Why You Should Give Fanfiction a Second Chance

fanfic_junkie_buttonBy Carmen Denia, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio

A big thank you to the hilarious Kevin Low, Yale-NUS College ’17 for his post on Why Anime is Not as Bad as You Think as it inspired this post. Thank you too, Evangeline Pousson, Yale-NUS College ’17 for brainstorming with me on this.

Fanfiction – stories featuring characters, settings, or ideas from an original story that are written by fans rather than the original author – gets a bad rap from your average literary critic in the way that professional bakers think using Pillsbury mixes to make lemon chiffon is inferior to whipping up your own batch from scratch. It’s considered inauthentic, cheating, and due to all the artificial flavourings, more lemon than actual substance, if you know what I mean.

In fact, one finds that admission in polite company of enjoying fanfiction is often accompanied with an apology or a sheepish smile.  In the fanfiction community, being hyped up for the next big fic exchange or awards season is normal, if not passionately supported, among one’s colleagues or classmates.  Yet fanfiction is a hobby rarely acknowledged, alongside competitive mooing, navel fluff collecting, and replying to Yahoo Answers.


Yes, some people actually compete on their ability
to sound like a distressed bovine. It’s fascinating.

Fanfiction is often associated with squeeing fangirls, flame wars, spoilers, and general internet insanity.  However, fanfiction really isn’t about those things, and for the well-informed it’s downright awesome. So to those who have previously looked down upon or ignored the wonderful world of fan-made labours of love, here are 5 reasons why you should give fanfiction a second chance:

5. It’s a way to explore your favourite stories.

Fanfic allows you to play within the world that you admire while simultaneously exploring ideas outside the world’s canon. This is important for those who believe that Elektra should have stayed with Bond, that Naruto told from Sasuke’s perspective is more interesting, or that movie Legolas should really stop being Captain Obvious.

Fanfiction lets you explore the plot holes that your favourite authors or scriptwriters missed or dissect the scenes that you feel did not get enough attention. You can dig deeper into the past of characters that you love or change the epilogue to feature new situations you’d like to see the protagonist in.

Just like at Burger King, with fanfiction, you can have it your way.

photo 1

One happy Darth Vader please. Oh, and a side order of fries too.”

Of course, this same freedom to explore has led to the rise of Mary Sues, idealised original characters inserted into stories by generally preteen, female fans as a way to have romantic relationships with popular main characters. But it’s all good in the name of self-expression (and also leads to our next point).

4. It’s a good way to improve your writing skills.

Shakespeare took inspiration for his famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, from the plot of an Italian tale by Arthur Brooke entitled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. When they were still young, the famous Bronte siblings wrote their own series of stories that featured real people as well as characters borrowed from the famous writers of their day. Euripedes based several of his plays on characters and stories from Greek mythology.

Now, that paragraph might seem like a good way to begin explaining to your teacher why you copied your classmate’s homework or to explain why certain senators think that they can plagiarise other people’s speeches without credit because it’s a translation. But really it’s not.

It’s much better used as evidence that fanfiction can help improve writing skills.

photo 2

“My dog didn’t eat my homework. Instead, he explained to me how copying without giving credit may improve my chances of becoming a literary giant.”

Fanfiction provides a practice space for beginners in the craft who are still figuring out how to seamlessly set “he bellowed” or “she gasped” within the dialogue. Writing, like all skills, requires one to practice in order to improve and as the great Neil Gaiman once wrote,

“I think that all writing is useful for honing writing skills. I think you get better as a writer by writing, and whether that means that you’re writing a singularly deep and moving novel about the pain or pleasure of modern existence or you’re writing Smeagol-Gollum slash you’re still putting one word after another and learning as a writer.”

photo 3

There really is Smeagol x Gollum fanfic online, by the way.
Highly disturbing, but there nonetheless for the curious.

