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Why I Write Fanfiction

by Melusina




So I've been thinking a lot lately about why I write fanfiction. The short answer is easy. I'd read it for years, I'd been writing nonfiction, and trying and failing to write original fiction for a while, and I thought that trying my hand at established characters would be like learning to swim using water wings. I could borrow someone else's characters and situations and give them a little spin, work on plotting and description, instead of character and world creation. The goal was to do that for a while and then make another try at original fiction.

But the more I write fanfic, the more I realize that there is more to it for me. Part of it was a feeling, justified or not, that I was not fully participating in the community as a reader. This is partially due to my own tactic of mostly lurking - I rarely sent feedback, even to writers I loved, and I almost never participated in discussions about fanfic, although I did participate fairly actively in message boards devoted to discussing the source material, and I lurked on all kinds of fanfic mailing lists.

For me, it felt like it was necessary to be a writer to fully participate in the community. This may or may not be true, or most likely, it's true to a certain extent - the point is that it was my perception. I think it relates to something [info]linaelyn has talked about before; the idea that art and culture are things to participate in, not things to sit back and consume. You can't get the full pleasure out of being a passive consumer, although how you choose to participate may vary. Depending on your talents and interests, you could write stories or commentary, create a rec page, make vids/icons/photo manips, run an archive, etc. but I don't think you can be a full member of the community if you don't get involved in some way or another, and get to know the other participants. It's the problem that plagues all lurkers - you know all kinds of things about the people you're reading, but they don't even know you exist. It's a weird, one-sided relationship that, for me, was uncomfortable and ultimately unsatisfying.

There's another, more textual, reason I write fanfic.  It's one of the most significant ways that fans converse about the source material. The body of work in a particular fandom is a detailed and nuanced conversation about the original text, and about the various takes on it that have been presented in different pieces of fanfiction ("Yes," I can hear you all groaning, "we know - intertextuality"). One of the reasons I started writing fanfiction was that I walked out of Pirates of the Caribbean with an aching need to see the story go somewhere that canon was never going to take it, no matter how many sequels Disney turns out. I felt compelled to explore what that might look like. As I wrote, I was also reading other people's stories/responses, and incorporating my reactions to what they wrote into my stories. One of the most fascinating aspects for me has been the ways in which my understanding of the characters and their relationships has been inalterably shaped by certain pieces of fanfiction, and how that's shaped what I wrote. The flip side of that is the pleasure I've taken in actively collaborating in and contributing to that collective understanding.

One of the benefits of fanfiction over original fiction is the common agreement to accept a multiplicity of meanings. Yes, there are people who insist their interpretation or pairing is the only way to read the text, but for the most part, fanfic writers and readers are a flexible bunch. We can read (and often write) a variety of pairings, vastly different post-canon scenarios, and drastically different characterizations without batting an eye. In general, in original fiction, once you've written a scenario, you can't go back and write the same situation with the same characters and change the outcome (the exception is worlds like the Buffy-verse, where alternate universes are canon), in fanfiction I can write a story where Jack and Will and Elizabeth are a happy triad, and follow it up with one in which Jack and Will have a brotherly relationship and Jack's in love with James. I can dip back into the source material infinitely, reshaping and reinterpreting the original text, exploring all the various permutations of my favorite characters.

I haven't abandoned my goal to write original fiction - I enjoy playing with my own characters without feeling the constraint of someone else's ideas. But I no longer see fanfiction as merely a stepping stone to that goal, or as Neil Gaiman has described it, "writing with training wheels." It's much more complicated and intriguing than that, and also, I think it's fair to say, more worthwhile than that description would imply. The textual aspects of it are not unique - I could write original fiction that was grounded in Arthurian myth or Shakespeare and derive some of the same satisfaction of playing with archetypes; but the community aspects of it - the visceral pleasure of participating in an ongoing conversation with all these wild tangents and sudden changes of focus - are somewhat more unusual, and very enthralling. Ultimately, that's why I write fanfiction - to be a part of that sprawling conversation and to contribute my two cents.


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