Histories of...

A Brief History of Fanfiction

Fans have always made pop culture their own–but key to modern fanfic is its sense of community

3 min read

A set of illustrated Jane Austen novels.
Image credit: John Lodder // CC BY 2.0
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We might think of fan fiction as something new–a beast of the web. But fans were sharing stories about Sherlock Holmes almost a century before Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr. played the role on screen. Janeites–devotees of the works of Jane Austen–were even earlier.

Playing with narratives and characters taken from others is hardly a matter of the novel’s era either. Think of Anansi, or Greek myths, for example. Go back as far as there were campfires to tell stories in the round, and you’ll find something.

However, Kristina Busse, founding co-editor of the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, argues that we lose some of the meaning of this thing we call fanfic if we stretch the term too far. “If you just want someone taking a character from a story and telling their own story, then yes, you can go far back as far as you want,” she told me. “I know a lot of fanfic writers love doing it, because it makes fanfic all the more universal, justifies it.” But, Busse worries, you also risk sacrificing what makes fanfic interesting.

“There is a difference between Wicked [an explicit retelling of The Wizard of Oz] or Wide Sargasso Sea [Jean Rhys’ parallel novel to Jane Eyre], for example, and what you find on An Archive of Our Own or FanFiction.Net,” she said. And key to that difference is community.

There are various ways to spin the history of fanfic, but most say something happened in the 1960s with Star Trek. This series not only inspired fans, but it offered a whole infrastructure with which they could interact. There were conventions to attend and magazines where they could be published. While Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes had huge audiences, even fan clubs and systems in which they could communicate with each other, their infrastructures weren’t nearly so developed.

Star Trek also became “trans-fannish” very quickly, Busse explained, intermingling with followers of other series. “In the 1970s conventions started to include Doctor Who, and by the 1980s you have entire zines that are nothing but crossovers. It moved beyond the specific show; people would become fannish butterflies where they would go from one fandom to another.”

In doing so, they brought with them characters, plots, and settings–and also tropes. Busse refers to what’s become known as a “fuck or die” trope, where the author puts characters into a situation that forces intimacy. It develops from a feature of Star Trek‘s Spock character, but has gone on to play a role in multiple other fandoms since. “You get it in detective stories,” Busse told me. And even if it doesn’t make immediate sense within the original story, “it makes sense within the fan community, because people jump from fandom to fandom and take their tropes with them.”

Sherlock Holmes fandom traditionally remained outside this activity. Its members tended to call their stories homage, not fiction. But recent versions of the Holmes stories have brought new fans, including fanfic tropes rooted in other story worlds–meaning, for instance, Holmes and Watson get put in that Star Trek-based fuck or die position. “You get these fascinating battles now where old time Sherlockians and the new Sherlock BBC people come from very different backgrounds and both try to occupy a space,” said Busse.

These community adaptations help explain how on earth Fifty Shades of Grey emerged out of Twilight. (Yes, Fifty Shades is Twilight fanfic.) “She [the author E. L. James] wasn’t the first, nor was she the last, to develop this particular plot and these versions of the characters,” Busse argued.

Still, Busse feels something is lost when you take a fanfic based story like Fifty Shades of Grey and publish it as a standalone book. You lose that sense of community. “It gets taken out of the context of hundreds of thousands of other stories which took Bella and Edward and put them in these settings,” she said. “So to take it out of the community of readers who would have read and shared other stories–stories that [the author] responds to, other stories that respond to her–kind of takes something away.” All writing is a form of collaboration, but fanfic is especially so.

Technology has played a key role in building these communities and allowing them spaces to work together to develop these story worlds. At first, fans photocopied zines and distributed them at conventions. Then things slowly went online, with The X-Files marking the biggest early online-only fandom. First there were news groups and then mailing lists, followed by a short period on blogs. People soon moved to LiveJournal because it offered such a great comments structure. More recently, Twitter and Tumblr have become key community places.

What’s especially interesting to Busse is that not only do fans populate these new media spaces, but they actively modify them to fit their needs. They also help each other learn how to use these services and play a role in changing them. Through such creative use of new media, Busse argues, fandom has given its members, often women, a way to learn technologies.

“When AO3 [Archive of Our Own] got coded, it was the largest majority-women independent coding project anywhere. So you had people who’d never coded a line before in their life learning programming language and then contributing to the project,” she said. “People learn usable skills in their pursuit of fandom, whether it’s editing video, or images, or HTML. I was always the queen at my kids’ projects, because I was the one that knew the video software. And I’m horrible! Like I couldn’t make a vid to save my life, but I still knew more than everyone else’s parents, because I would do little images for friends or icons. I’d just know how to learn the programs, or I’d know who to ask.”

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Histories of”¦ section, which looks at stories of innovation from the past. Click the logo to read more.