When you hear the term “fan fiction,” your mind probably jumps to works the likes of My Immortal and Fifty Shades of Grey—graphic, controversial, and poorly written. Fan fiction is notorious for its grammar flops, its chapters upon chapters of sappy, angsty romance, and its comedically bad sex scenes. If you dive into the world of online fan fiction, you will read words you never thought could apply to intercourse. You will learn at least fifty scientific or obscure slang terms for sexual organs. You will read the word ‘moist’ in a sexual context and likely feel ill.
But fan fiction is so much more than its smutty, grammatically disastrous surface. When you make fun of fan fiction, you straw-man a vast, diverse genre of writing. You degrade it for being ‘not real writing,’ because it’s based on pre-existing work, and now every writer of fan fiction (including me) has to live with the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey is the money-guzzling face of our craft.
There’s a long-running joke in the fan fiction community that writing fan fiction is our guilty pleasure. It’s our literary masturbation—we all do it, but no one would ever admit to it. It could be considered shameful, from an outside perspective.
So I’m going to dispel several common myths about fan fiction that contribute to its horrible reputation, and hopefully you’ll walk away from this essay with a new attitude toward a widely frowned upon genre of writing.
- Fan fiction is not plagiarism. We’re not here to steal other people’s ideas and use them to earn praise from our audience—we get more flack for writing fan fiction in the first place than we get praise from the people who read our writing. We get zero monetary gain from our work. We simply take existing characters and experiment with them, like literary scientists. We throw them into new situations, explore the possibilities of their relationships, populate new worlds with old faces.Personally, I use fan fiction as a testing ground for my ideas—does this stylistic device have the impact I want it to? How do certain characters react to an event? I practice techniques and genres using fan fiction. This is how writers learn to create believable romance, to add depth to their characters, to structure their stories so that they make sense to an audience.
- Fan fiction is not just dysfunctional teenage girls living out their fantasies online. What’s wrong with teenage girls? Those dysfunctional teenage girls are teaching themselves to write and finding outlets for their frustrations and their desires. They deserve respect. They’re using their writing to empower themselves in ways they might not be able to do in real life and to feel more confident.No, they’re not always good writers—the ‘girl dumped into Middle Earth’ story is infamous for a reason, but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored and criticized for trying. The girls writing these stories are searching for their voices. If someone is a poor writer, you teach them to become a better writer instead of tearing them down for trying in the first place. Why deprive them of a creative outlet and a way to deal with the shittiness of adolescence?Additionally, the fan fiction community is also comprised of fully grown humans with incredible control over their writing. Often the more skilled fan fiction writers are overshadowed by massive piles of writing with less thought and effort put into them. And some of those teenage girls we make fun of are the faces hidden behind well written stories.
- Fan fiction is not just literary porn. First of all, the rating systems on fan fiction websites exist for a reason—there are million stories out there that aren’t just literary porn, and if you don’t want to read smut you can filter it out.Second, smutty fan fiction exists because people read it. Porn is designed to please men, for the most part. In fan fiction there’s a story behind the smut; there’s a relationship and characters to be explored, and the production quality of your average fan fiction is probably higher than most pornos. If porn caters to a straight male audience, fan fiction is more universal, and represents a wider variety of people.
- That the worlds and characters already exist does not make fan fiction ‘fake’ writing. Fan fiction is the bones and history of real writing. Writers have been borrowing for generations—that’s why we have tropes and fairy tales and intertwined cultures. That’s why we have mythology and classical literature. J.K. Rowling borrowed from Tolkien. Tolkien borrowed from myths across Europe; he borrowed from Classical myths, from Celtic and Ango Saxon mythology. And in turn, Roman writers like Vergil borrowed from Homer. Vergil’s Aeneid was arguably a piece of fan fiction based on Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. The borrowing and sharing that happens between authors is what keeps writing alive. There are only so many stories you can tell, and the reason there are so many books out there is that you can tell a story in billions of different ways with different characters.So if Vergil did it, if Tolkien and J.K. Rowling did it, why shouldn’t the rest of us? Certainly, fan fiction borrows more than just concepts—it borrows universes and specific characters, but it lays a framework for writers to practice and refine their techniques. It provides a database for us to explore and borrow to our hearts content and create our own content to add to that database.
So you see, the current attitude toward fan fiction needs to change, because the people sitting in their home-offices typing away on their keyboards about what should have happened in season six of Rizzoli and Isles or the infamous teenage girl who got dumped into Middle Earth are wells of creativity, flexing their muscles and teaching themselves the ropes of writing. Their creative power needs to be fostered instead of discouraged. They need to learn to refine their skills instead of be told that they shouldn’t be writing at all.
Fan fiction paves the way for the future of writing. It is a massive resource for voracious readers and writers alike. It is a source of ideas and feedback, an online community where we can share our passions and learn from one another, and where we can explore the relationships between characters and write the details that TV writers can’t.
Reading is moving into the online realm. Newspapers and literary journals are moving online, and books are being published digitally. Writing websites allow members to contribute work and give each other feedback. Fan fiction is a massive, diverse community that we need to be willing to accept if we want the future of reading and writing to be a positive one. If we want to truly expand our horizons and make the best of digital reading—for better or worse—we need to recognize fan fiction as a legitimate piece of that future.
I’m not saying we should published fan fiction and make millions—it’s still framed by pre-existing creative work. But in the digital age, fan fiction is a powerful genre motivated more by personal creativity than by monetary success. It is a massive, diverse community and body of work that no one should shit on, and to which no one should be ashamed to contribute.