A closer look at modern fan fiction
Late one night in early 2013, Layla O’Malley was awake at her computer. She was a seventh grader, a student and a band kid. That meant school the next morning, a test on Friday and an orchestra recital the next week. That’s already a lot for a 12-year-old, but her focus was elsewhere. Some may call it an escape — or maybe just one more responsibility — but O’Malley was writing One Direction fanfiction for a hungry audience of tens of thousands of readers.
“It was all eyes on me, at 12 years old, asking me to update and make the characters kiss,” she joked.
Now, O’Malley is 21 years old, studying music recording at DePaul University. While it’s nothing compared to the all-nighters she was pulling in middle and high school, she says she still reads fanfiction, or fan-made stories about existing media, whenever she finds a show or movie that particularly inspires her.
This is how a lot of people who read fanfiction describe it: it’s a continuation of media you already like, which makes the stories feel particularly compelling. However, most people don’t talk about fanfiction, probably because, as a genre, it gets a bad rap. It’s primarily associated with teenage girls, and as DePaul University professor Paul Booth explains, girls’ interests aren’t often taken seriously.
“Women’s texts and women’s issues and women’s lives are devalued, and I think we see that every day around us,” Booth said.
While these stereotypes can be difficult to navigate, I conducted a survey of 112 fanfiction readers and writers, and their responses may add nuance to who exactly is participating in this aspect of fan culture and why they find it so meaningful.
WHO’S READING AND WRITING FANFICITON?
As we look at this data, it’s important to keep in mind that, since I am a woman between the ages of 18 and 25 myself, that was the main group of people I had access to in sharing the survey. Still, the data shows that while this particular demographic is a sizable percentage of people who read and write fanfiction, it’s not the only demographic.
Booth, for his part, has noticed a shift in his classes in the past few years, which may indicate an increased variety in who’s participating in fanfiction and, perhaps more importantly, an increase in who would be willing to fill out a survey about it.
“When I first started teaching my fandom class, and I said, ‘Who’s written fanfic?’ back in 2009, maybe one or two people tentatively raised their hand,” Booth said. “But I taught this class in winter, and I said, ‘Who’s written fanfic?’ and all 12 people raised their hand.”
WHAT ARE PEOPLE READING AND WRITING?
According to public statistics from Archive of Our Own (AO3), the most popular fanfiction platform, some of the most popular fandoms within the major categories shown in the chart above were “My Hero Academia” (Anime & Manga), “Harry Potter” (Books & Literature), Marvel (Cartoons & Comics & Graphic Novels), and K-pop (Music & Bands) at the time of publication. The survey responses tended to be fairly consistent with recent AO3 data across the board in terms of what media types are most popular. One notable inconsistency is a disproportionately large representation of Star Wars fanfiction enthusiasts and a disproportionately small representation of Marvel fans among survey respondents compared to the global totals.
The data shown in the chart is consistent with historic preferences as well. According to Booth, some of the earliest fanfiction was written about literature such as “Don Quixote” in the 1600s, and “Sherlock Holmes” a little bit later in the 1850s. Then, following that timeline, fanfiction about popular science fiction TV shows like “Star Trek” started to take off in the mid 1900s. It’s only in the 2000s that fanfiction about things like bands and video games — the kinds of works O’Malley was reading and writing, for example — began to take off with the rise of the Internet.
“The Internet is when suddenly, you know, you couldn’t escape fanfiction, and it was everywhere,” Booth explained.
WHY ARE PEOPLE READING AND WRITING?
From the survey, the main reason for reading and writing fanfiction was simple: it’s entertaining. Like any media, people partake in it because they find it fun and interesting. However, short answer responses from the survey give insight into some of those other categories.
For example, many people talked about the joy they feel from being able to continue reading about their favorite characters after the original media has ended. O’Malley mentioned that she likes using fanfiction to explore side-characters that didn’t get much attention in their original storylines, and other survey respondents said things like, “When you love characters, you just want to spend as much time as possible with them and fanfiction allows you to do that.”
Booth describes fanfiction that extends the existing storyline in this way as “affirmational.” However, people also had interesting things to say about “transformational” works, or those that change or transform the original media in some way, often to increase representation of diverse identities. Specifically, many respondents talked about discovering their sexualities through fanfiction where their favorite characters are queer.
O’Malley talked about this particular effect as well. Her fanfiction primarily featured One Direction band members and original female characters, and she explained that writing those romantic relationships helped push her down a path toward her own identity discovery.
“I ended all my works before they kissed because I couldn’t handle it. I was 11 so that makes sense,” she said, “but I also didn’t really want to see a man and a woman kiss.”
