My relationship with fanfiction started as an English assignment. At the tender age of 12, my tiger parents forced me to spend every free moment at a local school. It was about 6:00 pm on a Friday evening in July. Neither of us had eaten dinner and our English teacher knew he was missing out. Mrs. L looked over her at her reading glasses, pursed lips, and said, “Your assignment for the weekend is to write a one-page alternate ending to William Shakespeare’s play.” Romeo and Juliet.”
At the time, I didn’t realize that we were being told to write fanfiction, but that’s how the same medium that spawned Fifty Shades of Gray it ended up becoming a decade-long guilty pleasure.
Normally, I resented the extra school of homework piled on my plate. But for whatever reason, that Romeo and Juliet the assignment ignited something in my academically fried brain. Cram schools revolve around math drills and brute-force vocabulary until you can factor quadratic polynomials in your sleep. None of the 20-page homework packs ever asked us to think about “what if…”
What if Juliet decided that Romeo’s corpse was a sign that she should run away from her abusive family and take herself to the nunnery Ophelia shunned? Sunday night I stayed up late writing, editing, rewriting, and re-editing my one-page masterpiece. She got a B plus, which in my family was the equivalent of a double F minus. I was grounded, but something deep and primal in my soul had changed.
It’s creepy to admit it, but I’ve spent most of the summer obsessing over it Gundam wing. I grew up on a healthy diet of Cartoon Network’s Toonami and have no other defense than being a weak pre-teen. In protest of my grueling load of homework, I snuck into my living room after my parents were asleep and prayed that the crackle of a 56K modem I wouldn’t wake them up. Google was starting to crop up and it took me right into the horny world of Gundam wing fanfiction. It was my first time using the internet for anything other than homework or AOL games.
Ninety-nine percent gave me a heart attack. I hid my tomato-red face behind my fingers as I browsed fan-curated libraries. Yet I was just as thrilled as I was scandalized. Here were thousands of people reaching out through the computer to ask “what if?” Of course, most of the questions were, “What if protagonists one and two are boned in the most deranged way possible?” But they had the audacity to ask such a blatant question And write about it in excruciating detail. Publicly.
Here were thousands of people reaching out through the computer to ask “what if?”
As an anxious preteen, that confidence was appealing. I wanted the freedom to ask disjointed “what if” questions and explore them. I lay up late into the night on LiveJournal, lurking as people smarter than me created communities around the fandoms they loved, wondering how I could tap into that. I clicked link after link until I got to fanfiction.net. Suddenly, I had access to a free library filled with thousands of stories that offered a glimpse into a world beyond the one my parents had planned for me. It was the first time ever that I understood what made the internet and the subcultures it spawned so exciting.
Before I knew it, I was starting to ask more of my “what if” questions every time I finished a movie, TV show, or novel. Eventually, I started giving myself permission to scribble some answers.
My English teachers didn’t approve. This was an unprestigious way to express creativity. True genius, they said, came from the original work, and it was a waste of talent to ponder legally dubious what-ifs. (Ironically, that’s how I knew the doctrine of fair use.)
I wanted to spit back which I was tired of alone reading the stiff prose of dead men. I wanted to scream that there was an army of deranged authors online writing some of the most transgressive stories I’ve ever seen. Of course, you can tell that some of them were written by people with weak knowledge of grammar (see: My Immortala Harry Potter fanfic which is widely regarded as the worst on the internet and has its own wiki). But I couldn’t find anything like it on the shelves of my local bookstores. I wanted to argue that, in 2001, this was one of the few online spaces that introduced me to the idea that queer people can have happy endings. But I still didn’t have the vocabulary to say it, so I kept my mouth shut.
Out of spite, I continued to read my crude fics in addition to my more “legitimate” reading.
Reading The Mummy fanfiction led me on a year-long unsuccessful attempt to read and write hieroglyphs. I learned more about the Civil War by reading a 130,000-word alternate universe written by a history graduate student than I ever did from AP US History. The footnotes in that story rivaled those of Vladimir Nabokov Pale fire. I definitely learned about classism in French slang after a two-year stint lurking in the Miserable sci-fi community. (Did you know author Victor Hugo had a 100-page digression into the novel about French slang?)
Fanfiction is no longer such a taboo pastime. It is wild, but since the early days of fanfiction.net and LiveJournal, has crept into the mainstream. Fifty Shades of Gray it’s a Dusk fanfic that has also been made into a movie. He wrote Rainbow Rowell Fangirlsan acclaimed novel about a college student who writes a mega-popular fanfic about a Harry Potter-esque series. That was then spun off into Continue And Rebellious sonan incredibly meta sequel series where you can read the story the Fangirls protagonist writes. There is a whole Pipeline from Wattpad to Movieswhere a One Direction fanfiction with a billion readers on Wattpad have been made into Netflix movies. The hypothesis of love by Ali Hazelwood, a romance novel that recently went viral on TikTok and got a movie deal, started as a Star Wars fanfiction. There are many other examples.
The genre is still met with a lot of derision, but it’s also openly celebrated in a way that seemed impossible when I was 12 years old. I don’t read about it as much as when I was a teenager. The fandom got a bit too much out there for meand adult life leaves less time for guilty pleasures. But old habits die hard. I still have alerts set up for my favorite fiction, and Archive of Our Own is the first site I go to if I hate the end of a story. I may have grown up a bit, but thanks to this delightfully strange internet subculture, I don’t ask myself “what if I had the confidence to write?” more.
Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge