What Fanfiction Can Teach Genre Writers

Welcome to Part 10 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Susana Polo (as moderator), Brent Lambert, Ira Alexandre, Jess Weaver, and Alexandra Rowland. The panel description was as follows:

Fanfiction’s popularity continues to grow, tapping into the special creative connection between authors and fans. What is it about this literary nexus that is so fascinating and stimulating for fans? And what might authors have to learn from fans who write it?

Fanfiction, for those of you who are unfamiliar, are stories written by fans of books or television shows or movies or games or whatever, expanding or reinterpreting the stories that the author presented. The official material is known as “canon”. (One ‘n’, not talking about the large gun). Fanfic has often been seen as ‘fringe’, even within fringe genres.

Although, these days, more and more professionally published authors are admitting to having written fanfic either in the past, or present.

In fact, an Archive of Our Own (or AO3), a website that hosts fanfiction from any writer who created an account, won the Hugo in 2019 for best fan work. Fanfiction as a derivative work is definitely becoming more accepted.

What Draws People To Fanfic?

There are tons of draws for both readers and writers of fanfic to enjoy:

  • more nuanced explorations of the characters and worlds that they adore.
  • unapologetically weird stories, freed from market pressure
  • a community with a certain level of acceptance — of ‘weirdness’ and letting people do their own thing, follow their own interests, and exploration
  • a found-family sense of community
  • a way to explore “what ifs”
  • turning conventional stories into far more diverse ones, giving more people representation
  • despite some stereotypes, the quality is often on par with non-fanfic writing
  • writing stories for an already existing fanbase — original fiction has to create that fanbase from scratch
  • the pure joy of sharing something you love

Popular Fanfic Tropes

  • slash fiction –
    In the days of yore, when fanfiction was originally shared online, it would often have the names of the main characters it featured in the title with slashes between their names. Such as “Kirk/Spock” or what-have-you.

    One very popular subgenre of fanfiction arose, called “slash fiction” in which canonically straight characters were shown in non-straight relationships. This type of fanfic became very common in the days when that sort of sexual preference was hidden in the subtext, if included at all. Some of these stories were sweet crushes, some were romantic stories, and some were straight up smut.
  • characters we always see ‘saving the world’ written into calm, coffee shop sort of situations
  • slice of life stories
  • fanfic enjoys the contrast: characters from loud/action heavy stories often get quiet fanfic, while characters from quiet stories often get action heavy stories
  • cross-overs! What would happen if character from this fandom met the character from that fandom? Doctor Who and Buffy or what-have-you
  • ‘but there was only one bed’
  • friends-to-lovers
  • ‘slow burn’
  • canonically divergent – but what if X had never happened

What Can a Writer Learn From Fanfic?

The biggest thing many writers learn is how to accept constructive criticism. When you’re putting your work out there, either in its entirety, or a chapter at a time, you’re getting likes and comments and unabashed love. But, while the readers love both the source material and your stories, and honestly just want the best and most nuanced reflection of the cannon work, their comments can be biting.

Fanfic, at its heart, can also be a deep criticism of the canonical work, in prose format.

Writing Fanfic teaches:

  • besides dealing with criticism — both constructive and not
  • how characters work
  • pacing
  • what excites readers and keeps them coming back
  • it lets them experiment with voices and styles and genres
  • Plus? plenty of tough love on grammar and more

Writers and their own Fanfic Communities

Writers have historically had a fraught history with fanfic. Some writers have embraced it (see the Lovecraftian universe), some revile it, wanting complete control over their created worlds and characters, and some have done both.

Legal disputes over the original author using plots similar to those found in fanfic of their works have led many authors feeling compelled to ban others from playing in their creative worlds.

The panelists shared a story of a guy from a Marvel fanfic community who disappeared, and the community was thrilled one of their own had made it! He’d been hired to write for Marvel! But. When Marvel found out, they dropped the job offer. It can be tricky.

So. Should you read fanfiction of your own works? It might be a bad idea. Once you put your world, your stories out there? The ideas belong a little bit to every reader. The experience of their connection to your book belongs to them. And being told that your reading of a book was wrong… invalidates that experience.

In the fanfic community, there is a belief that your work lives beyond you, and can exist on a whole ecosystem of beliefs.

Two views can be valid at the same time, without invalidating one or the other. But, it can be a struggle to internalize and balance other peoples’ opinions about your works.

Of course, there are some writers who write fanfic of their own stories — things that let them explore ‘what ifs’ of taking the characters or the stories in a different direction. As one of the panelists shared, it can give you the space to be black or queer or both. It can be healing to do your own fanfic, counter-balancing all the work you have to do to be palatable to the market, and remembering what it is to write someDthing not beholden to anyone (except the ‘like’ button).

Fanfic is filling the role of folk-art in our modern culture. We have a need to communal stories and this lets us explore this. Copyright allows people to make money and to own their own story and canon.

Have you written fanfic? Have people written fanfic about your original works? Tell me about your experience!


  1. “In days of yore, when fan fiction was shared online”?

    I think not. In days of yore, before there was usenet, even, there were fanfic fanzines – you know, on dead trees, sent through the US mail…. (And I know a number of folks who did that with fanfic.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Don’t know if this would be classified as “fanfic” or not, but my now-ex son-in-law publishes stories ‘starring’ Sherlock Holmes, in anthologies alongside other authors. Interesting narrow genre, huh?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great bits of advice ❤ Writing in fanfiction to practice technique and test out characters/themes/plots was what allowed me to rekindle my love for writing. It also made me feel much more confident in my work.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. My AO3 account has close to a million words. Some of the earliest stuff is absolute trash. But the early trash helped me gain the confidence to seek out critique, and enabled me to learn how to write a cohesive story that people would want to read. If not for those near-million words, I would not be working on original projects today.

    Liked by 1 person

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