The Value of Fanfiction

Cossette Penner-Olivera

“What do you like to do when you aren’t studying?” reads the questionnaire my professor hands out on the first day of class. I note down the usual: listen to Broadway. Watch Netflix. Journal. And of course—Write

And while I certainly do write plenty of original fiction (case in point: my participation in this anthology), what I really mean is that a lot of the time, especially when I’m busy with school, I write fanfiction.

I’ve always been a little shy admitting I write fanfiction. After all, I’m an English major with a concentration in creative writing. The idea that I’d waste my time on fanfiction, a digital melting pot of unoriginality and “cringey” teenage fangirls, while all my friends are out there using their intellect to write their first novel, can be downright embarrassing. 

I was 13 when I wrote my first fanfiction, for Erin Hunter’s Warriors books. I didn’t really know fanfiction was a thing yet, but I wanted to create something inspired by my love for the series. Thus began my journey into the world of fanfiction and online fan communities. (If you’re curious, the story entailed some kind of alternate universe setting composed entirely of OCs where all the clans got along and all the drama and adversity they faced came from external forces, because cats killing each other in battle made me very upset). 

I finally discovered the glorious (or FFN) in high school, and I was blown away by the prospect of there being a whole website devoted to writers like me, who wanted to create content and think up stories about their favourite characters and fictional universes. Throughout high school I dished out a slew of fanfics of different lengths—my stories were never very popular, but the small cluster of readership and reception I got was beyond exciting.

Like most teenage FFN writers, I eventually made the transition over to AO3 when I started university. Now, I’m in my fourth and final year of my degree, about to be published for the first time… and a lot of my spare time still goes toward fanfiction.

What’s key is that most people only take fanfiction seriously under the assumption that it’s temporary. 

My current project is an absolute monster of a fanfic filled with spacetime shenanigans and character backstory, which I’ve been working on for over two years. And I’m only about halfway done.  

I think it’s safe to say that these days, fanfiction gets a bit of a mixed rep. Fan writers are a frequent subject of ridicule among “serious” writers and literary scholars, but as more and more people become aware of fanfiction’s increasing popularity, there’s been a shift towards recognising the potential benefits it reaps. The general assumption is that fanfiction can serve as a training ground for delving into the world of creative writing. It’s a good exercise in style and plot development, until one becomes ready to tackle publishable projects.

What’s key is that most people only take fanfiction seriously under the assumption that it’s temporary. 

I write fanfiction, but the assumption is that I’m going to “grow out of it” one of these days. Put on my big girl shoes and start writing for real. Of course, I’m at a point in my life where it’s in my best interest to start building a professional writing platform, and I may well drift away from fanfiction at some point in the future, but why should I be expected to abandon a creatively fruitful hobby that brings me joy? What I’m writing now is silly and a waste of time. If I’m not careful, I’m going to let all my talent seep into my fanfiction, and pretty soon there’s going to be nothing left when I write my first novel. (Yes, someone has actually said this to me). 

But in reality, I could go on and on about the inherent value fanfiction has for writing and the creative community. I’ll try to stick to a few key points.

Because fanfiction is based in pre-existing fictional universes, and primarily stars established fictional characters, it’s easy to presume that fan writing is creatively limited. Where’s the originality?

But I’d argue that fanfiction provides a basis for a whole new brand of creativity, which is uniquely challenging because of those limitations. Fanfiction is an exercise in playing with the limitations and rules of a canonical text and fan expectations. And that play with limitations fosters critical thinking about the source material.

It’s a reminder that writing can and should be enjoyable, and that enjoyment is valuable in its own right.

Regardless of what some authors would like to believe, fiction is inherently open to interpretation. Toby Fox, creator of the hit indie game “Undertale,” intentionally filled his game with unanswered questions, hints toward a broader narrative, metatextual commentary, and gave several of his characters mysterious backstories—all to invite discussion among fans and encourage fan-based creativity. 

There’s also no denying that real love goes into writing fanfiction, because generally speaking, love and passion for the source material is the base reason for a writer’s motivation. There’s no drive of monetary gain, or even public recognition, since most writers aren’t known by their real-life identities. It’s hard to get any more genuine than that. Fanfiction is underpinned by a kind of “by the people, for the people” mentality, since obviously it’s created for the consumption of fellow fans. After all, fanfiction is a chance for writers to create what they enjoy, just for the pleasure of it, when they might otherwise be drowning in trying to “write for the market,” meet editor demands, or deal with the stress of publication. It’s a reminder that writing can and should be enjoyable, and that enjoyment is valuable in its own right.

And all this comes without acknowledging the crucial fact that the majority of fan writers belong to marginalised communities—despite the stereotype of the straight white male Star Trek expert, most members of fan communities are women and/or queer folk. Because of this, fanfiction allows writers to include diverse representation in their work that doesn’t always make its way into mainstream media, and it can be a safe space and creative refuge for LGBTQ+ people to consume and create queer content.

There’s a great video essay on fanfiction by Sarah Z, which I would definitely recommend, and it delves into some of the topics I’ve discussed in a lot more depth. I’d also recommend this New Yorker article which talks about the history of fanfiction and makes many other arguments for its inherent value.

I’ve been writing primarily fanfiction since I was 13, and it’s helped me grow enormously as a writer. It’s given me access to a community of writers that I would never have been able to find otherwise. I’m an adult now, about to become a “real writer,” but I don’t plan on quitting anytime soon.

Cossette Penner-Olivera prefers to keep her fanfiction private, but she might give you access to her AO3 account if you ask nicely. You can follow her on Tumblr and Instagram @cossetteiswriting

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