The Subversive Act of Writing Fanfiction

I’d wager that a lot of us were fans before we had even heard of such a thing. You might have been one, too. I wouldn’t be surprised.

I spent the summers of my late childhood years catching fireflies to whispers of lumos. Casting myself as green-eyed Isabelle Potter–Harry’s twin sister–was an instinctive means of self-insertion into the Potter text. Like all children, I craved the power to determine my own destiny. I did what I could. I wrote it down.

My best friend and I worked it out over the phone. It was a Potter story, to be sure; the characters were all there, along with the basis of a highly original plot that grew more ridiculous the faster we talked about it (at one point, everyone stripped down to “lacy little bloomers”–I never said it was a good story). Of course, my friend and I were the main characters. During the long summers between book releases, we’d repeat the process for The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials. Sometimes, we’d even write crossovers, though I doubt we really understood the irony of coupling the two series.

I didn’t hear the term “fanfiction”* for another five years, and when I did, I didn’t associate it with the reams of collaborative effort lying on my closet floor. It wasn’t until I wrote my “first” fanfic in 2009 that I connected the familiarity of the process with my childhood writings.

Fanfiction. It sounds so postmodern–the extension of the boundaries of a text to reveal further possibilities. But it didn’t start with the Star Trek fan magazines of the 1970s. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat presents a compelling link between Jewish scholarship and fanfiction; tying the two together with the metaphor of black fire/white fire found in the Midrash Tanchuma: “the Torah is written in black fire on white fire; the “˜black fire’ can be understood as the plain text and its basic meaning, while the “˜white fire’ is found in our interpretations, the ways we creatively read between the lines.” Just as Jews offer a multitude of possibilities for any particular text, she writes, fans become active participants in consumer culture. “We respond and re-purpose, turning and turning all kinds of stories to see what might be found inside. Often what we find there–what we foreground, or what we add–says as much about us as it does about the book or movie at hand. That’s part of the fun.”

Fanfiction has the potential to be subversive. The acclaimed novel Wide Sargasso Sea, for example, gives a voice to Bertha, the deranged first wife of Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Unlike most present-day incarnations of fanfiction, Jean Rhys’ novel has been published and awarded the accompanying privileges of literary approval and prestige, allowing its anti-colonial message to be embraced as a valid extension of Bronte’s novel. Most fanfiction never gets published, apart from on fan sites, like the ever-popular

For many fans, publishing isn’t the goal. Fanfiction, in the age of the Internet, is exquisitely democratic. Anyone with an account at a fan site can post, and a system has been set up at the fan-run site Archive of Our Own to warn readers of potentially triggering material, making the fan experience safe and consensual for all involved. Queer fans like me will mine the original texts for inexplicit sexual tension and use it to write slash, a form of fanfiction that features a same-sex paring usually given little to no representation in the authorial composition (think Lupin/Sirius, to whom only potential support in the Potter cannon is given with Dumbledore’s urging Sirius to “lie low at Lupin’s” for a while. Four words, probably more than four thousand fics).

The fan community combines the passion and ingenuity of culture jamming with the collaborative focus of open-source technology. Hundreds of thousands of people are writing fics every day, and they can be brilliant and they can be terrible and they can even be both. That’s not the point.

Fans are engaging with our top-down consumer-driven culture, and they’re changing it from the bottom up. It was a comfort to me as a child–and it still is–that stories are malleable. That writing doesn’t glue ideas into place. That we still have a chance to change not just the ending, but the beginning and middle, too, and the spaces between.

For a one-time child, that freedom is everything.

*A recent article in Time Magazine can serve as an excellent and relatively comprehensive Fanfiction 101 for the purposes of this article.

By Gobiasomecoffee

Kat is a proud half-Jewish bisexual feminist kitten-loving lady who sleeps with her pants tucked into her socks. She spends far too much time writing fanfiction, and pretends to blog regularly at

11 replies on “The Subversive Act of Writing Fanfiction”

If anyone’s interested in learning more about the history of fan fiction, David Brewer’s The Afterlife of Character is a great resource. It’s academic, so fair warning–but the introduction and first chapter have lots of great detail. He talks about shifting ideas of authorship to account for the way that fan fiction has changed over the centuries.

I started writing stories and plays (oh gosh, absolutely terrible plays that were ripoffs of Clue) when I was nine or ten, and when I was a young-ish teen I remember sitting in bed Sunday nights listening to some top 40 / top 10 / something like that on the radio and writing what I now know is fanfic about this one really cheesy drama that was on the WB. I wish I could remember when I first heard about fanfiction – I feel like it was probably in the Moulin Rouge or Star Trek fandoms, and then I realized that lots of other people had been doing what I was doing. It was a really cool realization!

I went through a period where I would insert myself into every book I read. If I remember correctly, I was a cousin of both the Malfoys and the Weasleys and stayed with the Weasleys because my parents were gone. I also have barely started story somewhere on I’m pretty embarrassed of it now.

Fanfiction doesn’t really appeal to me anymore, but I do get it. I used to spend hours reading fanfiction even though I never (with the one exception) produced it myself.

Some of the fanfiction trends are downright disturbing, though. I took a look at the Narnia fanfiction stories once and was very disgusted to see how many of them involved incest. I’m also creeped out by stories involving real people (as much as I dislike the Duggars, I’m not really okay with stories about Michelle having an affair, which is one I’ve seen), and even sometimes a bit uncomfortable with some of the ones where you’re imagining characters with the actors who play them in various situations.

You’re referring to RPF, real people fiction. Yeah, I’m not a big fan of those either.

And yeah, a lot of the fanfiction out there seems to have come from the darkest parts of people’s imaginations. I’m ambivalent about those types of stories. They definitely cross the line into perverse and morally bankrupt for many people, not to mention offensive for the original authors, but, on the other hand, it’s a form of play. I think it serves as an outlet for people to work through their forbidden desires, and as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s fine by me. Personally, I’m really glad that Archive Of Our Own has a non/dubious consent warning, so rape survivors and others who don’t want to read such material are warned. Responsible writers should also include a trigger warning for incest.

Writing fanfic, like rpg’s, are .. exercises for me. You already have the surroundings, you have the characters, just shuffle or add. It’s also very addicting.

On the other hand I always feel (especially with fanfiction for books), a bit bad towards the author, like I don’t appreciate what he/she has done and instead run with it. Maybe that’s why *all* (I’m quite an impassive fanfic writer) my stuff is from films/series. Somehow, that feels different.

It really is addictive, and it’s excellent practice for writing original work.

I understand what you mean about feeling as though you’re disrespecting the author, though I don’t feel that way myself. Many authors have come out in strong support of fanfiction (J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, etc) and I think that indicates that they’re open to alternate interpretations and wouldn’t (necessarily) feel like it’s a rejection of their work. Of course, some authors DO feel offended if readers write fanfiction. For more on the subject, I’d encourage you to read the Time article I linked to at the end of the piece.

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