Tania Tavares-Pinto 3rd April 2018
When you hear the term “fanfiction” chances are you’ll immediately think of Fifty Shades of Grey — which, in its first iteration, was based on the Twilight books. Or, if you’ve been knocking around the internet for a while, My Immortal — Harry Potter fanfiction universally acknowledged as some of the worst in existence.
Mainstream public opinion on fanfiction is generally lead by the few glimpses that the locals get through viral works every once in a while which are, more often than not, not very good.
But these stories are a drop in a vast and diverse ocean.
If you’re not familiar with it, fanfiction is the development of stories based on material or people that already exist, whether real or fictional. It is ridiculously popular, and older than you might guess — put it this way, Sherlock fanfiction seems modern but goes as far back as the 1800s. It has cultivated an insular community that has developed a self-contained form of literature, and a whole set of conventions that go along with it.
Fanfiction stories, called “fics”, are mostly free to access and span every aspect of popular and entertainment culture that you can think of. Yes, even whatever you’re thinking of right now.
There is a continual debate about fanfiction: how much of it is good, how much of it is just too far, and how much of it doesn’t really make any sense. But it’s an entirely fan-driven community.
“The content [of fanfiction] ranges very widely so that you can find just about any storylines you’d want,” says Claudia Rebaza, a communications staffer at the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), a fan-run organisation which aims to preserve fanfiction.
“It’s uncensored but also, very importantly, it’s uncommercial. No-one writing it needs to meet an editor or publisher’s idea of what will sell.”
The OTW has hosted the multi-fandom fanwork platform Archive of Our Own (AO3) since its foundation in 2007, where it serves not only as a depository for fanworks but also provides legal advocacy for fans wanting to protect their right to write.
It’s an entirely volunteer-driven project, and AO3 is one of the better known multi-fandom platforms alongside fanfiction.net and Wattpad. But it’s known particularly for its inclusivity of a wide variety of fandoms (allowing for cross-overs and special fanprojects easily) and its open-mindedness on the content that is available.
“Mainstream fiction has a lot of gatekeepers,” Rebaza continues, “and everyone’s goal is financial.
“Fandom has gatekeepers as well but they can’t shut out content entirely — when it comes down to it, no one can stop you from writing or posting what you want.
She says what stops many writers is peer pressure against fanfiction writers, as well as a lack of feedback.
“Some people can soldier through that regardless of response, but many people take part in fanworks as a way of being part of a community or connecting with others. So if there’s a very negative reaction to the content or form of expression in a work, many people will stop creating.
“At the same time, there’s also a lot of collaboration and assistance in fandom. This means things like people running challenges, creating archives, serving as betas or cheerleaders, or just sharing experiences. And that’s true across mediums, whether it’s art, vids, etc. So there can be positive as well as negative peer pressure that helps people succeed. Quite a lot of people have been taught skills by other fans and tutorials have often been part of fan communities.”
The learning process in fandom is an important aspect of the experience too. Fans learn skills and capitalise on their creativity through their interest. There’s a whole wealth of tutorials on how to photoshop, make gifs, or fan videos; and there are also creators who make free templates for website themes or forums specifically for fandoms.
In fanfiction writing this communal aspect primarily comes from recommendations — “fic recs” — done by fans for other fans that connect fics from different sources, authors and genres for your convenience.
Cracking the code
One of the reasons fanfiction communities can seem so closed-off and inaccessible is the vocabulary — to a beginner, it looks like a different language.
Words like “fic” and “vids” and “fic rec” are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fandom terms. There is a far more complex network of meanings and associations that, while very obvious to those in-the-know, are completely alien to everybody else.
Rebaza adds: “A lot of this is for convenience but it’s also about solidarity. It’s ‘insider talk’. That means that people who join a community have to spend some time looking around and observing in order to communicate properly and understand what is happening.”
Nonetheless, once you know how to crack the code, it’s easy to work out how to find what you want.
The language in fanfiction developed completely organically, and is very specific to fanfiction. Stories are split into categories by fandom, characters, romantic/platonic pairing, and general/other tags.
That last category illustrates the genre or ‘tropes’ of the story.
You can have an arching genre like “Alternate Universe” (AU) where the canon of the original material is subverted, but have micro-topics within that: AU — Historical, or AU — Superheroes, or AU — Harry Potter (wherein, non-Harry-Potter characters are placed in the universe of Harry Potter).
You can also have the much more generic “angst with a happy ending” trope which tells you almost nothing about the genre and the style, and much more about the emotional impact and tone.
It’s a consequence of convenience. A fic tagged “kid fic” indicates that the characters are either children, or the parents of children. More specifically, fanfiction writers use an unusual format to directly tag the character’s name with their function and their characterisation before the reader even enters the story, i.e. Dad!Sherlock, or Child!Uhura.
“The coolest thing about the language conventions of fanfictions is the brevity of it,” says Jen, part of the Merlin fandom and an active reader and contributor of fanfictions.
“In an example I am purposefully trying to make a bit convoluted, I can describe a fic as a Rule 63 Marichat femslash non-superhero ABO AU PWP and as long as one is in the fandom enough to recognize the ship name [another term meaning romantic relationship] they know exactly what they’re in for when they read it. That’s a lot simpler to say than, ‘This story is basically all sex without plot and deals with a female Chat Noir and Marinette in a universe where neither of them are superheroes so Chat’s disguise is because of some other reason and in this universe there is a sexual hierarchy loosely based off of interpretations of wolf pack behavior and the idea of pheromones’.
“The first way is way less of a mouthful. Similarly, I can say that I wrote a Max/Furiosa hurt-comfort fluffy fix-it fic, rather than saying I wrote a fic that changes the canon ending because I don’t like how the couple ended, it involves them comforting each other about the various psychological and physical wounds that occurred prior to and during the course of the movie, and it’s so sweet and cheesy it makes your teeth rot. The simplicity is fascinating to me.”
Convenience in fanfiction also affects the length of stories created, differing immensely from traditional publishing.
I have read fanfictions longer than the first Lord of the Rings book
Jen continues: “I appreciate that you can choose your poison, so to speak, in terms of length. It’s an amazingly wonderful feeling to just be able to say, ‘I just need a little oneshot to tide me over while studying,’ or be able to pick up a story that you can finish on a commute. But you can later say, ‘I want a novel of my favourite characters learning to be a found family, or of my favourite characters falling in love, or this story in another character’s point of view,’ and you can find that.
“I have read fanfictions longer than the first Lord of the Rings book. I have also read fanfictions less than 100 words long. They’re all wonderful, and I can tailor it to what I need!”
In many ways, fanfiction is really a synonym for self-expression. As Jen goes on to say: “I rarely find asexuality in literature or aromanticism, and it’s amazing to see people headcanon [adopt views or beliefs that aren’t strictly part of that world] characters I know and love as the same sexuality as myself and explore that orientation.
“I think it does a lot to normalise various gender identities and sexualities that may be more uncommon, as I have definitely learned about terms and details of those gender identities and sexualities from authors who want to explore them because they identify as that gender or that sexuality.”
Communities built around fanfiction encourage self-expression and self-growth, but fanfiction also inadvertently illustrates our own approaches to what is and isn’t acceptable in literature.
“The fact that AO3 has a very open policy for content means that you’re likely to see a diverse range of it,” says Rebaza, “but it’s even more likely that content which is suppressed elsewhere is more likely to get added there.
“That may be because of issues such as localised censorship by particular countries, local disinterest [in which an author decides to post to a location where they know they’ll get a positive response], or simply creators influencing one another with their work.”
These writers spend hours of their time writing things that will not profit them, simply because they love the characters and the worlds that they are writing for
There is still a long way to go before fanfiction becomes mainstream, although more and more authors are breaking out into the “real” publishing world after their kickstart in fics, but the appreciation for it as a legitimate faction of literature is becoming more likely.
“It is simply creation for the love of it,” says Cole, a writer and reader of fanfiction.
“Because the author had an idea and thought that perhaps someone else might like to read it, so they wrote it. These writers spend hours of their time writing things that will not profit them, simply because they love the characters and the worlds that they are writing for.
“These are stories that are as long as the longest books on the market, and series of fiction that these authors pour their souls into. It’s amazing.”
Tania Tavares-Pinto 3rd April 2018