Fanfiction is seen by most people as a bit of a joke. Usually in the form of short stories or chapter-by-chapter pieces written by fans in response to their favourite books, movies or TV shows, most people think fanfiction is a bunch of angsty teenagers writing about their favourite pairings from the latest Avengers movie or a middle-aged woman writing an over-the-top erotic fantasy like Fifty Shades of Grey. But fanfiction can be much more than that – it can connect people to online communities where friendships bloom, or trigger the beginning of a successful writing career. This reframing of fanfiction if a key part of Fangirl, a novel by Rainbow Rowell. Fangirl follows the story of new university student Cath who finds her solace in writing fanfiction about her favourite book series. Just like in our world, most of her peers find it a little unusual that she doesn’t just find her enjoyment from reading the books but feels the need to step into the characters’ lives and write as them. But by the end of the novel, her work is still pleasing thousands of online fans and she manages to take her fanfiction skills and hone them into creating her own original work too.
However, just as Cath tries to argue to her writing professor in Fangirl, I think there is genuine skill involved with being able to manipulate characters from another writer’s world and turning them into a fresh new story. This means that the writer sits down and not only thinks about how their favourite character ticks, but also considers the themes and motifs within the story. That sounds a little like a task you’d receive in a high school English class, which is exactly what happened to me. When I began taking Literature in Year 11, our first assignment was to pick a writer and deliver a piece of creative writing that emulated their style. We had to identify what made their writing style unique and the kinds of topics about which they would usually write. What’s the difference from doing this with Tolkien’s work as opposed to Harry Potter?
People also dismiss fanfiction because they believe that it’s all badly written. I don’t want to deny that bad fanfiction exists because it’s definitely possible to find but this is the same for all forms of storytelling – there are trashy TV shows and books out there as well.
The core concept of fanfiction – taking inspiration from already existing works of literature – is actually not that rare. There are many highly critically acclaimed writers whose stories find their roots in a previous tale, be it a biblical story or fairy tale or previously published book. This may be seen as more commonly occurring in popular fiction – examples like Fifty Shades of Grey and Pride, Prejudice and Zombies immediately spring to mind – but it does feature in books that lean more towards literary fiction, too. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea serves as a prequel to the famous Jane Eyre, telling the story of Bertha before she was trapped in Mr Rochester’s attic. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad retells the story of The Odyssey from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. And John Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic 17th-century poem retells the Biblical story of the fall of man.
But I think the biggest advantage that comes from writing fanfiction is the community. Writing is usually conceived as a very solitary profession – one does it alone in a dark room in front of a flashing cursor and laptop screen. Fanfiction seems to be a way of bringing all these writers together, so that they don’t feel like they are the only ones who love a certain character or considered their lives in an alternate universe. I remember when I wrote my first piece of fanfiction, I felt a little strange taking characters that had been created by someone else and instead of watching them make decisions, I took control and was making their decisions for them. But the story poured out of me nevertheless, and I was proud of it, so I signed up to a popular fanfiction site and posted it.
The response was immediate. Even though my short story had been written about a very obscure Shakespeare-inspired web series that only had a few thousand viewers, I immediately got readers. This is the ‘something else’, the mysterious draw card that keeps people coming back to fanfiction: people read it. I had posted original short stories in so many other places on the internet in previous years: blogs, Tumblr, Figment, etc, but with them I had been lucky to receive a single comment. Not only was I now receiving hundreds of readers, the count going up and up as I refreshed the page each day, but people were engaging with my work, leaving me ‘likes’ and telling me their favourite parts of my story and how they felt I’d dealt with the characters. I couldn’t believe it.
This is the power of fanfiction. It serves as a community and home for emerging writers – particularly teenagers – in that they can combine their love of both writing and whatever TV show/book/obscure web series with a group of equally passionate people. And it’s such a great experience to transform someone else’s work into something of your own. My writing skills definitely improved during my fanfiction days, as I was not only thrown into writing a lot of romance which was outside my comfort zone but I interacted with so many other people online who were writing about the same characters me.
Outside of the stereotypes, the idea of fanfiction is actually quite advanced and could be considered a form of metafiction. It becomes about layering story upon story and building up complexity in different forms of media. It certainly was for my fanfiction – the show I loved was a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and there I was reinterpreting these new characters and taking it to a third level.
The same can be said of Rainbow Rowell – after writing about Cath’s love of the Simon Snow series in Fangirl, she decided that she loved the story so much that she would write a Simon Snow book of her own. This came to life in Carry On, a book that is part-Fangirl and part-Harry Potter. So if an established author can experiment with other works in their writing, I think I can try my hand at it too.
Image: Kate Williams
Julia Faragher is a current university student with a passion for writing across all mediums, from novels and short stories to films, plays and poetry. Her adventure with writing began in November 2011, when she competed in National Novel Writing Month for the first time. Three years later, she had written three novels of more than 50,000 words each and fallen in love with writing. Since then, she has also had success writing in other areas, such as co-writing a play that won her high school competition and placing in the top 4 of last year’s ANU Interhall Poetry Slam. She also has a love for film, and served as the director, producer and writer for Dear Jasmine, winner of ‘Best Student Film’ at the Lights! Canberra! Action! Film Festival 2015. Other festival credits include Tropfest Jr, the All-American High School Film Festival and the Screen It Festival. She currently studies English, Gender Studies and Law at ANU and runs her own short film company, Skybound Productions.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.