Likewise, the survey responses were riddled with praise for the way fanfiction fills in the gaps in representation that exist in mainstream media. Statements like, “It makes you realize what a void is left by media and how many wonderful people are so happy to dedicate their time to filling that void” were not uncommon. For many, this ability to find identity and preference-based communities is what elevates fanfiction from a trite middle school hobby to a worthy form of entertainment for anyone and everyone. Click the link below to see a map of other anonymized reflections on the importance of fanfiction.
WHERE ARE PEOPLE READING AND WRITING?
As previously mentioned, AO3 is currently the most popular fanfiction platform. At the time of publication there were over 9.5 million public works on the site. This is due in no small part to the website’s extensive filtering and tagging system that allows users to conduct highly specific searches. Not only can they search for stories about their favorite media, users can also filter by specific romantic pairings, story completing status, maturity rating, length, number of likes and comments, the list goes on. On top of this, users can filter their searches to specifically include or exclude tags that allude to the stories’ romantic content. A user might filter to make sure that all results include the “happy ending” tag and exclude “character death,” for example.
According to Eddie Crange, a 26-year-old bartender from the United Kingdom with a decade of fanfiction experience under his belt, readers so value this tagging system that even before AO3 had an “exclude” filter, they found work-arounds. “There was a while when they had the include filter but not the exclude filter, and there was a Tumblr account that had a list of, almost like cheat codes, that you could type into the search bar to exclude certain things,” Crange said.
AO3’s rise to frame was fairly recent. For a brief moment in time, Wattpad was the golden child of fanfiction with Fanfiction.net as a close runner up. Its fall from grace is likely due both to AO3’s improvements and to the fact that Wattpad creates pathways for monetization which is something people in the fanfic community are divided on. Fanfiction.net suffered a similar fate. “The people who originally owned it were trying to monetize it and that alienated a lot of fans,” Booth said. “There are a lot of fans who just don’t want to monetize their fic.”
Another common catalyst for the downfall of popular fanfiction platforms is restrictions on explicit materials. According to Booth, both LiveJournal — one of the earlier internet fanfic platforms — and Tumblr saw significant decreases in the amount of fanfiction published on their site when they started actively moderating pornographic content.
As shown in the chart above, Twitter is a surprise up-and-comer. Works published on the site are often social media themed: rather than writing a traditional narrative about their favorite characters, authors might create a series of fake text conversations and social media posts between their favorite characters to tell a story. Some survey responses suggested that an appeal of social media based fanfic is that it allows for greater interaction between reader and author.
Many survey respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 like to read fanfiction about music and bands. Indeed, this was O’Malley’s main genre back in her middle school days, but it raises the question: Is it okay to write fanfiction about real people knowing they could see it? Over 30 survey responses listed “RPF” or “real person fiction” as a fanfiction dealbreaker. At the same time, “Music & Bands” and “Celebrities & Real People” were selected a total of 71 times in response to what kind of media respondents read and write fanfic about.
Another previously mentioned debate is over whether it’s okay for authors to monetize their fanfiction when they didn’t create the original media it’s based on. Of the survey respondents who had written fanfiction, only one had monetized their work. On the other hand, monetization is one of the clearest routes to mainstream respect for fanfiction authors. “Think about the fic or the fanfic writers that we talk about. They’re the ones whose fic has become published books, like how 50 Shades of Gray was Twilight fan fiction,” Booth said.
There are a few things that fanfic readers and writers do seem to be able to agree on. People tend to agree that the democratic nature of AO3 is a good thing, and they like that fanfiction creates an opportunity for people to be appreciated for works they create for free. Booth explained that the fragile position of free media and entertainment creates a sense of solidarity that often transcends disagreements. “There’s a kind of a ‘if they come for one of us, they come for all of us’ mentality,” he said.
“Yeah, some of what people believe to be true about fanfiction is true,” O’Malley said. After reflecting on her experience as both an avid writer and a casual reader, she acknowledged the reality behind some of the fanfic stereotypes. A lot of it is romance. A lot of it is written about the media we liked in middle school. However, many people who get into it for those reasons, stay because they find something greater.
“Fanfiction is associated, probably rightly so, with just people wanting to be like, ‘What if they kissed?’ Which like, yeah, that’s why we got into it, you know?” Crange said, “but there’s so many hidden gems.”
Whether it’s a way to reconnect with media you love, explore pieces of your identity that are still a mystery to you, form a network around a common interest, or just read something for fun without having to get to know a bunch of new characters first, people of all walks of life have found a lot to love in these stories and the communities that share them.
Have experience reading or writing fanfiction? Fill out the survey this article was based on to contribute to further research on the subject.
Header illustration by Madeline Smith