Fanfiction: a definition, a theory, and a rant (it just gets so WEIRD!)

Since I was nine I’ve been an avid reader. Or, as my husband says, a story junky (yeah, the amount of stories I inhale probably isn’t healthy). Actually, ever since I could read I’ve been a reader, but before the Harry Potter books I mainly dabbled in science books. I remember spending hours in my room pouring over science encyclopedias. But how weird of a child I was aside, being an avid reader means that I’ve had my feet in both the published world and the non-published world ever since I was a kid.

Translation: I’ve read a lot of fanfictions and a lot of published books.

Thus, I think I’m in a zone where I can give generalizations about fanfictions to those who may not have dared that particular underbelly of the written word. I’ve also read books on fanfiction as well as written a few essays/dissertations on how all art is technically fanfiction (which it is).

You see, in the strictest sense of the word, fanfiction is whatever art is made that is inspired by previously made art. All artists get into art and learn their art by observing other artists and finding they like something and want to see more of it. Painters study other paintings, musicians listen to other music, and writers read books. An artist who only enjoys or participates in their own work probably doesn’t exist (I think I had a writing professor that said it’s like someone who is obsessed with sniffing their own underwear?). This is why I wrote an essay explaining how Dante’s Inferno is really just fanfiction of the Catholic Church mythology. My World Lit professor loved it.

We all make fanfiction. Art is fanfiction. Even if we’re basing our art off of something in real life (like landscape paintings or portraits), we’re really just making fanart/fanfiction of God’s art, aren’t we? The idea is gleaning inspiration from something that already exists and using that to express ourselves.

We see something we like and we want more of it, for whatever reason.

Fanfiction’s more well-known definition, or rather cultural connotation, is of fiction written based off fiction that already exists. For example, if you were to write a story about Sherlock Holmes solving a case the original author never wrote, that would be fanfiction. Say you didn’t like how Harry’s third year of Hogwarts went and so you rewrote his entire third year with the changes you’d like to see? Fanfiction.

You lot can probably already see a few reasons why fanfiction gets a bad rap. Here is a short list to make it easy for you:

  1. Copyrights. It’s hard (not impossible) to make money off fanfiction. You need legal permission from whoever owns the right to the original story to make any sort of money off it. Some even get pissy if you so much as print it just so you can pant over it and sniff the pages. No one likes their work being stolen and some even get the misconception that writing fanfiction means you have no ability to write a completely original story. Since all art is technically fanfiction, yadda yadda. We are not talking about those who copy and paste the text into their document and then just change a few lines, but that is how we all start off learning how to make art: by copying. When we’re, like, kids. But, hey, probably shouldn’t judge when someone starts learning I guess.
  2. Anyone can write it. That means no quality control. We depend more than we’d like on publishers to veto all the bad writing and low-quality stuff. Thus, there’s a natural predisposition in us to assume that anything that is self-published, whether for free on an online platform or something like Amazon’s Kindle thang, is more likely than not going to be crap. To all of us who have picked up a book only to wonder how on Earth it got published and if the editor was high in a bathroom somewhere rather than doing their job, we know that isn’t always the case.
  3. Anyone can write it. That includes the WEIRDOS. There’s a whole lot in this world that will never see the light of day and probably never should, and I am scared every time I accidentally stumble on one of these. People get weird, yo.

Now, while these three things are true (you’re not wrong for thinking them), they can also blind you to a lot of amazing possibilities as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a fanfiction that is so masterfully written and executed that I’m completely floored it’s not written by the next Shakespeare. So, here is my address to the three reasons most people not only avoid fanfiction but barf in their mouths at the thought of it.

  1. There are more legal, paid-for fanfictions than you know. Ignoring the fact that all art is fanfiction, did you know there are countless novels in the Star Wars universe that aren’t written by George Lucas, but by dozens of different people? Or that most episodes of Star Trek aren’t written by Gene Roddenberry? How about all those spin-off movies of Shakespeare? Heck, who do you think wrote the Avengers movies? Not the guy who sold the rights to make movies off the comics, that’s for sure. In fact, fanfiction is being written and paid for all the time! All you need is permission and BAM!
  2. Anyone can write fanfiction, and that includes absolute geniuses, whether they are known or unknown. Fanfiction is a great venue for writers to practice their art or just have a fun time. It’s a wonderful place for writers to learn the art of storywriting because the best way to get good at something is to practice, and who wants to write half a dozen novels that no one will ever read just to build up the skills to write the one novel that’s publishable? It’s also a really easy way to find beta readers for an original story you have. All you have to do is change up the character’s names, descriptions, and maybe add a few in universe stuff and VIOLA! You get a readership along for the ride of making up your first draft. But besides that, didn’t I tell you how some writers are just absolutely brilliant? Which leads to my reasons against the third point—
  3. The pervy weirdos can write fanfiction, but that’s just a natural consequence of a truly creatively free space. The reason true genius can sprout in this environment is that it’s one that has no rules, which means one is allowed to really stretch the limits of creativity. It provides a space where one can test-drive new ideas for formatting, style, storytelling, pretty much just about anything and then see how readers react. I’ve seen so many innovative ways of storytelling and writing that I would have never seen in published works just for how new they are. People like familiarity. Familiarity sells. But it just takes the right new thing at the right time to cause an explosion of change in mainstream tastes.
  4. Reading bad writing is a great way to learn how not to write. I don’t know if most people know this fact, but we learn just as much from bad art as we do good art. It’s just as important to learn what not to do as it is what is to do. So, if you’re a writer, don’t be scared off by bad-quality writing. It’s a free lesson in writing, ripe for the taking.

The creepy, pervy fiction bits that fanfiction is famous for are regrettable. I have no excuse for them. I consider them a natural side effect of having free creative space. But there are systems in place on most platforms that allow you to filter out these disturbing pornographic tragedies, so you don’t have to read them unless you’re looking for them (and, hey, if that’s your parade, not like anything I say will stop you). But I think it’s rather short-sighted for us, as a community of artists, to discount fanfiction as all rubbish. It isn’t. It’s a valuable asset. And one shouldn’t discount any story just because of how it is published or what some other author did with it.

So, in conclusion, I say: go out and try some fanfiction. Maybe even have a go at writing it yourself. It’s a good experience and, well, it’s free! It’s a great way to find other writers or just other readers with similar interests. And if that’s just too low-brow for you, at least don’t be quick to judge a writer as subpar just for dabbling in it.

Unless they’re whoever wrote all those pedophile romance stories then judge them. Judge them hard. *shudder* The sacrifices we must endure for freedom.

2 thoughts on “Fanfiction: a definition, a theory, and a rant (it just gets so WEIRD!)

    1. I’m glad I was able to help! Yeah, I had a lot of years to think about it while I was getting my writing degree. It’s really the ‘weirdos’ that give it a bad rap. But those weirdos also a good thing, in a weird way.

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