From Dante to Star Wars: why we write fanfiction
What's the point in writing fanfiction? Six authors share their experiences.
Please be advised that this article contains non-graphic discussion of abuse, gender dysphoria, mental illness, and trauma processing.
The Ant Nebula, photographed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Image via NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
If the first Mars rover hadn’t landed in 1997, science fiction and fantasy author J.M. Frey wouldn’t have discovered fanfiction or become a published writer.
Frey was in her friend Karen’s basement waiting to see the images that the rover was transmitting back to Earth. As the girls waited, Frey suggested that they use the Internet to read about topics they liked. Choosing to look up a Toronto-based television show called Forever Knight, Frey stumbled upon a fanfiction forum.
"I'd never heard of [fanfiction] before, which was so cool," Frey said. "I thought all these people who were writing fanfiction were getting paid for it I thought it was the coolest thing ever and then I realized that they were all doing it for free and then I could just do it if I wanted to."
Right then and there, Frey wrote and posted a fanfiction for the 90s television show Dracula: The Series and that moment kicked off Frey’s lasting relationship with fanfiction.
Fanfiction, often abbreviated as 'fanfic' or 'fic,' refers to stories written by fans of a novel, film, television series, and sometimes even celebrities. Fanfiction based on published or broadcast fiction involves characters from the source work and may be set in the canon universe, another fictional universe, or a certain time period.
As an avid fanfiction writer and fan community (or 'fandom') participant, Frey, 34, calls herself a "professional geek" and says that if it weren't for fandom and fanfiction, she would never have become a professional author.
"When someone tries to write a novel, if they’ve never written anything before, it’s difficult," Frey said. "Fanfiction really served me because by the time I was ready to write my first original novel, I'd written thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of stories. I'd been ripped up in comments, I'd had my work edited, I'd had it beta-read. I'd taken constructive criticism; I'd learned how I like to write, not just the tone and the mood and the word choices but my habits and my environment. By the time I decided to write an original novel, I had a decade’s worth of practice writing."
Božena Čechalová, 35, had Frey's experience in reverse, beginning with original fiction and branching into fanfiction later. Čechalová has been writing and publishing original work since 2008 but grew frustrated with the publication and feedback process.
"Publishing original fic is lengthy — it goes through editor approval, then you wait long months for a slot in a printed magazine, and then you get about ten readers’ feedback. Well, and the money, but not much for short stories. I was intrigued by writing and sharing something that would get instant feedback," Čechalová said.
Online publishing platforms such as Archive of Our Own (AO3) and FanFiction.net have feedback systems where readers can comment on fanworks, leave 'kudos,' and bookmark stories. For Čechalová, the feedback she received on her fanfiction was "heaps and heaps better" than on her original work.
"Even my earliest, shittiest fics were doing better [than my original fiction]. Nowadays the numbers are varying — I have fics written for [the] Hobbit fandom, which is huge, with hundreds of comments, and fics written for obscure Japanese anime fandom, which got like two or three. But the feedback is instant — I don't have to wait months for my stories to appear in the open," Čechalová said.
Not only did Čechalová receive helpful feedback on her fanfiction, she says that fanfiction helped her improve her English. Writing original fiction, Čechalová said, helped strengthen her English. "My betas say that I improved tremendously. Really you'd have to read my things from 2011 to compare it to 2016 to see the difference. It was quite a ride," she said.
Čechalová lives in the Czech Republic and publishes original fiction in Czech, but writes fanfiction in English. Although she has written over 400,000 words of fanfiction in English, Čechalová cannot speak the language. "I learned by reading and writing," Čechalová said in an interview conducted over Skype chat. "I have no idea how half the words sound."
Six per cent of people used AO3 in 10 languages other than English in 2013. Image via centrumlumina on tumblr.
"I started writing original fic to be published in Czech printed magazines. And when I fell for Sherlock, Czech fandom didn't exist," Čechalová said of her decision to write fanfiction in English.
Art imitates life
Gen Hart, 34, began writing fanfiction in January 2016 for the Star Wars fandom.
"The reason I originally started is the story I wrote first, it’s called "Closed Circuit." The reason I wanted to go with that [is because] it gave a redemption arc and it gave characters I didn’t have to create too much of a background for," they said.
For Hart, one of the benefits of fanfiction is that you can get to the meat of the story without having to do too much exposition. "I think sometimes, with literature, people over-explain stuff," Hart said. "Yes, you"ve been explaining that your character’s attractive, deeply intelligent but doesn't think she's intelligent, blah, blah, blah, get on with the story!"
The ease of writing was only one of the reasons for which Hart started writing fanfiction. After a conversation with their therapist, Hart had the idea of taking their experiences and handing them to a character to process.
