Marci stopped mid-word to stare at me with her pierced eyebrows raised. “You read fan-fiction? Why?”
At sixteen, staring into the face of the undoubtedly cooler-than-me Senior Editor of my high school literary magazine, I was too flummoxed to explain the joys of continuing to live in a story world that the original author had since closed the cover on.
Marci went back to typing after brushing imaginary lint off of her all black clothing. Her very cool all black clothing. “It’s just bad writing attached to a real author’s work. I think it’s rude and it’s stealing.”
As I spent far too many of my high school nights crawling through Fanfiction.net’s search pages until grainy eyes revolted, I thought about what Marci said. Were my hours of devoted reading supporting the egos of authors who had to hijack someone else’s audience to be read? Was I supporting the literary crutch of thousands of potentially great creators?
As a sort-of adult, my answer has evolved from a soft ‘maybe’ to a much more violent ‘absolutely not’.
It’s Awesome For Writer-ly Growth
When you were six years old and climbing onto that bike for the first time, did your parents launch you out into traffic to figure out that tricky balance/pedaling ratio on your own? Yes? I’m sorry your parents were the worst.
The rest of us started out with training wheels which is what an established or published story can be for many young writers. It provides the solidarity of well-fleshed out characters, a distinct setting, and a set of conflicts for a growing writer to move around and/or destroy as the creative urge strikes.
Is this exercise actually valuable in the long run? I would argue that it is, especially since fan fiction is just a more open version of the mental exercises most authors go through in their development anyway. In On Writing, Stephen King details all his stages of this journey: from outright plagiarizing a story about a rabbit to please his mother when he was a child to writing summaries of horror movies to sell at his high school as a teen.
You cannot create until you have consumed and it pays merge the two until you’ve got the skill set to flip the scales.
Readers Love It, Obviously
I discovered fanfiction.net when I was twelve. The very first story I ever read was terrible by my current standards: the cast of The Lord of The Rings were all on some sort of dating elimination show. Frodo was a narcissist who seemed awfully aware he was in a story, Gandalf was clearly high, and Sam’s primary concern was that he couldn’t ice-skate.
I thought it was hilarious.
My twelve year old self (so very, very new to the internet) was so enamored with the story that I actually printed out all thirty three pages so I could read it in my room while my brother kicked me off the computer petty concerns such as ‘homework’. I was enthralled by this lighter take on familiar characters, this juxtaposition of a fantasy crew in a modern environment.
I still am. With fanfiction, not only can we delve back into a world we weren’t ready to leave but also have story elements addressed that the author either couldn’t or didn’t.
A great example of this is the Alex Rider series, which I got hooked on as a teenager and dragged bashfully into adulthood behind me. Anthony Horowitz wrote it for a young audience and couldn’t fully address some of the ugly psychological realities of a fourteen year blackmailed into serving as a spy: there’s death, serious injury, and plenty of solid murder attempts on young Alex’s life. Thanks to fan-fiction writers, I can watch Alex struggle with things like PTSD, depression, and trying to play catch-up with his education even though he just spent a few weeks nearly getting murdered by Russians /Alligators /Portugues Man O Wars without fair compensation.
It Doesn’t Have To Suck For The Authors Either
The authors, first and foremost, lose little to no profits as far as I can tell.
Fanfiction is free: one of its appeals, to be frank. While I wouldn’t say that I speak for all the readers of fanfiction, it’s pretty safe to say that they aren’t terribly interested in content that isn’t already familiar. No one really likes to jump into a story with established characters and never get the backstory the author assumes the reader already knows. Obviously, the readers of fanfiction would generally be the same people who consumed the original work whether they bought the book, watched the show, read the comic book, whatever.
Sure, lots of writers get defensive of their months or even years of hard work being re-imagined differently (sometimes creepily) by the enthusiastic masses.
That’s understandable, but shouldn’t be enough to scare us away from the concept: we all re-imagine things in our heads at least a little bit anyways. Fanfiction lets some of us connect to others who did the same.
In my own experience, I feel more connected to the original work by reading fan fiction. To use the Alex Rider example again, I likely would have stopped caring about the series after a few years had I not been reading a few fan-fics on the side. By mentally reconnecting with the brand more often than Horowitz could publish a new installment, I was much more interested in buying the book as an adult than I would have been had it faded into the background.
To Wrap This Up
For the love of Christ, even Neil Gaiman and S.E. Hinton write or wrote fan fiction.
Scott Orson Card, a known fan fiction hater, writes fan fiction.
You’ve probably written fan fiction, even if you don’t realize it.
Embrace it already, Marci.