Oftentimes, when a popular series is finished, the real stories have only just begun.
We all know how that story about the wizarding school goes, right?
It’s about a group of friends growing up in Hogwarts — their struggles, their adventures, and their joys. It’s about a messy-haired, bespectacled ringleader, and his two best friends who fall in love. It’s about growing up, facing your fears, and how love is the most important thing in the world.
Their names are, of course, Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs. Yes, you read that right. They are the one and only Marauders — mischief makers, perpetual pranksters.
As you may have guessed, we’re not describing the original Harry Potter series at all! Instead, this is All the Young Dudes or ATYD, a piece of fanfiction published on the Archive of Our Own. For the uninitiated, All the Young Dudes is a long piece of fanfiction that follows these four characters, as well as their friends and family, through their years at Hogwarts and later into their adult lives. If you’re still confused about who’s who, the ringleader is James “Prongs” Potter, the best friends falling in love are Sirius “Padfoot” Black and Remus “Moony” Lupin, while the fourth best friend is Peter Pettigrew or Wormtail.
So what is fanfiction? Essentially, it’s what happens when a fan really wants more content in their favourite fandoms, and then decide to make that content themselves.
Works that spark fanfiction also often have other talented creators making art, GIFs, or edits, broadly called ‘derivative works’, about the book, TV show, or movie in question — but for this article, we’ll be only talking about fanfiction. That is, prose written by a fan, usually for no direct payment, to be read by other fans, or to simply continue exploring a universe.
If you’re a novice, here are some terms you should know. We start with ‘canon’, which means the “original” work on which everything else is based — the original Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings books, for example.
The terms fanfiction, fanfic, and fic are used (mostly) interchangeably, either for convenience or for grammar’s sake. Some fanfiction follows the plot, outline, and general themes of the original work. This would be called ‘canon compliant’, because they closely follow the canon. Other fanfics completely change one or more aspects of the plot or world — for example, someone could set a fic on Star Wars in the modern world, and not in a galaxy far far away. They usually stick to having accurate characters, so it’s not all outlandish. This is what would be called an AU, or ‘alternate universe’, fanfiction.
A special kind of AU happens when a writer takes characters from two or more different shows, books, or movies, and brings them together: that’s what’s known as a ‘crossover’.
Fanfiction is found all around the web, but most people look on the Archive of Our Own (Ao3) or Fanfiction.net. These sites have intricate warnings and tags, so you can find exactly what you’re looking for in their enormous collections. And we really do mean enormous: Ao3 has over seven million fics on it.
Instead of tags, you can use the advanced filtering systems available, to avoid things you don’t want to read. Almost every fanfic on Ao3 has ‘archive warnings’ which tell a reader if a work has character death, rape, or underage sex. Most authors use many other tags to give specifics, so you know what it contains, and can avoid it if you want.
The Archive of Our Own has 2.5 million users — that’s a little more than the population of Houston, Texas. How? What makes so many people around the world obsessed with this thing? What is so great about it?
Well, to begin with, it’s free content. Nowadays, just about everything, from listening to music to reading a published scientific study, requires money. But fanfiction, no matter the quality of writing, or the length, is free to all.
And not only can anyone read fanfics, but they can also write it! This gives a great opportunity to young people who want to improve their writing skills; getting feedback from a group of people outside of family and friends, who — let’s be honest — might not be completely truthful with you. It definitely helps that there is already a created world full of characters that you can borrow from, and change as you feel, especially since starting from scratch is not an easy feat. Young writers who have just started exploring the fiction world find it less difficult to pick up a few characters and create their own narrative than to start piecing together an entire plot.
One specific group of people that fanfiction has helped time and again, is those for whom English is a second language. Reading a lot, or slowly starting to write, is a brilliant way to learn and get comfortable with a language, and so young people benefit from using these platforms.
Fanfiction is also a great way to delve into small/unimportant characters or incidents in canon. You can take the tiniest little detail and run an entire plot with it. You can choose to base your whole story on a character who has exactly five lines in the entire series. That is the power of writing.
The beauty of fanfiction is that every single writer writes a character differently, but they’re still tied to the original character’s personality. The characters can be of any number of races and nationalities, much like the authors themselves. They could even be a mix of many things, or unlabelled, and it doesn’t really make a difference. They all matter. They are all devoured by eager readers.
Writers add parts of their life, their struggles, their joys to their fics. And that is essentially what writing is all about.
Despite how incredible fanfiction is, it usually has a poor reputation in the minds of those who don’t read it. Every one of us who reads fanfiction has, at some point or the other, hidden the fact that we’re reading it. There’s that moment of panic when someone asks you what you’re reading currently when you desperately try and think of the last ‘proper’ book you read.
“It is certainly sad”, says Grace Kwan, who studies Sociology and Professional Writing & Communications, “that a community with such a fascinating history and culture of its own has remained so invisible to the rest of society.”
Grace has been both a fanfic reader and a writer, so she uses her knowledge of this community to analyse it from a professional and a personal perspective. “We have a lot to learn”, she continues, “from fanfiction and its unapologetic nature in finding joy and community in popular culture media, in giving a voice to the voiceless, in pushing the boundaries of reason.”
Fanfiction brings people together. It allows for people from all over the world to connect, to relate, to enjoy other pieces of writing. It brings awareness about marginalised communities; the LGBTQ+ community, handicapped people, immigrants, etc... It addresses racism, classism, sexism, and so many more. This is especially important because the majority of readers and writers are teenagers and young adults, who often don’t have a good understanding of these terms or these problems, despite having access to the internet.
