What if when your life wasn’t going as planned — too much conflict or not enough — you could stop what you’re doing and re-write it? That’s the idea behind fanfiction, or made-up stories about existing characters.
Fanfiction has been around as long as stories have, but it was once considered uncool. Being passionate enough about something, be it a book or a TV show or a band, to absorb its characters into your own carefully crafted narrative, has been called “racy” and “nerdy.”
TikTok users have described a “new era” in which people are free to admit their consumption and creation of fanfiction. If you don’t like it, don’t press the “like” button and just keep scrolling.
It’s more popular behind the scenes, too, with original fiction platform Wattpad logging a 53 percent increase in new members from January 2021 to March 2020, a spokesperson from the company told In The Know. New story production also spiked in the same post-pandemic time frame.
Though more time indoors amid the pandemic certainly contributed to the amount of writing and reading people have been getting done, that’s not the only driving factor behind fanfiction’s heightened popularity.
What is it about the genre that’s so compelling to young people?
Fanfiction allows enthusiasts to explore a world of someone else’s creation through their own agency.
Anna, who predominately reads fanfiction about the K-pop group BTS, told In The Know she took to reading “absolutely wild” stories because she “needed true shock value to get [her] out of the pandemic-induced brain fog.”
Instead of picking up a traditional romance novel, she sought out familiar characters and “fan service.”
“I want to see my favorite characters being happy and do NOT want to meet anyone new,” she said. “If I cant do it in real life, I’m not gonna do it at 2 a.m. from my bed.”
There’s no heartbreak or tragedy in fanfiction — unless that’s your style. Of course, for some people, it totally is.
Fanfiction can help people process their emotions and explore their identity in a controlled setting.
On TikTok, fanfiction readers constantly discuss how they have to outwardly process the drama that happens in what they’ve just read.
Fanfiction writers do that on purpose.
Emile, who has been writing on-and-off since 2009, has used fanfiction to explore themes he can’t explore so much in his “real life,” though now he mostly uses it to explore “outlandish fantasies” within the realm of anime and Star Wars fandoms.
“When I was younger I really used it as a way to connect with my transness and my sexuality in a way that was safe and accessible before I was ready to come out,” he told In The Know. “I like to play with the consequences of real-world scenarios and push those boundaries.”
Ro, who has been writing fanfiction for 10 years, told In The Know that writing is an outlet for her to “process emotions, project my deepest fantasies and parse out my own thoughts.”
“It has been an essential tool of self-discovery as well as self-acceptance,” she said. “It helped me explore and flesh out my own relationship with my sexuality … and gave me the space to represent people and stories where my own experiences …. can get reflected.”
She said that she hopes the comfort she gets from writing through her own struggles can bring others comfort, too.
The tropes commonly used in fanfiction can be both exciting and comforting.
Most fanfiction sites allow users to be able to choose exactly what kind of story they want to read based on what tropes are at play in the work. Some of these tropes are alternative universes, or AUs, and others describe relationship dynamics and the makeup of the plot.
You might want to read a slow-burn about friends-to-lovers, or a coffeeshop AU with angst. Multiple TikTokers have dedicated their accounts to celebrating and poking fun at the tropes present in fanfiction.
“What is fanfic if not pure, indulgent sappiness?” Ro said. “What is fanfic without the tropes that never get old?”
Caroline said she prefers to read fanfiction that involves friends-to-lovers or fake dating on the site AO3, or Archive of Our Own.
“I was drawn to certain pairings and wanted to just, like, live in that space with them,” she told In The Know. “Then I started to learn the types of stories and dynamics that made me most excited … slice-of-life s***. It’s literally like drugs, being able to hand-curate the exact kind of things you’ll read — your favorite people, your favorite tropes.
To some, fanfiction is just a hobby — but it ranges from a quick escape to a highly-involved community.
“I just viewed it as a hobby! Like I would write while I watched movies or TV shows, and did it just in my free time,” she told In The Know. “I was mostly writing it because it’s what I wanted out of the story so it’s a little selfish in motivation.”
She said what started as an exercise to get her back into writing became about 200,000 words.
P, who is a member of a relatively small fandom centered around the IT universe created by Stephen King in 1986 then adapted into films in 2017 and 2019, is currently writing fanfiction for a “reverse bang,” or a fanwork festival in which their writing is based on a piece of fan art.
They said this fandom in particular is unique because it rejects some of the canon, or something sourced from the original text, and introduces “really cool” epistolary storytelling vehicles beyond just traditional stories. For example, one fanwork is a social media account (or SMAU) for the cast and crew of a fictional Netflix show called Turtle Creek, which is based on King’s universe.
Fans have created such vivid AUs that some material is considered “fanon,” or what is widely accepted in the fandom that wasn’t included in the original text, P said. It begins as headcanon, or one fan’s extrapolation of canon to round out a character beyond what the original author provided.
Of course, fans aren’t typically getting paid to do this. It’s just for fun and to build a story and a community that enthusiasts can share.
Fanfiction can build global community through shared fictional worlds.
Ranger, who writes fanfiction about skateboarding anime series Sk8 the Infinity, said they write both to be super “self-indulgent” and to do character studies to get deeper into the way the show operates, which they then share with other fans.
“I got into the fandom specifically because I really wanted to talk about it with people and see theories … and none of my [real-life] friends were really biting into it,” they said. “Writing fic also enabled me to make friends within the fandom, so that crucially, I had people that I could share with …. or just support in their fannish endeavors.”
Ranger was thrilled when they stumbled upon a TikTok promoting their writing to other Sk8 fans, which then helped them get more eyes on their work, and thus build community.
Ranger described the thrill of having work resonate with others as a priority over being particularly “popular.”
User-generated fiction and fanfiction are finding new life on platforms like TikTok. With other forms of social media, fans would have to seek out Twitter accounts or Tumblr posts about their fandoms — thanks to TikTok’s algorithm, they can passively stumble on a new favorite while scrolling through their For You Page as usual.
The fanfiction community is undoubtedly growing on TikTok. The hashtags #wattpad, #fanfic and #fanfiction have a total of 10 billion video views associated with them — and counting. It’s common for TIkTokers to compare moments in their everyday lives to fanfiction tropes and re-enact plotlines from well-known works.
Fanfiction can become a money-making business venture.
Wattpad, a storytelling platform that is also ripe with fanfiction, now has a community of more than 90 million readers and writers worldwide. Some of them are actually making money off their writing.
Meghan Collie, a public relations and communications manager from Wattpad, told In The Know there have been “around 1,500 Wattpad stories have been adapted as books, TV shows and films” to date. There are an additional 90 TV and film projects in development at this very moment, too.
One such Wattpad fanfiction success story is the After movie series, which started as a viral Wattpad hit. The Harry Styles fanfiction adaptation had a successful sequel in 2020 and has two additional films in the pipeline.
To make it big writing original stories, you don’t have to be discovered by Hollywood elites. The Wattpad Paid Stories program allows writers to make money from their work directly on Wattpad. The 2-year-old program is home to 550 writers and 750 stories at the moment, offering a side door for making money for hard-earned original story ideas.
Of course, fanfiction doesn’t have to make money to be fulfilling. There’s something magical — literally — about escaping your real life to a world all your own.
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