By Georgia Coldebella
I was about thirteen when I first heard the term: fanfiction. My family friend had created a character to live in the Harry Potter universe, and then written stories about her exploits with Harry and the gang. Our parents talked about my friend’s hobbies in the way parents talk about fads in their children’s lives; they were supportive but utterly lost.
‘Emma says it’s called fanfiction?’ her mum queried. ‘You’re a writer,’ I was reminded. ‘You should check it out.’ I was e-mailed a link, followed it and made my first trip onto fanfiction.net.
In hindsight, it was filled with the sort of self-insert wish fulfilment you’d expect thirteen-year-olds to write – a formal way of playing pretend. But I had never considered that playing in the sandpits of my favourite stories was a possibility.
I didn’t really get into fanfic that first time. It wasn’t until my anime phase a couple of years later that my passion really began. Like a book hangover, it’s an unwillingness to let go of the stories we’ve been told, the unanswered questions, the desperate need to see if other people are thinking the same things. And the Internet is an omnipresent book club made up of millions of people ready to offer their opinions.
The Internet has undoubtedly changed the way I consume media – whether that’s books, film, movies, or comics. It’s rare for me to be satisfied with a story. Usually I want a little something more, even if just to luxuriate in the story universe for a while longer. My experience writing fanfic boils down to two chapters of an aborted Twilight fanfic. But my reading experience? Oh boy.
Fanfic is slowly infiltrating discussion in publishing courses. And with developments like Fifty Shades of Grey or Amazon’s attempts at a self-publishing system, it’s easy to see why. But having teachers or academics talk about fanfic feels the same as hearing our mums talk about it; It’s discussed as a phenomenon, with no understanding of what makes fanfic happen or what makes the people who write it tick. A lot of people still seem to think that fanfic is either thirteen-year-old wish fulfilment crap, or it’s crap wish fulfilment porn (seriously, I will never forgive Fifty Shades of Grey for ruining the tiny bits of respect fanfic was getting). And yeah, a lot of it is. But a lot of it – the good stuff – keeps us coming back, and is varying parts love and brutal criticism.
Here’s the thing that I think gets missed. Fanfic is about what-ifs. That’s the thing that links the porn and the self-inserts and the queerness and the coffee shop AUs (Alternate Universe; transplanting characters from their action-packed lives into a completely different setting). That’s what drives the insane level of creation and consumption. What if Harry grew up with Sirius instead of the Dursleys? How would his life change? How would he change? What if these characters – any characters – met each other at a different time, in a different life, with a different history? How would they work?
And fanfic can be surprisingly academic. Not just in the way that Paradise Lost is Bible fanfic or The Wide Sargasso Sea is Jane Eyre fanfic although that’s also true. There was a ‘fact’ going around the Internet for a long while that Jane Eyre was itself fanfic based off a character from Jane Austen’s Emma, but tragically that’s not true; there were just a lot of characters named Jane, and not many professions to give your lady characters aside from governesses. A good fanfic is like a good literary analysis. We pick up breadcrumbs of various sizes, and expand them to their logical (or at least, possible) conclusions. A green light means Gatsby’s life has greed of society. A lingering glance means Dean Winchester is almost ready to let down his façade of performative masculinity.
And from that comes representation. The queerness isn’t blatant wish-fulfilment (although sometimes it is, and there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that) but it’s a way of scraping together representation from subtext when we can’t get it from mainstream media.
So fanfic writers aren’t just obsessive fangirls or even girls – because really, fanfic writers come in all varieties of genders and colours and backgrounds. A lot of it is thinly veiled critique; don’t kill off all your women, don’t mindlessly rearrange your internal consistency. Don’t just tell us your character is gay after the fact and pretend that counts as credit. Let’s pretend the creators didn’t jump the shark, and play in the sandpit of the first few seasons for a bit longer.
And a lot of it is really, genuinely good. I’ve got a pretty low tolerance for writing styles that don’t sit well with me, but I’ve read way more words of fanfic than I have credited, published books. There are writers good enough that I will binge watch an entire TV show just to read more of what they write. And you think making a living as an author is rough? Try writing multiple novel-length stories for nothing more than a few comments, and – if you’re lucky – some artwork.
Fanfic is born out of love and frustration, both for ourselves and for our strange little communities; it allows us to play in the stories we love, with the characters that we love. It allows us to expand on the forgotten plot points and the strange side-characters; it’s a conversation between the community and with the authors about the state of story-telling at large.
So if you ever want recommendations, hit me up.
Feature image credit: radittz-dae07tz