An Insider’s Guide to Fanfiction
Learn the history of fanfiction, common tropes, and get tips on how to write your own.
When I say “fanfiction,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A giggly teenage girl at her laptop, writing blushworthy One Direction fanfics? A high school nerd tearing apart a story’s plot holes and fixing them himself? A certain queen of darkness?
Fanfiction has long been seen as something that only teen girls or weird men write, or as poorly written love and/or sex stories. In reality, the world of fanfiction is insanely rich, with a longstanding history of excellent stories told by aspiring (or even professional) authors of all backgrounds and presented to a community that’s more than willing to love a piece of work beyond the limits presented in the official storyline.
If you’ve never considered fanfiction beyond the stereotypes, or if you’re considering writing it but aren’t sure where to start, I’ll be happy to bring you into my fan-community world, and explain fan(tastic) fiction and where to find it.
What is fanfiction?
Fanfiction is, in the simplest of terms, a piece of fiction based on another piece of media, such as books, TV shows, or video games. It typically uses key elements from its source material such as settings, characters, and overarching storylines, though it repurposes them into an original plot. Fanfiction, as the name implies, is usually written by someone who admires the source material, and is an expression of that admiration.
The history of fanfiction
It might shock you to find out that fanfiction has actually been written and enjoyed for centuries. If I’m going to be extremely literal in the definition, then one of the earliest examples we have of fanfiction is Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. It is, after all, a direct retelling of the Bible’s teachings, featuring key religious, political, and literary figures throughout and following the author’s self-insert on his journey.
Even if you’re a bit more strict with the idea of fanfiction, you’d be hard-pressed not to include lots of works from at least the 18th century on. An early example is Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil G. Brinton, a retelling of Jane Austen’s novels which centered around popular characters including the likes of the Darcys and Bennets, as well as Mary Crawford and Tom Bertram. The novel follows some of the supporting characters from the original books, exploring their stories after the events described by Austen. It was hugely popular when it was published in 1913, and continues to be read today.
If we want to get into the nitty-gritty of what fanfiction consists of, then we might narrow it down to having come from the first modern fandom, which centered around one of the most popular series ever written: the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle released the famous detective’s stories as regular contributions to The Strand Magazine, a popular periodical in London.
They were a hit from the very beginning and grew so popular that communities began to pop up to celebrate the works around the world, with the two biggest being centered in London and New York. These communities would publish “pastiches,” or their own mini-periodicals containing stories written by members centering on cases solved by Holmes which frequently included real people like the author or popular politicians (who were sometimes one and the same!).
All of that being said, fans themselves didn’t start using the term “fanfiction” until around the 1960s, when Star Trek hit the air and blew up in popularity. The scifi community was already well known for being outlandish and uniquely accepting of fan contributions, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when the fans started their own magazines to keep in touch with each other.
These independently published “fanzines” featured fun facts about the show, interviews with the cast and crew, information about events and conventions, and, of course, stories written by fans for other fans. The most popular of these fanzines was Spockanalia, created by Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana in 1967. It was a high-quality magazine; some of the writers featured in it went on to write for the real show!
Fanfiction really hit the public eye with the dawn of the internet in the late 90s and early 2000s. Fans from all over the world could share their works with each other with the click of a button, spawning a unique subculture that carried its own slang and communal expectations. Now, there are millions of fics for thousands of fandoms across hundreds of dedicated sites.
The benefits of fanfiction
Fanfiction is an excellent playground for the new writer. Most fanfic authors either are very young or got their start that way; it’s typical to see stories written by enthusiasts as young as ten or eleven. These kids are developing their writing skills outside of school projects, potentially for the first time, and have found an excellent place to do that. But what makes fanfiction such a good place to start?
