A history of FanFiction
FanFiction – sometimes abbreviated to FanFic or simply FF – describes writing that is about characters or in settings borrowed from another work of fiction. As the name implies, FanFic is created by fans of an original work.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origins of FanFiction. For instance, I’d argue that in the 1800s Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm made FF from the stories they collected from women across Germany – those stories were told to them orally, and they edited them (with their own moral values inserted) into novel form later on. In Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen did something similar – adapting the folktales he heard from oral storytellers into the classic fairytales we now associate with him.
FanFiction also exists in many contemporary and widely recognised artistic formats – such as in the relationship between creator and ‘showrunner’ (the individual who has creative authority and management responsibility for a television program) on a television series when the original creator is no longer attached to the work but the property is still owned by a studio. For example, Greg Berlanti on Dawson’s Creek Seasons 3 and 4, after the show’s creator Kevin Williamson departed. Ditto Aaron Sorkin leaving The West Wing after four seasons, and entrusting the world and his characters to John Wells as showrunner (though Sorkin did admit at a 2016 reunion that he hasn’t watched any of the later seasons, saying, ‘It felt like I was watching someone make out with my wife – it felt horrible’).
Another example of big-business FF is one of the biggest film deals in history: when the Walt Disney Company bought the rights to the Lucasfilm production company, and the operating businesses of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, so as to keep telling the stories that George Lucas originally created (and to keep making a lot of money).
‘The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal,’ Bansky once said, a tongue-in-cheek riff on Picasso’s ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ But FanFiction does not encourage ‘stealing’ or copyright infringement. For these (mostly online) communities, one of the cornerstones of the genre is the accepted understanding that what is being created is for personal enjoyment, to be shared among fellow fans.
In the 2016 Reporter article ‘Fanfiction: A Legal Battle of Creativity’, Bailey Gribben notes: ‘Legally classifying fanfiction as a derivative work grants fans who write fanfiction the right to do so, as long as their work abides by the copyright laws of the original work and does not breach the doctrine of fair use (allows authors to use verbatim quotes from a work without the need for permission).’ In other words, the purpose of FanFic is not to turn a profit. Rather, it’s an extension of fandom, a collective appreciation for stories in pop-culture that shape and inspire us.
It’s interesting, then, that even though FanFiction has existed in many forms for many years, it’s only in recent memory that the term has gained a negative connotation – and particularly in the business of books and publishing, where lines are arguably being crossed. This is largely due to the success of EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey erotic trilogy; written in tribute to Twilight, an early version of the work titled ‘Master of the Universe’ was posted on the popular community site Fanfiction.net in August 2009 under the pen name ‘Snowqueens Icedragon’.
Fifty Shades went on to become the bestselling book of all time, even surpassing the Stephenie Meyer YA novel it was inspired by. It’s hard to get firm numbers, but it seems that Twilight has sold roughly 100 million copies, while Fifty Shades is in the 125 million realm. But the unsettling genesis of Fifty Shades has always dogged EL James, and gone a long way to creating a bad name for FanFiction more generally.
‘The most scandalous part of Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t what Christian Grey does behind closed doors,’ Christina Mulligan wrote in The Washington Post. ‘It’s that the book might well be illegal art.’ And she’s right: when James first posted her story on FanFiction.net, her characters were even named Edward and Bella (the names of Meyer’s protagonists)! ‘James renamed the characters, but she didn’t rewrite the book,’ Mulligan goes on to point out. ‘Blogger Jane Litte ran “Master of the Universe” and Fifty Shades of Grey through the anti-plagiarism software Turnitin, and concluded that 89 per cent of the text was identical.’
In any case, this year saw the movie adaptation conclusion Fifty Shades Freed, and both the books and the films have been runaway hits. But the damage has seemingly been done to the reputation of FanFiction in the book world – especially given that Meyer seems to be holding a grudge.
