A good friend of mine—whose name I am not using here, because some bruises deserve to go unprodded, and she has a right to be hurt—said recently, “Every time I talk about writing fanfiction, I get hate mail.” She wasn’t exaggerating. I’ve seen, with my own eyes, what happens to authors, especially female authors, especially female authors of young adult fiction, when they mention their time in the fanfic world.
I got angry. On her behalf; at the world; at the unfairness of it all. What you are about to read came out of that anger. Much of this originally appeared on my Twitter, one concise chunk at a time. I’ve expanded it a little, cleaned it up, and clarified the places where it wasn’t exactly right the first time. The original thread is still on Twitter, if you feel the need to verify that I haven’t changed my tune (but if you hum a few bars, I bet you can harmonize).
Here, in this longer forum, I also want to add a few disclaimers.
FIRST: This is written from a very gender binary perspective: boys and girls and men and women. This is because I am writing it from my experiences as a member of the fanfic community, and my experiences with the way the world worked in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Genderqueer, agender, and genderfluid people have always existed, but it’s only in the past few years that we’ve been including them properly in the conversation. This means my data is virtually non-existent. I can only speak from where I stand.
SECOND: The fanfic community has serious, deep-rooted issues with the treatment of characters of color, often erasing them from their own properties and consequentially alienating many aspiring POC fanfic writers. This is similar to the way fanfic can erase canonical female characters, but even more insidious and widespread. Because again, I am speaking only from the position of my own experiences, I am not equipped to speak to this nasty aspect of the fanfic world.
THIRD: Boys, men, and masculine genderfluid people absolutely do write fanfic, and the experience of a queer or gender-nonconforming male stands a good chance of mirroring much of the experience of a female. I am not trying to erase you. I just, again, can only speak from where I stand.
FOURTH: Not all fanfic is porn. If something borrows setting (Star Trek, Star Wars, MCU) or characters (coffeeshop AUs, fairy tale AUs, mashups), it is fanfic. Sex is an aspect of many successful fanfic stories, but the word “fanfic” is sort of irrelevant in that sentence: sex is an aspect of many successful stories, period.
We all on board? Great.
So far as anyone can tell based on excavation of my old papers—Mom kept everything—I started writing fiction around the age of six. In those early stories, I ran off to Ponyland to have adventures with the Ponies and hang out with Megan. Everyone loved me, naturally. I got to ride unicorns. I saved Flutter Valley a dozen times. I had no idea anyone would think I was doing anything wrong, and why should I? Most of the kids I knew were making up the same stories; I was precocious only in that I was already writing them down. The boy three houses over had a very close relationship with the Care Bears. His sister was the best mechanic the Transformers had ever known.
Was most of it self-insert wish-fulfillment? Well, yeah. FUCK, YEAH. We were kids. We were learning how to make up stories, and the best stories were the ones that had a place for us in their centers. We didn’t just want to hear about the adventure. We wanted to live it.
Jump forward a few years and most of the boys I knew stopped telling those stories, or at least stopped sharing them with the rest of us. They had discovered that the majority of media centered boys exactly like them, which meant they could move from self-insertion to projection without a hiccup. The boys who couldn’t manage that immediate act of projection understood that they would be showing weakness if they admitted it. They may not have stopped making up adventures for boys who looked like them, but if they did it, they did it in secret.
(Projection is an important step in learning how to make believe. If you can’t BE the main character, you can let them be your avatar, carrying your essence into the story. Here’s the thing, though: it takes time to learn to “ride” avatars that you can’t recognize. When all the avatars you have offered to you look like someone else, you can wind up shut outside the story, or fumbling to find those points of commonality that will let you step inside.)
Enter The Default, that strong-jawed, clear-eyed, straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, vaguely Christian (but not too Christian) male. Everyone who grows up on a diet of Western media learns, on some level, to accept The Default as their avatar, because we historically haven’t had much choice. Want to be the hero, instead of the love interest, the scrappy sidekick, or the villain? Embrace The Default. Learn to have empathy with The Default. He’s what you get.
Kids who look like The Default exist, of course. No one teaches them how to empathize with the rest of us, and that’s a problem too, one that short-changes them badly. But that’s a little bit outside the scope of today’s discussion.
Back to elementary school, where bit by bit, the number of girls who admitted to making up their own stories also dropped off. The rest of us, well. We learned that “I had an adventure…” made people laugh at you. We stopped writing about ourselves and started writing avatars, characters who could represent us in the stories without quite being us.
Only writing avatars also got us laughed at when people found out about it, got us accused of Mary Sue self-insert wish-fulfillment bullshit, as if half the stories on the shelves weren’t exactly that for those lucky few who matched The Default. We stopped making up original female characters. Many of us stopped making up characters at all.
If we used only existing characters as our avatars, we didn’t get laughed at as much. If we used only existing male characters—characters we had all been trained to view as The Default, capable of anything, not just of being The Sidekick or The Girl—well. Suddenly we could write ANYTHING WE WANTED. Suddenly we were GODS OF THE FICTIONAL WORLD, and we could finally start telling the stories the shows and books didn’t want to give us. Our stories were finally judged based on what they were, and not what people thought they knew about us, and them.
