As part of my high school graduation, I wrote a 20-page thesis about the history and cultural impact of fan fiction. You can find it below.

Abstract

The term "fanfiction" (also "fan fiction" or shorter "fanfic" or "ff") refers to works written by fans of literature (or television series or movies) that base on and reference original works by professional authors; in most cases, a fanfiction depicts a sequel or addition to the original plot. Some fanfictions may concentrate on closing gaps or resolving logical errors in the so-called "canon" - the the genuine material from the original author's works, while others may just use given characters in a different setting. The great popularity which fanfiction enjoys can be recognized by the fact that some fan stories even surpass their exemplars in length, reaching up to 800.000 words (for comparison, a 200 page novel consists of about 50.000 words), and the sheer number of available texts: the largest website for fanfiction, www.fanfiction.net alone has more than 450000 texts available.

The aim of this thesis is to introduce the reader into the history, development, diversity, criticism and possible legal problems (concerning especially copyright laws) of fanfiction as well as to fathom the required motivation of the authors and speculate about the future of the phenomenon. The aspects will be described from a fan's point of view using, in parts, "fannish" language in order to provide an insight into the fanfiction community.

Definitions and origins

In order to be able to talk about the history of fanfiction concisely, one first has to give a sound definition of what constitutes fanfiction. As there is of course no mandatory definition of the subject because of the wide variety of authors and texts, various sources offer differing approaches. Yet there are three concurrent elements in nearly all of them: (i) the focus on literature (as opposed to "fan films", "fan comics" or "fan art", which are all derivative works, yet do not belong to fan fiction)), (ii) the admiration of the original work (fan fiction!) and, most importantly, (iii) the modeling after the “canon” (the authentic works of the original writer), but not compulsively the following thereof.

According to this (admittedly debatable) definition, the history of fanfiction can be regarded as far-reaching as to the first pastiches - imitations of other works, which in contrast to parodies are based on the worship of the model, similar to a homage, - and don't mean to ridicule it like parodies do. The earliest example of such a pastiche is usually considered to be Virgil's Aeneid which was composed in exactly the same form as Homer's Odyssey. In this case, however, it is clear that the work is not comparable to a piece of modern fanfiction, because the content of Virgil's epic is in no way connected to Homer's work (the "canon"). Another precursor of fanfiction is the medieval "The Siege of Thebes" (1421-22) by the English monk John Lydgate, who extended the original work, Geoffrey Chaucer's collection of stories "The Canterbury Tales" from the late 14th century, by substituting himself as the narrator, thus only taking over the framework of the text and not original characters.

One of the few examples of fanfiction to which the above definition applies is the "Second Book of the Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha" by Alonzo Fernández de Avellaneda (1614). It is the first unauthorized sequel in literary history, in this case to Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote" (1605). Sequels of this kind, however, were very rare; the category of adaptations was much more common. According to WordNet, an adaptation is a written work that has been recast in a new form. The most commonly known example for being adapted in such manner is Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" (1719). The set topic of the stranded traveller provided the basis for many other works, for example "The Swiss Family Robinson" by Johann David Wyss (1812) or "The Coral Island" by R. M. Ballantyne (1857). Again, these works do not fulfill the above-mentioned definition of modern fanfiction, as they are not set in the canonical (original) environment, but only reference it or use a similar plot. In contrast to these adaptations, aforementioned sequel to "Don Quixote" can be considered to be the very first piece of fanfiction – unfortunately, it is still unclear if it wasn't written by the original author himself to promote his own works.

The period until the early 20th century brought many parodies, but also more and more convergences with modern fanfiction. The fan-authored Sherlock Holmes stories published at the turn to the 20th century already employed both the original characters and setting, making these stories the first documented, yet very rare and only scarcely handed down examples of modern fanfiction. Even though these fan stories only reached a very small readership, they laid the foundation for fanfiction in its modern manifestation.