At a New York Comic-Con panel earlier this year, Meyer admitted that she had again started working on the manuscript of Midnight Sun – a new version of Twilight told from male protagonist Edward’s perspective, rather than heroine Bella’s. But Meyer then asked the Comic-Con crowd: ‘So what do you think was the top story on Yahoo the next morning? “Grey.”’ That is, EL James has created a book called Grey, which is Fifty Shades told from male protagonist Christian’s perspective.
Though the public has seen nothing of a legal battle – or even personal stoush – between Meyer and James over potential copyright infringement, this moment at Comic-Con reveals a deeper hurt. Despite all this, Meyer hasn’t derided the actual practice of FanFiction – unlike some authors, who have made their animosity of the form very clear.
Back in 2010, American author Diana Gabaldon (of the popular and bestselling Outlander time-travel romance series) posted on her website:
OK, my position on fan-fic is pretty clear: I think it’s immoral, I know it’s illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I’ve inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters. Suck it up, guys. If you want to write, write – and write your own stuff. It does take courage, but that’s the only way to learn how, believe me. Beyond the specific arguments against the concept remains the unfortunate fact that a terrible lot of fan-fic is outright cringe-worthy and ought to be suppressed on purely aesthetic grounds.
Gabaldon deleted the entry within hours of originally posting. One such reason for the hasty deletion may be that Gabaldon went on to liken FanFiction to ‘rape’ of an author’s works. Typing this amalgamation of words into Google will bring up ample evidence that Gabaldon did indeed make the correlation – even if the actual post no longer exists (and was likely hurriedly deleted because many fans took umbrage at the extreme comparison, and Gabaldon’s deletion feels like a concession that she went too far in that regard).
I remember the incident vividly because, at the time, I had just reaped the personal benefits of a long and prosperous FanFiction writing ‘career’. I was also a huge fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books (still am). I remember an overwhelming sense of shame and disappointment upon reading those words. Though I’d never written FanFic in tribute to the Outlander books I loved, I had read plenty and written prolifically in other fandoms for many years.
My history with FanFiction
Here’s how my old FanFiction.net profile describes me:
Author has written 24 stories for Gilmore Girls, Dawson’s Creek, Once and Again, Troy, Dirty Dancing, Love Actually, Misc. Movies, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, West Wing, One Tree Hill, Grey’s Anatomy, Robin Hood BBC, Twilight, Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire Mysteries, and Mercy Thompson series.
I joined the popular FanFiction site in December 2002, and uploaded my last story in February 2009. Those 24 stories amounted to 391, 522 words in total; my longest FF piece ran to 184,402-words, with 112 chapters. I wrote FanFiction from age 15 to 22, and it taught me two valuable lessons:
- that I could write with urgency, joy and with discipline.
- that I had common threads of theme in all of my works
That last one was particularly important. Because in 2009 I was at a crossroads. Having just completed a Bachelor of Communication at Monash University, I felt unsettled and uninspired to continue on the career path I thought I wanted for myself – that of journalist. Instead I took stock of the thing that had bought me the most productive joy in life, during the majority of high school and three aimless years of a degree. FanFiction was the answer. FF was where I poured myself out and found a home for my creativity. When I looked back at what I’d produced, I could see a running thread – I was drawn to coming-of-age narratives and romance. Many of those pop-culture stories I riffed on didn’t necessarily have a focus on young or teen characters, but I chose to centre them anyway.
And then there was the romance. My FF life coincided with giving myself over to a love of love-stories: I had started to consume and understand classic Mills & Boon, historical and paranormal romance titles, and – tentatively – embrace the form not as a guilty-pleasure, but as a genre that centred my pleasure and made me feel empowered. No wonder then that all of the FanFic I wrote was romance and particularly focused on first sexual encounters.
In 2015 I was interviewed by Wendy Syfret for VICE for an article titled ‘Fan Fiction Is the Sexual Education I Gave Myself’, and I was unsurprised to learn that many people of my generation found positive sexual representation only in their FanFiction consumption. FanFic was the place where the film and television trope of ‘Bury Your Gays’ (referring to the proliferation of gay characters who weren’t allowed happy endings) was course-corrected, and young people were able to take control of a trope that was otherwise doing great harm to their few representations of embraced normality.
