Fanfiction: popular yet misunderstood

Trinity Sloan

The logos of three popular fanfiction sharing websites, Archive Of Our Own, Wattpad and Beside each logo are some statistics about the site’s popularity.

(Spoiler alert!) As a huge Walking Dead fan, I was devastated when my favorite character, Glen, was brutally murdered in front of his pregnant wife. Not an eye in my family was dry as he said his last words to Maggie, and I must have gone through a whole box of tissues on my own.

Why did he have to die! There must have been another way! I thought to myself, a blubbering mess. But of course, I couldn’t change how the story ended.

Or could I?

On the Internet, fanfiction has given millions of fans a chance to tell their favorite stories differently.

In simple terms, fanfiction is a story that uses pre-existing fictional characters and settings instead of original characters or settings. They are typically written by a fan of some creative work, like a book or movie. The fanfic’s author has total creative freedom as long as they aren’t trying to profit off of the copyrighted materials. In order to obey copyright laws, writers normally post a disclaimer at the beginning of their work. For example, a Percy Jackson fanfic would say “characters and setting belong to Rick Riordan.” This means the fan can change the original plot as much as they like, including resurrecting dead characters, placing two characters in a romantic relationship or adding additional elements, like giving the main character magic powers.

Fanfiction is wildly popular among internet communities, and well-known fanfic sharing sites include Wattpad, Archive Of Our Own (AO3) and AO3 in particular is so widely used that it has developed its own terminology and tropes.

For example, AU (alternate universe) is when characters are placed in a different setting than their original one. Hogwarts AU’s are a classic example of this. Unrelated characters, like the Avengers, are cast as Hogwarts students. Coffee Shop AU’s is another popular example and a staple of the ‘meet-cute’ genre. In this trope, usually one character is cast as a barista and another is cast as a lovestruck customer.

‘Enemies to Lovers’ and ‘Friends to Lovers’ are popular relationship pairings. Slow burns are fics where romantic relationships develop gradually over the course of many chapters. Angst is the term for fanfics that deal with predominantly negative emotional themes, like pain, grief or other hardships. Fluff is the term for fanfics that are mostly lighthearted, like first kiss fics or wedding fics.

Though fanfiction has amassed a large following online, its reception in the real world tends to be a bit more mixed. I’ve had multiple creative writing friends say that fanfiction is beneath them or ‘not real writing.’ Fanfiction writers are the butt of their jokes.

The problem, in critics’ opinions, is that you don’t have to be a talented writer in order to post fanfiction. There are no credentials other than creating an account, writing and posting. But this is actually what makes fanfiction so unique. It gives everyday people a platform to be creative, and to share that creativity with other people who love the characters as much as the fanfiction writer does.

Yes, the low bar opens the door for a fair amount of stories written by middle schoolers about teen girls being sold to One Direction, and the poor grammar and second-hand embarrassment of these works can be an eyesore for writing veterans. But all good writers have to start somewhere, and fanfiction gives many people a unique chance to stretch their writing muscles, post anonymously and receive feedback via comments. Plus, the volume of available stories means that if one fanfic is not very well written, the reader can easily find another story on the same topic that is better. For every crude story I have read, I have read just as many good ones.

Fanfiction also gives people a chance to indirectly process their own hardships. There’s a reason “author is projecting onto the characters” is such a popular tag on AO3. I’ve read many stories about characters like Harry Potter, Captain America, and even internet personalities like Thomas Sanders facing struggles with anxiety, depression, loneliness and broken homes. Writers draw on their real life experiences, using fanfiction as a medium to tell their stories. Because of this, writing and posting fanfiction takes bravery that should be celebrated. Regardless of quality, the writer has accomplished something, releasing their story into the mainstream internet despite knowing they might face criticism.

Fanfiction’s ability to create a sense of community, between both readers and writers is its most valuable trait. Fanfiction writers are able to create something that is passionate and vulnerable, and readers are able to see their own love for a character, and their own struggles, reflected in the media in a unique way.