Updated: Aug 31, 2022
For many writers, I believe that the desire to put pen to paper begins with a love of stories. At least, this is true for myself. While I am a writing major, I attend an arts and communications college flush with film majors (it is our most popular major). Exposed to a different craft, I was surprised to learn that fanfiction is a concept that, while well-known and recognized within the realm of fiction writers, is one that does not apply to aspiring TV writers in the same way. My friends who are screenwriters will be sending out spec scripts (or speculative scripts), which are often sample episodes of current, on-air TV shows and which may be considered a form of fanfiction. This is a common, if not necessary practice within the industry, stemming from the fact that most TV writers will start out writing for pre-existing shows, even if their dream is to write an original show. In essence, they have to write convincing fanfiction.
While fanfiction is necessary in the TV industry (it is not even called fanfiction when it is in script format for a reason), literature is different. To say “I am a writer” typically means you are creating original work, telling a new story or providing new voice. As someone who is pursuing writing as a major, plagiarism is a great fear (both of committing it and having someone steal from me). Authors typically write on their own (writing is a notoriously lonely craft), striving to produce new work, not add to something pre-existing. Many literary contests will explicitly state that fanfiction is not allowed and daring to put the word on a query letter to a literary agent or publisher will often get your query immediately tossed out. There are a plethora of reasons for this. Part of it does stem from the presumption that fanfiction is low brow in some way – the hobby of sexually frustrated teenagers or bad writers. This stereotype and assumption is not always true, particularly when some of the works of the canon and the works we study in our classes are in fact fanfiction. Paradise Lost (The Bible), Wide Sargasso Sea (Jane Eyre), Ulysses (The Odyssey) are a few such examples.
Fanfiction has its pros and cons. For one, it is an excellent exercise in using a provided setting to develop a plot or see where these pre-established characters could end up if several canonical elements are changed. Fanfiction has also tackled the lack of diversity in many canonical works and has given younger authors a safe way to explore their sexuality in addition to allowing writers to flex their muscle and see what they can produce for fun. And while it is true that publishers are warming up to fanfiction, plagiarism is still a major concern and should be high on every author’s list of fears. “Inspired by”, “rewritten”, and “fanfiction of” all mean trickily similar things, but they are still not the same. “Inspired by” and “rewritten” tend to be used when mythology, history, folk tales or other such sources are used as the springboard, and typically, these are stories or characters that exist in public domain or are so deeply ingrained in culture that a writer can use them without needing permission.
Fanfiction, however, can be considered a form of theft. I know this sounds harsh, but as I said before, as a writer, having someone steal your work is an awful possibility and while fanfiction is often a compliment to how well-loved the work is, it still is legally considered plagiarism if published. Fanfiction may be an excellent writing exercise, but authors should develop confidence in their own world-building, in breathing life into their own characters who act out in their own ways because, after all, we can’t keep telling the same stories. I always loved rewriting Greek myths as an exercise, but as I grew as a writer and began to know myself better as a person and an artist, I found that I wanted to explore my own mind and imagination more than that of others. This is not to say that writing fanfiction is wrong, but for legal reasons, it cannot be published most of the time.
I encourage readers to attempt the difficult task of navigating their own imagination. Keep writing fanfiction for fun, for exercise, for your own happiness, but don’t be afraid to see where your own creativity takes you. For all the reasons that writers produce fanfiction, they should explore their own original settings and characters. New stories are needed to explore new worlds, to add diversity to the canon, to surprise readers, and add color to publishing. Fanfiction can accomplish a lot, but so can being brave enough to tell your own story.
About the author: Cassandra Martinez is a writer facing the impending terror of post-grad life. Her poetry and photography has been printed in several publications and she often writes about airports, feminism, Virginia summers, and the terrible things we do for love. She is from Richmond, Virginia but secretly wants to run away to an island off the coast of Spain or maybe Greece. She loves reading, bees, museums, and everything warm and pink. You can currently find her in Boston dreaming about being somewhere tropical and breaking the white male canon.