Firstly, fanfiction writers are drawing from existing franchises rather than creating their own entirely new worlds. This is helpful when you’re first starting out, as it allows you to focus on other parts of the story - creating a plot, exploring new perspectives, drafting dialogue, etc. Working with “premade” characters, settings, and lore means that you don’t have to spend as much time on exposition, character development, and worldbuilding, all of which are daunting prospects for someone who’s never written outside of a creative writing class.
Coming off of that, fanfiction allows writers to dive into their stories deeply. Because the original media tells the major stories - plots to save the universe, world-ending catastrophes, and elaborate schemes from major threats to society - fanfiction can cover the much smaller aspects of the world. Most fanfiction tells the story of a small handful of characters; some follow only one character in a single scene. The writer can explore some of the moments that are glossed over in the larger work - what was Leia thinking as she watched Alderron explode? Do Sam and Dean have any traditions when they’re driving to the next hunting job? How did John spend the first few days after Sherlock died? Are the Tenth Doctor and Rose enjoying their life in the alternate world? They can take the time to really get to know these characters, and to show them growing and learning from small, everyday events. Fanfiction can be seen as a kind of creative literary analysis.
On top of this, fanfiction is a great way to engage in a community that you already love and build one of your own. There are other fans just like you who are also excited to see the further adventures of characters they’ve become attached to, and are happy to chat with you about what those adventures might be. Fanfiction writers love to collaborate, creating interesting writing challenges and themed weeks of writing so that they can not only contribute, but read the works of others and celebrate the media they’ve devoted themselves to. You don’t get famous from writing fanfiction, it’s true (well, most of the time), but you can gain a following of your own by creating for an established community.
Beyond this, fanfiction helps writers do the one thing that will improve their writing dramatically: practice. Every fic you write is another chance to refine your writing style, practice getting a first draft to paper, discover new editing techniques that pull the story together, establish a regular routine for publication, and filter and accept feedback on your writing. It’s always going to be true that the more you write and revise, the better you’re going to get at writing. If you want to write original stories, but don’t know where to start, fanfiction is a great way to explore and expand your skillset.
The best thing about fanfiction is that it’s fun! You don’t have to write it with the goal of getting rich, famous, or ridiculously talented. You can write fanfiction for the sheer joy of it, throwing your favorite characters into situations of your own design. I know that when I was a young teen, my friends and I would swap fic through text messages just because it made us giggle and smile, and would lead to fantastic conversations. Writing stories might relieve the tension of a long work day, cheer you up when you’re feeling down, or simply fill time when you’re bored. It’s a free pastime that requires nothing more than the willingness to say “what if?”
Potential drawbacks of fanfiction
As with almost anything else, there are definite drawbacks to fanfiction writing.
Most obviously, fanfiction doesn’t often teach you how to create original characters and worlds. Using a preset character is great, but it doesn’t help you understand how to make your own characters, from scratch, and fill them out into multi-dimensional people that are interesting to read about.
Additionally, fanfiction doesn’t usually involve the kind of troubleshooting for lore that traditional story building does; if you can just look at the Wiki to solve your plot hole, are you really learning how to solve a plot hole?
It’s also frequently posted unedited, one first draft after another, and while there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, it does mean that you’re not getting in the editing practice that you need in order to actively improve as a writer. High expectations from your readership for frequent updates might even encourage you to skip the editing process to get the next part of your story out as fast as possible, which can lead to an increase in negative feedback, or getting no feedback at all. For new writers especially, this can be incredibly disheartening.
Of course, this isn’t a universal rule - there are definitely fanfiction writers who create original characters (OCs) and invent new lore - but it is something to think about if you consider transitioning to original fiction.
The biggest potential drawback of fanfiction is the stigma surrounding it. Fanfiction writers are often seen as lesser; they’re “not real writers” because their work isn’t wholly original. It’s still relatively taboo to attach fanfiction to your real name, and can be incredibly embarrassing when you’re “outed” to people in your real life who don’t understand the fan community you’re a part of, or fandom culture in general. Fanfiction writers are mocked and berated fairly frequently, by those who consider the genre to be illegitimate or think of it as nothing but sex stories written by teens. This reductive view means that some young writers are actively discouraged from writing these stories out of fear of the reactions they might get.
