Fanfiction has a long and prestigious history. You might not think so, given the fact that the genre is often associated with teenage wish-fulfillment—celebrities and fictional characters doing and saying things that are completely made up by the author—but the first fanfiction was actually Dante Alighieri’s three-part Christian epic, the Divine Comedy. In it, Dante himself acted as the main character, being guided through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven by his hero, Virgil, and the woman Dante loved, Beatrice.
Unfortunately, Virgil died in 19 BC and Dante said he only met Beatrice (really Bice di Folco Portinari, the wife of a banker) once in childhood, if he even met her at all. The Divine Comedy is, effectively, 14th-century fanfiction.
What exactly is fanfiction?
Fanfiction is an original written work which uses characters, circumstances, and storylines from preexisting media like books, movies, and TV shows to create new content. Pieces of fanfiction can range in length from half a page (such as with works called “one-shots,” which depict a short scene or even just a moment in a story), to stories as long as this one about Lord of the Rings, which, at over 6 million words, is still being updated regularly.
The genre isn’t conceptually new; technically anything which takes established, traditional, or published (“canon”) content and uses it to create something new and unofficial counts as fanfiction. That includes everything from Greek myths to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. With that said, most understand the term to refer to the specific style of writing that is most commonly found on sites like Archive of Our Own, Wattpad, and Fanfiction.net.
Why do people like fanfiction?
There are a lot of reasons why people like to write and read fanfiction. Sometimes it’s a case of just liking the source content so much that you enjoy seeing it creatively reimagined. Often, there is a character or relationship that people take a special interest in, and fanfiction can be a way of trying to flesh them out more than the original did, like what happened with fan-favorite Eddie Munson from Stranger Things. There is also a huge slice of fanfiction created to “rectify” what fans see as storyline failures on the part of the original creators. These kinds of works often focus on romantic relationships between characters who didn’t, or haven’t yet, ended up together in the source media, and can sometimes be motivated by fans’ belief that various characters should be LGBTQ+, whether or not they were originally written that way.
An example of this is the BBC’s 2010 TV show Sherlock, a wildly popular modernized retelling of some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Although the characters of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson both engage in relationships with women in the show (with John even marrying a woman and having a child), and although during a conversation in the first episode of the show both men explicitly state that they aren’t gay, many fans insisted that they were in love. Fanfiction authors reimagined the world of the show and had the two end up together over and over again, and as of this writing there are almost 10,000 fanfiction stories about romance between them on Archive of Our Own alone.
Another potentially less contentious way that fanfiction rewrites source content is often by giving fans’ favorite stories happy endings. Shows that were canceled by networks and streaming services, books that concluded tragically, and films whose plot-holes led to confusion all find clarity and closure in the hands of an accomplished fanfiction writer. And just because fanfiction is inherently derivative doesn’t mean it’s poor quality—many fanfiction writers are incredibly talented, and some, like Neil Gaiman and Andy Weir, have even gone on to become massively successful novelists.
How do teens feel about fanfiction?
Not every teen likes or even reads fanfiction, and certainly not all of them will try their hand at writing it. But most teens will at least know about it, whether they happened upon a TikTok about the whole world that’s been created through fanfiction about Harry Potter’s dad, or they grew up with My Immortal, an emo/goth fanfiction of Harry Potter which plays fast and loose with the source material (there is a lot of fanfiction about Harry Potter). No matter what your teen knows or whether they like it, “fanfiction” is a term your teen will almost certainly be familiar with.
This begs the question of whether that’s a good thing, and whether we as parents should be worried about our kids if we find out they’re writing or reading fanfiction. The short answer is that it depends. There are two things to know that will help you as a parent decide how to talk to a teen who engages with fanfiction. First, what media are they reading or writing about? If the source material is inappropriate for them, then fanfiction about it most likely will be too. If a show already has strong language and graphic sexuality, the odds that a fanfiction writer will clean it up for their own work are slim.
The second thing to find out is what kind of fanfiction your teen is reading or writing themselves. The double-edged sword of fanfiction is that because it doesn’t require publishing, editing, or any kind of official approval, fanfiction can be about anything. If you can find fanfiction about Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon and Rapunzel from Tangled falling in love at a coffee shop (you can) you can also find some equally imaginative but incredibly explicit material just as easily.
This doesn’t mean that you should ban your teen from ever reading fanfiction. As we mentioned above, there can actually be some positive things about fanfiction, and some fanfiction authors are very gifted at and passionate about what they do. In the same way that we practice care and supervision over the content that our children get from real life and other places on the internet, we need to be aware of what kind of fanfiction they’re consuming. And, if they’re interested in writing fanfiction themselves, be open and encouraging of them. It’s not silly or somehow less creative to write fanfiction, and who knows where that desire to write might take them? If you demonstrate an interest in what they’re doing, then they’ll be much more willing to share their work with you and to keep an open dialogue about what kind of content they’re creating.
Ultimately, fanfiction has the potential to be a topic wherein we can really connect with our teens. We might not completely get it, but being interested in and excited about the things they love is an awesome opportunity to let them share something they enjoy with us, and open the door to deeper conversations.For more help on understanding teen culture, check out our weekly Culture Translator newsletter!