FF was certainly how I got through the death of Tara Maclay – a character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer who was one-half of the groundbreaking lesbian love story with Willow Rosenberg; Tara was shot and killed in the Season 6 episode ‘Seeing Red’. Willow and Tara’s lesbian relationship came at a seemingly boom time for LGBTQI representation on US teen television (a year earlier, Jack McPhee – played by Kerr Smith – on Dawson’s Creek was one one-half of the first ever kiss between two men on primetime television). But Willow and Tara’s love was cut short – and by no less than a man with a gun. Tara was shot by misogynistic human villain of season 6, Warren (who in recent years, has been compared to modern-day so-called Men’s Rights Activists and the men of Gamergate). That Tara’s death came by his bullet, poured salt in the open wound of many early-2000 teens for whom the death of Tara Maclay was their first (but by no means last) experience of ‘Bury Your Gays’. No wonder then, that many found FanFiction to be a saving grace – the one place where toxic tropes of pop-culture could get a ‘do-over’. They may not have been canon (the material accepted as officially part of the story in the fictional universe of that story) but they were cathartic – which is far more important for young people, grappling with the harmful representations of themselves in the stories they loved.
FanFic’s queer representation wasn’t just in the rewriting of damaging tropes, either. FF was one of the few pop-culture places where LGBTQI stories could be anonymous, accepted and encouraged – because they often didn’t even exist in the mainstream. ‘Slash’ fiction is the genre of interpersonal attraction and sexual relationships between fictional characters of the same sex – and though JK Rowling can now say that Dumbledore was always gay, readers didn’t have his sexuality overtly gifted to them in the original series.
But they did have ‘slash’ FF that favoured ‘unconventional parings’ of, say, Harry Potter and antagonist Draco Malfoy (a hugely popular slash fiction couple). In her 2016 article ‘The Revolutionary Power Of Fanfiction For Queer Youth’, Jane Hu examined positive LGBTQI representation in FF, concluding: ‘We should be striving to create more safe spaces for young, queer writers to feel welcome, but until that happens, online fanfiction communities will remain a safe space for them to gather and connect.’
The realisation that my FanFic – and teen stories and romance in particular – was what gave me joy, allowed me to admit that what I truly desired was a career in books and stories. After accepting that, I applied for RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing program – but was unprepared for the part of application where I had to provide samples of my writing. The last ‘proper’ creative writing I’d done was in high school, for a class assignment where I had to write a short story in the style of Isabel Allende (another form of FanFiction?). I only had that Year 12 assignment … and my FF. So I sent in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer ‘oneshot’ (one-off short FF piece).
I ended up getting an interview with RMIT, in which I had to explain what FanFiction actually was, and why I was drawn to write it. I think I replied something like, FanFiction had given me a space to write freely and experiment with my voice through different universes and characters that were familiar. Perhaps I also said that it was a space where I got instant feedback – often harsh – from a community of readers who were honest but encouraging. It was where I’d practiced the discipline of writing and seeing a story through to ‘The End’ and it lowered my inhibitions enough – knowing it wouldn’t go beyond my FanFiction.net account – to get something on the page and just see what could become of an idea when I committed to it.
Reader, I got accepted into the RMIT program. And the rest, as they say, led to me embracing my love of young adult literature and romance stories. Now I am a two-time winner of the Romance Writers of Australia Media Industry Award – the ROMA – for writing critically about the romance genre in a public forum. I was editor and contributor to HarperCollins Australian young adult short story collection, Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology. I write my own fiction now too, mostly young adult, often with romantic elements. And I work as a literary agent with Jacinta di Mase Management, representing young adult and middle grade authors. Generally, I refer to myself as a ‘Youth Literature Advocate’.
I owe a great deal to my years of FanFiction. And while the form has been disgraced in recent years, I believe it should be embraced – not least for how it is democratising publishing. We should focus more on what FF is teaching an entire generation of emerging writers. Because I think the true modern benefit of FanFiction is the creation of accessible platforms for would-be writers to learn their craft and find their voice.