"I woke up the next morning after I finished it and published it. [It was] like someone had opened an air-lock, and all the pressure had gone," they said.
"I've been really, really ill for a while. Looking at photos of myself from two years ago, I don’t know how I'm still alive now, and how I feel the way I feel. But I know it was because having written that story and getting it out of my head," Hart added.
Hart found some of the feedback on "Closed Circuit" encouraging and inspired them to continue to write fanfiction for fun. "Originally it had a specific purpose, I was only supposed to write this one thing and never try again," they said.
Ren Hill, 26, also wrote Star Wars fanfiction to process trauma. Hill decided to write several fanfictions that imagined General Hux from Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a transgender man in order to combat their discomfort with their own identity.
Armitage Hux is a general of the sinister First Order in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Image via Star Wars Screencaps.
"I was feeling really awful before that, feeling really lost and messed up. But then I wrote that and I chilled out so much after it," Hill said. "I can’t say how or why or what aspects, but just in a vague sense it's having a character that you like and then just giving them something you don't like about yourself so you can like it more or be more accepting of it. I don't understand the psychology of it, but it helped so much. It worked," they added.
Hill also found that fanfiction helped them to realize and articulate their experiences, on top of processing experiences that they already understood. Specifically, they watched In The Flesh, a critically acclaimed television show about a zombie apocalypse, and found a striking resemblance between themselves and a character called Rick Macy. Through writing fanficiton about Rick Macy, they realized that their father was abusive and the relationship they had was atypical and unhealthy.
Rick Macy is the son of the town's most strident anti-zombie campaigner in the British television series In The Flesh. Image via ladygeekgirl on wordpress.
"To try and accurately portray a character, you end up using your own experiences, and start unravelling your own and pulling them and realizing where they come from and then you can start putting them into place," Hill said.
"It’s an awful process, it’s quite hard and horrible to start realizing — it’s not nice to realize your parents are abusive. But it’s tough, but I'm glad it worked out finally. And I'm glad I could put it down so it could, not exactly put it down, but see it goes somewhere, it’s something I've worked through, but in a way I've been able to go through it indirectly? So the character done it, and I've been able to watch and control how it happens," Hill added.
Transformative fiction and reparative reading
Frey describes fanfiction as "a form of reparative reading" and says that it helps "[give] voice to the previously marginalized."
"It’s a way of talking back to the fantasy world because so much of our lives, especially young people, because especially young women and queer people and people of colour, we're told to sit down, shut up, and listen… Fanfiction is definitely a way, not just to talk back, but to improve the system," Frey said.
Fanfiction writers are usually women. According to the 2013 AO3 survey, 90 per cent of respondents identified as female. This trend has its roots in the 70s; in 1970, 83 per cent of Star Trek fanfiction authors were female, a figure that had risen to 90 per cent by 1973. Though there is little data on the number of fanfiction writers who are transgender or nonbinary, the 2013 survey revealed that a total of 16.8 per cent of respondents were transgender or gender non-conforming.
Women made up the vast majority of fanfiction authors in 2013. The second most populated category was trans and gender non-conforming people. Image via centrumlumina on tumblr.
Despite the longstanding female domination of fandom, fanfiction frequently depicts homoerotic relationships, a genre often referred to as 'slash fiction.' The 2013 AO3 survey noted that slash fiction writers were most likely to be bisexual or pansexual women.
The term 'slash' comes from the Star Trek fandom and originally referred to stories in which Kirk and Spock were in a romantic (and often sexual) relationship. Authors denoted the relationship with the phrase "Kirk/Spock," which birthed the term 'slash,' from the slash punctuation mark between the characters' names.
Heterosexual women were the second most likely slash writers, 6.4 per cent behind bi/pan women, in 2013. Image via centrumlumina on tumblr.
Slash fiction is one of the most popular fanfiction genres. According to a 2016 survey by the hosts of the podcast Fansplaining, fanfiction about male/male relationships were the most widely-read type of relationship story.
Fan scholars Shoshana Green, Cynthia Jenkins, and Henry Jenkins called slash "one of the most pervasive and distinctive genres of fan writing." Their essay "Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking" catalogues several explanations for women's interest in slash fiction. These range from a lack of representation of female characters, to women identifying more with the heroes of the source material than with the heroines due to internalized misogyny and scorn for weaponized femininity.
Slash was the most popular relationship ('ship') genre in 2016, followed by male/female ships. Image via Fansplaining.
No matter the theoretical reasons, fanfiction writers of all genders are interested in writing stories that reflect things that matter to them. Henry Wolff, 19, said that he tends to identify with and write about villainous characters.
