The final episode of your favorite TV show is about to air. You’ve been waiting years for this— years of speculation about the fates of your favorite characters, of your favorite subplots, of who will live and who will die. You’ve analyzed every scene, every costuming decision, every bit of dialogue, and you are ready for the writers to hold up their end of the bargain and tie up all of the plot threads and character development into a beautiful, shiny gift to be unwrapped time and time again once the series is released on Bluray.
Except… it’s a mess. The writers seem to have forgotten all of the critical subplots, as well as a significant portion of the main plot and conflict, and spend the episode emphasizing the final moments of a seemingly inconsequential side character— while the main protagonist (your very favorite character) is treated to a thematically inconsistent offscreen death that butchers not only all of the character’s achievements, but also the show’s entire overarching theme. The credits roll. You reach for the remote and turn the TV off and sit and stare at the empty black screen. Betrayal hangs heavy in your heart— if only you could go back in time and stop the writers at that one point in Season Five where, you realize now, it all started to go wrong.
You’ve probably engaged with enough time-travel stories to know that going back in time is never a real solution. But what if I told you that the story you wanted to see, that you hoped the writers of your favorite show would give you, is probably out there, somewhere, written by someone whose name you will never know? Welcome, my friend, to the world of fanfiction!
Fanfiction, if you’ve never encountered the term, is defined by the inestimable Wikipedia as “a type of fictional text written by fans of any work of fiction where the author uses established characters, settings, and/or other intellectual properties from an original creator as a basis for their writing.” I like to think of it as playing in someone else’s sandbox: the characters and world-building already exist and all you have to do is experiment with how the pieces fit together. As a self-identified fanfiction author, I can say that there is a freedom and satisfaction in being able to jump right in and write with characters and settings one is already familiar with— we don’t wish to infringe upon the original creator, we want to expand upon the gifts they have already given to us.
Sometimes people write fanfiction (often referred to as “fanfic” or “fic” in short) due to experiencing scenarios like the one I described earlier. Pieces written to fill in (or, in some cases, entirely rewrite) unsatisfactory gaps in existing media are often colloquially known as “fix-it fic;” these are literary Band-Aids to staunch the bleeding of our proverbial wounds. Others seek to expand upon silences and missing scenes in the original body of work; by creating brand new scenes in the context of the original narrative, fanfic writers and readers can explore character development and motivations in ways that are limited by the scope of the original narrative. Some fanfic writers and readers gravitate toward works that take a cast of characters from one setting and place them in a different, completely unrelated setting, usually called alternate universe (AU) fics. A popular variation, known as the coffee shop AU, includes taking two characters (assumed for the purposes of the fic to be romantic partners) and placing them in a setting where one is a barista at a local coffee shop and the other, a patron. As they say, shenanigans ensue! These are just a few brief examples of types of fanfiction someone might experience, but finfiction as an entity is a shapeshifter, constantly morphing to reflect not only its parent media, but also its writer’s intent.
“You know, Kayti, that’s valid!” you may be saying to yourself. “But what about copyrights? Is fanfiction legal?” Ultimately, it’s a grey area, but I’d venture to say that most contemporary fanfiction falls under the legal definition of a transformative work. A transformative work, as defined by the Organization for Transformative Works, “takes something extant and turns it into something with a new purpose, sensibility, or mode of expression.” Most fanfiction, by its experimental and exploratory nature, seems to fall under this definition and thus, as transformative works, are considered fair use and thus legal! And while I certainly can’t speak to all fanfiction, I can say with some measure of certainty that Archive of Our Own (managed by the Organization for Transformative Works and often called AO3), has in recent years become the favored destination for many, if not most, fanfic readers— which is heartening, as AO3’s relationship to the Organization for Tranformative Works means that all works hosted on AO3 are considered transformative and are thus protected as such!
As transformative works, fanfiction carries its own value. Fanfiction can encompass anything from the birth of a young writer’s creativity to scathing critiques of an original work (written in pastiche) articulated by published, professional authors. Most often, I find fanfiction is a place for so many of us who have been utterly entranced by our favorite characters and narratives to connect over those thoughts and feelings in healthy, constructive, and creative ways. And, dear reader, if you have ever found yourself wondering “what if” about your favorite media – I invite you to join us!