What is fanfiction and why should I care?

Fan fiction is stories written by fans of a work/author/… that is set in a universe established by the work/author/… or that makes use of characters or settings from the original(s). It is usually written by amateurs, but there may be reasons to consider reading some of it.

What is it?

Fan fiction is stories written by fans of a work/author/… that is set in a universe established by the work/author/… or that makes use of characters or settings from the original(s). The term is less than a century old, but fanfic is an ancient type of writing. An alternative term is pastiche, but there is controversy in the fanfic community about using that term since has has historically had a snobbish usage along the lines of “Pastiche is fanfic that I like, and fanfic is pastiche that I don’t like.”

Why do people write it?

At least in part, fans of anything tend to structure their lives around the thing(s) they are fans of. They draw on the stories that come out of their fandoms when looking for metaphors or allusions to illustrate their takes on IRL (‘in real life’) events. This is true not only for geeky Trekkies but also for fans of mainstream culture, for example sports or Shakespeare.

Some people like to tell stories or to write stories down. My understanding is that developing the environment and characters for a story can be one of the most difficult parts of developing a story. If a fan sets their story within the universe from one of their fandoms, it greatly reduces the overhead for telling their story, making it easier for the beginning writer to practice developing plots.

Of course, that reduction of difficulty can make it easy to neglect necessary work on the novel elements or characters that the fanfic writer introduces. The OC (‘original character’) who is perfect in every way (often called a Mary Sue or Gary Stu) can be the unreadable result of that neglect.

Often, fans of a given literature (defined broadly) will have ideas about stories or events that they feel could happen in the relevant universe, stories or events that the creators of that universe never addressed.

Perhaps there are gaps in the time sequence of the canonical stories, gaps that didn’t affect the overall narrative for most readers but which someone feels need to be made more explicit with a gap filler.

The writer might be rather fond of a minor character in the universe and feel that that character has a story or two worth telling. Virgil’s Æneid is arguably a fanfic of Homer’s Iliad that falls into this category.

Very often, someone will be a fan of more than one universe and will speculate on what would happen if characters from one of the universes found themselves in one of the others. The resulting work is often called a crossover, and depending on how loose a definition one takes for what constitutes a fandom, this category could include works like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln :Vampire Hunter.

In the limit case — where one of the universes is current reality — crossover results in retellings of old stories in new settings. For example, West Side Story, The Lion King. Or “what if?” stories of mythology in a modern setting like Rick Riorden’s Percy Jackson series.

Why do people read it?

In an article for the New Yorker about fanfiction, Stephanie Burt pointed out:

The interesting question at this point is not whether fan fiction [sic] can be good, by familiar literary standards. (Of course it can; cf. Virgil.) Rather, it’s this: What is fan fiction especially, or uniquely, good at, or good for?

After talking about some of the uses writing it might have for the author themself, she talks about why a fanfic might find readers other than the author:

If you can work your memories, hypotheses, or fantasies about living away from home, or about gender transition, or about retirement, into a story about Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, maybe the many people who care about Batman and Robin will care about your thoughts and experiences, too.

Where can I find it?

  • Archive of Our Own

    Archive of Our Own (AO3) is one of the go-to sites for fanfic. It hosts any work that is legal, but its search tool lets users exclude categories or content ratings that they might find offensive or otherwise not want to see.

    AO3 hosts works from the usual SF/Fantasy/Comics fandoms, but you can also find fanfic based on works by Kafka, Cervantes, Lǎo Zhū, Virginia Woolf, and other “mainstream” authors.

Articles on Fanfic

Image credit:
Leaf from Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid – Walters W40055R – Open Obverse
By Cristoforo MajoranaWalters Art Museum: Home page Info about artwork,
License: Public Domain