"Definitely it’s a statistic thing rather than it’s me picking the villain because it’s the villain," Wolff said. "It's just, the villains are the ones I identify with 90 per cent of the time, because villains are queer and mentally ill coded and I am mentally ill and queer," he added.
Wolff said that he would prefer for there to be more representation of queer and mentally ill characters in mainstream media and in original material, but thinks he would still identify with the villains even so.
"I feel like people like myself and other oppressed people who are more systemically discriminated against in society, it's like, we're framed as the villain in a societal sense," Wolff said. "Therefore the people who are doing wrong are the people who appeal to me more because I don't really want to do what is considered right by the frame of general society."
Frey notes that fanfiction isn’t necessarily always about fixing damaging or absent narratives. "You don’t want to generalize obviously, you don’t want to impose that on everything," Frey said. "Sometimes it’s just you know, some nice fluffy smut."
Literature as fanfiction
For years, fanfiction has been scorned and mocked as a "lesser" form of literature or as a waste of time. Fanfiction writer and reader Britani Palazzolo, 23, believes that there are several reasons for the devaluation of fanfiction.
"I would think it's probably because the people writing it aren't published authors and it’s 'Aw, it’s just kids on the Internet,'" Palazzolo said. "And it's also just predominately females, and they're always looked down upon, so it's always 'Aw, it’s just a thing for girls to like,'" she added.
"There are the fics written by 13-year-olds who just want to express themselves. Sure, they won't be the best grammatically, but that's still a story and they had fun writing it. I think people'll get attached to those ones, and be like, 'This isn''t writing.' But it totally is," said Palazzolo.
All the writers interviewed consider fanfiction a form of literature. "I have read loads of fanfiction that are been significantly better than some "literature" I've read," Hart said.
Hart had to study Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of the Day in school — and resented it.
"There's a scene in it, if it were a movie, would have flashed up in neon lights, 'Here is where I win the Booker Prize, watch me do symbolism.' And then it's four pages of the most first-year fanfic symbolism that I — this isn't even slightly subtle, this is hitting the reader with a sledgehammer... It's so obvious! And then you read fanfic that's so nuanced, that turns on a single word; and in some cases, there's so little resemblance to the original canon that you could just re-name the characters and re-publish it. But the only time that's happened was in Fifty Shades of Grey and we're not going to do that," Hart said.
"Dante’s Inferno is the original fanfic. If he can do it, why can’t we do it?" Hart added.
Dante and Virgil watch two damned souls fighting in the eighth circle of Hell in this 1850 painting by William Bouguereau. Image via the Musée d'Orsay.
Hart has observed a similar trend in revered artworks, which Hart says may also fall under the category of fanworks — as fanart. "There’s fanart of [Dante] doing a self-insert. It’s a wrestling picture, of him in the background, that is the equivalent of someone drawing their best friend's [original characters]," Hart said.
“I took so many art history classes. The Renaissance, it’s all fanart,” Palazzolo agreed.
Despite its shunned status, fanfiction has gained scholarly attention in recent years and is studied as a form of literature in its own right. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse in The Fan Fiction Studies Reader note that works such as Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, Christa Wolf's Cassandra, and Ursula K. LeGuin's Lavinia "retell classic male-focused tales by foregrounding the female protagonists of The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid, respectively." Hellekson and Busse argue that the authors of these modern works "seek to modify and correct the vast number of tests still clearly geared to white men," and that their adaptations parallel the feminist focus of fanfiction.
"There's no stakes"
Based on her own experiences, Frey considers fanfiction writing to have been her "apprenticeship" — her opportunity to learn the skills to launch her professional writing career.
"Fandom in general is an apprenticeship," Frey said. "When you value people’s efforts or when you value art, but there's no stakes because you're not trying to sell it, you're allowed to make mistakes, you're allowed to practice, you're allowed to learn from other people," she said.
Hart agreed with Frey, saying that there's nothing to lose by writing fanfiction. "Here’s the thing, 'What if we did that?' is a great way of describing fanfiction in general," Hart said.
"Why not try it? You’ve not spent money, you've not spent ages on market research and audience research, you've not taken a risk. If people don't like it, all that happens is your fanfic doesn't get comments on AO3," they added.
Whether or not people are writing fanfiction in order to improve their writing and editing skills or to eventually become professional writers, one thing is clear: fanfiction is a community-building activity that allows fans to connect over shared interests and viewpoints.
For Palazzolo, the best thing about reading fanfiction is the immersion in another world. "I like how you can break from reality and live in your perfect little bubble. If the world was like this, it would be perfect," she said.
As for writing, Palazzolo said that she likes writing something that other people appreciate. "I just get enjoyment out of other people’s enjoyment. If somebody else can read it, and just be like, 'I had a good time reading this, thank you.' That’s all I want."