It’s a Fanmade World: Your Guide to the Fanfiction Explosion

Photo: Randy Owen
fanmade essay

You Belong to Me

The fanfiction boom is reshaping the power dynamic between creators and consumers.

This kiss never happened in ‘Twilight’Edward and Jacob, by Randy Owen, graphite on paper.

Annie Proulx got ficced. In a recent interview in the Paris Review, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author confessed that she wishes she’d never written her most famous work, the short story “Brokeback Mountain,”about the star-crossed romance between two cowboys. Having fans is a good thing, especially for authors of ­quiet, spare realism — not exactly a cohort with a healthy surplus of readers. But in the last few years, writers, filmmakers, and other artists have seen fans seize control of their creations and re­imagine them as fan­fiction, or fic, as its aficionados like to call it. Proulx first got ficced when a whole new audience came to “Brokeback” after the Academy Award–winning film adaptation was released in 2005. Less reverent than her typical reader, these fans have busily set themselves to producing what Proulx has termed “pornish” fiction based on her story’s two main characters, Jack Twist and Ennis Del MarBrokeback ’s Jack and Ennis in their Hollywood incarnation.. “Unfortunately,” she said, “the audience that ‘Brokeback’ reached most strongly … can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed.” The resulting stories, Proulx grumbled, “just drive me wild.”

Proulx is far from the only mainstream artist being dragged unwillingly into a new, fan-dominated world. Once exiled to obscure corners of the internet, fanfiction — amateur fiction based on characters from preexisting works or real-life celebrities — has lately become a force driving popular culture. As Proulx realized, fans these days aren’t satisfied to just sit back and consume. They want to participate. They want to create. And they don’t want to wait for anyone else’s permission to do it. Millions of fanfiction stories have been uploaded onto vast online archives where other fans read, rate, and comment on them. Romances, often torrid, between ostensibly straight male characters like Harry Potter and his onetime nemesis Draco Malfoy are especially popular, and there’s an entire category of fanfiction, called mpregHarry Styles, left, with his son, whom he birthed (fictionally)., in which beloved male characters and celebrities (e.g., One Direction singer Harry Styles) are able, bizarrely, to get pregnant. Fandom’s untrammeled imagination is also colonizing the wider world. E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey started as Twilight fic. And what are J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek and Star Wars reboots — which take the original source materials (called “canon” in fic circles) and shape them to new ends — if not examples of the fanfiction spirit when enabled by hundreds of millions of dollars?

Although human beings have been stealing and reworking each other’s stories for millennia, fanfiction as we now know it began back in the days of Star Trek fanzinesKirk and Spock, the Ur–fic couple., on whose mimeographed pages female Trekkers wrote of Mr. Spock swooning in the arms of an ardent Captain Kirk. For decades, fanfiction communities — soon to migrate en masse to the web — ­functioned as a subset of science-fiction and fantasy fandom, where they were treated, by the mostly male nerds who ran things, like a younger sister best banished to her room whenever company came by. The internet changed all that by ushering in the era of the networked fan, often a girl who sampled her first taste of fic in Harry Potter fandomDraco Malfoy and Harry Potter as lovers.. Like it or not, the once-Olympian creators of the canon — known among fic writers as TPTB, or “the powers that be” — now have little choice but to listen to them. Robust, established online networks of Harry Potter and Twilight fans played a significant role in making The Hunger Games books into best sellers and, after that, blockbuster films.

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fanmade stats

Harry Styles Rules the World

Fanfiction by the numbers.

Fanfiction’s great allure is its lack of boundaries. If you can think it, you can share it. But this stuff doesn’t bubble up out of nowhere, and what’s popular on the screens of fanfiction readers is a pretty accurate mirror of what’s popular in real life, too. Here, with data supplied by online fic clearinghouse Wattpad, is what fans are reading and writing about.