I hope that, having read this far, you’re at least a little interested in reading some fanfiction. Even if you’re not into creating it, fanfiction can be a great read when you’re enjoying a new piece of media and run out of official material to obsess over - whoops, I mean, enjoy in a normal and healthy amount.
If, however, you’ve come to this article because you’re interested in getting started writing fanfics of your own, I do have a few tips for you.
The best advice an author can give to an aspiring writer is also the most basic advice in every single how-to-write guide: read, read, read.
This is the best possible thing you can do to start writing. Read some of the most popular fics in your community. Read some of the newest ones. Read bad fics, emotional fics, fics that don’t seem to end, or short stories that are 200 words long. Read everything you can and get an idea for what fanfiction generally looks and sounds like.
On top of being a general good tip for writing, it’ll also help you get familiar with the community so that, when you do have a piece you want to publish, you’ll already have a good sense for where you want to publish it and how to get it in front of readers.
Here are some of my favorite fanfic reads for you to enjoy in your research:
- Twist and Shout by standbyme and gabriel on AO3. This absolutely heartbreaking fic is from the Supernatural fandom, and is a Dean/Cas love story. Set in the 1960s, it’s a story of love and loss during the Vietnam war.
- My Immortal by XXXbloodyrists666XXX. This is by far the most infamous piece of fanfiction ever written. I’m not recommending it because it’s good, but because it’s so hilariously bad that it’s become the longest running joke in fandom. This piece on its own is worth a deep dive, so if you’re interested in that, you can learn more here.
- Ten Times The Doctor Didn’t Say I Love You by cenowar. This is a very classic trope in fanfiction (more on that below) and a very cute rendition of it for the Doctor Who fandom.
- This set of headcanons by nonasuch on Tumblr. It’s a fascinating look at what might have happened if Harry Potter had been adopted by a loving couple rather than raised by the Dursleys.
Ask “what if?”
Fanfiction is, by its very nature, speculative, which means that every piece of fanfiction starts with this very simple question: What if?
- What if this happened?
- What if this didn’t happen?
- What if this character and this character got together?
- What if everything changed?
- What if we knew what happened next?
Ask yourself “what if” questions about your chosen media, and follow the most interesting answer. Once you’ve picked your favorite simple version of the question, start asking questions again. Think about how the answer to that “what if” affects the rest of the story - do the characters change? Their relationships? The setting? This will help you build out your plot more effectively.
Understand the lingo
Fandom as a whole practically has a language of its own. As a subculture developing both offline and on for about two centuries now, it’s bound to develop some linguistic quirks, and you’ll need to understand them if you’re going to write fanfiction. Here are some of the key words in the fandom dictionary that you’ll need to know.
- Canon is the description used for the story that happened in the original media. If it’s on the page or on the screen, it’s canon.
- Headcanons are the stories made up by the fans. They might be about the lore of the world or individual characters’ habits.
- Fanon is a headcanon that’s held by a large portion of the fandom, but isn’t actually canon.
- OOC means Out of Character. It’s a general warning that someone in the fic is going to act in an unexpected way that doesn’t match their in-media representation.
- OC is an Original Character (yes, confusing, I know) made up by the fic author.
- Slash fiction / Femslash / Yuri / Yaoi - Slash fiction is a subgenre within fanfiction characterized by intimate / romantic relationships between characters of the same sex. Femslash & Yuri indicate relationships between females, while yaoi refers to males. Besides fan fiction stories, these tropes are common in fan art. Example pairings include Kirk/Spock, Dean/Cas, Draco/Hermione, etc.
- Ships are relationships between characters, typically referred to with a portmontu of the characters’ names. For instance, Dean/Cas becomes Destiel.
- Crossovers are combinations of two different franchises or author styles into a single story. Star Wars meets Star Trek. Shakespeare, as written by J.K.Rowling.
