What I learned from reading and writing fanfiction

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Screenshot of Fanfiction.net, the most popular fanfiction website to exist. Photo from Wikimedia.org.

Once upon a time, I avidly read fanfiction. To those unfamiliar with fanfiction, scholar Bronwen Thomas best describes it as “stories produced by fans based on plot lines and characters from either a single source text or else a “canon” of works; these fan-created narratives often take the pre-existing storyworld in a new, sometimes bizarre, direction.” Note the words “fan,” “canon,” and most important, “bizarre.”

Simply put, fanfiction refers to stories written by fans. According to Fanfiction.net, the most popular category of fanfiction is the “Harry Potter” series because it has 650,689 fanfics – and believe me, the number is only growing. I was once obsessed with reading HP fanfics. And I never wanted people to know about it. I never talked about my hobby because the stories I tended to read were reflective of myself, and back then, I felt a large amount of angst. I didn’t like watching soap operas (still don’t) but I loved reading a drama-packed HP story. I never wanted my parents to know. I never wanted my siblings to know about it. I never wanted anyone to know how deeply entrenched I was in an imaginary world.

I liked the anonymity that fanfiction afforded me. On the internet, I could be anything I wanted. I didn’t have to face my critics (but the downside was that I couldn’t face my fans). However, despite the anonymous nature of fanfiction writing, each time I got a “flame,” or a negative critique, I took it as a blow to my self-esteem. Sometimes I fired back at my critics by writing a long “author’s note.” Sometimes my fans were quick to defend me. (When I say fans, that means one user who religiously followed my stories). Waiting for a review became another obsession for me. All of this was negative, of course, because I became dependent on other people’s opinions and would feel like I failed whenever I didn’t meet their expectations.

But I’ve learned that as a writer and as a reader, you should never be ashamed. Because of the arduous thinking, planning, composing, editing, etc. that comes with writing, I should never doubt the seriousness of my work. I should be proud of what I read and write. Writers might be a lot of things, but cowards they are not (I feel like someone should make an epic banner out of this. Please credit me.)

Fanfiction has shown me that many fantastic writers exist and go unrecognized. I remember that there was an apparent “leak” of “Deathly Hallows” before its publication date. The story contained a scene with Hermione and Ron’s wedding and a conversation between Harry and Hermione beforehand (I wish I could find it). People thought this was really DH; they mistook the fake as the real thing because its style and its use of words closely mirrored Rowling’s. But, I’m not just talking about the imitators. There were certainly innovators out there, the ones who took Rowling’s original storyline and elevated it to fantastic and also realistic levels. I loved these stories because they focused on strong character developments and alternative theories of how Harry could have defeated Voldemort. One story explored an alliance between the magical world and the military Muggle world and how they trained for war against Voldemort.

But when you stray too far from the main storyline, you should stop writing fanfiction. For example, if you write HP fanfics but don’t mention magic in them, then what’s the point? That’s what happened to me. I never regretted my choice to leave the fanfiction world because I grew more serious about my original work. I refocused my imagination and created my own world instead of recycling someone else’s invention. Upon my departure, I believe I became a true writer.

The funny thing about fanfiction is that it rarely comes up in conversation. I mean, how would you bring it up? Do you know anyone who’s written fanfiction? Was I the only one uncomfortable with talking about my hobby? I was a sophomore in high school when I got the courage to mention that I was a fanfic writer. My social studies partner and I bonded over HP and I let my secret slip. I waited for the inevitable “Fanfiction? What is that?” reaction.

Then, without missing a beat, she said, “Me too!” I couldn’t believe it – well, maybe because I didn’t think I’d actually meet another fanfiction writer. We even traded our user names.

Now I wonder if I know any former/current fanfiction writers. I’d really like to talk to you.

Reading and writing fanfiction seemed like emotional investments. After the final book came out, I witnessed a surge of fanfiction in what was called the “Post-DH” era. Writers continued from the epilogue (or the “Crapilogue,” if you disliked it) and imagined a future for Harry. Sometimes writers made him miserable; they have him get divorced or fight a new “Dark Lord.” Others produced “fluff,” or insanely unrealistic, but entirely adorable storylines with Harry as a loving father and husband to his family. From what I could tell, fans didn’t want the series to end. I never wanted it to end, either, because the series took up a great deal of my childhood. When the final book came out, I considered it to be the end of my childhood, because it was sufficiently the end of Harry’s childhood. I connected so deeply with him, Ron, Hermione, etc. that the changes in the series mirrored changes in my life. (But thank goodness I didn’t have to fight Voldie.)

In the reverse fashion, some stories tried to retrace the past and put a different spin on Harry’s life before and during Hogwarts. Maybe some people didn’t like how Rowling developed the series and wanted to “correct mistakes.” A lot of fanfiction deals with bashing beloved characters, reassessing and redefining their motives, which originally seemed pure in the books. Dumbledore, for example, was made into a manipulative old coot who didn’t do enough to rescue Harry from the Dursleys’. Ron-haters portrayed the member of the trio as an insolent and greedy person. I never liked these types of fanfic because the writers fell into the trapped of writing one-dimensional characters. Sure, Dumbledore could have done much more for Harry, but the headmaster loved him. Sure, Ron was not always the most rational – more apt to act with his heart than his brain – but he always proved himself in the end. By reading such fanfiction, I recognized that importance of having a complex characters with good AND bad qualities.

It’s taken some time to accept this but I can now say that fanfiction has shaped the way I think, read, and write.

Has fanfiction impacted your life?