My adventure with fanfiction started with an English assignment. At the tender age of 12, my tiger parents forced me to spend every free moment at a local cram school. It was around 6 p.m. on a Friday night in July. Neither of us had dinner and our English teacher knew she was losing us. Mrs. L looked at us over her reading glasses, pursed lips, and said, “Your homework for the weekend is to write a one-page alternative ending to William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.”
At the time, I didn’t realize we were being told to write fanfiction, but that’s how the same medium that spawned Fifty shades of Grey ended up becoming a decades-long guilty pleasure.
I normally didn’t like the extra homework that cram school piled on my plate. But for some reason it Romeo and Juliet assignment sparked something in my academically fried brain. Cram schools revolve around forced math and vocabulary exercises until you can factor quadratic polynomials in your sleep. None of the 20-page assignments ever asked us to think about “what if…”.
What if Juliet decides that Romeo’s corpse is a sign that she should flee her abusive family and go to the convent that Ophelia avoided? I stayed up late Sunday night writing, editing, rewriting and re-editing my one-page masterpiece. He got a B+, which in my family was the equivalent of a double F-. I was grounded, but something deep and primal in my soul had changed.
It’s cringe to admit, but I’ve spent most of this summer obsessing over Gundam Wing. I was raised on a healthy diet of Cartoon Network’s Toonami, and I have no defense other than being a weak preteen. To protest my grueling load of homework, I snuck into my living room after my parents had fallen asleep and prayed that the crackle of a 56K modem wouldn’t wake them. Google was starting to pop up, and it led me straight into the exciting world of Gundam Wing fanfiction. This was my first time using the internet for anything other than homework or AOL games.
Ninety-nine percent of it gave me a heart attack. I hid my tomato-red face behind my fingers while browsing through fan-curated libraries. Yet I was as thrilled as it was scandalized. There were thousands of people reaching out to the computer asking “what if?” Admittedly, most of the questions were, “What if protagonists one and two boned each other in the most deranged way possible?” But they had the audacity to ask such a cheeky question and write about it in excruciating detail. Publicly.
There were thousands of people reaching out to the computer asking “what if?”
As an anxious preteen, that confidence was alluring. I wanted the freedom to ask unbalanced “what if” questions and explore them. I stayed up late at night on LiveJournal, hiding as smarter people I created communities around fandoms they liked, wondering how I could exploit that. I clicked link after link until I found myself on Fanfiction.net. Suddenly I had access to a free library full of thousands of stories that offered insight into a world beyond the one my parents had planned for me. It was the very first time I understood what made the internet and the subcultures it spawned so exciting.
Before I knew it, I started asking more of my own “what if” questions every time I finished a movie, TV show, or novel. Eventually, I started giving myself permission to scribble down some answers.
My English teachers disagreed. It was an unglamorous way to express one’s creativity. The real genius, they said, came from the original work, and it was a waste of talent to ponder legally dubious assumptions. (Ironically, that’s how I learned the doctrine of fair use.)
I wanted to spit back that I was tired of only read the stiff prose of the dead. I wanted to scream that there was an army of deranged authors online writing some of the most transgressive stories I’ve ever seen. Of course, you can tell that some of them are written by people with a tenuous understanding of grammar (see: My Immortala Harry Potter fanfic which is widely considered the worst on the internet and has its own wiki). But I couldn’t find anything like it on the shelves of my local bookstores. I meant that in 2001, it was one of the few spaces online that introduced me to the idea that queer people could have happily ever after. But I didn’t have the vocabulary to say any of this yet, so I kept my mouth shut tight.
Out of spite, I continued to read my crude fics in addition to my more “legitimate” readings.
While reading The Mummy fanfics led me to a year-long unsuccessful attempt to read and write hieroglyphics. I learned more about the Civil War reading a 130,000-word alternate universe fiction written by a history graduate student than I ever did from AP US History. The footnotes to this story rivaled those of Vladimir Nabokov pale fire. I definitely learned classism in French slang after a two-year stint prowling the Wretched fanfic community. (Did you know that author Victor Hugo had a 100-page digression in the novel about French slang?)
Fanfiction is no longer a taboo pastime. It’s wild, but since the early days of Fanfiction.net and LiveJournal, it’s crept into the mainstream. Fifty shades of Grey is a Dusk fanfic that was also made into a movie. Rainbow Rowell wrote Fangirlan acclaimed novel about a college student who writes a megapopular fanfic about a Harry Potter-series. This was later transformed into To chase and wayward sonan incredibly meta sequel series where you can read the story of the Fangirl protagonist writes. There’s a whole Wattpad-to-movie pipeline, where One Direction fanfiction with a billion readers on Wattpad has been turned into Netflix movies. The love hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood, a romance novel that recently went viral on TikTok and landed a movie deal, started as a star wars fanfic. There are several other examples.
The genre still gets a lot of derision, but it’s also openly celebrated in a way that seemed impossible to me when I was 12. I don’t read as much as I did when I was a teenager. Fandom has gotten a little too big for me, and adult life has less time for guilty pleasures. But old habits die hard. I always have alerts set up for my favorite fics, and Archive of Our Own is the first site I open if I hate the end of a story. I may have grown up a bit, but thanks to this deliciously weird internet subculture, I don’t wonder “what if I had the confidence to write?” more.