These terms are great for when you’re tagging. I suggest paying attention to the tags when you’re reading fic for research, and seeing how they might apply to your work.
Pick a trope
Tropes are scenarios or relationships that recur often in writing. While present in every genre, in fanfiction, tropes are king. The entire concept of fanfiction is based on wish fulfillment; it makes sense that common themes would start to develop.
Some of the most popular in fanfiction are:
- Enemies-to-lovers is a trope that revolves around two characters who seem to hate each other slowly learning that they actually love each other. Think Han and Leia.
- Alternate universes (AUs) are when you take familiar characters and put them in an unfamiliar setting or situation. This might look like shifting the story in time, taking it to a different location, or adding in an element like magic that wasn’t there before. Think The Legend of Zelda, but taking place in the modern day. The Lord of the Rings, but it’s science fiction.
- Redemption arcs are when evil characters realize the error of their ways and get to come back to the good side. Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender, anyone?
- Temporary amnesia is either a hilarious or heartbreaking trope which involves a character being injured and forgetting who they are for a short period of time. This trope is actually a fairly old one, and is used widely in anime and manga.
- Body swapping is a usually very funny trope that involves two characters somehow swapping bodies and having to figure out how to swap back. This is essentially the fandom version of Freaky Friday.
- Soulmates are two characters who are fated to be together, usually romantically.
- “There was only one bed” is a slash fic trope in which two characters are forced to share a hotel room which has only one bed, and thereby realize that they’ve got feelings for each other. I’m not sure if there’s a regular media equivalent for this, but it’s one of the most popular tropes in the entirety of fanfiction, to the point of lovingly being made fun of in the community.
- “X times Y happened and one time it didn’t” revolves around near-misses and the resolution of those near misses. A character might be narrowly avoiding death only to go down tragically, or two characters might be dancing around each other before eventually falling in love.
There are hundreds and hundreds of tropes you can choose from; find one that you like and research it to find out the norms of the stories that you might want to incorporate into your plot.
Pick a platform
There are lots of excellent platforms and forums that you can use to share your fanfiction. Here are some of the best.
- Archive of Our Own (affectionately nicknamed AO3) is run by fans, for fans. It was created in an effort to keep a free and safe space for fanfic writers as publishers and the owners of various content cracked down on other fandom spaces (more on that below). It’s home to hundreds of thousands of fics for nearly every fandom under the sun, and is known for having one of the best tagging systems on the internet.
- Wattpad was originally on the same level as other early fanfiction sites in that it had very basic word processing, tagging, and sorting. As the years have gone on, however, the site has upgraded tremendously; you can now sort fic into collections, tag it according to fandom and character accurately, and create a whole author profile. It’s also a great site for original fiction, and even includes its own publishing press!
- Fanfiction.net is an old school fanfiction site. Its tagging system is similar to that of AO3, though far less advanced, and its layout is ridiculously simple. That being said, it’s not as active and lively as other sites, and doesn’t have many added features.
- Tumblr is the classic fandom blog website. Its posting interface is fantastic, allowing for multimedia posts containing text, images, videos, and audio, as well as external linking. Blogs are totally customizable and the tagging system (if you take the time to research it) means that your fic is easy to find. Unfortunately, it’s also a site known for its constant glitching and unruly userbase who frequently harass newcomers. Be careful who you follow, and be liberal with the block button.
- Laterpress is, of course, a fantastic place to post your fanfiction. With personalized author profiles and easy-to-maintain story collections, along with a fantastic word processor and audience building tools, you’ve got everything you need to yell at the world about your favorite ship. See below for more information about fair use, and remember that fan fiction published on Laterpress cannot be monetized.
Fanfiction and copyright
One of the most important and controversial parts of writing fanfiction is knowing where you stand legally. The legality of fan-created media has been hotly debated by writers, readers, publishers, and many others since the genre’s inception, and the most hotly debated part is how fanfiction factors into copyright law.