Fanfic critics who bemoan the “lack of originality” in fanfiction and declare that beginner writers are better off creating their own stories rather than “stealing” from established authors need to understand that while some writers are able to whip up their own universe off the bat (Can anyone say George R. R. Martin?), for most of us, the mechanics of putting word after word proves to be a problem. Add to that creating a riveting plot complete with an exciting introduction and character growth and a suitable foil and a consistent narrative style and a believable resolution and – you get the picture.

Thus, having a base of characters, places, and styles to work with allows fledgling writers to stretch their baby wings and soar on borrowed wind, which sounds like a bad thing until we remember that conventional fanfiction (if such an oxymoron can be said) puts no one’s grades, professional integrity or royalties on the line. It’s even free advertising for the original authors or scriptwriters because their online fan base spreads the word of how awesome the original piece is.

Besides, the Father of Modern High Fantasy wrote fanfiction before he got his big break so why can’t we?

photo 4

Tolkien is the badass high king of fantasy.

3. It’s a lot smarter than it seems.

The most famous piece of fanfiction at present is probably 50 Shades of Gray (which doesn’t really pack more pounds into the pro-fanfiction corner). In fact, it’s famous enough that there’s fanfiction about it too.

photo 5

Fanfiction of a fanfiction of a book that reads somewhat like a Mary Sue fanfiction.

But it’s not always as dodgy when you try to determine whether a fanfic is any good. Some of the stories have depth, some are unapologetically, hilariously politically incorrect, and some tackle tricky topics like abortion, politics, and the nature of evil.

In fanfiction, there are different genres: horror, thriller, romance, you name it. There are drabbles, these one hundred-word beauties that require authors to practice their minimalism skills, and then there are epics spanning years of chapter updates that test the authors’ yarn-spinning abilities. There are trashy one-shots and there are magnificent fanon novellas.

In the case of traditional published literature, there are books whose first pages you never get past and there are great classics that you reread yearly.  The former never stopped anyone from reading the latter and it can be so for fanfiction too.

In fact, many fanfic writers take their craft seriously and graduate to writing their own original stories. This dedication to improvement and excellence is reflected in how readers and writers have their own awards, story exchanges and archives. Percy Jackson and the Olympians’ writers compete in The Anaklusmos Awards, while Harry Potter fans have the OWL Awards to celebrate the best stories of each year. Many fandoms have elite “recs” such as the The Meryton Assembly (Jane Austen fanfiction) or From Out of the Lab (CSI fanfiction), which only gather the crème de la crème of their particular fandom’s fics.  Reading these selections can be just as intellectually stimulating as “proper”, published fiction.

Thus, quite contrary to the stereotype that all fanfics are grammatically incorrect, improperly paragraphed, rambling fantasies of hormonal preteens,

photo 6

Indeed.

2. It’s a great way to make friends.

Now a very big part of fanfiction is shipping, which simply is pairing two characters. It isn’t always that simple, however, because some writers ship together characters from different books or movies (aka crossovers), some writers ship inanimate objects, pair fictional characters with real people, or marry original characters with other original characters in a borrowed setting. The only thing in common among all the possible examples is that someone (or thing) gets involved with another someone (or again, thing).

So for example, in fanfiction.net, the largest online repository of fanfiction, readers will usually use the drop-down menus to select their favourite two characters and read the stories that are under this shipping. Like groupies stalking bands, these fanfic readers and writers congregate to certain pairings because, while not all fanfics will centre on the romantic development between the featured couple, the main pairing of a fic will often affect the flavour of the text. Some pairings tend to be featured in lighter comedies, others favour darker dramas. The ship on which the fanfic metaphorically sails thus provides a internet shorthand for what kind of story you’re looking for and makes it easier to find like-minded readers and writers.

Fans tend to take their ships very seriously, insisting that their favoured ship is the OTP or One True Pair. A lot of bad press has, thus, come out on the ship to ship combat that happens when contradictory romantic ships collide, but what most of these articles tend to ignore is that ships create friendships too among those who share the same ships or complimentary ships.