Fanfiction (just one word, or you betray yourself as a noob) is the real Cinderella in this story, raised from the scullery by a fairy godmother named E L James. James’s erotica, originally titled “Master of the Universe,” reimagined Twilight’s Bella Swan and her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen, as, respectively, a gawky ingénue and the handsome, bondage-loving billionaire who seduces her. Such stories, in which the characters are essentially the same despite significant changes in their circumstances, are called AU, or “alternate universe” scenarios.

James isn’t the only fic writer to make the leap from fan to pro: Others include the historical-fantasy author Naomi Novik and YA star Cassandra Clare, creator of the Mortal Instruments seriesThe Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, first published in 2007. But James proved that fic could become an entertainment juggernaut to rival the original properties that inspired it. The movie version of James’s fic raked in more than $400 million internationally in less than two weeks, so literary agents and movie producers are looking for more of the same. Last April, a military wife named Anna Todd signed a lucrative contract with a Simon & Schuster imprint to publish, in multiple volumes, an epic erotic romance about a demure college freshman’s relationship with a tattooed bad boy named Hardin Scott. When Todd’s AfterAnna Todd, grassroots success. was first posted in installments on the online reading-and-writing community Wattpad in 2013, however, the hero’s name was Harry Styles. In the author’s original AU, the puckish singer is just another foreign student at Washington State University, albeit a fetchingly dimpled and brooding one. After, although clearly patterned on Twilight, is an example of “real-person fiction” (RPF), in which celebrities are cast as characters in concocted scenarios. Todd’s work garnered more than a billion views on Wattpad, and Paramount Pictures recently bought the screen rights.

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fanmade publishing

“There’s a Big Difference Between After and Jane Austen”

How Anna Todd turned herself into a fanfiction star.

Two years ago, Anna Todd was a bored, underemployed wife of a serviceman in Austin, Texas, whose main outlet was writing fanfiction about the relationship between a randy Harry Styles and a virginal college student named Tessa. Now, after some legally necessary character-name changes, the 25-year-old has a six-book deal with Gallery Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint, one worth a reported six figures, for her After series of erotic novels. Here’s how she did it, and what happened … after.

Why did you start writing Harry Styles fan fiction?

Well, I always loved reading and writing, and before I started writing After, I loved One Direction’s music. My cousin had sent me a screenshot of One Direction, and the caption was a little story, and she didn’t even notice it, but I did. I went to Instagram and found Imagines, which are fanfiction stories written as captions. But the person who wrote those stories would take like a week, which is long online. So instead of waiting, I just wrote my own. I chose Harry because he was my favorite at the time. I love them all.

Is he the most attractive member of One Direction?

I will never answer that question.

Is there anything you did that could serve as a model to other fanfiction writers? Or are you and E L James total outliers?

No one could model exactly after me. I was very lucky. It was the right timing, the right subject, the right everything. But there are bits and pieces of what I’ve done, like using social media, that people could take from. Make an Instagram account for your book. Respond to people if they post a picture of your work. You don’t want to just be the lady who wrote a book someone likes. You want to have a relationship with them, and they want one with you.

The big criticism of fanfiction is that it’s not good literature. Should it be judged by the standards of “regular” fiction?

There are obviously different skill levels with amateur fiction writers, but I don’t think that people should go, “Oh, that’s good for fanfiction.” At the same time, there’s a big difference between After and Jane Austen.

Is fanfiction still waiting for its Jane Austen, its undeniably talented, transformative figure?

Not to compare Fifty Shades of Grey to Jane Austen, but E L James opened up a lot of doors. Whether people hate fanfiction or not, it just keeps growing. ■

While fic labors under a (well-justified, it must be said) reputation for fostering an ocean of bad writing, it has also proved itself capable of producing accomplished and intelligent genre voices like Novik’s. It’s only a matter of time before a writer that the literary-fiction crowd acknowledges as one of its own emerges from such fertile ground. In fact, given that most fic writers are pseudonymous, it’s quite possible that one already has and that the talent responsible for a first novel well reviewed by the New York Times is also tinkering with SherlockFanfic skeptic Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, and Martin Freeman as Watson. “shipping” — the creation of new romantic relationships between previously unlinked characters — on the side. (Established authors like Lev Grossman and S. E. Hinton have dabbled in fanfiction.) Though fans’ efforts aren’t limited to the written word—YouTube is a trove of elaborate fanmade live-action Batman filmsImage from a Bat in the Sun fanmade movie. — it is written fic, as the Fifty Shades phenomenon proves, with its capacity to speak to the desires of a neglected female audience, that has the most potential to break out — and make some serious money.

