In Defense of Fanfiction

When I graduated from high school last year, I decorated my graduation cap just like many others in my class did. But instead of the Brandeis logo or a nice painting of a sunset, I got together some sticker paper and a few Sharpies and made this:

 

 

I told everyone who asked that it was a quote from a short story I love. Which is true. I just found said short story on archiveofourown.org.

 

When you think of fanfiction, you probably think of something along the lines of “My Immortal”, a 2006 Harry Potter fic infamous for its bad grammar, poor characterization, and sloppy sex scenes. And while I’ve done my fair share of dramatic readings with a group of friends on field trips (and would wholeheartedly recommend it), fanfiction is much more than that. It can be a vessel for telling some of the most interesting and thought-provoking stories out there.

 

Take the quote from my grad cap as an example. (Yes, I’m exposing myself on hercampus.com, I have no regrets) It comes from a My Hero Academia fic in which Neito Monoma and Hitoshi Shinso meet, become friends, fall in love, and discover that they’re much more than the sum of their parts when they come together. But after some recent developments in the manga, their relationship has taken on a different tone, and the fanfic scene has changed to reflect that, too. In the last six months especially, the relatively small Monoma/Shinso tag on AO3 has been flooded with stories about trust, emotional vulnerability, finding someone who truly understands you unlike anyone else, defying societal expectations and limitations, and looking to the future. I’m biased, of course, but they might be some of the most heartwarming works of fiction I’ve ever read.

 

 

Fanfiction is an interesting genre because unlike most genres of mainstream fiction, it’s heavily character-focused and character-driven. Take the classic and incredibly popular coffee shop AU, where the two main characters meet at a coffee shop, whether as employees, customers, or anything else. Do we keep reading them because we’re so invested in the plot and are sitting at the edge of our seats because we want to know so badly what happens next? No, of course not, because we all know what happens at the end: they fall in love. So why do we read them at all if we know how they all end? We want to see how the characters get there. We want to grow with them and see them change. Even in fanfics that have an overarching plot, like a mystery or a fantastic quest, that plot still takes a backseat to characters, character growth, and character relationships, whether those relationships are romantic or not. (Found family stories are also really popular in the fanfic world) The comments section of the mystery fic I’m writing doesn’t blow up when the main characters have found a clue or a suspect, it blows up because they’re realizing how much their adventures have made them care about each other.

 

In such a character-focused genre, it’s no wonder that some people call fanfiction the ultimate character-writing exercise. And as someone who’s been writing fanfic since before she knew what fanfic was, I can safely say that it’s true. In fanfiction, you have to take a character and make them your own, give them depth and tell a new story with them. You are given a blank canvas and have to paint the rest. A lot of fanfic writers, myself included, especially love the challenge of writing minor characters, characters with a lot of potential but not enough time for their stories to be fully fleshed out because we have to fill in the gaps with our own lives and experiences. That’s why fanfiction is so fascinating to read, because every author writes the same character in a multitude of different ways, emphasizing different traits and ideas in their writing.

 

Of course, this diversity of character expressions is there in part because fanfiction writers are a very diverse group as well, made up largely of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and people at every intersection between them. Fanfiction is a way for them to share their experiences and often a way to push back against the sometimes hurtful representation they see in mainstream media. But fanfiction websites also contain a diversity of experience levels. Published authors working on their own original works post fanfiction right alongside teenagers trying to get some storytelling practice in after school, and neither is more valid than the other. Fanfiction is an incredible, free way to practice and hone your fiction writing skills.

 

But more than anything, I write fanfiction because it’s fun. Sometimes, that fun is self-indulgent smooching, sometimes it’s cathartic late-night cuddles when things get a little too hard, sometimes it’s going in-depth into the characters and themes of the stories I love and attempting to answer those burning “What if?” questions floating through my mind when they’re over, but it’s always something I enjoy. Because if I’m writing a fic longer than the first two Harry Potter books combined, I’d better have a good time doing it.