On The Importance of fanfiction
In this blog, I’ll be talking about fanfiction – my experiences of it, how it works, and why it’s important.
Fanfiction seems to have followed a lot of us around in the earlier parts of our careers, as a way of finding the way to the stories we want to tell. Our reaction creatively varies from person to person and even story to story. Sometimes we want to tell an absolute homage to the property that we are using, sometimes we want to make a comment on that property by telling a story set within its parameters, and sometimes we just want to see how our favourite characters would fare in alternative sexual or romantic pairings. Sometimes we try to do all of these things.
In 2019, the fanfic site Archive of Our Own (AO3 in shorthand) was awarded a Hugo Award, recognising the time and creative energy that goes into writing fanfiction. A lot of writers in the community felt like the award ‘vindicated’ the notion of fanfic – an official recognisation of the role that it plays in bringing new writers in and emphasising the fact that so many of us do it for the sheer love of it.
In their paper ‘Distributed Creativity on the Internet: A Theoretical Foundation for Online Creative Participation,' Ioana Literat and Vlad Petre Glavenau discuss the notion of fans becoming creators, that ‘in digital spaces, the previously disparate categories of producer and consumer are merging in complex ways to form a whole new kind of cultural participant: “the produser” (Bruns, 2008)’.
That’s not, of course, to argue that fanfic hasn’t been around for a lot longer than the internet – August Derleth’s fictional detective, Solar Pons, started life as a pretty firm pastiche of Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, upon hearing that Arthur Conan Doyle was bringing his creation’s adventures to an end, the young Derleth wrote to him to ask if he could carry out the task of continuing to contribute to the canon. Doyle respectfully declined but Derleth instead opted to write cases for a character with a syllabically-similar name who lived on Praed Street, not Baker Street. You can find out more about Solar Pons from The Solar Pons Gazette or by picking up a compendium of his mysteries.
Of course, pastiches of Holmes – either officially recognised through Doyle’s estate or semi-officially through copyright dates passing—continue from all corners to this day. Not content with climbing back up off that ridge overlooking the Reichenbach Falls, Holmes has managed to survive through fanfiction which, though (normally) written with a great deal of love and respect for Doyle’s work, has taken the character in all sorts of new directions—from the Martian invasion to the far future. Mycroft Holmes features in Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula (which is surely one of the greatest-known tomes of fanfiction released into the public eye, being a grand crossover of Victoriana), with the detective being unceremoniously ditched in prison as Newman thought if he’d been allowed near the main story he’d have solved it before anything really happened.
As a writer, I’ve written for Holmes—in fact, it was my GCSE coursework—retelling The Final Problem ‘as it really happened’, in the third person (eschewing the Watsonian narrative), with Holmes and Watson recast as Bailey (not as good as my father’s suggestion for a ‘real name’ for Holmes, ‘Manfred Abodes’, which is something that tickles me to this day) and McWilliam, and Moriarty as a shipping magnate with a Bond villain-esque plan to drown London under a tidal wave. I’ve also used Doyle’s characters for comedy in a university exercise to write a parody, with Watson acting as the Nigel Bruce-type version of the character ensuring that Holmes never solves anything due to his constant slipping-up-foot-bucketing-talking-to-owls-he-thinks-are-Holmes (see the 1945 film The House of Fear to watch this happen in an actual, officially-recognised Holmes adaptation).
I’m not altogether sure my GCSE Holmes pastiche was a great take on the character. It did, however, allow me to figure out a few things at a tender age: that villains require motivations beyond the pantomime of their performance, and believe themselves to be right in their actions, even if they are doing morally wrong things. My Moriarty analogue, who definitely didn’t have as memorable a name as Professor James Moriarty as I’ve no idea what it was, wanted to drown London in an effort to drive back overpopulation and its effect on global resources (well, if it’s good enough for Thanos). I suppose in some ways it wasn’t as realistic as the ‘real’ Moriarty’s motivations (thrill-seeking capitalism?), but it was a fun way of discovering what was, for me, a new way into writing: that the villains could have explorable motivations and, in a longer piece, that could have been expanded further. Maybe pseudo-Moriarty-as-a-shipping-magnate could be the anti-hero of a Victorian crime story.
To diverge for a moment beyond the confines of my experience, fanfiction has acquired a wonderful place in our global literary consciousness. In The Fanfiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age (University of Michigan Press, 2017), Francesca Coppa notes:
‘Hardly a day goes by without some media outlet or other “discovering” fan fiction, though thankfully the tone of these articles is starting to change: fanfiction is no longer presented as a wacky thing that only strange people do, as if writing fiction was any weirder hobby than gardening or painting or being in a garage band. In fact, fanfiction has become an increasingly mainstream art form, and fandom itself is moving fast from subculture to culture.’
It’s certainly very true. Almost every writer I knew at university (particularly the ones who went on to become published authors with a professional body of work) had at least dabbled in some way. The fanfiction community has grown so widespread in the twenty-first century, and this is perhaps something we can thank the internet for—the ease and availability of fan-produced work has allowed it to flourish. Before, fanzines would have to go through the process of being produced and printed. Now, a story can spread across time and space with the push of a button. Not only are we learning to tell stories in a way that is more quickly accessible, but we are also experiencing life itself in a different way through fanfiction. In her paper ‘Fanfiction Writing and the Construction of Space,’ Rebecca W Black explores this notion in great depth and notes that:
‘Fanfiction authors...are learning to write in globally networked, pluralistic arenas where the convergence and divergence of different modes of representation, media, texts, languages, literacies, and perspectives is commonplace. This can be contrasted with the sort of learning that often takes place in enclosed spaces such as composition classrooms, where student activity is structured not only by physical arrangements, but also by school and classroom rules as well as the authority of the teacher.’
