Ever wondered what Harry Potter would do if he wasn’t the Chosen One, and just worked in a coffee shop? Or if Iris West was the one struck by lightning instead of her fiancé? Or maybe Luke Skywalker decided to take after his mother and solve problems diplomatically, while his more emotional sister took up her father’s lightsaber? Then try the world of fan-fiction - an online community fanbase that is built on this idea of what-ifs.
In today’s world, fan-fiction has become a punchline in the best cases, and a dirty word in the worst. And, as a writing medium, it does have faults but I would argue that the pros of fan-fiction as a concept far outweigh the cons, and a lot of the negativity seen about it comes from a lack of understanding.
Firstly, there is a misconception surrounding fan-fiction that it is often pre-teen girls writing about how Harry Styles met her by happenstance and fell instantly in love; supporting the idea of the ‘Mary-Sue’ and naivety within the author.
A lot of stories may have plots like this - an original character (OC) who falls into a romance with a well-known character or person and then document the fairy-tale of their love - but they are not the only stories, and, more importantly, this does not negate the importance of their narrative.
As a story arc, these are cliches, but something that fan-fiction does that popular media often cannot is the reapplication and rejuvenation of stale tropes into a new and vibrant setting. Often in cinema you see trailers for rom-coms that seem identical to something you watched a decade ago, just with different names. Within fan-fiction, these tropes thrive and grow into exciting creatures that are all incredibly different despite the similar setting or concept.
For proof, one needs not look further into the classic AU’s (alternate universes) of any fandom: coffee shop, Hogwarts, florist, non-powered or super-powered characters and Soulmate, to name just a few. All of these stories have been retold over and over with the same concept and same characters, but because of the different perspectives, all offer different hypotheses.
I’m of the belief that the reason fan-fiction gets such a bad name in media is because of the majority demographic being women between the ages of 12 and 25. From these ages, most things that girls are interested in are made to seem frivolous or trifling, meaning that they aren’t treated with respect.
It was written that ‘fandoms’ were made up of two predominant groups: the observers and the creators. The observers were seen as the stereotypical nerd, who could quote every line in Star Wars and would correct you on your use of the word t’hyla, while the creators were more willing to change the narrative and asking why t’hyla had to be an exclusively romantic term, and what would have happened if T’Pring was present when Spock underwent Pon Farr during ‘Amok Time’?
Because of the diametric positions of these groups, they opposed each other. While creators needed a basis in observation, observers did not need a basis of creativity, and were able to laud their perceived authority by remaining close to the source material. Also, the fact that these groups are often split down the gender spectrum does play a part in the perceived notion that the observers are the ‘true fans’ while creators are just inserting themselves as Mary-Sues.
On the topic of Mary-Sues, there is a joke that is thrown around a lot. Q: What do you call a male Mary-Sue? A: A main character. There is no well-known male-equivalent for a Mary-Sue, which makes it very difficult for original female characters portraying a lead role in fan-fiction to be taken seriously. While there are some very famous examples of Mary-Sues in fan-fiction being notoriously horrible such as Bella Swan of Twilight, Clary Fray of The Mortal Instruments and Ebony (or Enoby) Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way of the infamous My Immortal, they can’t be the only Mary-Sues of literature.
Dante’s Inferno was a self-insert fan-fiction of some guy’s idea of Hell. The Sistine Chapel was Bible fan-art. Odysseus was the ultimate male fantasy for the Ancient Greeks. The problem is that only the female versions of these Mary-Sues are crucified for their traits, while the male characters who can do everything are considered ‘completely realistic’.
Also, when people talk about fan-fiction as a separate genre of fiction from other literature, it comes from a lack of understanding. Fan-fiction is literally by definition “a story someone writes with characters they did not make up.” They are not just the bodice-rippers perpetually in the sale bins. There are epics, that may have begun as a homage to Lord of the Rings, but morphed into their own creation such as Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle.
A great many fan-fictions may have romance as a key theme in them, but simplifying all fan-fiction to that is a folly, and incredibly disrespectful to people who have written stories longer that Les Miserables and War and Peace put together, just because they really liked characters but thought that the source material didn’t do them justice.
When people talk about ‘published fan-fiction’ the inevitable first example people think of is Fifty Shades of Grey (which originally starred characters from Twilight) and its sequels. People don’t think of The Lion King’s dramatic re-telling of Hamlet, or to go even further, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as Tom Stoppard’s hilarious and existential fic about those two guys in Hamlet. It’s considered it’s own work, borrowing from previously conceived characters. And often fan-fiction does the same thing.
A great many authors of fan-fiction started that way, and progressed to original novels that they self-publish. Fan-fiction has a comfort to its creation that other forms of literature do not provide. There is room to be cliché and conform to tropes. Because you are writing about something you love, and as literary professor and lecturer at Deakin university, Dr. Pont said “fan-fiction is just characters that make you give them more narrative, even though they’re only a bunch of letters.” Fifty Shades of Grey is published fan-fiction.
But simplifying all fan-fiction to fit under the banner of ‘Fifty-Shades-of-Grey-and-Other-Stuff’ is ridiculous, as well as deeply misleading.
However, it is that idea of fan-fiction being “female pornography” according to a year 10 teacher of mine, stems from the fact that as a society, fan-fiction is a predominantly female community, and is therefore delegitimised because of that. Somehow, the act of posting one’s work pro bono online is less acceptable than if it were done with a higher budget. Basically every comic book that is in print at the moment is fan-fiction of the original story that was created decades beforehand.
In fan-fiction terms, the movie Gnomeo and Juliet (2011) could be seen as a modern fic with garden ornaments. Every Disney princess movie is fan-fiction on the original story, often with a new, happier ending and a moral lesson. And yet these ideas are not criticised; it was only with the surge of online forums and discussions in the last two decades that have seen fan-fiction demonised. When in fact, fan-fiction is an outlet of creative growth and, in many places, personal growth.
Within the core of people who write fan-fiction, it is highly likely that they are female, a person of colour, LGBT and/or a combination of the above. It is not surprising that if they find a character they resonate with who is given a minor role to help the protagonist, they want that character to have more narrative or agency in the story.
In the 2015 Supergirl television show, Jess the Secretary, a character who appears for less than a minute has over 150 works on one fan-fiction website. Jesse McCree of MMO Overwatch is predominantly written to be of Mexican descent and bisexual or gay. Trini Kwan of the 2017 PowerRangers film has far more fan-fiction written about her than Jason Scott (the lead) because she has less narrative in the movie and a lot of hints that were not explored.
So, people make their own canon. By taking agency with the development of a character that someone identifies with, they can add depth to the character and give them a narrative of their own, and they are also able to grow personally.
There were so many stories of young boys on the autistic spectrum who were so excited when they saw Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) because “Drax thinks and talks like me!” The stories that we all consume shape us into who we become. So, if someone sees a character that they immediately identify with, but who is sidelined consistently and primarily shares their negative traits, that can be very harmful for them.
Fan-fiction has grown exponentially over the last decade, but the public understanding of it has not followed. Hopefully this opening into the reasons for fan-fiction and what it offers will help with that, and keep us from judging future J.K. Rowling’s in the making.