What Is Fanfiction?

Fanfiction is a huge and thriving subculture. There are entire websites devoted to it, and millions of people participate in it every day (including Commaful, which has our own fanfiction section. But what is fanfiction? In the past, fanfiction was something of a dirty word, and it tended to be relegated to the fringes of the internet, something that outsiders knew about but didn’t admit to. Now, it’s an increasingly respectable art form, and a lot of people are writing and sharing it. If you’re curious about what is fanfiction, or want to learn more about it, here’s a short guide to the basics of fanfiction.


Understand what fanfiction is

Fanfiction is short stories that authors write based on pre-existing works. The fan connection, of course, comes from the idea that the author is so enthusiastic about the original text or story that they want to participate in the story world they’re so excited about. That enthusiasm is why you’ll often see fanfiction reinterpretations of characters. They’re fun takes on characters who might be seen as supporting or background characters in the original. With fanfiction, the author gets to do whatever they want, which is exciting — just make sure you are respectful of the characters you’re borrowing, and abide by fanfiction etiquette and ratings. Fanfiction is also well-known for being expressly explicit, as many authors capitalize on the unfiltered sensibility that people often expect from fanfiction as well as the flexibility given by the freedom from canon. If you’re new to fanfiction, adult content warnings are part of the fanfiction community.

Fanfiction is also something of a community, which means that it’s an increasingly popular sphere for authors. They connect with other fanfic writers through communities online, and share work through stories they update to personal fanfiction websites or on larger community fanfiction sites. Fanfic usually has to be free to be fanfic – if you make money from it, in most cases, you need to have permission from the original copyright holder, or it’s no longer fanfiction. This is why you need to remember to tag your stories properly and mark adult content warnings on adult-themed fanfiction on sites.

Overcome your prejudice about fanfic

Critics of fanfiction see it as a weird or even deplorable part of fandom. However, some of these critics are members of fandom themselves. Why the critical silence, then? It may have something to do with the way literature has traditionally been taught — teaching and criticising the canon, and no one else’s writing. Or it may be because most of the people writing it, and a majority of those reading it, are women and girls. In criticising fanfiction, many traditional readers aren’t recognising their cultural bias for what it is – sexism and ageism. Fanfiction is still hugely misunderstood and misjudged but, in the meantime, many of its writers have had plenty of time to discuss the genre and its tropes, develop distinction between fanfiction and original fiction, and rewrite their rules.

A big misconception surrounding fanfiction is that everyone who writes it is unoriginal— just stuck in the mud with unremarkable plotlines and characters. In fact, fanfic writers can use their in-depth knowledge and love of characters to produce thoughtful and complex portrayals. Fanfiction writers critique and explore popular motifs, plotlines, and symbols — just think of your favorite ships — in order to reach greater understanding of them. Some tropes, like clichés and mashups, especially cry out for proper critique and examination. The practice also develops strong authorial voice and characterization skills.

Distinguish between fan fiction and piracy

Fanfiction and copyright infringement are often thought of as one in the same, but there’s actually a difference between writing fan fiction and stealing. Both activities are illegal, but only one is necessarily so. It’s also important to note that fan fiction doesn’t have to be positive. It used to be that characters belonging to the public domain could be freely portrayed in whatever manner the fan fiction author liked, but almost everything is still copyrighted at least until 2030. Characters can be portrayed darkly and sexually, but the situations they’re involved in require permission. For some writers, fanfiction is an excellent demo for showing off their skills and building their portfolio. For others, it’s a form of writing that allows them to explore ideas they can’t with the original source material. Regardless, fanfiction is a hobby that can tell you a lot about the person doing the writing.

Read a variety of fanfiction

It can be helpful to start by reading a variety of fanfiction and investigating different tales in your chosen genre. You’ll learn a lot about the world you’re about to enter, including tropes like Mary Sues, Marty Stus, and headcanons, which you’ll want to avoid. Once you know the basic structure of the piece you’re going to write, you can then break it down into acts or chapters. Each chapter should evoke the same emotional response as the previous one, building off that momentum to produce a satisfying big reveal or climax by the end.

Once you understand why fanfiction is fun for fans, it’s easy to get into the mindset of a writer. Write whatever you like, of course, but be aware that whatever your goal is—be it writing an original story, kink-shaming tension-filled stories, fixing a particular meme ship, or someone else’s story—you should always think in terms of telling a story that’s incredibly engaging. By this point, you’ve probably checked out mainstream works for similar genres, and have gotten a good feel for them. If you haven’t, you should specifically look for entries that don’t have the emotional development that you’re aiming to produce by the end of this process.

Learn the language of fandom

There’s a whole set of jargon used to describe the characters and tropes of specific universes, including shipping, headcanons, and AUs. These are all shorthand for different ideas, and all of them are vitally important to your success as a fanfiction author, even if you aren’t writing in the fandoms for which they regularly appear. Even if you don’t plan on writing for any particular fandom, knowing the common terminology will help make your writing more understandable and approachable to fans who do. If you’d like to dip your toes into a fandom before committing to writing for one, the book squee is a great way to learn rules and customs.

Know your source material well. Though you are free to change as much about the canon as you wish, it’s still important that you know enough about the source material that your story doesn’t accidentally break it. Different fandoms have different rules for this, and some are more flexible than others. For fandom fandoms, you’re going to need either to have read the source material yourself, or to have a trustworthy source that both knows the fandom and is willing to teach it to you. Common fic resources include either the canon itself, or in the absence of source material, an Au for that fandom that meshes well with the subject matter of your story. For original fic, a library is your best friend. If you’re not sure about how realistic or ludicrous something is in your story, don’t be afraid to ask someone who can tell you easily using a source that you trust.

Use existing characters, but make them “your own”

The “intrinsic work” of a story is the difference between a great premise and a great story. You have your world, plot, and characters, and now you need to see them through to the end. The things that make your story special — and great — are the moments you create as you contour your “outsiders” into the shape of the characters in your fanfiction and visions of your characters’ future adventures. Whether it be an alternative universe to a billion dollar blockbuster like Star Wars, or a common prank to knock your friend’s socks off, the “what’s next” is what makes all works of fanfiction unique to the world they’re written in. The extent to which you go to make your differences matter rests in your hands. Will your characters take on new roles? Branch out in new directions and explore their loves and hates anew? Diverge into genres you’d never imagined written in the starry style.

Running alongside the integral factor of your fanfiction is the differences between you and your fanfiction. Certain things remain a common feature regardless of who writes the work. The canon itself will outlive any one person’s experience of it. With that in mind, grab, twist, shake, and contour your characters however you can. Fanfiction is dramatic and romantic but it is also liberating in its extremity, no matter how far you vanish up the webs of your own fiction. Do not rest on the foundations we have already given you, but build loudly, dissonantly, and gloriously in your own image.

Use and build upon the world that others have created

The best kinds of fanfiction tie back into a fandom about which you care deeply. That way, you’re creating fiction in conversation with the other fans. You’re expanding the universe in a way that honors the source material and furthers the conversations that are already happening. That’s much more interesting and writerly than creating something totally closed off from the fandom’s own work. Fanfiction, of course, draws heavily from the world and characters that the original author or authors have created, but it can be really fun to invent new tropes or characters, or to adapt details of the story to fit into a different fandom. 

Fandoms do differ — a lot. At their heart, they’re intensely friendly communities, who share favorite writing, pictures of creative works, pictures of characters, and general love. A fandom’s output can be its favored characters, as drawn by hundreds of different artists. It can be re-readings of favorite stories, set to music. It can be highly philosophical or entirely non-canonical. It can be mainstream or it can be almost entirely excluded. Fanfiction, then, can follow many different formats, depending on which elements of fandom have won the most adherents.

Become an active member in a virtual community

Writing fan fiction is the perfect medium for introverts or those who feel their talents aren’t good enough to impress the literary elites. On the Internet, people can get the attention they desire, and some popular fan fiction writers are progressing smoothly into professional publishing. Fan fiction forums can also be a great venue for creativity. These forums provide a space where you can find like-minded people who share your love for writing. Through them, you can always obtain similar competences, as well as become the ideal writing partner person or correct the specific faults of other authors.

Perhaps one of the most significant and important reasons for writing fanfiction is the feedback. Over the years, fan fiction has become a staple of popular culture fairly easily accepted by mainstream society. Fanfiction websites receive up to ten million views per month. That’s why comments on published materials get thousands of people, who are ready to leave feedback, thus it plays a key role for participation in online writing communities. Such an enormous public audience gives an author a unique opportunity to get instant feedback on their work, and it is an excellent way to stay updated with what your readers actually like and dislike.

Fanfiction is a lovely hodgepodge of all kinds of fiction stories — from books to TV to games — and there’s a thriving community that’s very welcoming to writers. Creating new worlds is as limitless as a writer’s imagination, so anything that gets you thinking about where you might take this fascinating art form is worth doing. In the end, any form of writing is good writing, and fanfiction is a great way to hone your skills, learn new things, and share your work with others who will appreciate it. Enjoy!

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