(I honestly think the reason so many fanfic writers are women/girls [or gay, or gender-noncomforting, or some combination of the above] is a mixture of social stigma [“ew, fanfic is a GIRLY thing, ew, it’s all PORN, and most of it is GAY PORN”] and seeking a way to empathize with The Default. I also think this contributes to the prevalence of male/male couples in fanfic even when written by authors who identify as straight: by being only The Default, we move away from the “ew icky girls” reactions. But that’s another conversation.)
So you have generations—literal, multiple generations—of largely female authors growing up steeped in fanfic. Making our own stories from high school on, if not before. Trying to find our way to a schema of story that actually fits us.
(You also have generations of queer authors, trans authors, and gender-nonconforming authors, all going on their own journeys. My sexuality definitely influenced my attraction to fanfic, because finally, I wasn’t being judged for it.)
This means that you have, again, generations of female authors who have gone through the most rigorous writing school in existence, going pro and starting to publish. Yes: the most rigorous. FIGHT ME. Fanfic taught me pacing. Taught me dialog. Taught me scene, and structure, and what to do when a deadline attacks. Fanfic taught me to take critique, to be edited, to collaborate, to write to spec. FANFIC MADE ME.
An MFA takes three years. My path from fanfic newbie to published author took me more than a decade. It’s not a structured school. There aren’t classes or finals; you don’t get a degree. How fast you learn is tied to how fast you listen, and you can stop whenever you find the place that makes you happy. “Going pro” is not the brass ring for every fanfic author, nor should it be; fanfic is a genre unto itself in some ways, and there are people who thrive within its conventions and constraints who would be miserable doing anything else.
A not inconsiderable number of us started writing fanfic because we wanted to live the stories that we loved, and then discovered that we loved telling stories. We wanted to do it always and forever and maybe…maybe we wanted to tell OUR OWN STORIES. Maybe we wanted to CHANGE THE DEFAULT. Can you imagine? The audacity! Graduates of a school that doesn’t cost money, with a “student body” made of mostly women, CHANGING THE DEFAULT.
Because here’s where I’m going to pivot a little, and tell you a filthy, filthy secret: lots of men write fanfic too. It’s just that sometimes they can get away with calling it “homage,” or “public domain,” or “licensed work,” and get on with their bad selves. Maybe more importantly, the world calls it all those things.
Fuzzy Nation? Fanfic. Wicked? Fanfic. Every X-Men comic written since Claremont stopped? Fanfic. Your beloved Hamilton? Real-person fanfic. Songfic, even.
When men write fanfic, there is a tendency for the media to report on it as “transformative” and “transgressive” and “a new take on a classic story.” When women do it, the same media goes “hee hee hee she wrote about dicks.” Am I blaming the men who tell the stories? Fuck, no. Anybody gets to tell any story they want to. But when the conversation is always framed as “HE makes LITERATURE, SHE writes TRASH,” that is the schema people seize upon. That is the narrative we live.
The Default, now, is that a man who writes fanfic is uplifting and transforming, showing us the pearl within the oyster, whereas all the woman wants to show us is the “pearl” in the “oyster,” in the Victorian sense. AND THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THE VICTORIAN SENSE. But this is just an updated version of the “men write literature, women write romance” conversation that’s been going on since I was a wee small Seanan sneaking my stepdad’s Playboys. And this is a problem. Women who admit they wrote (or still write) fanfic get shit upon, over and over again, because we keep saying, and allowing the media to say, that fanfic is trash, and that by extension, we who write it are garbage people.
It gets used as a “gotcha.” I have experienced it directly, the interviewer who drops their voice, leans in conspiratorially close, and asks if the rumors that I used to write…those stories…are true. They always look so damn shocked when I respond with a cheerful, “Oh, yeah, my agent initially contacted me because she really enjoyed my Buffy the Vampire Slayer Faith/Buffy porn!” And usually, that’s where they change the subject, because I won’t be properly ashamed. I am supposed to be ashamed of my past. I am supposed to repudiate the school where I learned to hold an audience; I am supposed to bury the bodies of all the girls who made me. I refuse.
Fanfic is a natural human interaction with story. Children do it before they know its name. People who swear they would never do such a thing actually do it all the time, retelling fairy tales and Shakespearean dramas and family anecdotes in new lights and new settings. FANFIC WILL NEVER DIE. We need to acknowledge that fact: we need to accept that fanfic is never going away, and that it would suck a sack of wasps through a funnel if it did, because we need it. We need to center old stories in new ways, to update The Default, and yeah, to see some vampire peen.
So if you know someone who wrinkles their nose at fanfic, or who would tell a former fanfic author that their original fiction is somehow worth less because of their roots, or who is just generally an impacted asshole with legs, remember:
They are wrong. Fanfic is beautiful. Writing fanfic teaches you important storytelling skills. I have a funnel and access to wasps. Thank you for coming to today’s episode of Seanan Gets Mad About Things, and join us next time for No It’s Not All Porn And There Wouldn’t Be A Problem If It Was.
Originally published in April 2018.
Seanan McGuire is the author of the October Daye urban fantasy series, the InCryptid series, and several other works, both standalone and in trilogies. She lives in a creaky old farmhouse in Northern California, and was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. In 2013 she became the first person ever to appear fives times on the same Hugo ballot. The Wayward Children novella series —Every Heart a Doorway, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky, In an Absent Dream, and the forthcoming Come Tumbling Down—is available from Tor.com Publishing.