So much of the writing and publishing industry is prohibitive, and even the decision and ability to write is often informed by socioeconomic boundaries. Choosing to pursue a career as a writer is choosing to enter into a low-paying job that not everyone can afford (a 2015 study by Macquarie University surveyed more than 1000 book authors and found that most Australian authors earn only $12,900 from their writing). Many in the book-publishing realm – whether subconsciously or not – still favour authors from traditional pathways: those who came up through writing courses, MFA programs and doctorates (just read the CVs of most anyone who is shortlisted for an ‘unpublished manuscript award’). In fact, most of the mechanisms we have in publishing to find ‘new and emerging voices’ are still cost-prohibitive – such as when there’s a fee to attend a writer’s centre ‘speed date with a literary agent’ event or ‘meet the publisher’ open-house. Even entering some unpublished manuscript prizes requires an entry fee.
FanFiction, then, is one alternative. It’s a trial-by-fire for people and their words, in which the community decides value.
Take the case of Anna Todd, for instance. Inspired by the music and fandom of One Direction, Todd started writing romance stories on her phone of ‘real person fiction’ (a genre of writing similar to FF, but featuring celebrities or other real people). She uploaded her story ‘After’ to Wattpad – a social-networking site for readers and writers. Pretty soon she amassed a huge number of reader-followers and her story racked upwards of 800-million views. Publishers came calling and in 2014, Simon & Schuster acquired the series with a massive six-figure deal. But the reason Anna Todd starting writing in the first place is just as interesting, and further highlights the democratic nature of FF, and its potential to encourage new voices.
Anna Todd graduated and married her high-school boyfriend, who then enrolled in the US army. Todd followed her husband to his station in Texas, but then found herself a bored 18-year-old army wife, whose husband deployed to Iraq leaving her alone on a base with nobody she knew. Todd says on her website:
I found Wattpad through reading Fanfiction and from the second I laid my eyes on the platform, I fell down the rabbit hole. It was a place I couldn’t have even dreamed existed with people just like me, an entire world of people who read and write on the internet. I found a community, a home really, with these people who were writing in the hours off of work, school, parenting, life, and I loved every second of it. And I wrote. And wrote. And wrote and then wrote some more. I couldn’t stop! Over 1 millions words came from my fingers into my first novel I had ever written. Ever.
Anna Todd’s story to publishing success is a remarkable one that was only made possible by the democratised nature of these online writing communities that allow anyone to contribute – to try and tell their story, to find their voice. Todd was a waiter who had dropped out of college, and an isolated eighteen-year-old ‘army wife’. She found a tribe of followers and readers based around their common-interest – a boy band – and wrote to them, for them. How many authors with a background like Todd’s exist in traditional publishing landscapes? How many opportunities would she have had to test her creative limits, get her words in-front of readers – had FanFiction as a phenomenon and its associated platforms not existed?
How many more emerging writers are out there right now, toiling away in fandoms and FF sites to learn this craft and figure out what they want to say? We should no more discredit them for where their own stories begin, than we should assume that a formal education in novel-writing is the only way to become a writer.
I believe that the one unbending rule is that the only way to become a writer is to read and consume works, and to write write write. Which is what those who begin in FanFiction do so well – they write and read prolifically. They absorb the stories and characters they love, so much so that they want to imprint a little of themselves on the universe, by contributing to it.
Now that I’ve ventured back into my own FF portal, I can’t stop thinking about the speech in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s finale episode, ‘Chosen’. In which Buffy – the one in a long line of young women chosen by fate to battle evil forces for seven television seasons – tells her loyal followers:
In every generation, one slayer is born … because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power … should be our power.
I’d similarly implore those in publishing to view FF not as a diluting of literature, but as a way to redistribute power. At its core, FF is about democratising the emerging voice, and offering a hard-knocks means of learning the fundamentals of storytelling and voice, and the pleasure of writing for an audience, and for oneself.
At least, that’s what it taught me.
Image: screenshot of Willow and Tara, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer