Theme Essay by Hadley Langosy
TW’s Resident Fangirl Explains the Lure of Fan Fiction to a Skeptic
I am a fangirl. Anyone who knows me well can confirm this about me: I anchor onto other people’s creations, and I can’t let go until I’ve exhausted every related item I can get my hands on. It starts with every episode of a television show or every book in a series. Then I’ll work my way through interviews, blog posts, behind-the-scenes videos…and finally, fan fiction.
But Hadley! Isn’t this fan fiction you speak of just a bunch of poorly written crap by pubescent boys and girls who can’t spell and who favor all capital letters?
That’s a common misconception, mostly because it’s the crud that gets all the press. For example, check out the Harry Potter-themed piece called “My Immortal,” which many claim is the worst piece of fanfic ever written. It tells the story of a Slytherin goth girl with a crush on Draco Malfoy. Numerous individuals have been unable to resist reading it out loud on YouTube.
Wow. Seemingly endless descriptions of goth outfits and make-up…bizarrely incongruous interactions, like the rock-concert “date” with dreamy Draco…bad grammar…ridiculous sex…. It’s pretty funny, actually. But how much “so bad it’s good” can a person take?
There’s lots of really good fanfic, too. Some of these authors have a fanbase for their fanfic, and a few have become so popular they’ve landed multi-book publishing deals. Sarah Rees Brennan, author of a popular YA fantasy series called The Demon’s Lexicon, started out writing much-loved Harry Potter fanfic. Jaida Jones—famous within Harry Potter fandom for “The Shoebox Project“—has since published three novels in her Metal Dragon series. And Cassandra Claire, author of the bestselling YA saga The Mortal Instruments, once wrote Lord of the Rings fanfic.
She’s the one who started my fanfic addiction.
Because of her exceptional writing? Or because you were exceptionally into The Lord of the Rings?
Both. But what do you mean, “were”? I’ve been fangirling The Lord of the Rings since age 12. My daughter is named after Arwen. I’ve read the entire trilogy more than twenty times. After my ninth viewing of Peter Jackson’s adaption of The Fellowship of the Ring, my husband gently informed me that I had to stop bleeding our bank account for movie tickets. So I went online in search of a new outlet within the fanbase and stumbled upon The Very Secret Diaries on Claire’s LiveJournal:
Ringwraiths killed: 4. V. good.
Met up with Hobbits. Walked forty miles. Skinned a squirrel and ate it.
Still not King.
—From Aragorn, Son of Arathorn’s Very Secret Diary
It was the beginning of the end. I was hooked.
But for those of us who aren’t Harry Potter worshippers or would-be residents of Middle-earth, what would be the draw?
Pick a movie, TV show, novel, video game, or musical you really love, and I’ll bet you can find fan fiction about it. Seriously. Grab your primetime TV line-up. I guarantee that every show on there has a fanfic community somewhere on the Internet. I ran into Plants vs. Zombie’s fanfic the other day. I’ve seen fanfic for Spamalot (yes, the musical), Greek mythology, the L. Frank Baum Oz books, Footloose, The Beatles…. I challenge you, right now, to go to Google and search for something you love and then add “+fanfic” to it.
Okay, that’s freaky. Who knew there’d be fanfic for a quirky little show like Flight of the Conchords? Or a 1960s kids’ book like Harriet the Spy? The thing is, though, if what I like about a show or a book is partly its creator’s unique style, why should I read what someone else writes about its characters and world?
Sometimes we simply need more time with certain characters or the world they inhabit. A good fanfic writer channels the original work in such a way that it feels like an extension of the original.
I loathe summer TV reruns. I want to know what Supernatural’s Sam and Dean Winchester are hunting and which murder Booth and Bones will be solving next. I can find that in fanfic. I’ve never stopped feeling bitter that Fox cancelled Firefly, but Serenity is still flying in dozens of online fanfic communities.
It sounds like fanfic, to you, is a way for fans to keep much-loved fictional worlds evolving—beyond what their originators can or will deliver—through collective willpower and creative energy. Do you feel like you’re part of a group effort?
Absolutely! For the past two years, I’ve been so inspired by the creative energy within the fan communities that I’ve illustrated the work of others as part of Big Bang. Bang is a challenge to write a longer fic (usually around 20,000 words) within a certain fandom, and the stories are posted with original artwork accompanying each piece.
So, you and your fellow fans get a like-minded community, a creative outlet, and an expansion of a world you love. But what do the authors of the original works think about all this? Might they see it as…well, stealing?
It varies widely. Some writers are very protective of their work. For example, Anne Rice has asked FanFiction.net to refrain from posting any stories based on her novels. Fantasy authors George R.R. Martin and Robin McKinley hold a similar attitude.
On the other hand, J.K. Rowling is generally tolerant of fanfic. While she apparently contemplated legal action against G. Norman Lippert when she first heard about his James Potter Series—three novels that begin where the Harry Potter series leaves off—she ended up announcing her support after she reviewed Lippert’s work.
Other creators notably supportive of fanfic include Stephenie Meyer (who links to works of Twilight fanfic from her official site), Marion Zimmer Bradley (who has included fanfic in published anthologies for her Darkover series), and George Lucas—as long as fanfic authors follow a strict list of guidelines to keep their work family-friendly.
I guess a lot depends on whether the original author sees fanfic as a threat or as a tribute, right?
Well, to me, fan fiction is clearly a tribute to power of the original work that inspired it. It exists because that work created scenarios that fans couldn’t get out of their heads—turning the most inspired of those fans into authors themselves. The best thing about fanfic is that anyone can write it; and, by writing it, you become part of a community extending the original vision in the most unexpected of ways.
That’s not to say everyone will likefanfic. To enjoy it, I think you need to have a bit of the fangirl or fanboy in you. If you do, you’re in luck, because there’s some amazing writing out there just waiting to be discovered. It’s a guilty pleasure tailor-made for your passions, for the low price of ignoring the dirty dishes in your sink just a bit longer….
The Newbie’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Navigating the Online Fanfic World
Fan fiction (also called fanfic, ff, or fic) is the term applied to a work of fiction written by a fan of an original work, rather than by the original creator. Fanfic is often about characters or settings from fiction, but it can also be a fictional work about real people, such as musicians, actors, or reality TV stars.
Fanfic involves a rating system that’s worth checking before you begin reading a story. Most fanfic includes a statement about sexual content, violence, or language contained within the piece. The most universally used ratings are as follows (with their MPAA movie rating counterpart):
K – Safe for everyone (equivalent to a G rating)
K+ – Safe for almost everyone (equivalent to a PG rating)
T – Teen (equivalent to a PG-13)
M – Mature (equivalent to a R or NC-17)
A – Adult (equivalent to a NC-17)
If you’re a newbie embarking into fanfic for the first time, you can use this key to decode the cryptic terms and abbreviations you’ll encounter:
- AU – Stands for “alternative universe” and indicates that the setting differs from that in the original source material. For example, Jack from Lost might be in medieval Britain.
- Big Bang – Fic over 15,000 words. Usually part of a larger, themed competition.
- Canon – Indicates that a story stays true to the storyline or features developed by the original creator or author.
- Crack – Indicates that a story is humorous, often with a hilariously absurd premise.
- Crossover – Combines two different fandoms. Characters from one fandom will often appear within the storyline of another.
- Fluff/shmoop – A lighthearted story that steers clear of angst and may be romantic.
- Gen – Abbreviation for “general fiction.” Gen does not fit into any other category and usually does not contain any sort of romance.
- Het – Indicates a heterosexual relationship between two characters.
- RPF – Stands for “real person fiction” and indicates that the characters in the story are actual people instead of fictional characters. These can include political figures, band members, American Idol contestants, actors, and so on.
- RPS – Stands for “real person slash” and indicates that the story focuses on a homosexual relationship between two actual people.
- Ship – Short for “relationship” and indicates a romantic pairing between two characters within a fandom. Sometimes these pairings exist in the original story line (Clark Kent and Lois Lane) and sometimes they don’t (Holmes and Watson).
- Slash – Indicates a homosexual relationship between two characters.
- FanFiction.net/ - Huge online fanfic archive
- Big Bang, Baby Challenge - List of most of the Big Bang challenges
- "Nacht der Langen Messer," "Close to Home," and "When's the Last Time?" © Hadley Langosy; all created as illustrations for Big Bang Challenge stories; used by permission
Hadley Langosy is the production editor for Talking Writing. There might be a virtual season of a TV show still floating around the Internet with her name on it, but she refuses to claim ownership, as those more talented than she did the bulk of the writing for it.
Hadley plans to spend her summer working on her novel when she's not reading fanfic. Should that novel ever get published, she hopes a healthy community of fan fiction will sprout up around it.