Fan fiction is a popular genre in which authors use existing fictional characters and worlds as the starting point for their own stories adhering to (or altering) ‘canon’ or the history of an author’s work. Learn more about this genre and its practicalities:
What is fan fiction?
Fan fiction is a blanket term for unauthorised stories written by fans of existing material and based in the world of that material although in some cases it is expanded to include fiction about real people. Here’s how writing fan fiction can be a training ground for new writers:
Fan fiction can be controversial. Some people look down on it as a waste of time and as producing inferior writing, but it has inarguably launched some very successful writing careers, and the very best fan fiction can hold its own against published work elsewhere.
The legal considerations
Another controversy surrounding fan fiction is its legality. Fan fiction was around for decades before the internet, but that is where most of it thrives these days, and because having something appear on the internet is generally considered publishing it, fan fiction exists in a dubious legal grey area. One complexity is that depending on the type of fan fiction, it may be in violation of either copyright or trademark law or both; another complexity is that these laws differ from country to country.
There is also some misleading advice online about fan fiction. Many writers believe that if they include a disclaimer saying they do not own the characters in a piece of fan fiction or if they are not getting paid, they are legally in the clear, but in general, this is not the case. Most fan fiction exists with the goodwill of the original creator, copyright owner or trademark holder. Some of these creators or owners genuinely enjoy fan fiction themselves while others recognise that fan fiction communities are more positive than negative for them. However, none of this should be construed as legal advice, and there is a more extensive discussion of the legal issues around fan fiction at the site IO9. Although it only covers legal issues within the United States, it can give writers in any country a sense of the legal standing of fan fiction.
Of course, any work that is in the public domain and therefore no longer under copyright is perfectly legal. Therefore, communities of Jane Austen fan fiction writers have nothing to worry about. In general, writers and publishers are allowing fan fiction to thrive as long as it does not seem to be infringing upon the writer’s career or profits. There are a few writers who have expressed a dislike for fan fiction and discouraged their work being used as such including Anne Rice, George R.R. Martin and, prior to her death, Anne McCaffrey.
Types of fan fiction
Fan fiction has its roots in Star Trek fandom, and some of the most popular fan fiction today continues to draw on works of science fiction and fantasy such as Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings series and the TV show Supernatural. However, there is very little pop culture these days that has not made it into fan fiction in one form or another. From childhood favourites like Nancy Drew to popular musicals like Wicked to anime, video games and celebrities. If there are many fans of something or someone, there has probably been at least one piece of fan fiction written about it.
Some fan fiction contains explicit material, and this can be controversial as well. Fan fiction communities generally tag their material for explicit sexual content, violence and other elements, so readers can get a good idea of what they are in for before clicking through to a story.
Critics of writing fan fiction would argue that it is a waste of time. Why pour all that effort into stories about characters and worlds that don’t belong to you? But fan fiction has many pros to offer aspiring writers:
Fan fiction for writers
Fan fiction may not be the most traditional training ground for writing talent but it can definitely be a way for a person to develop their writing talents.
First of all, writers are often encouraged to connect with writing communities, and fan fiction communities are exactly this. Many fan fiction writers easily devote as much time to writing fan fiction as writers of original fiction do to their own work.
Secondly, writing fan fiction gives writers immediate experience in putting their fiction in front of an audience and getting a reaction. The benefits of this are twofold. One is that the writer learns early on to deal with exposing themselves in this way and gaging the reactions of others to their fiction.
Many fan fiction communities thrive on workshopping one another’s fiction just as diligently as any other writing group would. Fan fiction writers can absolutely develop their talents as writers while writing about other intellectual properties.
Some fan fiction writers in fact have found great success:
Fan fiction writer success stories
Perhaps the most famous example of a fan fiction success story is that of E.L. James. What began as fan fiction based on the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer became the erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels. The book was initially self-published before being picked up by Vintage Books and republished in 2011.
However, there have been a number of other writers who have started out writing fan fiction. One of the most recent is Anna Todd. Her fan fiction about Harry Styles of the boy band One Direction was hugely popular on the app Wattpad, and eventually Wattpad contacted her to act as her agent for selling her series as a book. Todd signed a mid-six figure deal and the first book was released in 2014 with several more following. The names of the characters were changed although their initials remained the same of that as the band members, but not everyone was a fan of Todd’s work. One Direction fans criticised the portrayal of Styles, but this level of passion is not atypical for fan fiction communities. Paramount has also purchased film rights to the first book.
Other more established writers who began in fan fiction include YA fantasy writers Cassandra Clare and Sarah Rees Brennan. Clare rose to fan fiction fame with her humorous take on the Lord of the Rings series, The Very Secret Diaries, while Brennan wrote a number of stories set in the Harry Potter universe before turning to her own work. Today Clare is known as the author of the Mortal Instruments series and Brennan has written the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy among others. Some sources say that author Naomi Novik’s successful alternate history series had its roots in Master and Commander fan fiction from the Patrick O’Brian nautical series, but whether or not this is true, Novik has been an outspoken proponent of fan fiction and continues to write it herself.
How to write fan fiction
With so much fan fiction out there, how does anyone get read in the first place? What are readers of fan fiction looking for? The first thing to keep in mind is that you should only write fan fiction if you are genuinely a fan who is moved to write about a particular figure or property and not as a means to an end. Fan fiction writers are primarily exactly that — they enjoy writing about these topics that they love, and most do not intend to go on to a professional career.
However, if you are passionate about a TV show, a book, a celebrity, a video game or anything else, fan fiction can be a fun way to immerse yourself further in the world and make some new friends. Sites like Archive of Our Own, Wattpad and Fanfiction.net are all places where you can go to read and write fan fiction. When writing, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Remember that you are writing for fans. This means that you don’t need to include a lot of backstory, but you do need to stay true to characters. If you write a character who is significantly different from what fans are used to, there needs to be a good reason for it in the story or fans are likely to be unhappy with the change.
- The rules of the world itself matter as well as the characters. Writers of Harry Potter fan fiction should know the rules and layout of the Hogwarts school for wizards. Lord of the Rings fan fiction writers should know why there is enmity between dwarves and elves and what hobbits like to eat. Even getting small details wrong can spoil a reader’s experience (although there is nothing to say you can’t change elements – just beware readers’ potential response to your changes).
- Read other fan fiction set in your world so that you know what plots are clichéd.
- Write good summaries. These precede most fan fiction online and are key to letting a reader know what type of story you’ve written. If your summary is engaging, your reader will want more.
Writing fan fiction can be a training ground, but primarily it is a place for fans to express themselves creatively. However, some professional authors have begun as fan fiction writers.
What do you think are some benefits of writing this fiction genre for aspiring writers?