Online fic communities don’t just assert the fans’ right to make up their own stories about other people’s characters; they offer writers an unprecedented degree of input from their audience, whose comments often lead to strategic rewrites. This prospect tramples on the cherished icon of the artist as a unique genius producing singular work. That ideal, however, is a relatively recent one, instituted by the Romantic movement in the late-18th and early-19th centuries and carried forward to the present day by the mandarin creed of modernism. Fanfiction proponents often point out that for most of its history, literature has been a tissue of borrowings and adaptations, from the Plutarch histories that Shakespeare reworked into his plays to the stock phrases and legendary figures used by Homer. In The Discarded Image,First edition, originally published in 1964. his book on the aesthetics of antiquity and the Middle Ages, C. S. Lewis wrote, “I doubt if they would have understood our demand for originality or valued those works in their own age which were original any the more on that account … Why make things for oneself like the lonely Robinson Crusoe when there is riches all about you to be had for the taking?”

One reason is the objections of those you take it from. Some authors — George R.R. Martin, Anne Rice, and Diana GabaldonFic-averse authors Rice, Martin, and Gabaldon., author of the Outlander series, among them — protest fic’s appropriation of their creations and ask fans to refrain from writing it., one of the oldest and largest online repositories of fic, has a policy of taking down stories when TPTB request it. Other creators, such as J. K. Rowling and Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, don’t object to fic based on their work. But tamping down the fanfiction explosion is effectively impossible. In the global village that the internet has facilitated, all of pop culture has become a kind of folklore whose mix-and-match components can be passed from storyteller to storyteller, ad infinitum.

Since the vast majority of fic is written without any expectation of recompense, copyright remains an open question, but fear of legal consequences had made many fic writers shy of public attention. Both James and Todd changed the names and some identifying traits of characters in their fics before publishing them professionally, a practice known as “filing off the serial numbers.” But now that fic holds out the promise of a significant payday, major players have entered the scene. In 2013, Amazon launched Kindle Worlds, a program in which fans could write and sell fic with the permission of, and according to, guidelines set by the original creators or copyright holders. Any sales are split three ways between the fan, the brand owner, and Amazon. Kindle Worlds is widely considered a bust, partly because the participating properties are not very enticing. Myriad restrictions imposed by the rights holders and stifling contractual terms were also growth deterrents, along with the absence of any meaningful community. Amazon has since launched an invitation-only beta program called WriteOn, which allows members to upload and share writing and to comment on each other’s work, much like Wattpad, currently the preferred fic hub for younger fans.

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fanmade reads

A Fanfiction Syllabus

Ten classics that cover the history, breadth, and depth of the form, with original custom-designed covers.

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A Fanfiction Syllabus

Yet even Wattpad, which reports the uploading of more than 14 million fics in 2014, has an uncertain business model. For many longtime fic writers and readers, theirs is fundamentally a gift economy, and the success of writers like James has prompted a predictable identity crisis as well as a lot of upstart pride. Fans who used to keep their hobby a secret have come out of the closet to defend their community from ridicule. Last fall, when Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, in an interview with Out, made dismissive remarks about erotic fic portraying Holmes in torrid clinches with Martin Freeman’s John Watson, outrage ensued. Elizabeth Minkel in Britain’s New Statesman wondered, “Does it matter that … middle-aged men with very large platforms were sitting at a table pathologizing teenage girls’ sexuality — and making a whole load of potentially harmful assumptions about a topic they know literally nothing about? Absolutely.”

The jabs are all the more irksome because Sherlock is itself a form of AU fic, in which Conan Doyle’s original characters have been transposed to contemporary London. Like Abrams’s science-fiction reboots, Sherlock sometimes seems to differ from fic primarily in the level of resources devoted to realizing its creators’ fantasies. Of course, the fantasies themselves are another matter, which is why it was important to mention the age and gender of Cumberbatch. Articulate fic advocates like Minkel champion the opportunity fandom provides to explore “(mostly) female desires.” Aja Romano, who writes on the topic for the Daily Dot, argues that “fandom is subversive. If a canonical worldview is entirely straight-white-male, then fans will actively resist it.”

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fanmade mash-ups

Steven Soderbergh, Auteur of Other People’s Films

Making new art out of old movies.

‘Psychos’Anne Heche and Janet Leigh in Soderbergh’s film.

Two years into his filmmaking retirement, Steven Soderbergh has made four new movies — they just haven’t featured any of his own material. Since last fall, Soderbergh has been quietly putting together one of the most intriguing projects in cinema fandom: recutting fresh versions of classic films. The director hasn’t spoken publicly about these efforts, but he did accompany his recuts — which are posted to his extension765 website — with explanatory online intros. His key line is simple and speaks to the fundamental reason fans like to mess around with source material: “Sounds like fun, right?”

Soderbergh’s first attempt was Psychos, a mash-up of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho with Gus Van Sant’s slavish 1998 in-color redo. Soderbergh, whose recut was born of “total affection, openness, and honey bought directly from a beekeeper,” saves the color flourishes for the famous shower scene and the appearance of Mrs. Bates’s corpse, which register as hallucinatory crimes of passion.

Next on the chopping block was Heaven’s Gate, an epic-length 1980 Western that infamously bombed. With Heaven’s Gate: The Butcher’s Cut, Soderbergh’s suggested that Michael Cimino’s film would be better as a brisk 108-minute assemblage of essential moments. “I was obsessed with Heaven’s Gate,” Soderbergh explains, “and history has shown that a fan can become so obsessed they turn violent toward the object of their obsession.”

Soderbergh then debuted Raiders, a rendering of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark as a black-and-white silent film. “A movie should work with the sound off,” writes Soderbergh, “and under that theory, staging becomes paramount.” The resulting effort celebrates visual storytelling at its apex.

Titled The Return of W. De Rijk — an homage to the man who slashed Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch — Soderbergh’s stab at Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey runs 50 minutes shorter than the original. “Maybe this is what happens when you spend too much time with a movie,” he offered, “you start wanting to touch it.” Soderbergh’s reworking drops a shot of hal into the opening prehistoric segment and reduces the human story arcs. Has the murderous computer been the most sympathetic character all along? ■

Not all fic is erotic, by any means, but a 2013 survey of Archive of Our Own, which is maintained by the fan-run nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works, found that 45.5 percent of the fics in its repository were categorized as “M/M,” that is, focusing on relationships between male characters. Why are fic’s predominantly female writers and readers so enthralled with this theme? There are lots of theories. One holds that male-male relationships allow female fans to imagine a version of romantic love free from the power imbalance between men and women. Others attribute it to a “queer” identity common to all fandoms, outsiders whose desires are viewed as peculiar by the mainstream. Neither of these ideas, however, can easily accommodate phenomena like Twilight and Fifty Shades, whose fandoms have embraced some pretty retrograde visions of sex and romance by thrilling to the pairing of a virginal heroine with a rich, libidinously accomplished, and controlling older man — all with the gold ring of marriage and a nuclear family at the end.

At the risk of stating the obvious, what most fic testifies to is that its authors are really, really interested in men. The prevalence of unconventional sex, homoerotic passion between hitherto straight characters, and outlandish scenarios like male pregnancy are attention grabbers and also create the false impression that fic is primarily about sex. But the undeniable signature of a writer’s fic orientation isn’t eroticism but confession, the frank and extended discussion of emotions. If porn offers men the vision of women whose carnality is neither elusive nor mysterious, fic offers its mostly women readers men whose inner lives are wide-open books — not so easy to find in popular culture. Whether these imaginary Spocks or Justin Biebers are straight or gay, theirs is a love that not only dares to speak its name but will happily go on talking about itself for thousands of words at a time. This is what the straight Christian Grey (“I have spent all my adult life trying to avoid any extreme emotion. Yet you … you bring out feelings in me that are completely alien”) has in common with the fic Sherlock, who looks at the long-suffering Watson and felt something unfurling within him, something he’d kept ruthlessly tucked away for a very long time. When the love story involves two men, you have twice as much opportunity for the unfurling and untucking of tenderness and desire, double the number of guys wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

It is always the apparent hard cases like Sherlock and Spock or the ultimately unknowable celebrities like One Direction who inspire the most fervent and abundant fanfiction. They represent a challenge, the toughest nuts to crack, and a blank surface on which to project our dreams, but they also personify what could reasonably be called the mystery of the masculine: What the hell is going on in there? Please tell us it bears more than a passing resemblance to what’s going on in here. And while you’re at it, can you please just give Jack and Ennis their happy ending? Because if you don’t, we will.  ■


Making Hollywood at Home

Two Fresno film geeks are ingeniously replicating their favorite blockbuster trailers.

It’s a truism these days that Hollywood trailers are typically better than the movies they advertise, which makes things easy for Dumb Drum. That’s the name adopted by Bryan Harley, 30, and Roque Rodriguez, 35, two friends and movie fanatics from California who spend their free time painstakingly and cheaply re-creating megamovie trailers (before having seen the full-length films), and who regularly earn hundreds of thousands of YouTube views for their efforts. They’re the internet’s premier practitioners of “swedings,” the name given to the homemade film homages made by the characters played by Jack Black and Mos Def in Michel Gondry’s 2008 film Be Kind Rewind. Dumb Drum’s gift for clever no-budget imitation—their latest sweding is of the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron — has delighted the likes of director Guillermo del Toro, who invited Harley and Rodriguez to the premiere of his Pacific Rim after seeing their work.

1. STUDYING THE SOURCE. Roque Rodriguez: The first step is doing a shot list. Counting shots, framing them out. The whole thing is storyboarded.

2. PREPRODUCTION. Rodriguez: We see these huge set pieces in trailers and wonder, How the hell are we going to pull this off?
Bryan Harley: Friends will call knowing we’re always looking for cardboard.
Rodriguez: We look for locations — usually it’s my house but then places around town that might work. Building props is a big part of the time.

3. CREWING UP. Harley: We put it out on Twitter or Facebook that we need actors and crew. But a lot of it is just begging: “C’mon, we need someone to hold this cardboard mountain for an hour! We’ll bribe you with pizza.”

4. SHOOTING. Harley: When you look at re-creating the shot, you ask what the eye is going to be drawn to the most. Blocking is important. Making sure the camera is in the right angle. We have a laptop with the trailer cued up so we can make sure the shot is composed correctly. In the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer, the shot of Quicksilver is visual-effects heavy. We had to translate that: Streamers mimic moving at high speed.
Rodriguez: With the shot of Captain America running from the tossed cars, we made physical cars. We got boxes from a dresser I’d bought. We were in the middle of the street, throwing boxes at my friend.
Harley: For the title-card image, we used black felt and then drew out the title on white paper. There were these spark elements in the original, so we lit some sparklers, layered in front so the sparks flew down in front of the felt.
Rodriguez: Luckily we had sparklers left over from the Fourth of July.
Harley: We’ll show actors the shots and have them mimic it. The actor playing the Hulk, I was saying “Open your mouth! Angrier eyes!” We got a lot of weird looks from strangers.

5. PUTTING THE SWEDE OUT THERE. Rodriguez: We’ve screened the trailers in Fresno at a sweding festival called Swede Fest. The first one, there were six films and 30 people showed up. Now we get submissions from Hungary and England. It’s hard to explain to my mom. She doesn’t understand why people like it.
Harley: NPR got Michel Gondry to comment on what we were doing. He was like, I think they’re missing the point of my movie. It was meant to inspire original creativity.
Rodriguez: We mirror his sentiments. We wanted Swede Fest to be a stepping-stone to original work. But we could be doing worse things. ■

fanmade pen & ink

This Indie-Comics Hit Is a Blatant DC Rip-off. It’s Also Better.

