book meant to her and the people reading it.
“It’s a cheap thrill, not a rich, thought-provoking piece of text. I actually read it when I don’t want to think.”
To explain her disinclination to publish Lost Faith, Fatima mentions After, another Harry Styles Wattpad fan fiction by Anna Todd. In order for the book to be published, Harry Styles had to be refashioned into Hardin. Fatima expressed that the reason she read the book in the first place was because it was a Harry Styles fan faction, meaning it was no longer the same when it became about somebody else.
Additionally, Fatima believes that the style in which fan fiction is written makes it unsuitable for consumption in any form besides the internet. She admits that she didn’t buy After once it was published. Instead, she read it online, where she feels it’s meant to be read. When writing fan fiction, authors often don’t plan the components of a story the way traditional writers would. There are no thoughtfully designed characters or settings, and rather than a fixed structure, the plot is made up on the spot. Like Anna Todd and other fan fiction writers, Fatima often typed the chapters of her book into her phone in a frenzy in the middle of the night. Looking back, she says the writing was very immature, with slang-heavy vocabulary and a simplistic style. She was surprised anyone would have wanted to publish it.
Ultimately, Fatima’s opinion is that fan fiction should remain online. “It’s a cheap thrill, not a rich, thought-provoking piece of text. I actually read it when I don’t want to think,” she confessed.
However, not everyone feels this way. Alex de Morra, who writes queer romance, believes fan fiction can be very powerful: “It’s the latest punk rock. Back in the 70’s, the Sex Pistols came onto the scene, made big noise that was genius, raw, unfiltered and it spoke to people in this way that made them think “Oh, hey — I can do this.” That’s exactly what’s happening with fan fiction.” Although Alex doesn’t think fan fiction should be published for profit, he does believe it offers people who may not have had a creative outlet before the chance to explore. “But also, why discount the ‘cheap thrill’? Honestly, where would we be without pulp fiction, fast food, or roller coasters?” he adds. According to Alex, playing in the fan fiction sandbox can yield really interesting results, and he’s all for it.
Culturally, we are in the height of the remix culture. Musicians sample one another’s work and create mash-ups. Artists create collages and pastiches in homage to other works of art. Anybody with the right tools can appropriate and repurpose any creative work to express their own take on it. Fan fiction is just another cultivation of this culture, one that the literary world is still learning to adapt to.