Welcome to the last post in this series created in honour of VPL’s ongoing Reading Challenge and this year’s Summer Reading Club. Today I wanted to talk about fanfiction! The name itself is basically self-explanatory, but for clarity’s sake: it’s fiction inspired by someone else’s source material. This can be anything under the sun, including movies, tv shows, video games, books, other fanfiction, art, and even people (which is a subgenre known as RPF, or Real Person Fiction) and can feature bands, celebrities, historical figures, and more.
Fanfiction is not just about written works, either. It belongs to the broader category of fanworks, which include fanart, fan videos, fan music, etc.
Sometimes, fanfiction’s connection to the source material is clear and obvious. Other times, were it not for the names of the characters, you might never know what original work inspired it.
You may be wondering how legal this is, and the answer is…complicated. It depends on the source material’s copyright restrictions, how relaxed the original creators are about derivative works (see Anne Rice, who was famously ruthless about it), and whether any profit is being made off it (short answer: no profit means it’s usually fine).
Here’s an article on that aspect of fanfiction, as well as how it relates to censorship and free speech, if you’re interested in learning more.
Now, fanfiction gets a bad rap, due to the admittedly questionable and occasionally terrible grammar, spelling, structure, and ‘plot’ of many of the works (the most infamous example of this being My Immortal, a notoriously, hilariously bad Harry Potter fanfic), but also—I am convinced—because anything that has a largely female following gets unfairly denigrated and derided.
I am both an avid fanfic writer and reader, and I have read some incredible works that were beautifully constructed, just as often as I’ve come across things I wish I hadn’t, due to the content or just terrible writing. But I think fanfiction as a whole is a testament to humanity’s love of story, the inherent desire to create, and the passion it requires (and inspires) for a person to look at something they loved (or hated; fanfiction written out of spite is quite common) and decide I want to play in this sandbox and maybe turn some of it into an intricate glass sculpture…or the world’s most structurally unsound sandcastle. You know, whatever floats your boat.
(My metaphors are getting away from me.)
The point is, fanfiction is like anything else; there is much that is wonderful, much that is horrible, and much that is middling. It’s up to you to browse for what you want!
…There is also much that is published. Yup, you read that right. Sometimes that’s because it’s divorced enough from the original work to be able to be published without infringing on copyright, other times it’s because the copyright itself has expired. Franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek even have officially licensed books and graphic novels written by fans! And technically, every fairy and folk tale retelling or adaptation is fanfiction.
So here’s a non-exhaustive list of works that are, technically or not-so-technically, fanfiction, and which works or people inspired them. You might be surprised how many you recognize!
Fifty Shades of Grey (and sequels), by E. L. James
This book about literature student Anastasia Steele and her relationship with mysterious, tortured, young entrepreneur Christian Grey started out as a fanfiction of Twilight by Stephanie Meyer! Anastasia began life as Bella Swan, and Mr. Grey was Edward Cullen.
The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare
Clary Fray is an ordinary fifteen year old…until she is suddenly able to see demons, and is drawn into a dangerous and mysterious world that may offer her the key to solving the disappearance of her mother. Many consider this series to have first started out as a Harry Potter fanfic that was as popular as it was controversial, though the author disputes that the series had any connection to her old fics.
After (and sequels) by Anna Todd
A typical premise about a good-girl who meets a bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold (though is he really?) and they fall in tumultuous love with each other, this book started out as a popular One Direction fanfic published on wattpad! Hardin was based on Harry Styles, and the fic was a college AU (meaning it was set in an alternate universe where the characters are college students).
Lincoln In the Bardo by George Saunders
President Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, Willie, passes away of an illness…and enters into a strange in-between world known as the bardo. Historical fiction with a dash of magical realism, this work can be classified as RPF, as it features fictionalized historical figures.
A Night In the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny
Now this is a unique find! It features Snuff, who is Jack the Ripper’s dog, various other figures of Gothic historical fiction (such as Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein) and Lovecraftian horrors like gods from other dimensions. The story, however, is told from Snuff’s point of view, and is both a fanfiction retelling of various other gothic works, as well as a RPF since it features Jack the Ripper. It’s available as an ebook on Hoopla.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
This book stems from one small imagined change with large consequences: what would have become of Hillary Clinton if she never became Hillary Clinton, and turned down Bill Clinton’s proposal? As such, this novel can be categorized as RPF which is also an AU (alternate universe) work.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Who would have thought this classical epic poem could be categorized as fanfiction? Well it is, as it draws inspiration from and retells many of the key events of Christian theology as depicted in the Bible, and follows Satan’s banishment and subsequent devotion to the corruption of humankind.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
If the title didn’t clue you in, this is fanfiction of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where everything is the same…except that zombies are a plague on society. It’s still a comedy of manners with plenty of verbal sparring between Elizabeth and Darcy, but with the addition of more violent and literal sparring against the undead!
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
This novel is a retelling of the fairy tale Snow White, set in America during the 40s and 50s, and deals with family secrets and relations (Boy being Snow’s stepmother and mother to Bird), race, beauty, and vanity (with the handy motif of mirrors and what they do or do not show).
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
This is one of those examples were you could quite easily miss the link this book has to its inspiration. It is loosely based on Howard’s End by E. M. Forster, and similarly focuses on two families and the conflict and relationships between them that become increasingly complex as the story develops.
Some scenes are exact reflections of the original novel, but most of the plot winds a different route, though it is united with the source material in dealing with themes of race, class, inheritance, and kinship.
Surely not! I hear you cry. But yes, Dante was such a fan of Virgil and The Aeneid that he wrote self-insert fanfic that is also RPF, wherein he explores all the layers of hell with Virgil as his guide in a long and excellently crafted allegorical epic.
This can also be considered a spite fic, as several prominent figures of the time are featured (and damned) for their sins in a not so subtle call-out of corruption in the Church; a crossover fic in the way it features key elements of The Aeneid, Greek mythology, and The Bible; and fanfiction of fanfiction (because, again, The Aeneid).
I hope this post has opened your eyes to the wonders (and, to be fair, the horrors) of fanfiction, and encouraged you to approach this genre the way you might approach any genre: with curiosity and a willingness to explore what’s out there, rather than any inherent distrust or disregard for it simply because it is by fans, for fans.
I’m curious to know if you have read (or written!) any fanfiction yourself, whether of the ‘traditionally published’ variety or otherwise, and what you thought of it. Drop a comment and let me know.
Thank you for joining me in this little series of Type Talk posts, and happy reading!