Popular book, film, and television series offer fans huge worlds to explore, with plots that can span several volumes and episodes, and casts of memorable characters whose hopes, dreams, and desires have been absorbed by hundreds of thousands of people. So, what happens when the original creators stop creating new instalments in their series, or there are other latent possibilities in the text that are ready to be pulled out and explored, fleshed out, or brought to light for the first time? A fictional universe never truly dies; its threads are always taken up by a new generation of creators, ready to transform them into something exciting, different, and even dangerous. These new creators are often the same fans who have been reading or watching with intense passion the exploits of their beloved heroes in their favourite universes. Fan fiction is not only an avenue for fans to explore their own creativity, but also a chance from them to collaborate and connect with others.
“I think it started back in middle school. It would have been grade six or seven when Lord of the Rings came out. I was looking up random stuff about Lord of the Rings and I stumbled on it,” my friend Sara Patterson says of her first encounter with fan fiction. “I think it was fanfiction.net, which was new and exciting 10 years ago. I started by writing it script-style, where you would have the character’s name and then dialogue. It wasn’t actual written prose… Lord of the Rings was the first big one… Then the second big thing I started writing for was Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Now posting her fan fiction online under the moniker “oneinspats,” Sara has stories set in the universes of Lord of the Rings, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld (specifically the “City Watch” series with Vetinari and Vimes), and Les Miserables.
“For me personally, it’s because I really liked the characters, and usually the series, or film, or TV show was done. It’s kind of a way of continuing the adventures, when the producers, authors, or creators have finished. You’ll be sitting there and you’ll be like, what if x, y, z happened? How would the characters react to that?” Sara says.
Fan fiction has become more accessible, and come to the attention of a much wider audience since the advent of the Internet. However, fan fiction predates the Internet. In fact, amateur press associations, which first flourished in the early decades of the 20th century, provided a way for aspiring writers to put together and share their own magazines and works of fiction. A distribution manager or official editor would collect the magazines and letter publications and send them to other members of the association. In the 1930s, fans of science fiction magazines printed their own mimeographed or hectographed works which contained their own reviews, printed fiction, and even art. Prominent fanzines such as The Fantasy Fan and The Science Fiction Digest even contained articles, fiction, and commentary by notable fantasy, horror, or sci-fi authors of the day like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Zines dedicated to sci-fi TV shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who, and movies like Star Wars were produced by fans well into the 1990s.
Fandom quickly adopted the Internet. Fanfiction.net started in 1998 and gave fans one of the first central locations to share, rate, and review their pieces, known as fanfics. However, the site fell into disfavour when it started cracking down on “fics” that featured sexually explicit material.
“If you’re writing an explicit sex scene it can’t go on there. They’ll shut your account, they’ll delete everything. It’s heavy censorship because of child pornography problems around the fact that people were writing Harry Potter smut. Because even though they are fictional characters, they are underage for most of the books,” Sara explains. Fans migrated to Livejournal in the early 2000s — one of the Internet’s earliest social networks — but left around 2006 after Livejournal began to crack down on material it deemed inappropriate. Many fans now use the micro-blogging site Tumblr to share and tag their own stories, or post stories to the fanfic database Archive of Our Own.
Writers of fanfic range in age their mid-teens to late-30s. The audience and social network of a fanfic is largely determined by the fictional work itself. For example, Les Miserables — especially fans of the original Victor Hugo novel — tend to be older. My friend Carla Mesa Guzzo, who writes fanfic for the BBC TV series Merlin under the name “bulfinch,” reads fiction that is often written by younger fans, many of whom may still be in high school.
Stereotypes about fan fiction being merely “bad writing” sometimes stem from the participation of younger audiences of shows like Merlin, or the Harry Potter series, but this is often an unfair characterization. “You have a lot more people writing for it, and you have to wade through a lot more stuff. They’re not bad writers, they’re just undeveloped. It’s just a matter of volume. You’re going to get some not so great stuff and you’re also going to get some quite literary work as well,” Carla explains.
The sheer volume of fanfic means that there’s a lot of creativity in how fans reconstruct their favourite fictional universes. A fan vernacular has evolved over the years in the fan community, which easily categorizes the fiction that someone is reading.
“Crackfic” is fanfic written solely for the amusement of the author. “PWP,” short for “Plot? What plot?” is, according to Sara, just meant to denote porn. “Slash” is the sexual pairing of two male characters (there is also “femslash”). “Altu” is short for an alternate universe written for a fictional world in which whole plots are rewritten or characters are changed. This can involve everything from Harry Potter being adopted and raised by Voldemort to Sherlock Holmes being transformed into a master criminal. “Altcanon” often sticks close to the canon of the universe but deviates slightly from the original. Sara, for example, had the Black Death visit the fictional city of Ankh-Morpork in Prachett’s Discworld.
“Essentially, I wondered: ‘what if you killed off a third to a quarter of the population? How would the city deal with it? How would the city’s infrastructure deal with it?” And because this happens a lot in the series I made the plague an anthropomorphic being,” she says with a slight laugh.
Fan fiction represents a continually burgeoning area of creativity and community on the Internet. Despite hostility from some websites and even occasionally from the creators of the original series being referenced, it continues to flourish, sustained by the close associations built around the simple love of an imagined world and its memorable cast of characters.