The parallel universe of Copra.

We often think of the margins as a conceptual feeder league for the mainstream, but sometimes the ideas can flow the other way in thrilling fashion.

‘Copra’Pages from the first issue, 2012.
Suicide SquadThe classic lineup.

Take Copra. A few years ago, indie-comics artist Michel Fiffe had hit a creative wall after putting out his densely detailed Zegas title. “I was too precious,” he admits. “Since I’ve always loved superhero comics, I embraced that world in order to shake things up.”

The object of his embrace was DC’s Suicide Squad, a team of captive villains—Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and others—sent by the government to complete impossible missions in exchange for their freedom. (Production has begun on a Suicide Squad movie starring Will Smith.) Fiffe thought using these characters might reinspire him, though the small problem of his not working for DC meant he had to come up with thinly veiled knockoffs. This turned out to be freeing. “The fact that Copra doesn’t have to adhere to a company guideline benefits me,” he explains. “It allows me to make a story with a definite ending in sight.”

By eschewing DC’s need to extend the narrative indefinitely, Fiffe’s series condenses the action to near-insane levels. Copra is also a success, selling out its print runs. For Fiffe, the lesson is clear. “Fill the void,” he says, “if ‘the real thing’ isn’t doing it for you.” ■

fanmade GAMING

Bootlegging Nintendo, the American Way

What would you do if the sequel to your favorite video game came out, but only in a language you didn’t speak? If you were part of the online fan community for cult-favorite role-playing game Mother 2, the answer would be simple: translate the game yourself. Abetted by some legally dubious emulation software, a collective of American gamers called the Fan Translation Team produced a patch that would allow players to play the Japan-only release of Mother 3 in English. (It was eventually downloaded 100,000 times.) Fan Translation’s Clyde “Tomato” ­Mandelin talked us through how his group of gamers got to play. ■ B. H.

fanmade music

Getting the Dead’s Attention

Long before StubHub, the only way to get a ticket to a Grateful Dead show was to mail in a request. Dead Heads turned an act of commerce into an opportunity for creativity, decorating their envelopes with visual riffs on the band’s iconography, history, and catalogue. When the surviving members of the group announced a series of 50th-anniversary reunion shows in Chicago this summer, the practice was enthusiastically — and lysergically — brought back to life.

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TICKET DATESThe dates of the shows for which fans want tickets — in this case July 4 and 5, seen at bottom left — as well as the quantity and cost are often included on the outside of the envelopes.
THE LINE-UPThis fan used a photo of the Dead’s classic lineup of, from left, Bill Kreutzmann, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Phil Lesh. Bruce Hornsby and Phish’s Trey Anastasio will sub in for the long-deceased McKernan and Garcia at the Chicago concerts.
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ICONSThis envelope could double as a Grateful Dead Rosetta stone. The dancing turtles and the guy holding ice cream plays on the cover art for 1977’s Terrapin Station and 1972’s Europe ’72, respectively. The skull-and-roses motif first popped up on 1971’s self-titled effort. And the spiky black object refers to the band’s classic concert staple “Dark Star.”
BEARSThe colorful dancing bears — Jerry Bears, to the uninitiated — come from the back cover of a 1973 compilation, Bear’s Choice, which draws its title from Stanley’s nickname.
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SKULLSThe skull on the back of the envelope is an homage to a logo co-created for the band by noted LSD cook Owsley “Bear” Stanley. Though it was created in the late ’60s, it first became prominent when it appeared on an album cover, Steal Your Face, in 1976.
COLORSThe color palette is the same as the one used on the cover of 1969’s seminal Live/Dead, the band’s first in-concert album, and the trippily geometric designs are, naturally, suggestive of the acid-trip visuals favored by the band’s graphic designers.


*This article appears in the March 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.