It’s an online community of thousands, yet the real world seems to keep it hidden behind closed laptops. Catriona Laverty explores the not-very-dirty-at-all little secret of fanfiction
Have you ever sat down to watch your favourite show, only to feel betrayed when the lead character gets with the wrong person? Or maybe the writers decide to kill off the character you tune in to see every week? What if you find out that the show you’ve devoted your free time to is to be no more?
Do you cry? Do you you call quits on the whole thing in protest? Do you keep on watching, knowing that the experience will be just that little bit less special now your fairytale ending will never be?
Or do you, like thousands of others around the world, simply find a place where your favourite characters, your favourite storylines, your favourite shows can live out any and every possible storyline the human race can think of? That’s the world of fanfiction.
Derided by many as the haven of nerds, geeks and sci-fi freaks, the realm of fanfiction is much more far-reaching, and much more respectable than most people give it credit for. The writers are not all ‘comic book store’ guys (although he is one for sure) and Trekkies. They’re not all bored housewives and students. They do not all engage in Star Wars roleplay at the weekend. Looking through some of the hundreds of sites I found while researching, authors are as diverse in nationality as they are in age, occupation and most importantly fandom.
Fandom is, for the uninitiated, the particular universe a writer, artist, poet or video maker chooses as their muse. From a quick search, it would appear that Harry Potter, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings and of course Twilight are among the hot trends at the moment. Indeed, the final frontier is said to be the birthplace of fanfiction, and it’s a testament to its endurance, and its fans that it is still one of the most populous fandoms around.
In fact it’s interesting that the science fiction and fantasy shows, books and movies seem to generate the greatest volume of writers, and pesumably, readers. Perhaps it’s simply that the genre is a dream for the imaginative creative types who inhabit the world of fanfiction.
One such writer, Lavvyan, says it was the love of the characters and the “desire to see them more often than once a week. I wanted to get to know them better and send them on adventures I’d never see on paper or on tv.”
While science fiction shows are Lavvyan’s main fandom, it’s not necessarily about the abilty to include time travel, space travel, aliens, robots and any number of other fantastical plot devices that draws a writer to a certain show or book. “You will find way less fan fiction for, say, a show that is beautifully told with an overarching plot and all loose ends tied up, no matter its ratings, than for one that (un)intentionally leaves questions unanswered.”
On why people read fanfiction, Lavvyan is beautifully clear “they get to spend more time with their favourite characters and explore the things they love about them. Maybe give them a back story, a love story, keep them safe, or answer one of a thousand what-ifs”.
While Lavvyan ardently points out the benefits of fanfiction, the bad points too are not far from discussion “What’s the worst thing? Talent without skill. There is something very sad about wanting to tell a story but screwing it up at every turn. The same thing goes for reading a story by someone who has put a lot of energy and emotion into it, but failed to pull it off. That’s just depressing.”
And what of other fandoms? Do they endure the same high and lows as their science fiction counterparts? Presumably they do, albeit with slightly less scope for the parallel universe plot, or the ‘aliens made them do it’ device.
I spoke to Dee, a writer of fanfiction for drama series, and someone who holds westerns particularly dear. Dee started out reading fanfic, having come across it in “1998 or so – the early days of the internet”. “I stumbled across a website for The Big Valley (a western series from the 1960s)… I love westerns. I was very happy to discover ‘stories’ about the characters I liked. From there I searched and found more shows I liked, Emergency for one, and read those as well.”
So why the transition from reader to writer? Well for Dee it was about the characters “I’ve always wanted to write and it gave me the vehicle to do just that. By taking characters in a TV show that I liked and was familiar with and extending that ‘behind their eyes’ feeling. What do they think? How do they feel? How do they react when they are sad, angry, depressed etc. All those nuances that you can’t see in a one hour drama due to time constraints.”
The appeal, Dee says, for readers but especially writers stems from the desire to see how your favourite characters cope with what’s happened to them in the show. In essence it’s seeing what’s happening once the credits have rolled, how situations might play out. Fanfiction offers readers an unlimited choice of ‘what happened next’, whichever scenario you want, there’s a fanfic out there. That’s exactly how Dee started writing fanfic – an episode left so much unresolved at the climax, “I wrote an epilogue of how I thought it should have ended . It’s on my webpage and I got a ton of ‘thank you!’ from folks who like me, wanted more”.
Of course there are bad moments for Dee too, “getting flamed” is the worst aspect of putting your writing out for the world to see. ‘Flaming’ is criticizing work in a nasty, personal, unhelpful way. “Early on, as a younger, more inexperienced writer and very sensitive, they really affected me. But I learned over the years and through discussions with other fanfic writers that often those individuals are frustrated, jealous and not terribly intelligent.”
The fanfiction movement has generated a huge community spirit, especially among writers of similar genres. Lavvyan has a rather large following online, with stories on several fiction sites, and of course Livejournal. The advent of Livejournal has opened an entirely new avenue to fanfiction readers and writers and has been “established as fandom’s go-to place for years” according to Lavvyan.
For Dee, the feedback received from the community is one of the best things about sharing work online “It’s wonderful when someone reads them and takes the time to write me and let me know what they liked and why. So few fans take that time and it makes a big difference to a writer to know that it works.”
Dee prefers to google whichever show has piqued interest when searching for fanfic to read, and looks for websites that way. “I google the show I am looking to find fanfic for and check out the replies. I hate fanfiction.net, that’s one site I avoid because I don’t find it housing much quality and most of the stuff is slash or romance, which I don’t find interesting”.
The motto of the aforementioned site says “Unleash your imagination, free your soul”. It’s a beautiful image of the talented writer inspired to put pen to paper while concurrenty fostering the notion that without writing fanfic, you’re somehow stifled, a caged soul. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the site is so maligned among the more serious writers, as it appears to encourage anyone and everyone to write about their fandom. That’s not a bad aspiration, but rather a frustrating one for anyone searching the internet for new stories of their favourite fandom. Wincing your way through a poorly written piece (which I hope you’re not) isn’t likely to relieve the ache of waiting for the next episode, or alleviate the yearning for a cancelled show.
One of the many shortcomings of that site is the prevalence of ‘Mary Sue’ stories in its archives. A Mary Sue is a piece written from the point of view of the author, who has been transported (usually ridiculously) into the universe of their fandom. More often than not, their goal appears to be to make the lead male hero realise his love for them. Sheakespeare it is not. It is one of the tragedies of fanfiction that for every beautifully written, well crafted work online, there are inevitably several dozen Mary Sues and her ilk. It’s a perception that has permeated the community and gives it the less than stellar reputation and cool factor among the outsiders.
But if you’re a story junkie waiting for your next fix, or if you desperately miss Buffy and Angel, it might just be the thing for you.