Why Does Fanfiction Matter?

Across decades of entertainment, people have engaged in fanfiction writing. But why does it matter?
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'What the hell is fanfiction' is a question that pops up now and then in discussions. While its origins can arguably be stated as going back as far as the 13th century with Dante Alighieri's depiction of his favorite philosopher and writer personally guiding him through the Biblical world, wrought with run-ins with a variety of other writers and thinkers of and before Dante's era, many people associate fanfiction's real coming out into society with the rise in Star Trek content during the sixties and seventies. 

startrek fanfiction
Source: StarTrek.com

It was the first frontier into the modern relationship that fanfiction has with both the writers and consumers of such works. Pictured above is Spockanalia, a zine printed and distributed containing content focusing majorly on the Leonard Nimoy character Spock. Before the internet, these distributed zines were the only way to receive contact with the world of fanfiction--and once the internet did come, the sensation that had once existed only in printed zines distributed on a small scale exploded into a massive online phenomenon. 

It is a complex medium that spans generations. But, let's start with the core question...

What is fanfiction? 

what is fanfiction
Source: Fansplaining

Fanfiction is the act of writing fictional works of varying lengths using locations, plots, and characters from pre-existing properties. While these works can focus on a variety of genres, the most popular genre in fanfiction is romance, which relies on the reader writing romances based on pre-existing character relationships. This is referred to as shipping and can be applied to both relationships that actually occur within the original narrative, as well as relationships that the reader interprets regardless of whether or not the characters actually are romantic in the source material. 

Functionally, fanfiction is the source of one thing: thinking about the content you consume. Fanfiction has become a way to interact with your media in the same way that drawing a picture of a character you like is. It can be the product of a fleeting thought manifest into a short story, or a heavily parsed-out piece surrounding the lore of the show in question.  

Is fanfiction legal?

Is fanfiction legal
Source: SyFy Wire

This is a heavy question because there are indeed some legal issues regarding fanfiction. The aforementioned zines, for example, were indeed sold for money. Some creators such as Gene Roddenberry actively endorsed the material. Others such as George Lucas sought to control the distributions of zines and for a decade it was strictly forbidden by LucasArts to produce and distribute zines containing homosexual material. Anne Rice to this day still forbids the creation of fanfiction based on her books, and major fanfiction sites respect her wishes by refusing to host such works. 

On the most part, though, fanfiction is a legal grey zone that a grand majority of creators do not attempt to interrupt for two reasons. The first is that by the time the 2000s rolled around, the majority of fanfiction was hosted online and zines had become more of a curiosity than a constant distribution. As a result, fanfiction has not drawn profit in a very long time, and it is not considered worth the effort of a legal team to try and deal with. 

The second reason is, positive fanbase or negative fanbase, fanfiction essentially is free advertisement for both current and older media. It keeps the attention mill rolling forward for movies or television shows that would otherwise be left in limbo between installments and during hiatus periods. Fanfiction often reflects the theory of the plot direction and it often helps fuel curiosity during a time when there is no official content to keep the media engine running. For example, during an extended hiatus, the Disney Channel show Gravity Falls became infamous for its theorization that often extended into fanfiction.

fanfiction
Source: Tumblr

So, while it is not explicitly legal or illegal, fanfiction is often overlooked by companies in terms of copyright because it acts as a promotion for their material. FREE promotion. It has also been argued that fanfiction, as a whole, could be considered protected under parody and satire clauses in copyright law. Either way, it is unlikely to see anyone going to court over fanfiction. 

So why does fanfiction matter?

write fanfiction
Source: Vocal

Whether you start out writing fanfiction or not, all writers have some sort of inspiration that they start from. What makes fanfiction matter is ultimately the role it has in the life of a young writer. Ideally, the young writer takes up fanfiction as a hobby and uses it to refine said talent. The more they write fanfiction, the more practice they will get at writing itself.

Repetition is one of the most tried and true ways of learning, and many fanfiction writers will be very prolific in their early years. As young writers practices more and more, they refine their style and become tangibly more aware of the failings in their own writing. This is of course best couple with actual education in essay writing and storytelling as provided by the school system around them, but, fanfiction still provides the most important piece of the puzzle:

Practice. 

Fanfiction can also be seen as an endorsement of thought. Instead of simply consuming media, the writer is engaging in it. Instead of simply reading or watching, the writer is interpreting. These are valuable skills that can serve people well, especially in higher education. In a sense, starting to write fanfiction at a young age can help people become more aware of language and story structure far before the school system even is teaching it to them.

Fanfiction is an odd little world that many can rightfully call self-indulgent. However, despite that potential self-indulgence, it remains a piece of the written word that can help people grow if used right. Find your favorite show. Your favorite book. Your favorite movie. Find it, and take a swing at writing fanfiction, at the very least so that you can think critically about what you are consuming and practice writing.

A writer located in the lush Redwood forests of Northern California who loves animation and food.

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