Archives, exchanges and forums ride on these ships, providing safe harbours for writers to receive constant feedback on their newest chapters, for readers to find more stories to enjoy, and for fans to discuss developments in fanfics or the original series. It might not make for the most enduring of relationships, but in the history of fanfiction supporters, sharing an interest in certain types of stories often leads to sharing or discussing interests that may eventually extend beyond the scope of the ship or fandom.  Who knows, you might just find some great friends.

photo 7

Not to mention that nothing unites people more than a common foe.

1. It’s fun.

Just like in Kevin’s post on anime, ultimately, fanfiction deserves a second glance because it’s fun. It’s literally written for your entertainment and when you find the right fandom, ship, or archive for you, it can become addictive.

A new story featuring your favourite ship is good for anyone looking for a quick pick-me-up that does not involve forking out money or leaving the house. Burned out students can try my trusty trick of reading a chapter of fanfiction for every work sheet accomplished because, just like putting gummy bears on the page you’re reading and eating them when you finally reach the words the tiny bears are sitting on, you have an incentive, only this time, minus the mess of sticky fingers.

For fans of ongoing TV shows or unifinished novel sagas, fanfiction tides you over until your celebrated writer’s next piece comes along. Lastly, you get to keep the party going even after the author ends her story or kills off your favourite character because you can choose to do quite the opposite and land him with a house, a wife, and a whole brood.

photo 8

We will sail our OTP ships even after the next installment tells us we’re wrong.

So now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some excellent Yuletide-themed Severus Snape-centric fanfics to dig into. Have a happy Christmas everyone!

12 comments

  1. Kevin Low

    As a comic book reader, I never really liked fanfiction, and I was a true believer in canon; that only the author could be the arbiter of write and wrong. But after thinking about it, I realised that most of modern day comic books (the Marvel and DC kind) are technically fanfiction – people writing based on original characters but with their own interpretations, situations and settings.

  2. Ri

    I can’t agree with you more, as an avid fanfiction reader and writer I thank you for your post. Indeed fanfiction let’s fans explore the many different aspects and facets of their chosen fandom. I would think that without fanfiction, many fandoms will have lost their legions of fans as time passed.

    Many animes and even novels are meant for a younger “tweenage” audience and as time passes these teens grow up and would outgrow their interest. However as fanfiction allows authors to take existing characters and universes to create a more mature story and serious themes, older fans can continue to pay homage to their childhood favourites.

    I for one don’t watch read naruto manga anymore but still read naruto fanfiction. There are so many amazing authors who create brand new realities with the “what ifs” of various Anime, movies, comics and books that once you start reading you just won’t stop.

  3. Keller Scholl

    I firmly agree, but there is a fair point on the other side. Due to the lack of barriers to entry, almost anyone can get on fanfiction.net. The best stories, like the collections mentioned or the current holder of the most reviews, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, are shining gems that are certainly as good as some published works. Getting to those gems requires a non-trivial amount of work on the part of a new reader who doesn’t have an experienced guide.

  4. Hmm.. I think I actually agree with you in a sorta tangent-y way that the author should have the final say on what’s write and wrong (you’re so punny, you :P) in canon. Some fans – especially the fanfiction-writing variety – forget that it’s a privilege and not a right to play with the authors’ creations 🙂 Oh, and that’s a really cool observation 😀

    • Keller Scholl

      Why should it be a privilege and not a right? Once an author has published a given work, and effectively released it into the world, I don’t believe that they should have the right to ban others from being inspired by it or publishing works based on their inspiration. By the same line of logic, I think that remixing is a perfectly fine form of music. Why do you disagree?

      • Oh sorry, Keller. 🙂 I was replying to Kevin and I forgot to put an @Kevin sign. (Techie noob here.^^)

        Well, what I meant in my comment was I noticed that some fanfiction writers or readers would get mad at authors for taking their stories in the direction they would like to. The easiest example that comes to mind is the big online hullabaloo that happened when Rowling paired off Ron and Hermione when certain fans preferred Hermione with Harry. As a writer, I can empathise with how bad it would feel to be told that I’m writing my own plot ‘incorrectly’. I think it’s great that we can be inspired by her work or other great writers’ works and create our own fanfiction online about it, but I think authors deserve the last say on what ends up as canon for their stories simply since it’s theirs. 🙂

        As for what you mentioned about how “Once an author has published a given work, and effectively released it into the world, I don’t believe that they should have the right to ban others from being inspired by it or publishing works based on their inspiration.” In general, I agree. I think that as long as the fan isn’t profiting financially and isn’t using the borrowed elements without giving credit, he should be allowed to share his fan-made labour, especially online.