All this isn’t to say that spaces like Ao3 or Fanfiction.net are completely perfect. They can still be used to spread hate, or to express bigotry, or to target certain minorities. Just like any other platform, these spaces do contain things we’d rather not read.
Hateful ideas exist.
But is that a good reason to stop writing? Fanfiction is enjoyed by a huge number of people around the world, and as mentioned earlier, helps bring awareness to young people about various issues which they don’t have access to in real life. So, tread carefully when finding a fic to read, but once you’ve found a group of good writers, settle in to have an exciting read!
Fanfiction doesn’t just exist in controlled, known pockets. It’s also been discovered in the most unusual areas. Whether it be a young girl in Washington rewriting the Lord of the Rings to include more female characters, or Indian grandmothers narrating the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharatha — well known folktales that are part of the culture — fanfiction has appeared all over the world. Perhaps you yourself have imagined how your favourite characters might react in a different setting, or how your favourite book might have gone if that one thing were different.
One such example is the Icelandic and Swedish translations of the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula. In 1986, Dracula scholars first discovered the Icelandic translation.
Twenty-eight years later — in 2014 — they noticed its story was quite different, and not a translation at all! This version not only focused more on the elitist politics of Dracula, but also downplays the entire “drinking blood” aspect of the book. Hans de Roos, a Dracula scholar, even describes this version as “punchier”, and says “a story more exciting and elegant than Dracula itself”. This, in comparison to his own description of the original Dracula as sometimes “tedious and meandering”. Again, this is a man who has spent his life studying and working with the original.
Powers of Darkness, as the Icelandic Dracula version is entitled, is considerably more erotic than the original. To anyone who reads fanfiction today, this sounds fairly typical (the only thing missing is, frankly, a relationship between the two men).
You often hear fanfiction being compared to books. It’s why it gets some criticism; after all, why would you read fanfiction when you could, instead, read a book? Books are seen as better, since they’re supposedly original, and fanfiction has the unfortunate reputation of being badly written, both of which we’ll come back to later.
But that’s an unfair comparison.
Books take years to write. The editing process is complex, and each draft (once completed) is looked at and edited as a whole.
Fanfiction is written very differently.
Usually, authors plot out the basic storyline, then release chapters serially — perhaps every week or fortnight. This means fanfiction, unlike books, are consumed before being fully written. Even if fanfic authors do go back and edit their chapters a bit, they usually can’t rework large parts of the plot, an option always open to book authors. This is especially true if they have a large following, since many people would have already read their work.
Another difference is that many authors don’t have anyone other than themselves reading their work before it gets published. Some have one other reader — called a beta — but almost never more than that.
To go back to the time frame really quickly: All The Young Dudes — the fic we mentioned at the beginning of this piece — is a whopping 527,000 words! For context, that’s roughly half the length of the entire Harry Potter books, and just a little bit less than the entire Lord of the Rings series.
The author wrote the whole thing in under two years!
Since they finished it so fast, does that mean it’s a really terrible fic? Quite the contrary. In fact, ATYD is widely regarded as being one of the best fanfics out there, with beautiful writing, a well-developed storyline and characters, and a dedicated fanbase. It’s been translated into 11 languages and has the most hits of any fic on Ao3.
And remember, neither the author nor any of the translators got directly paid to do any of this. It’s not a part of their day jobs.
Dumbledore, again from the Harry Potter books, is an excellent example of the power of fanfiction. In the books, we see him as the benevolent, slightly confusing, eccentric Gandalf-like figure in Harry’s world. However, fanfic authors tend to take a darker spin on his character. We see him as manipulative, evil, and invasive: influencing people with the idea that he knows best; loath to give away any information that might be helpful. Fanfic-Dumbledore is someone who cares more about the greater good than individual people.
These interpretations aren’t random theories created by fans, but instead well thought out, carefully observed ones. Any proper Harry Potter fan would sooner or later find plot holes and problems within the magical world.
One such issue that many find disturbing is the Dursley home situation. When we are first introduced to Harry Potter, we get to see the family he grows up with — his aunt Petunia, uncle Vernon, and cousin Dudley. Simply put, they did not treat him well. Harry was treated worse than a servant: he was given second-hand clothes that are much too large and tattered, forced to eat leftover scraps, and had to stay in a cupboard under the stairs instead of a bedroom!
Now, why couldn’t Albus Dumbledore, supposedly the most powerful wizard in all of Britain, and Harry’s appointed guardian to boot, find a better solution than shoving a one-year-old into the hands of a family who did not care for the boy at all?
A likely answer: he cared more for keeping Harry Potter — the boy who he knows will defeat Lord Voldemort — alive, than wanting an orphan to grow up loved and cared for. Even though everything Dumbledore did was for the greater good, to destroy someone who killed and destroyed many lives, he was not without his flaws. And that is something that fanfiction has shown with great effectiveness.
Though these stories and characters may not be real, and even though fanfics are rewrites of already written stories, they can be very powerful. Humans have been remixing stories since time immemorial — after all, how else do we share our experiences in the world?
One could argue that fanfiction helps to make stories richer. Every aspect of plot and character is thought about, and analysed, and tried out in different ways, revealing aspects of a story that would never have come to light, and even creating new ones in the process.
Read fanfiction, and who knows? Maybe you too will find the urge to pick up your pen one day, or type away at your keyboard, and write a story about a favourite character that you’ve always wanted to read about.