Is Fanfiction “Real Writing”?

I’ve seen this question posed a few times, though not outright. It’s mostly a statement used against fanfiction writers. “Oh, but that’s not real writing.” It’s frustrating. Because of this, Fanfiction is somewhat of a joke in the writing community. It’s something that people either love or hate. The first thing most people tend to think about is the explicit fics: the stories in which someone takes the characters and makes them do most often inappropriate stuff, but that’s not everything it is. That is actually only a very small corner of it.

But before that—what is fanfiction? By definition, fanfiction is when a person (most often a fan of a book, movie, or another form of media) takes existing characters and writes a story using them. Fifty Shades of Grey I think is the most famously known published fanfiction, having been based on Twilight. A few other examples are The Aeneid, written by Virgil (ties to Homer’s The Odyssey). The Divine Comedy by Dante could be considered a Bible fanfiction, as can Paradise Lost by John Milton [examples taken from the “Coming Out of the Fanfiction Closet” post from The Editorial Department].

The thing is that fanfiction writing is writing. It’s putting words on a page (or in this case, in a computer document) and telling stories. Not all of it is good—to be honest, I’ve only found a few good gems in a sea of half-decent and semi-okay fics. I like seeing other authors play around with characters and settings that I know well. Besides, fanfiction is a way of showing love to the fandom. It builds devotion among the members.

I will admit that there are those that miss the mark. Characters don’t act like themselves; they make decisions that they never would’ve made; things happen for the sole purpose of moving the plot along, with no rhyme or reason. But I’ve seen those things in original writing, too. I’ve seen characters jump all over the place in their actions and motivations. I’ve read fanfiction work with beautifully constructed sentences, and I’ve read original work that is choppy and jarring.

There is a difference, though. Most people think fanfiction is easier (and in some ways, yes, it is). It has the advantage of using characters, storylines, and/or settings that already exist. The world has been built, and the characters are themselves—all the writer needs to do is play around…and that’s about as far as it goes. This can also be a disadvantage. People already know the characters. They already know the places (especially when dealing with movies), so it’s easy for a fanfiction writer to fall into the trap of less description. They don’t need to tell the reader who this person is, or where they come from, or where they are—the reader already knows that. Sometimes, the author misses something, and the character is reimagined. They act OOC, which is code for out-of-character, and it’s much more common than the author of their own work miswriting their own creations.

But it’s all subjective. The author can decide whatever they want for their character, right? They’re the author, and the characters don’t exist. But (to make a very well-known example) what about JK Rowling and Dumbledore? Dumbledore is gay. He has a relationship with Grindelwald in their summer together, but that’s not written anywhere. If Rowling hadn’t come out and said it, no one would know. (I will probably discuss Branding Character Sexuality in a future post; I won’t get into it now.)

As for me and why I’m talking about this? I mentioned above that I read fanfiction. I also write it. In between working on writing and worldbuilding my own original work, I practice with my favourite fandoms. There are a few I stick to, a few I experiment in, and even a few that don’t get beyond my mindscape just before I go to sleep. I find myself justifying it to people I know, like a disclaimer. “Yeah, I write fanfiction—but not that raunchy stuff people usually think of. Right? In this one, the characters…” and so on. And that stems from the stigma that usually revolves around it. I’ve dealt with people laughing when they read over my shoulder at things I’m working on; I know what that feels like.

I believe that it’s real writing. It may not get professionally published, but it has its own widespread community, and there’s nothing better than getting a comment on your work “Your book makes my Monday” or “I screamed when I saw the update!!” from someone who just needs a bit of happiness in their life, and they get it from reading about their favourite fictional characters. In the end, everything is real writing, good or bad, well-known or not.

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