        However, there are some authors who are uncomfortable with fanfiction being made based on their work (Anne Rice, G. R. R. Martin, etc.). I think it’s generous of these authors to choose to share the wonderful products of their imaginations with us so, for me, it seems respectful to remember that these stories fall under their intellectual copyright. If it makes them happy to not have fanfiction about their work published online, it’s no great loss if we keep our fan work to ourselves or share them with a select few in more private arrangements. 🙂

        PS: I also just figured out you can reply straight to a comment. My apologies.

  5. Oh sorry, Keller. 🙂 I was replying to Kevin and I forgot to put an @Kevin sign. (Techie noob here.^^)

    Well, what I meant in my comment was I noticed that some fanfiction writers or readers would get mad at authors for taking their stories in the direction they would like to. The easiest example that comes to mind is the big online hullabaloo that happened when Rowling paired off Ron and Hermione when certain fans preferred Hermione with Harry. As a writer, I can empathise with how bad it would feel to be told that I’m writing my own plot ‘incorrectly’. I think it’s great that we can be inspired by her work or other great writers’ works and create our own fanfiction online about it, but I think authors deserve the last say on what ends up as canon for their stories simply since it’s theirs. 🙂

    As for what you mentioned about how “Once an author has published a given work, and effectively released it into the world, I don’t believe that they should have the right to ban others from being inspired by it or publishing works based on their inspiration.” In general, I agree. I think that as long as the fan isn’t profiting financially and isn’t using the borrowed elements without giving credit, he should be allowed to share his fan-made labour, especially online.

    However, there are some authors who are uncomfortable with fanfiction being made based on their work (Anne Rice, G. R. R. Martin, etc.). I think it’s generous of these authors to choose to share the wonderful products of their imaginations with us so, for me, it seems respectful to remember that these stories fall under their intellectual copyright. If it makes them happy to not have fanfiction about their work published online, it’s no great loss if we keep our fan work to ourselves or share them with a select few in more private arrangements. 🙂

    • Keller Scholl

      No worries.

      I agree that it is ridiculous when people complain about an author doing something. I recall a tale of someone writing to Rowling to complain that she had ignored all the signs of a Draco/Hermione pairing. There is no disagreement here.

      I agree that it is polite and respectful and good for us to not publish fanfiction online if the authors don’t like the concept. I think that it is a fine thing for a site like fanfiction.net to then not have those authors works available as subjects. I don’t think that authors have this as a right, in a moral sense. Do you disagree?

      You can reply to comments directly, as long as they aren’t double nested.

  6. Oh, in that case, yes, I agree with you! “I don’t think authors have this right, in a moral sense” to disallow fanfic on their work getting published online, but that’s just based on what I’ve experienced or heard. I’m guessing other people would have counterarguments only I haven’t heard about them or figured these out myself and I’m open to the possibility of them having good reasons why fanfiction shouldn’t be published.

    (I think they’d just be hard pressed to completely convince me since I’ve been a fanfiction reader and writer for so long. :D)

    Much as I follow when an author announces that he doesn’t want fanfiction on his work posted – hence I’ve just kept my Game of Thrones drabbles to myself 😦 – I still find it odd when an author disapproves of fanfiction. It seems like a really big compliment that someone is so inspired by your work that he’d make something based on it. I mean, I’d love to have someone write fanfiction about my stuff if I ever get published one day.

    Besides, no harm, no foul, right? 🙂

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  9. Aw thanks, you guys 🙂 You’ve all got me blushing.

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