Fanfiction is a genre that has greatly benefited from the social nature of the internet. Born from communities centered around existing bodies of work, the act of consuming and creating fanfiction is inherently a labor of love. By pushing the very boundaries of the source material, fanfiction fundamentally alters something that a target audience already loves, but keeps enough for the audience to retain a precious sense of familiarity—the same characters, the same story, and the same setting.
Playing the role of both gatekeeper and groundbreaker to their respective fandoms, fanfiction writers navigate a thin line between creating a story within the lore of an existing universe and maintaining their creativity and personal style as authors.
A literary synthesis
The practice of taking a story and using it as the base for another is an old and hallowed tradition within literature. Before modern notions of copyright and intellectual property, this was part of the norm; renowned authors such as WilShakespeare, Homer, and Virgil borrowed heavily from their contemporaries and from the traditions of those who came before, taking characters and settings from other stories to produce something uniquely theirs.
Nowadays, fanfiction has cultivated its own space, a niche community with the audience being almost entirely made up of fans of the source material. With contemporary views on authorship and ownership, most works generally aren’t made for profit. People largely make fanfiction for the love of the source material, sometimes risking potential legal repercussions.
In the United States, fanfiction sprung up in the 60s with fan magazines of the show, Star Trek. A bustling subculture emerged around the discussion and remixing of the show’s characters, plots, and narrative elements. Meanwhile, in Japan, fanfiction sprang up with the rise of independently-made works called doujinshi—doujin (同人), literally meaning “similar people”, alluding to people with a shared interest, and shi (誌) meaning periodical work.
Fanzines are usually circulated for free or are sometimes sold at a cost, while doujinshi tend to be sold at conventions, earning their creators a fair amount. With the rise of globalization, these lines between East and West have become more and more blurred.
To be a fan is to be curious
One concept that often goes hand-in-hand with fanfiction is that of the fandom, which refers to a community or even a subculture that intently follows something in the realm of human interest, such as music stars, television personalities, sports teams, and even works of fiction. What differentiates a fandom from casual fans is the time and energy spent occupying themselves with their subject of interest. In the literary world, fanfiction came about as a way for these fervent fans to express their dedication to the source material and give more life to the universes they cherish.
“Fanfiction is essentially the fandom’s voice—a hub for creativity and [for further] exploration of ideas created within the confines of the worlds that our beloved authors and creators have created,” describes Gelo Gonzalez (II, AB-ISE), who has been writing fanfiction since 2013, deriving from various Japan-based media such as Toradora, Dragon Age, and Persona.
Aside from providing an avenue for creative release, fandoms also provide a safe space where fans can express their love for their interests without fear of being ostracized. As Gelo relays, “Back when I was a bit [new to] the community, it felt really wholesome [to engage in fanfiction]. If I had a way to describe it, it’s [basically like] a bunch of losers who acknowledge [that] they’re losers and bond because of that.”
Through breathing life into these characters, fanfiction creators experience fictional lives in a way that is uniquely personal, showing dimensions of intimacy, creativity, and sometimes, wish-fulfillment. This process is made all the more intense, infused with the familiarity and love one has for the source material, by a love that inspires one to create.
I ship it
A particularly popular part of fanfiction involves seeing a work’s characters being in romantic or sexual relationships with one another. This aspect of fanfiction, known as “shipping”, is something a lot of fans are passionate about; discussions sometimes reach a mix of intense discourse and heated argument.
Ley*, who started reading fanfiction in 2005, understands the appeal to a certain degree. She believes that shipping coupled with the popularity of incorporating smut in fanfiction—ranging from seeing a set of characters develop into more-than-just-friends to the self-explanatory “porn without plot”—contribute toward some of the more eye-catching stories.
Focusing on anything non-canon, Ley also notes, “Canon media is often repressed by the studio [or] publisher’s desire to appeal to a mainstream audience—mostly, they think that putting those from a minority [in the original story] would turn off people. [Fanfiction] can fill in that hole for the readers and make them feel validated.”
A gateway into a well-loved world
For Ley and other writers like her, the nature of such content within fandoms opens a gateway through which they can express their own identities and sexualities as well as explore intimacy and relationships. “I think it’s a good outlet for people who [want to] explore sexual stuff but do not want to do it themselves. People write them [mostly] for their own satisfaction, but those who share them with [the] community also want their passion to be backed up and supported,” Ley further explains.
Because it is inherently in fanfiction’s nature to be based upon preexisting universes, it has unfortunately gained a reputation for not being valid as a form of literature. Gelo acknowledges that many individuals think of fanfiction as being “made [only] for fun, so people don’t take it too seriously.”
While he can understand why most people view fanfiction as such, Gelo
sees potential in its development as a genre that could hopefully change minds,
saying, “I feel like some fanfiction [involving] works based on universes, and
not the characters, can be [their] own sub-genre of spin-off
literature one day.”
Since published works are either already complete or pending new
releases, fanfiction often serves the purpose of adding content for those who
crave more from these universes. For writers like Gelo, fanfiction is the
biggest indicator of the legacy of an established original work, “[inspiring]
other authors to continue or transform the works they have created into endless
The impact and depth of fanfiction as a literary genre does not only justify its existence, but are also indicative of how the practice is more than just cheap imitation. They are stories worth telling—loved in the same way original source materials are, at the very least, in the eyes of its countless devoted followers.
*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.