Have you ever watched a television show or film and wanted to rewrite a scene or ending? Or maybe you loved a book so much that you wanted the story to continue. Well, there’s a world of online platforms where you can do just that. And if you’re willing to write a story around existing work, you just might find an audience for your interpretation. It’s called fanfiction, and it’s never been more popular.
Fanfiction, often shortened to fanfic, is derivative work inspired by published poetry, songs, television programs, movies, novels, animation or celebrities. Often considered the black sheep of writing genres, it has long lived in the shadows of the literary world. Today, however, those stigmas are changing, and fanfiction is finding its place in the mainstream. A book that’s helped steer that change is an unexpected success story called 50 Shades of Grey. Its British author, E.L. James, originally developed the story as fanfiction inspired by the Twilight series. To date, that reworked novel (and the 50 Shades book series it spawned) has sold over 250 million copies worldwide.
But fanfiction can be traced back to long before 2012 and 50 Shades of Grey. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the first modern usage of the term began in the mid 1970s. The art itself, however, is much older, reaching all the way back to Shakespeare, whose work is described as heavily influenced by Greek literature and mythology. Romeo and Juliet is even considered a narrative poem by some, as is said to be based on the poem Giulietta e Romeo, by Italian poet Luigi da Porto.
Some of our most revered fictional characters have also been rewritten countless times. Recent Superman, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes movies are based on the original publications, but the stories have been changed and expanded. And although Gene Roddenberry did not write the Star Trek spinoffs, each one has been based on his stories.
Edmonton author Andrea Plain has been writing fanfic for 12 years. She had always wanted to be a writer, so when some characters in a television show behaved out of character, Plain rewrote a scene. She published her story on the FanFiction website and found an active online community: she’s been writing ever since.
According to Plain, one of the most important parts of fanfiction is the fandoms (communities dedicated to specific source material): “It’s always great when you find someone who has similar interests as you and wants to stay up until four in the morning thinking about possible plot lines and driving your story forward,” which is also why much of her writing is based on community feedback.
It’s no secret that fanfic writers face stigma about “originality” and the idea that you have to create your own worlds and characters from scratch. Plain disagrees: “Nothing is original anymore. Just because my work is based on other stories doesn’t mean I haven’t agonized over it and done hours of research and worked hard to write it.”
Plain also believes that the genre offers new writers a chance to improve their storytelling abilities: “You gain a deep -understanding of characters, interactions, scenery and world-building because you have to -understand how the world is built so that your work feels like a proper homage.”
The 21st century surge in fanfiction is primarily a reflection of the way we consume writing. Fanfiction has taken advantage of digital outlets to make stories more accessible to new readers.
There are dozens of fanfiction websites with stories that appeal to many people. Plain posts most of her work on Archive of Our Own and enjoys the fanfiction communities she has found on Tumblr. In addition to general sites, there are platforms for different fandoms, such as Twilight, Star Trek, Star Wars and Harry Potter.
Kindle Worlds, a branch of Amazon, is a new platform that allows writers to legally sell fanfiction. Writers can choose from a list of licensed worlds, such as Vampire Diaries, G.I. Joe and Pretty Little Liars. The list of licensed worlds will continue to grow, giving writers even more opportunities to write fanfiction stories. Unlike other platforms, stories written through Kindle Worlds can be sold on the Kindle platform.
Fanfic often falls into a legal grey area, so always do your research before publishing. Copyright laws are designed to protect the original author from infringement on their work. Fanfiction based on copyrighted work cannot be sold for profit.
Work that is no longer under copyright protections is in the public domain and can legally be rewritten. There are many factors that go into determining if a work is public domain, so you must research each story you want to work with. Popular characters such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo are all in the public domain.
Some authors are happy to allow fans to build upon their work. J.K. Rowling, for example, encourages fans to write Harry Potter stories—as long as they do not include pornography. Other authors, such as Anne Rice, send out take-down notices when fanfiction based on their work is published online. Part of Plain’s research is to determine what elements of a story can be safely used. She hasn’t had an author send her a take-down notice, but says it has happened to friends.
The primary caveat for fanfiction is that the work must be transformative. That is, you must tell a completely new story in a way that does not diminish the value of the copyrighted work. Prior to publishing 50 Shades, James removed all elements that were subject to copyright. Always be prepared, however, for the original author to send a take-down notice.
The next time you watch or read something that you think could be done differently, why not give it a try? As fanfiction continues to move into mainstream writing, the number of platforms will grow, allowing people to read your twist on a classic story. And who doesn’t like having the last word. t8n
To navigate the fanfic community, it helps to understand its lexicon.
Canon: refers to the elements from the original story.
Alternate Universe (AU): settings that are different from the canon.
Fanwork: is derivative work based on any genre (it includes fanart, fanfic and fanmix).
Squick: is similar to a trigger warning—a statement that warns readers that the content contains elements that may offend.