My affair with fanfiction started as an English assignment. At the tender age of 12, my tiger parents forced me to spend every spare moment at a local gag school. It was about 6pm on a Friday evening in July. None of us had eaten and our English instructor knew she was losing us. Mrs. L looked at us over the top of her reading glasses, lips pursed, and said, “Your assignment for the weekend is to write an alternate one-page ending to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.”
At the time I didn’t realize we were told to write fanfiction, but that’s how the same medium does that Fifty Shades of grey eventually became a guilty pleasure of decades.
Normally I hated the extra homework piled on my plate. But for whatever reason, that Romeo and Juliet assignment sparked something in my academically fried brain. Cram schools revolve around brutally coercive math and vocabulary exercises until you can factor in quadratic polynomials in your sleep. None of the 20-page homework kits ever asked us to think about “what if…”.
What if Juliet decided that Romeo’s corpse was a sign that she should run away from her abusive family and go to the nunnery that Ophelia avoided? I stayed up late Sunday night to write, edit, rewrite and re-edit my one-page masterpiece. It got a B+, which in my family was the equivalent of a double F-. I was grounded, but something deep and primal in my soul had changed.
It’s cringing to admit, but for most of that summer I was obsessed with… Gundam Wing. I grew up on a healthy diet of Cartoon Network’s Toonami, and I have no defense but to be a weak preteen. In protest of my grueling homework load, I snuck into my living room after my parents fell asleep and prayed that the crackle of a 56K modem wouldn’t wake them up. Google started popping out and it led me straight into the horny world of Gundam Wing fanfiction. It was my first time using the internet for anything other than homework or AOL games.
Ninety-nine percent of that gave me a heart attack. I hid my tomato-red face behind my fingers as I flipped through fan-curated libraries. But I was just as excited as I was annoyed. Here were thousands of people reaching out over the computer to ask “what if?” Granted, most of the questions were, “What if protagonists one and two were boned in the most insane way possible?” But they had the audacity to ask such a cheeky question and write about it in excruciating detail. Public.
Here were thousands of people reaching out over the computer to ask “what if?”
As a fearful preteen, that confidence was alluring. I wanted the freedom to ask and explore wild “what if” questions. I stayed on LiveJournal late into the night, lurking as smarter people than me, creating communities around fandoms they loved, and wondering how I could tap into that. I clicked link after link until I landed on fanfiction.net. Suddenly, I had access to a free library filled with thousands of stories that offered a glimpse into a world beyond the one my parents had planned for me. It was the very first time I understood what made the internet and the subcultures that came out of it so exciting.
Before I knew it, I started asking more and more of my own “what if” questions after finishing a movie, TV show, or novel. Finally, I started to give myself permission to write down some answers.
My English teachers disapproved of it. This was an unprestigious way to express creativity. True genius, they said, came from original work, and it was a waste of talent to think about legally questionable what-ifs. (Ironically, that’s how I learned about the fair use doctrine.)
I wanted to spit back what I’ve had enough nothing but reading the stiff prose of dead men. I wanted to scream that there was an army of insane authors online writing some of the most transgressive stories I’d ever seen. Of course you can see that some of them were written by people with a weak grasp of grammar (see: My Immortala Harry Potter fanfic widely regarded as the worst on the internet and has its own wiki). But I couldn’t find anything like it on the shelves of my local bookstores. I wanted to state that in 2001, this was one of the few online spaces where i was introduced to the idea that gays can live happily ever after. But I didn’t have the vocabulary to say that yet, so I kept my mouth shut.
Out of spite, I kept reading my ill-mannered fictions on top of my more “legitimate” reading.
Reading the mummy fanfics led me on an ultimately fruitless year-long attempt at reading and writing hieroglyphics. I learned more about the Civil War by reading a 130,000-word alternate universe fiction written by a history student than I ever did from AP US History. The footnotes in that story rivaled those in Vladimir Nabokov .’s pale fire. I certainly learned about classism in French slang after a two-year period lurking in the Les Miserables fanciful community. (Did you know that author Victor Hugo had a 100-page digression in the novel about French slang?)
Fanfiction is no longer such a taboo pastime. It’s wild, but since the early days of fanfiction.net and LiveJournal, it has crept into the mainstream. Fifty Shades of grey is a Twilight fanfic that was also made into a movie. RainbowRowell wrote: fangirlan acclaimed novel about a college student who writes a mega-popular fanfic about a Harry Potterlike series. That was then converted to Continue and wayward sonan incredible meta-sequel where you can read the story that the fangirl main character writes. There is a whole Wattpad-to-Movie Pipelinewhere a One Direction fanfiction with a billion readers on Wattpad turned into Netflix movies. The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood, a romantic novel that recently went viral on TikTok and have a movie deal, started as a Star Wars fanfiction. There are some more examples.
The genre is still met with much scorn, but it’s also openly celebrated in a way that seemed impossible when I was 12. I don’t read as much of it as when I was a teenager. Fandom has gotten a little too outside for me, and adult life leaves less time for guilty pleasures. But old habits die hard. I still have alerts set up for my favorite fics, and Archive of Our Own – ne is the first site I open when I hate the end of a story. I may have grown up a bit, but thanks to this wonderfully strange internet subculture, I don’t ask myself “what if I had the confidence to write?” not anymore.
Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge