When Rachel Busskohl fell in love with the Japanese anime “Soul Eater” in high school, she fell hard.
So much, in fact, that she couldn’t quite accept it when two of her favorite characters, Soul and Maka, didn’t end up a couple at the end of the series.
One day, bored out of her mind in class, Busskohl picked up a pen and began to ask the question, “What if?”
It didn’t take long for her to find the world of fanfiction, where thousands of other fans were asking the same question about their favorite books, anime and movies.
The word fanfiction brings to mind an onslaught of bad press, copyright infringement and general scorn from mainstream society. However, within the subculture exists a community where young writers find their voice, creativity is king and everything gets published.
KIRK, SPOCK AND THE HISTORY OF ‘FIC
Fanfiction is a term used to describe fan-produced stories based on already existing characters or plot lines.
These amateur narratives usually embrace the bizarre, putting beloved characters in off-the-wall, alternate universe situations and pushing the boundaries of canon personality and sexuality.
Although fanfiction culture has thrived with the dawn of the Internet, the practice of fan-written narrative has existed well before dial-up.
According to Bournemouth University professor Bronwen Thomas, who researches fictional dialogue, new media narratives, fanfiction and adaptation, fanfiction’s origins first trace back to science fiction magazines from the 1920s and 1930s.
Links have also been drawn with oral and mythic traditions of collective interpretation, such as Jewish midrash, and with “profics” such as Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea”, a sort of prequel for Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.”
The structure of modern fanfiction, however, is usually attributed to the Star Trek fandom explosion of the 1960s. Fans published their own “fanzines” completely dedicated to the Trekkie universe that contained stories where Captain Kirk and Spock explored more than just neighboring galaxies.
However, the world of fanfiction remained a fairly underground community until the digital age.
Now, websites such as www.fanfiction.net have established searchable archives and many users who have uploaded millions of stories in dozens of languages. Fans self-publish, comment and get feedback on their work with the site’s free-for-all framework.
Busskohl, a 20-year-old student at the University of South Dakota, waits tables and goes by the name AmberLehcar online.
She has written 41 stories under this alias, most of them from the “Soul Eater” fandom, but a few others from other Japanese anime such as “Fullmetal Alchemist” and “School Rumble,” as well as the role-playing video game “Final Fantasy X-2.”
“I’ve had someone say I have the best next-generation ‘Soul Eater’ fanfic they’ve ever read,” Busskohl said. “That’s a good feeling. Or when someone says, ‘What you wrote is my headcannon now.’ Just being able to entertain someone for a short amount of time is a good thing, I think.”
“Headcannon” is fanfic slang for an aspect of the story that is not mentioned in the actual plot line, but is accepted as cannon to the fandom. For instance, the hidden love between Kirk and Spock.
Busskohl, however, likes to write her own original content, as well. So why spend so much time writing about another author’s characters and plot line?
“I like writing fanfiction because then I get to pretend that things I really want to happen in the original actually happened — such as Soul and Maka being a couple,” Busskohl said. “Part of the work is already done for you too, I guess. You already have established characters — you know how they act and speak and what they like. Now you just have to write what they do. The process doesn’t take as much time as developing interesting characters and histories for those characters, and then writing what they do.”
To Busskohl, writing fanfiction is somewhat like role-playing.
“Sometimes I just want to explore what a character would do if put in a situation they didn’t have to deal with in the original,” she said.
Nickie Bonar, a 40-year-old small business owner from Omaha, has been writing fanfiction with her 15-year-old daughter, Ari, for years.
“(Fanfiction) is a great way to develop as a writer before going out into the world,” said Ari, a student at Omaha North High School. “The ‘plot bunnies’ don’t leave you alone until you write. It’s the feeling of people wanting to read your stories. The fans make or break the writer.”
Although she hasn’t finished any yet, Ari is currently working on two fanfics based on the online comics “Hetalia” and “Homestuck.”
Nickie said she has written too many stories to keep track of under many different pseudonyms.
She said the fan response is what keeps her going.
“We can get people hooked and they will keep us going, even giving us help when we get writers block,” Nickie said. “It’s fun to live or bring to life a character that many already know. Of course you will have to stay in character — that is unless you aren’t and have a disclaimer. Fans love their characters and will call you on things that they don’t think are right.”
Because fanfiction sites like fanfiction.net work on a completely automated, user-run basis, the community supports itself.
“We will read each others works and give critiques, along with volunteering to be a ‘beta reader,’” Nickie said. “Everyone is usually very supportive of each other, even across country and language barriers. I have even translated works into other languages for some.”
“My friends are really supportive of my fanfiction and help with proofreading a lot,” Busskohl said. “I was nervous to put my work on fanfiction.net, but once I did, there were so many supportive people.”
However, user-run sites don’t come without a few trolls.
“I almost took down all my stories because I had one person writing nasty comments on all my stories for really no reason,” Busskohl said. “But eventually they stopped, and I still get positive feedback from others, so I’m glad I kept the stories up.”
TROLLS AND TRIBULATIONS
Being involved with the fanfiction community does not come without its negative stereotypes and scorn from the general public, even within the fandoms themselves.
Negative associations from those outside of the community causes many writers to remain anonymous or not share their work with people they know.
However, more and more writers are beginning to challenge the stereotype, and the literary world is noticing.
“I think fanfiction is still perceived as belonging to popular culture rather than the literary, although I think more and more teachers of literature are becoming interested in the phenomenon and keen to explore ways of harnessing this kind of creativity in their teaching,” Bournemouth professor Thomas said. “For me, fanfiction shows that narratives in the digital age are something we think of as being infinitely extendable. There is always going to be more out there if you know where to look, and we now have multiple points of entry for engaging with story worlds, whether that is via a game, a website, a twitter account or a Youtube video.”
For writers, changing the stereotype is an everyday challenge.
“There will always be those who challenge the norm and those who will assign stereotypes without even knowing what they are talking about,” Nickie said. “That is one of my biggest pet peeves, those who have a lot to say but don’t have the first clue as to what they are talking about. There are writers that challenge what people believe everyday. Some are hailed as heroes while others are criticized. I say, if you don’t like something, maybe try to learn about it first before criticizing it.”
Busskohl is also involved with cosplay, another fan-based activity where participants recreate characters’ costumes. She said she approaches people outside the fanfiction community just like she does with those outside the cosplay community: by answering questions politely and accepting that not everyone has the same hobbies as she does.
“If people are going to be rude about it, I speak up,” she said. “If not, they are entitled to think whatever they like about my fanfiction.”
Because of the self-publishing model on which fanfiction is based, there is no standard for the quality of writing that exists within the subculture, therefore perpetuating the idea that all fanfiction can’t be considered legitimate narrative.
“A lot of fanfic is poorly written, if we judge it by literary standards, and the writing isn’t really aiming for the same kind of market or audience,” Thomas said. “But I suppose many theorists would argue that it is prescriptive notions of what constitutes great literature that need to be challenged.”
Amid negative stereotypes and the occasional troll, the future is looking brighter for the world of fanfiction.
With the success of “50 Shades of Grey,” which originated in the fanfiction world, there is also a sense that the hobby may be on its way to being taken more seriously.
“Apparently, publishers and media producers are trawling through fansites looking for the next big hit, and of course for some writers of fanfic there may be a hope that a fan base of their own may lead to publishing contracts and the like,” Thomas said. “If so, this could be a threat to the current ethos of fan cultures, where it is written not to make a profit, but to share the fans’ sheer joy and enthusiasm for the stories they love. It might be a shame if that were to change.”
Fanfic writers do it for themselves — whether it be the thrill of publishing, the love of a character or simply be a part of something bigger.
“Fanfiction gives me a means to explore my writing style and the culture gives me a broadened perspective on what is acceptable for social cultures,” Ari said. “Intolerance is not tolerated. If you are tolerant of differences of opinion, you’re welcomed; if you are intolerant, you are ostracized.”
Nickie also embraces the bonding experience fandom culture has given her family.
“I, along with the rest of my family, am a cosplayer, a gamer and an all around nerd,” she said. “We are more open to new ideas and don’t jump to criticizing at the drop of a hat. We help others that ask and generally try to be good human beings. What do you get out of (fanfiction)? More friends and acceptance for being myself.”
Busskohl said had she not joined the fanfiction community, she would have missed an opportunity to meet some of her closest friends and become more comfortable with herself.
“I think it’s great that we nerds can feel part of a group,” she said. “At home, I’m kinda the outcast, but through cosplay, fanfiction and fandoms, I’m part of a huge group. I’m a lot more confident than I used to be, and I think that’s because being part of a fandom made me realize it’s okay to like the stuff I do. I’m not the only one out there who does.”