So there’s another point for fanfiction. By engaging with alternative versions of an established world in a diverse community of storytellers, the potential exists for an exchange of information in a space that encourages a more open way of learning. ‘There’s only one rule: There are no rules’ might sound a bit terrifying, but it’s more like ‘There’s only one rule: You make your own rules’. It can be true that we see ourselves in the stories we tell or perhaps more accurately the world that we live in—and fanfiction gives us the space to involve familiar characters in that.
In considering this, and the importance of the use of characters from established properties, it’s worth noting here the Fifty Shades-shaped elephant in the room. In case you weren’t aware (how?!), EL James’s novel Fifty Shades of Grey started life as a fanfiction piece rooted in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Of course, we all know that Fifty Shades went on to become a global phenomenon, making James riches beyond the wildest of imaginations. Therefore, there can be an uncomfortable moment when you open up about writing fanfiction to someone and they tell you that a lot can be made from repackaging your work as original fiction. That you could be the next EL James.
I mention this because it’s a bit of a moot point, I think, in the fanfiction discourse. For one thing, it entirely monetises the art of writing creatively (fanfiction or otherwise), suggesting that our work only really has value when the sales have transcended the roof and the trillion-dollar multi-movie deal has been signed. For another, it does fanfiction a great disservice—maybe we do it because we love it; because it soothes the soul.
I write fanfiction for the British TV series Doctor Who because I love it and exploring those characters in situations, which maybe felt a little under-explored on television, brings me happiness (the more obscure the story angle the better—what was Clara’s nanny job really like in Series 7B and why did she eventually move on from that to being an English teacher? Never mind the Daleks). I’ve recently contributed to an entirely non-profit ‘fannual’, The Dr Who Annual 1989 (available for an extremely limited time from fan publishers Terraqueous Distributors after 23/11/20) because it allowed me to write for characters from an era of the show I loved as a child. Plus, my story would appear in the format of the dusty, car boot sale annuals my Pa would find and bring home to me. The value of that, for me, is much more than monetary.
Ultimately, my Who fanfiction led me to write science fiction. Not by writing it and then removing Dr Who, their friends, and the established monsters, but by considering how the worlds of it worked, how aspects of it might be improved or considered in a different light.
Sidenote: Scholar and author Una McCormack gave a wonderful talk for the Tolkien Society on fanfiction as a creative-critical response to the original work – in this case, of course, Tolkien – available here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbxr4OeVPkA
For me, stories I’ve written such as ‘The Zero’ (available in The Beginning & End Of All Things) explore the universe in ways that are influenced by Doctor Who, but lacking the quick fixes of that show and other established properties. No sonic screwdrivers, no beam-me-ups. Just a smattering of cosmicism.
So that, for me, and with some divergences in the name of context, is why fanfiction is so important to my work as an author, as well as in my life more generally. I’ve made a lot of friends with it, and read a lot of great stories from it. In the interest of emphasising the chorus of voices that make fanfiction the phenomenon that it is, I asked a few friends to give me some honest thoughts on it. I’ll let them play this article out:
When I was a teen, fanfiction was kind of like a comforting set of training wheels. Character and world are pre made and familiar. It allowed for experimentation without the need for worldbuilding or character creation. It also provided a (sometimes too) supportive community to see my stuff and give me feedback. It helped with creating a writing habit too.
I currently write fanfiction for profit so fanfics have helped me in a lot of ways as well as generally improve my writing technique. Not only has it challenged me to adapt a pre-existing world and explore limited rules in that world but it's also encouraged me to develop my own worlds as a result, or interpret outside characters native to that fiction as another challenge in itself. Similar to Elinor above, the community plays a massive factor and encourages the habit with criticism (constructive, positive and negative).
Plus, as a lgbtq+ writer, it means I can fulfil the fantasy of the story that never came to light (ie. fixing queerbaiting media, fleshing out characters coded to be gay or trans etc). It's a safe place to explore characters I already love.
It hindered me. Fanfic was so easy compared to original work, it set me up with a false sense of my ability to write properly. I somewhat wish all the time and effort I had dedicated to writing fanfiction had been invested in my own work instead. It was fun, but it's not a mark of your true talent as a writer - just as colour by numbers isn't a reflection of your ability as an artist.
Heathcliff J C McClean:
With fandoms that have lots of different versions and reboots and spinoffs, blending canon and finding queer stories to tell in the gaps the show writers leave is one of the most creative and artistic processes ever, because you’re splicing together worlds and inventing histories from the tiny hints in the original scripts. There are so few original ideas to be had in media anyway that I honestly don’t see the difference between fanfiction and original work, if you put in the research and so on. Sometimes all that’s not yours is the names of the characters (a lifeline, truly, because coming up with names is a nightmare).
Exactly what Heath said! It's complete freedom to experiment, to write whatever you want, purely for the fun of it.
Fanfiction was everything. It taught me how to write for an audience, it let me grow and explore in a safe place, it taught me how to love writing for the sake of writing, and it taught me how to focus on characters and voice.
George Sandifer-Smith is a Welsh writer, currently living in Cardiff. He has had fiction published in numerous anthologies including Unheard Voices (Aberystwyth University, 2019), and recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. His poetry has been published in New Welsh Review, The Stockholm Review, The Lampeter Review, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Cadaverine, and various anthologies including Poems from Pembrokeshire (Seren Books, 2019).
He works as a lecturer in Higher Education, having previously been a waiter, retail assistant, and comedy promoter.
George's science fiction short story, The Zero, is featured in FFF's anthology, The Beginning & End of All Things.