Copyright is the legal protection of a property that assigns rights to the copyright holder. According to United States copyright law, works of literature, music, drama, graphic art, sculpture, choreography, and architectural law, as well as motion pictures and sound recordings among a few other specifics, can be protected via copyright.
Copyright is automatically assigned to the original creator of the work, and includes the exclusive right to:
- Reproduce and distribute copies of the work, both for free and for profit
- Display or perform the work publicly
- Prepare derivative works based on the original work
Here’s where things get tricky. Remember how I mentioned exclusive right? That means that anyone else who tries to do any of that is in serious legal trouble, and can be sued for breach of copyright by the original creator.
Because fanfiction by definition pulls characters and settings from another piece of media, it can be considered a derivative work, and therefore many believe it to be a breach of copyright. Without the express permission of the copyright holder, fanfiction can be seen as plagiarism, and, if the work is ever monetized, fraud.
Fair use in fanfiction
So, if fanfiction is banned by copyright law, how has the genre survived? This is where the concept of fair use comes into play.
Fair use is defined by the copyright office of the United States as “a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances.” According to them, there are four deciding factors that determine whether a work is considered fair use.
- The purpose of the use. Works that are not-for-profit, non-commercial, or educational can be considered fair use.
- The nature of the use. Using a creative work is less likely to qualify as fair use than using a factual work.
- The amount of the original work used. The more of the original work used, the less likely you are to be covered by fair use.
- The effect of the use on the original work’s market or value. Works that do not detract from the market value or market availability for the original work can be covered by fair use.
Obviously, fanfiction faces some issues with these factors, as they’re pulled from fiction and use a pretty significant portion of that fiction. So, there are a few things you need to remember when creating fanfiction.
- Never, under any circumstances, try to monetize your fanfiction. You can accept donations, you can monetize other works and link them at the end of your fanfics, but you can’t monetize a fanfic. No ads, no pay-to-read, no selling them as a book. Making it commercially viable requires changing character names, settings, and other story details so significantly that the story no longer resembles the source material it was built from. Fanfiction writers refer to this as “filing off the serial numbers.” The most famous example of this is probably E.L. James, who turned her Twilight fanfiction into the Fifty Shades of Grey series.
- Make sure your story is transformative rather than derivative. Transformative works of fanfiction tell a new story with the same characters or setting. Derivative fanfiction just tells the same story again, in slightly different words. This is why asking “what if” is so important.
- Search to see if the copyright holder has a standing policy on fanfiction and other fan works. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, for instance, gave public statements saying that as long as they don’t have to read it, they don’t mind fanfiction being written.
- On the same coin, opposite side: do not write for fandoms that have been explicitly banned from creating fic. The most notable fandom like this is that of Anne Rice, who always vehemently fought against the use of her characters in any fiction other than her own.
- Never try to claim your work as official. Make it very clear that this is a fanfiction, written for fun, and not endorsed by the original creator. This is usually pretty easy; add the tags for your fandom and post on a common fanfiction website.
- It’s not necessary, but adding a disclaimer that acknowledges the original copyright holder is always a good move. Legally, it doesn’t do anything, but it does prevent anyone from assuming you’ve plagiarized.
Fanfiction is a very cool genre. It’s a public expression of your adoration for a work, and an invitation to have a conversation with it. Fanfiction writers know the source media ridiculously well - they have to in order to tear it apart and reform it - and they’re almost always excited to talk about that media with other fans. Whole communities have sprung up around the creation of fan media, and grown from a few people nervously submitting to ‘zines to whole sites celebrating this amazing creative endeavor.
Whether you’re writing it for yourself, sharing it with others, or simply reading it, fanfiction is a powerful thing, and it should be celebrated as such. Give it a try, if you haven’t already, and you might find yourself with some new favorite stories, writers to follow, and ideas to get your pen to paper.