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Fan Fiction: Evolution of Storytelling

Dawn's picture

A discussion of the evolution of literature could not be complete without mentioning an emergent form of literature, which surprisingly to some, is not as new as it seems. The internet has done a great deal to change how texts are published and read. The first example of a revolution that has been recognized in this type of shift in text production is the emergence of blogs as the online form of journals. Blogs have the ability to make what was once considered to be private writing public. This effectively changes the stories that people choose to tell on that particular form of expression with the expectation of publicity.

Another form of internet based writing which has taken off significantly within the last decade or two is fan fiction. Fan fiction has not been received in terms of its literary status. It is generally considered a low form of literature, described as trash, mindless fluff, etc (no matter the genre) by many academically minded Mawrtyrs I know (yet, notice they read it anyway). Circumstantial issues have influenced the public opinion of fan fiction. With the emergence of internet based texts, people are able to publish ideas immediately, whenever they so choose.

As a reading culture, we still tend to elevate published works on a pedestal. However, this elevation in value goes beyond just the published form. It is a factor of rarity and availability for an audience. So few books were able to be distributed when the oldest classics were produced. They are considered to be great literature and have been widely canonized. The common idea is that if they were good enough to survive centuries, they must be absolutely amazing pieces of writing. I will not say that this is not true in all cases. It would not be fair to generalize and to go the other way and disenfranchise these works. However, it is entirely possible that randomness had something to do with the fact that they were preserved. There may have been some other greater works that were lost. We will never know. Either way, they are highly valued and have been selected to continue being passed on.

Written works that are published today are still respected to an extent. For example, there are some that people can name that have been featured on bestseller lists. However, it is much easier to distribute a published book, so there are a great many being produced. Due to the sheer number of books out there, no modern author’s name carries the same weight of Shakespeare. This will probably never happen, because the shift in technology means that a text would have to be selected out of a much larger pool now than it ever would have hundreds of years ago. Still, these modern texts do need to go through the editing process and they must be accepted by a publisher. Therefore, this form of production is still not available to everyone.

Fan fiction is published on the internet. This form of publication is open to anyone with internet access. It may not be considered a high form of literature, but it is proliferated everywhere.

Publication form is more important than the actual content, or at the very least writing style, when it comes to influencing readers’ reaction to a text. As I said earlier, fan fiction is not a new form of writing. It exists in other realms of literature, but would never be referred to as such and is much more highly respected. In some cases this is warranted based on quality, but for the most part it is because it has been published in a book rather than on an internet form. A great example of this form of writing is the pastiche (it’s fan fiction, but it sounds much fancier). The pastiche is a huge part of the cultural tradition surrounding Sherlock Holmes texts. There are countless published Holmes pastiches in existence. I have read a few, and to be honest, some of it is no better than a harlequin romance novel one may randomly pick up (easily cited as an example of another low form of literature based on the popular opinion built up around it), or a story one may read on a fan fiction archive today.

Fan fiction has built up its own culture that is decidedly nonacademic. There is a sort of freedom in that, because there is never any worry that a fan fiction may be criticized by literary critics with backgrounds in adaptation studies that would chain its validity to its replication of a source text. It has its own lingo that writers and readers must learn to an extent. There are also popular tropes that are explored across fandoms (created by followers of different texts). A critique of many of these tropes (also supplied by academically minded Mawrtyrs), is that that would be considered questionable in “serious adaptations”. However, fan fiction authors just feel free to play and create new stories that let ideas of others mesh with their own and evolve into something no one else may have ever considered experimenting with before.

There is the Alternate Universe (AU) fic. This refers to a story set in a different universe from the text from which plot details are being borrowed. This can be an alternate reality.

There is the uncommon ship or slash fic. A ship (short for “relationship”) is a romantic pairing within a particular fandom. A fan fiction story may feature many different ships, and many times these involve pairings that readers have thought could be interesting or would like to see together, not necessarily one that can be read in the text from which fans are borrowing. Slash fan fiction is a subgenre of romance fan fiction which exclusively deals in homosexual relationships.

There is the crossover fic in which either characters from one popular text exist in (or are transported to) another pre-existing story’s world, or more commonly, characters from two or more fandoms interact.

A fan fiction story can also be said to have an alternate history when the author makes major changes to a well known storyline or premise, such as killing off a major character, changing characters’ motives or alliances, annulling major events, or changing the setting. This may also involve a “what-if” experiment in which the author wishes to explore what might have happened if a certain plotline had turned out differently, for example, if Romeo had not stepped between Mercutio and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, or (quite commonly seen), Harry Potter had been sorted into a different house at Hogwarts.

There is the crack fic, which is named after the drug to imply that it can only be produced by a deranged mind. It is identified by its absurd, surprising or ridiculous premise. The plotline might be twisted into a knot, the fan fiction might be an obvious parody, or it might even feature an extremely unlikely pairing. These are generally humor pieces.

There is the smut fic, which is inherently the harlequin romance written as a scenario for characters taken from a specific text or set of texts.

The author can insert an original character or themselves into their fic. It is very easy to write about what they know, as well to think critically about how they would potentially react after being inserted into a situation they have read about many times. It also allows other readers to think about their favorite characters in a new light as they are confronted with new situations.

There is the real person fic (RPF), which is written about real people such as actors, politicians, athletes, musicians or even historical figures. Due to the nature of the stories, being about real people as opposed to fictional characters, there are some people who disagree on whether or not RPF is genuine fan fiction. Most RPF is written by fans, but some believe true fan fiction requires a fictional text as a starting point.

The author can insert any supernatural element they choose. Many people have been known to write stories in which they give their favorite characters magical powers or psychic capabilities. The most popular meme of today happens to be the rise of the zombie apocalypse. The strength of characters from every fandom is tested. Can they survive the zombie invasion?

All of these tropes are memes that are recognized within (and many outside of) the community of writers and readers that have familiarized themselves with the culture of fan fiction. The stories that emerge using these memes are generated by borrowing the characters from an infinite number of texts from a variety of genres. However, similar themes can be spotted, because they do follow common algorithms. When reading fan fiction, one is generally left with the feeling expressed by Powers in Generosity: you do know the story, but it is still new. Each author’s random additions add entertainment value that draws the reader in. They also make readers think and change the way they relate to characters and texts they thought they knew extremely well. It creates an evolution in the way readers think about texts. Each author writes about what they know and applies that to a text that may be more universally known and creates an emergent story.

*Eventually these emergent stories get followings of their own and are accepted nearly as well as any sort of more widely known source text. The evidence of this arises in the creation of the canon vs. fanon distinction. Canon is a term loosely used to refer to the text around which the fandom revolves. Fanon involves concepts which are used so frequently in fan fiction that they are adopted into the writing of a large group of people in a relatively short amount of time. Fanon ideas are used so frequently that they are often accepted as extensions of the canon. They become memetic within a fandom. Popular fandoms produce so much fan fiction to the point where lines blur between what material is original and what is not to the point at which it doesn’t really matter. This is a really great place to be in terms of thinking about texts evolutionarily. There is such a wide range of possibilities in terms of what could actually be created through the writing of fan fiction. The internet preserves more experimental texts that are not seen or accepted elsewhere. The possibilities of what could be created and remain there to read are endless, because these texts are selected for by fans who will read just about anything that involves some aspect of their particular fandom. This means that just about every text gets a chance to exist and be read.

Randomness is such a huge part of the fan fiction culture. Unlike published literature, it tends not to be too overworked. Once an idea pops into a writer's head, it is explored immediately. Ideas that take longer than a page or so to work out are presented in chunks as they are written, so readers can experience works in progress. These draw in readers. The most engaging stories go for unexpected themes that take a while to work out. They take what a fan reader thinks they know about certain literature and turns it on its head to expose new possibilities that the text is able to generate. Readers are able to respond immediately. They can influence the writing as its happening by leaving comments. This is a form of selection, because writers can choose to take readers’ reviews and suggestions or not. They can also ask explicitly for advice on a certain section and see what feedback they get as the story is being written. It is being influenced by so many different ideas, texts and authors at once.

Fan fiction can also be a way to display evidence of selection of popular literature. What texts are making people think and want to know more than what is published? What texts are generating new stories? This can be quantified by looking at the story count on any fan fiction archive online. Some fandoms may only have twenty stories or so. However, really popular ones (Harry Potter for example) display hundreds of thousands and the number never stops increasing.

I do not want to keep this paper going in a linear progression, because that would not be evolutionary. The practices surrounding the generation of fan fiction are particularly evolutionary, and are taking practiced ideas to the next level. However, the ideas that have been “critiqued” as radical by academics that look down on fan fiction have existed well before fan fiction. For example, there is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche (both in written form and otherwise) for just about every meme that fan fiction displays. The BBC miniseries Sherlock is set in modern day London, and would be considered an AU story. There are countless pastiches written by authors who are determined to pair Sherlock Holmes with someone, whether it is a character from the series, such as Irene Adler, an original character, or a representation of themselves. Holmes fan fiction does this to an extent, but the slashfic involving Holmes and Watson in a relationship has been selected for in today’s society. The 2009 film, starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson respectively also hints at an attraction between the two men. The crossover story is very popular in the Holmes universe. Many literary characters have been pitted against the logic of Sherlock Holmes. Dracula is inserted into Holmes pastiches rather frequently. A popular example is Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula by Loren D. Estleman. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a particularly useful example that involves the insertion of a real historical figure (Sigmund Freud), and changes an important plot point – Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty is not a real figure, but a figment of Holmes’ mind caused by his drug use. The Sherlock Holmes pastiches are not the only texts out there that utilize similar techniques and memes as fan fiction. The newest phenomenon in relation to Jane Austen novels involves adding elements of the supernatural, especially zombies and vampires. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, as well as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Seth Graham-Smith made the trend popular, but they are certainly not the only existing texts of their kind.

This entire exercise has allowed me to think entirely outside the box about a form of literature I had previously utilized solely for fluffy entertainment value. Fan fiction defies boundaries set by literary criticism, and has evolved beyond academic writing, because it is not often brought into that context. It is useful to do so, at least briefly for this class just to show what is possible in terms of the evolution of literature if authors are allowed to play with ideas as freely as they choose and are allowed to publish them to a public forum at will. I definitely want to go farther with this project, possibly changing the way I relate to fan fiction. I can try to relate even more concepts that have come up in this class and go farther than reading and analyzing this form of literature – and try writing some of my own. I certainly have a “fandom” obsession left over from my thesis!



Estleman, Loren D. Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula. 1978.

Graham-Smith, Seth. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009.

Meyer, Nicholas. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. New York: Penguin Group, 1974.

Moffat, Stephen. Sherlock. Perf. Cumberbatch, Benedict. BBC: 2010.

Ritchie, Guy, Dir. Sherlock Holmes. Perf. Downey Jr, Robert. Warner Brothers Pictures: 2009.



Serendip Visitor's picture

Harlequin's not bad

Yikes! Big on words, small on knowledge. Full of opinion, devoid of facts. For example the opinion that Harlequin Romances are low fiction isn't substantiated. Neither is the statement that said fiction is smut. A large number of romances published by Harlequin close the bedroom door. Unless you consider love smutty. I'm wondering if you plan on perpetuating nonsense as fact for much longer or if popular opinion is fact to you?