Fanfiction: A billion-word phenomenon

And while it’s not unusual for fans to spend some time thinking along these lines, millions of people around the world have taken this to the next level - fanfiction.

Written by Ram Sarangan | Updated: September 24, 2016 7:08 pm
Harry Potter Harry Potter

How different would things have been in the Harry Potter world if Lord Voldemort had adopted baby Harry? If Jack had managed to survive the freezing water after the Titanic sank? If Veeru had been the one to die instead of Jai in Sholay? Even the most complete story can leave us with dozens of questions, leading to many imagined ‘what if’ and ‘what then’ scenarios ranging from time travel, to dimension hopping, to strange cross-universe romances (Supergirl and Harry Potter) and even stranger ‘adoption’ stories (Deadpool adopts Naruto), among other things.

And while it’s not unusual for fans to spend some time thinking along these lines, millions of people around the world have taken this to the next level – fanfiction. Unlike the thriving gamer subculture online, which is largely dominated by males, and has a reputation for being sexist and misogynistic (especially following the GamerGate controversy), fanfiction sees a significant number of female as well as male writers, though an exact figure is not available. In addition, you can also see stories where the genders of characters have been changed from canon (the original story) – Female Harry Potter (Harriet), female Naruto (Naruko), even female Loki (still Loki).

 

By borrowing characters, plots or even general settings from ‘original writing’, fans have come up with hundreds of thousands of creative tangents, involving one or multiple ‘fandoms’. These stories can range from short, thousand-word snippets to stories that easily cross a million words, often surpassing the length – and quality, some fans would argue – of the narrative it borrows from. One of the most popular websites for publishing fanfiction – fanfiction.net – boasts nearly 750,000 stories in the Harry Potter category alone.

A large number of Indians have also begun reading and writing fanfiction – This ranges from writing on popular series like HP or Twilight in Hindi and other Indian languages, to writing on Indian movies to the point where a separate category called Bollywood fanfiction is steadily rising. Fan forums of Bollywood actors like Shah Rukh Khan even devote entire forums to writing on that one actor. Focusing on the actor in the “real world” rather than on characters or narratives has led to a highly amusing and uncomfortable (for the actors) category of fanfiction where writers post real-world scenarios between themselves and the actor. This can, at times, lead to greatly
embarrassing scenarios – for the actor in question – involving extremely explicit scenes between themselves and the author.

The fanfiction community works very similarly to the Youtube system, except for the fact that individual writers cannot monetize their stories – The websites themselves, however, do so. Views, followers, favorites and reviews are generally recorded by fanfiction websites as a way of allowing authors to measure the response to their stories. Depending on the website in question, other features like forum-based communities where authors and readers can interact with each other are also present.

Despite the fact that the authors have no monetary benefits, fanfiction produces writing on a scale unmatched by most other creative endeavors. Some websites boast registered users in the range of the low millions. Websites that host fanfiction have, however, faced several copyrights issues over the years, leading to them instituting several changes in policy. Authors like Nora Roberts and Terry Goodkind have specifically requested that fanfiction based on their writing not be archived.

Some websites have also banned fanfiction targeting ‘celebrities in real life’. A notable exception this would be professional wrestling fanfiction, which is one of the most popular categories in fanfiction. While the major websites have been able to enforce these regulations, smaller websites or individual blogs (such as on Tumblr) still carry fanfiction on the barred categories. Despite concerns over “large amounts of time being spent unproductively” or “the lack of creative energy going into original writing”, fanfiction is generally seen as a positive endeavour, as it offers a creative outlet for many people, predominantly teenagers and young adults. Many fanfiction writers also refuted concerns over the lack of original writing by pointing out that they pursued both forms of writing simultaneously, and often used their fanfiction stories to try out new techniques, concepts, or simply as a way to relax.

There are even websites like KindleWorlds, which has acquired ‘licenses’ to several ‘worlds’, and allows people to write stories based on those worlds and publish it with a designed cover, much like one would publish original e-books. They are usually priced between $0.99 and $3.99, with the writers of these stories normally receiving 35% of the net revenue. With the kind of growth that fanfiction is seeing, and the level of creativity that goes into many of the stories, many now consider an entirely new format of writing – One unquestionably nurtured and brought into prominence by the widespread reach of the internet.

This has, in turn, started a discussion on what counts as ‘creative writing’, whether fanfiction can be monetised (as KindleWorlds has done through licensing) and whether fanfiction writing has enough original content to be counted as a distinct entity, despite being sourced from ‘original’ works.