What Is Fanfiction and Can I Write Some?

fanfictionGuest Post
by Kat Cantwell

Fanfiction is one of those words you’ve very like heard before, as it’s becoming increasingly popular, but you might find yourself asking, “What is fanfiction, really, and why do I care about it, as a (self-)published author?”

Fanfiction is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: It’s a piece of fiction, written by a fan of a particular work (or real person or historical event), about that work. It may be an attempt to further explore a character or a relationship between characters – romantic or platonic – or it may be a sort of ‘what-if’ scenario. Or it could be the urge to throw the characters into a different setting – like a coffee shop, university, or different time period – or into a different creator’s world entirely. Sometimes, it’s a way for the fanfiction author to interact with the characters themselves, by inserting a(n often idealised) version of themselves into that world.

What we think of as fanfiction in the modern day owes its roots to the Star Trek fanzines of the 1960s, but fanfiction, at its core, has been around as long as humanity has been telling stories. Any time a fairy tale is rewritten – I’m looking at you, Disney – that’s fanfiction (or fanwork, if you want to get technical about semantics). Same with pretty much every modern story about Arthur and Merlin, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, or any time someone writes a story about any religious figures (be they modern religions, or those that have come to be termed ‘pagan’). I don’t really have the space to cover every piece that could be considered fanfiction in this post, but here’s an awesome LiveJournal post that does it for me.

But, okay, what does any of this have to do with someone who’s already published something? Or, better yet, what should you do if someone starts writing fanfiction about your world?

For the latter, I’d say: Be flattered. Maybe that person loved your work and wants to explore what they think will happen after your book ended, or the character backstories that you might have only hinted at. Maybe there were a couple of background characters that were throw-aways to you, but this person fell in love with them and wanted their stories. Or maybe they found your story flawed – sounds bad, I know – and they felt the need to fix something. Maybe you killed off a character and they spent an hour crying, then set out to write a ‘fix-it’, or they didn’t like who you paired your main character with, thought they’d get more out of a romance with someone you’d just intended to be their friend.

Mostly, if someone starts writing fanfiction of your work, that means your world is stuck in their head, for good or ill. It’s a good bet that they’ve already shared your book with their close friends and family. Maybe they’ve made a blog post about it online somewhere, or maybe the fanfiction is their ‘blog post’.

The point is, when someone writes fanfiction about something and puts it up for the world to find, that’s their way of sharing something that touched them, on some level. In their own way, they’ve become your publicist, and all they’re asking, in return, is the right to show how much they love your world in their own way.

So, you might now ask, “Can I write fanfiction? What are the legal implications and can I make money off it?”

Anyone can write fanfiction. If you love a world and wrote something for it, you’re a fanfiction writer. Congratulations! If you want to share it with other people, there are plenty of places you can do that. The big name sites for posting stuff are FanFiction.Net and Archive of Our Own, but there are plenty of other sites, most of them world-specific. And you can always post a piece on your own blog or website, if that’s more comfortable.
For the tricky stuff…

Any fanwork – fanfiction, fanart, fan-made videos, etc. – technically fall under that wide umbrella of ‘fair use’. Which means that you can post them, so long as you don’t claim the origin world as your own and you don’t try making money off of it without the creator’s explicit permission. Amazon’s Kindle Worlds program is one such legal path to make money off fanfiction, but the worlds they have access to are very limited. There is a bit of a precedent, too, for writing a story as fanfiction, then changing the names – and, sometimes, the genders – of your characters to turn that work into original fiction, and then publish it. (Pro-tip: Best not to mention E.L. James in conjunction with this idea, unless you’re looking for a rant.) So there are ways to make money off fanfiction, certainly, but not many; in terms of money-making ventures, the best that writing fanfiction will get you is a new audience that might not have otherwise heard of your original work.

Sometimes people get sued, yes, but there are resources to help you fight that, like the legal team at the Organisation for Transformative Works (the non-profit that started Archive of Our Own). Some fanfiction writers add a general disclaimer to the beginning or end of all their works, as an added security, but there’s no hard-and-fast rule about what will or won’t protect you from legal prosecution, and country borders add their own complications to the equation.

The right to create, as fans, works based off of another’s world is likely going to be up for debate for a long, long time, but if you love something enough to write about it – be that as fanfiction or an original piece – I say, ‘Go for it!’

Kat CantwellKat Cantwell is the eldest daughter of and editor for author and IU Staff Contributor Lynne Cantwell. She graduated from Hollins University with a Bachelor’s Degree in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing. Kat has followed in her mother’s footsteps by writing fiction, but has so far stuck to fanfiction for various mainstream “geeky” media, including Harry Potter, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the Final Fantasy video game series. She has been volunteering with Archive of Our Own since 2012, sells crocheted goodies at her Etsy shop Kat Hooks, and spends holidays watching her neighbors’ cats.

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15 thoughts on “What Is Fanfiction and Can I Write Some?”

  1. I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words of X-Files and Enterprise fanfiction, and I don’t regret it: I’ve made great friends (who’ve lasted long past our passions for those characters), gotten lots of practice, developed the habit of writing, learned to cope with the occasional mean review, enjoyed the enormous encouragement of good ones, and had a lot of fun. If you hope to publish in a genre that matches your favorite fandom, it can also gain you some fans. I do have a few crossover fans from my old fics, but generally speaking I’d have been smarter to write science fiction if I hoped to grow an audience that way. I have few regrets, though — mostly just the one unfinished fic that I really ought to get back to someday. My advice: Think of it as your playground and go have a ball.

    1. Fabulous advice, Sandra! I feel the same way, especially about the X-Files. Six new episodes beginning this month. Maybe we’ll get to see what Mulder & Scully have been up to… 🙂

      1. LOL. Of course, I started writing fanfic because that show made me so mad! I’m afraid I have no faith left in Chris Carter. Definitely eager to see what Darrin Morgan has come up with, though.

  2. A few years before I published my first book, I decided to write a Christmas story set at Hogwarts as a present for my daughters, who were mad for all things HP. I quickly learned that even with such an established world and characters and even though I knew the world well, it was a tough write. I eventually gave it up and bought them a Wii instead.

    I think there is a tendency in the author community to look down a bit at fanfic writers, but you’ll never see me doing that – I respect what they are able to do. Oh, and now my oldest daughter writes Phantom Phan Phiction. (Is that too many “ph’s?”)

    1. It can be a little daunting, yeah. Having an established universe to play in doesn’t make the act of writing that much easier, just takes away some of the prep work, I think.

      That is some…excellent use of alliteration. Kudos. ;P

  3. Is this where I mention that Kat has been writing fanfiction for more than ten years, and has had readers ask permission to translate her stories into other languages? 😉

    No? Okay, I’ll shut up now. 🙂

    1. This is all worryingly legit. *coughs* There are translations on my fanfic in ten different languages. (With one fic in particular having eight different languages on it’s own.)

      That said, the translators do work for free – they come to me, I give permission, they tell me when they start posting it – so the translations don’t always get finished, and there’s not really anything I can say or do about that.

  4. Congratulations to her! Some of my XF stuff has been translated into German and Chinese. I wish people would volunteer to do that for my regular fiction, but they have this pesky habit of wanting to get paid.

  5. While I have written fanfic on fixing something I thought the author had done badly *miladydewinterfromthe3musketeers*, I really love this line:

    ‘Maybe there were a couple of background characters that were throw-aways to you, but this person fell in love with them and wanted their stories.’

    Because YES. Some characters just don’t get a backstory I really want to know about. I’m always interested in certain bit part characters and what might be going on in their life or their background

  6. I started out writing fanfics and used them to practice. They can be GREAT if you’re trying to work on character voices, interactions, etc. And depending on the fandom you gravitate to, you can get some truely awesome feedback from readers. 300k words (don’t judge me!) into a crossover between a REALLY popular fandom and one that isn’t as loved (the # of people interested in writing for it) and people still drop by to leave notes on the story. Two years after it was completed. Now, if only I could round them all up and show them the original work I’m doing 😉 (still working on editing that for publishing).

    1. Oh, yeah, people keep reading fics, new fans and old, pretty much forever. Especially the long ones. I’ve got one HP fic that I completed ten years ago, and I still get, on average, at least two reviews a month. (That one’s 225K, and its sequel is 94K, so, really, zero room for judgement in regards to word count. 😉

  7. Thank you, interesting article. Thought about dabbling in fan fiction, but then I get a great original idea and off I’m running with that.

  8. This is where British Commonwealth and American opinions differ.
    The problem is that an author has created characters and a world and the copyright is hirs. So Fan fiction is really stealing someone else’s work without paying the author.

    Fine if you are experimenting privately with styles, or characters but to publish it for others to read surely means you owe the author for using their property?

    We can’t complain about pirate sites and pirate translations when we allow fan fiction.

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