Blurring The Lines Of Originality: Is Fanfiction Mainstream?

Many published authors such as Sarah J Maas, Rainbow Rowell, Cassandra Clare and many many more got their literary starts thanks to fanfiction sites which encouraged them to ultimately pursue traditional publication.

In this post we’re looking at how fanfiction stories have gone mainstream.

Is fanfiction the same as story retelling?

In many ways, fanfiction shares its roots with retellings, in that characters who are familiar to readers are taken on new adventures by an author different from their original creator.

Where retellings are usually marked by some sort of official licensing agreement or utilise characters in the public domain, fanfiction usually is created around characters and worlds that are very much still the property of their original creators. Countless fanfictions exist for almost any character you can think of.

Now, before you worry, this isn’t the type of post that’s going to have a go at fanfiction or dismiss those who write it. I love the creativity that’s shown in fanfiction and think it’s an excellent tool for exploring and honing an author’s writing craft.

So why write this post? Because after spending so long thinking about retellings, I’m curious about why stigma sometimes still exists around books that have their origins in fanfiction. When that stigma doesn’t seem to be as pervasive for retellings (many retellings are celebrated, even though the quality may be poorer than their fanfiction counterparts)

By stigma, I’m not talking about plagiarism but rather the mockery that sometimes accompanies these books. In part, I wonder if it’s because many of these fanfiction-gone-mainstream novels exist in the romance genre. A genre which has faced mockery and internalised misogyny since its inception.

What makes good fanfiction?

In my opinion, what makes a good fanfiction is very similar to what makes a good retelling: it’s all about the compelling changes the author makes to the stories and characters.

Fanfictions that have gone mainstream seem to understand this assignment because in order to dodge plagiarism claims the work needs to be transformative. Something which retellings often don’t achieve.

The result is something that ends up being an original story, that still carries the echoes of what was loved about those original characters or world, but can stand as a story in its own right. It’s a blurring of the lines of originality in an artistic and fascinating way.

In stories that have their origins in fanfiction, we see more clearly than usual, the way that art references art. The way that creatives interact with that which has come before, is fascinating.

Is fanfiction becoming more mainstream?

As mentioned earlier, many authors got their starts in writing fanfiction. But there are also some books that have been traditionally published, which were published previously as fanfictions. I admire these authors immensely for taking their stories to a broader audience, beyond the fandom communities that first sparked these ideas.

Recently, I’ve read two stories that fall into this category: The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood, and Go Hex Yourself by Jessica Clare. While both stories started out as Reylo fanfiction (Star Wars fanfiction focused on the characters Kylo Ren and Rey) they’ve grown to take on a life of their own.

In the case of both these books, when I picked them up, I had no idea that they started out life as Reylo fanfictions. But having read quite a few fanfictions, and being a fan of the Star Wars universe, when I picked up the references I was delighted.

While some may say that keeping these references (character descriptions, and some naming) in the book may be jarring, I disagree.

It’s wonderful that some authors aren’t ashamed to provide a nod to the place fanfiction has in the literary scene, even within their own stories.

These authors have produced books that are transformative, and if you weren’t aware of the Star Wars universe and the massive fandom around Reylo, you likely wouldn’t even connect these stories with their roots.

Fanfiction has faced much of the same dismissal or outright hostility that the romance genre has. Given that so many authors would not be of the same calibre of a writer without it, this seems unfair.

Why are retellings lauded, and yet books which were developed through fanfiction are sneered at? I find this double standard fascinating to unpack.

While, of course, books should be transformative and offer a fresh perspective, I’m pleased to see authors like Ali Hazelwood and Jessica Clare reworking stories and being unashamed of engaging in fanfiction.

What books have you read that are based on fanfiction? Do you have a favourite fandom? Let me know in the comments.

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