What Is Fanfiction? A Primer To Get You Up to Speed Reading and Writing in the Vast Community

I’m going to start by asking you a few questions — don’t be scared, this is a safe space, and you can be honest with me. So, let’s start: Have you ever imagined Harry Potter in a relationship with Hermione Granger? Have you ever fantasized that you’d meet up with Legolas right here in the heart of Brooklyn? Do you spend much time thinking about whether or not One Direction’s Harry Styles might hit it off with Bella Swan? If you answered yes to any of my questions, take a deep breath — you know more about fanfiction than you might have thought.

For those of you still shaking your heads and sighing a little, I understand — I really do. Fanfiction (and let’s get the terminology right here — Fan Fiction is for outsiders or the terminally uncool — it’s fanfiction, fanfic, or even just fic these days for those of us in the know) is a whole new form of storytelling, a pornographic cluster of bad grammar, lurid misappropriation and appalling attempts at professionalism from a writhing mass of amateurs… right? Well, let me just grab my imaginary gameshow buzzer and press down, hard — fanfiction is so much more than just lewd, crude, and poorly written fantasies played out for the teeming horde of pop culture fans running the Internet these days.

Fanfiction is as old as literature itself, as diverse as the fish in the sea, and as compelling as any contemporary literature you could possibly find; in fact, you may have been reading fanfiction this whole time without ever even knowing it. So, buckle your seat belts and hold on to your hats, it’s time do dive right in to the world of fanfic, beginning with the basics…

WTF IS FAN FICTION?

Fanfiction is a term used to describe any literary work written by fans of certain stories, characters, or settings and not the original creators. Writing in TIME magazine, Lev Grossman has defined fanfiction as:

what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don't do it for money. That's not what it's about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They're fans, but they're not silent, couch-bound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.

Fanfiction can fill in gaps in existing stories, expand on the narrative of minor characters, transplant characters from different universes into the same fictional world, bring real people into fictional universes, and so much more. When the Brontë sisters spent hours of their youth and young adulthood constructing fantastic adventure stories for the real life Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, that was fan fiction. When Robert Henryson published The Testament of Cresseid elaborating on the life of one of Chaucer’s characters, that was Fanfiction. Wicked and Bridget Jones Diary? Both works of fic.

DO I KNOW OF ANY FAMOUS FANFIC?

So, if not all fanfic is relegated to archives on the interwebs, is it possible that you, upstanding literary reader that you are, have either heard of, or perhaps even read some fanfiction? Well, I’m not a betting man, but if I were (and that’s a plot worthy of fanfic right there) I’d put all my chips on yes.

First off, the world heavyweight champion of fanfiction — Fifty Shades of Grey. Whether or not you’ve actually got a copy (or two, or three) of this modern day retelling of The Story of O, surely you’ve heard of the dashing CEO who charms and then dominates the daring Ms. Anastasia Steele. What you may not know is that Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fanfic documenting the exploits of Edward Cullen as a billionaire CEO and Bella Swan as his love slave. Master of the Universe, as it was then known, became so popular that it was edited, revised, and released as the story of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. Global domination and the inevitable film adaptation soon followed.

And, if this story of fanfic rags to literary riches seems unlikely to you, let us turn now to another fanfiction phenom that has gone legit, literarily speaking. The popular Harry Styles fanfic After is taking on new life as a novel from writer Anna Todd, formerly Wattpad user “imaginator1D,” following in the footsteps of the lauded Twilight fanfic-turned-straight-fiction Beautiful Bastard that jumped to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list when it was published in 2013.

Cassandra Clare’s wildly popular YA series The Mortal Instruments also got its start (and many of its most vibrant character descriptions) as Harry Potter fanfiction, and Sarah Rees Brennan's Carnegie Medal-nominated novels also have their roots in Harry Potter fanfiction, although they were written separately from Brennan’s pure fanfic, which you can still find online today.

What's more? Sarah Rees Brennan is not the only famous novelist out there still writing fanfiction. Meg Cabot, author of the popular Princess Diaries series, was an avid Star Wars fanfic author for many years. S.E. Hinton, of Outsiders fame, writes supernatural fanfiction to this day, and even Orson Scott Card himself has taken a whack at the alternative art form. So come on: You’re intrigued. You want to know more. But would you actually enjoy reading real fanfiction?

WOULD I WANT TO READ IT?

Without powers of extra sensory perception, I can only guess at whether or not fanfiction might appeal to you (although if you're into that idea, the answer is definitely yes). However, there are certainly a few test balloons we can float to see if fanfiction would fit nicely into your literary universe, or you'd be better off sticking with the original material.

First, if you're a woman, the record shows other women are enjoying getting involved in fic: the majority of the fanfiction community is female. To be clear, there are certainly men out there producing and consuming varied fic in vast quantities, but the reality is that at this point, the fanfic community largely comprises women.

Ultimately, however it's a question of your fictional likes and dislikes that will determine whether you enjoying reading fanfic or not. Fanfiction does often include elements of the erotic. Although not all fanfiction involves romantic couplings between characters, real people, and author/character hybrids, sexual fantasies played out on the page are one of the most common elements in fanfiction. So, if you’re squeamish about fictional sex or just not that into the idea of Kirk/Spock love stories, fanfic might not be for you.

Of course, fanfiction can also be an outlet for something far more pure — fanfiction can be a place for exceptionally great writing. With famous authors like Orson Scott Card, MFA students, and yearning young writers all getting in the game, there is some awesome work out there.

A final quick and dirty indicator? How are you feeling about One Direction these days? Fanfiction lives largely in the world of pop culture, so if you like your stories teeming with Hollywood celebrities and tracking the latest gossip, you may just find that fanfiction offers everything you've ever dreamed about in a story and so much more.

So, if you're looking to join a diverse community of mainly women (but more than a few men) who take their fandom seriously, if you're fond of stories with erotic themes featuring the trendiest fictional characters and real, live celebrities, if you're a voracious reader who's always on the lookout for incredible new material, you may just want to give fanfiction a try — seems like fic would be right up your alley.

And, without getting too intimate, if you identify as someone who might conceivably enjoy a good piece of fanfiction, my personal recommendation (which, let’s be honest, comes from a deep and obsessive love for Game of Thrones) would be a piece called The North Remembers by a writer using the name Silverblood.

That said, if Game of Thrones just isn't your thing, consider taking a look at James Potter and the Hall of Elder’s Crossing by G. Norman Lippert or After by Anna Todd. Of course, these are but humble recommendations, the truth of the matter is that the cornucopia of narrative options available is one of the great advantages of fanfiction itself — whether you're interested in a particular world, character, romantic pairing or genre there’s sure to be plenty of fanfic out there to suit your tastes, it’s all a matter of knowing where to look.

WHERE CAN I FIND IT?

The good news is that fanfiction is not hard to find, although you might find yourself wishing it was a little bit more off the beaten path once you dive into the absolutely enormous archives available on the web today.

The most popular fanfiction sites out there is FanFiction.net, with well over 2 million users and more than 8 million stores published in 30 different languages. Archive of Our Own (or AO3 as it's known in the community) is a wildly popular, and very well designed archive of fan fiction with a fantastic search feature, which you will quickly grow to revere if you spend any time at all looking for fanfic that fit your particular tastes.

Amazon’s Kindle Worlds is currently the only online shop for fanfiction, but other popular repositories of fanfiction on the Web include Wattpad, Media Miner, and DeviantArt; although truthfully, the hard part isn’t finding archives of fanfiction. The truly difficult task is getting close to the kind of fiction that actually interests you.

As a know-nothing nobody who jumped suede-boots-first down the rabbit hole into the fanfic community, allow me to give you a few pointers:

1. Go in with expectations — the world of fanfiction like the early days of the Internet is a virtual wild west. This is not your friendly neighborhood bookstore; browsing isn't going to get you anywhere. Give some thought to the genres that interest you ahead of time and remember that the search function is always your friend.

2. Know your terminology — if you’re ignorant of the goals of slash fic or unclear on what AU means you’re going to find yourself at a loss, so here’s a quick and dirty look at the most vital terminology for those of you with inquiring minds and cautious souls:

  • AU: AU, or Alternate Universe fic, refers to stories that make major changes to the plot or universe of a story and continue the narrative from there. So, Fifty Shades of Grey which transports Twilight characters to the world of the corporate boardroom is a great example of AU fanfic.
  • Gen: Gen or general fanfic is non-romantic, so keep that in mind if you’re looking for narrative without nookie.
  • PWP: Porn without Plot or PWP is the absolute opposite of Gen fic — you might love it, you might hate it, but make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into if you start your journey into fanfiction by picking up a little PWP.
  • Slash: Slash fic refers to romantic pairings as in Bella/Edward or Kirk/Spock. Often Slash fic specifically refers to male-to-male pairings, but not necessarily.
  • RPF: RPF stands for Real Person Fiction, which includes any fanfic detailing the fictional exploits of real actors, musicians, politicians, or popular celebrities. Whether you’re into Harry Styles or Henry Kissinger, chances are you’ll find some fanfiction to satiate you.
  • Crack: Fanfic described as Crack often features a wholly unbelievable twist of the plot line or universe of a real story, for example a version of Lord of The Rings in which all of Middle Earth is populated by kittens.
  • Fluff/Schmoop: Fluff or Schmoop signify the romcoms of the fanfiction universe — lighthearted, whimsical and always romantic.
  • Whump: In the world of fanfiction, whump refers to tales wherein serious violence is done to main characters. If you don’t have the stomach for it (and I certainly don’t), be sure to stay away.
  • Dark: Like Lord Voldemort himself, Dark fiction is seriously twisted, dark and often very disturbing. Let me just say this — you have been warned.

OK, I’M INTO IT… HOW DO I GET STARTED WRITING?

So, you’ve read up on the terminology, you’re familiar with the famous fanfic, you’ve explored the online communities and now you want to write? First off, let me just say — go you! Seriously, I commend any and all who walk the path of authorship, and there is absolutely no shame in the fanfiction game as far as I’m concerned.

And, truthfully, you can get started anywhere that interests you, the same basic tenants that apply to all good writing apply here:

Write what you know — fanfiction is first and foremost a community of fans, so don’t try to start by diving into a world you barely understand. Take your all-time favorite stories and use those as a springboard for fantastic success in the world of fanfic.

Be creative — there are literally millions of works of fanfiction out there, while staying true to your voice make sure to sing a little bit off-key — the easiest way to get noticed will be to do something different from the rest of the devoted writers and readers out there.

Learn from your readers — remember that community I was talking about? Well they’re going to get involved — very involved — in your stories. They’re going to ask for plot twists, critique your writing and urge you on. Listen to them, learn from them, and use this as an opportunity to become a better writer.

Don’t be shy — whether or not you’re well on your way to becoming the next great American novelist, your voice has merit and value. Stories are our common heritage and writing is a gift you can give the world. Whatever you have to say, there is someone out there who will love to hear it.

At the end of the day, fanfiction is about so much more than the subject matter, form and forums in which it appears — fan fiction is about a community of avid cultural consumers becoming producers. The message from fanfiction communities across the globe is “readers of the world, unite, rise up and start writing.” So, what do you say, are you interested in a little revolution with your reading?

Image: Fifty Shades Trailer