Recent development

As shown above, the history of the mass phenomenon fanfiction in its contemporary definition begins as late as at the turn to the 20th century with the rise of science fiction literature due to the plethora of new inventions and deeper insights into science. This development has promoted the publication of so-called pulp magazines, cheaply printed platforms for original fiction by both previously unknown authors such as Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury and already renowned sci-fi pioneers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. The most known pulp magazine is “Amazing Stories”, having been published for nearly 80 years. The first fanzines (a portmanteau of fan and magazine, also "'zine") were published to span the time until the publication of the next issue of these pulp magazines, and also because of the great irregularity of sci-fi publications during the Great Depression, says Frederik Pohl, science fiction writer, editor and recipient of multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards. Fanzines are magazines published by fans that contain fan-written material – not only fiction, but also art – and, due to aforesaid reasons, enjoyed great popularity from the 1930s onwards. As a consequence, so-called Amateur Press Associations (or APAs) were founded for logistic reasons, in which a single layperson (the "Content Manage") takes over the role of a commercial editor and publisher by collecting contributions from the members of the association, managing member subscriptions and arranging duplication. While these organizations already existed during the late 19th century, it was not until 1937 that the first science fiction APA was founded and with it, the first crossovers to fanzines appeared (APA/'zines), creating a great wave of semi-professionally published magazines. During this long period, fans always chose very inexpensive forms of publishing to facilitate a fast and cheap distribution of the fanzines; be it mimeography, spirit duplication or xerography in the beginning, or – since the last 20 years – the Internet.

It was already in the early days of the Internet, before the existence of the World Wide Web (WWW), the nowadays most sought after service, that fans and writers used the newly introduced possibilities of GEnie, eMail and Gopher - to name just few of the earlier Information Exchange Networks - to distribute fan material. All these protocols and also the WWW allowed a much bigger readership due to their global character; they simultaneously preserved the interaction between reader and author both parties were familiarized with from APAs and letter correspondence. This aspect will be further discussed in section 5.2.

In the late 90s, the boom of blogs and other automated publication platforms such as fanfiction.net considerably facilitated the publication of fanfiction for the admittedly largely female fans – according to fanfiction.net founder Xing Li, about 80% of the users in 2002 were female. This great enthusiasm and and the consequently steadily growing number of texts available on line led to a high popularity of fanfiction and hence previously unimaginable, both positive and negative effects on the community:

The large prevalence of the Internet worldwide caused both an increase in readers and authors, now offering a plethora of stories; however, due to this overkill of texts, the phenomenon of so-called lurking – reading, but not participating, e.g. by commenting – arose. This development would have been impossible in times of APAs due to the fact that lurking members were usually evicted if they didn't fulfill a certain grade of "minimum activity", be it writing reviews or stories.

Despite this trend, the number of reviews for texts continues to rise; many authors, however, lament the emerging lack of detail which counteracts the high volume of comments. Another newly occurring phenomenon which appeared in the course of this development is "flaming". According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a flame is "an angry, hostile or abusive electronic message".

As automated platforms such as fanfiction.net are not or only scarcely moderated, such flames can reach almost spam-like dimensions.

Diversity

One of the most notable features of fanfiction is the broad spectrum of literary forms exhibited by the movement. The main types can be categorized in the following manner: The superordinate categories of poetry and prose both offer various genres which will each be illustrated by length for ease of reference.

Poetry has a relatively small reader- and authorship in fanfiction – obviously due to the difficulties that poets have to face while writing: poetry normally requires both rhyme and measure, problems that most authors avoid by focusing on prose. Another aspect which would explain the lack of fan poetry is the fact that poetry is not as suitable for describing longer plots or actions as prose is, or only with much effort from the poet's side.

So, the more recognized of the two categories is prose. In general, all below-mentioned types of texts are also applicable to original (prose) fiction. The most prominent genres arranged by word count are the following:

"Drabbles" mark the probably most recent form of fiction writing; The word drabble originates from a Monty Python sketch of 1971's "Big Red Book", in which drabble (in backing of the very popular scrabble) is a word game where the first person to write an entire novel wins. Because of the impracticability of this achievement in the real world, speed writing contests have generally used 100 words as a limit, thus promoting the development that most submissions were exactly 100 words long, hence determining the original definition of a drabble. Emerging as late as the 1980s, drabbles were originally not intended for fanfiction, but for original fiction. Until today, drabbles have become an accepted form in both areas, allowing for many homepages to offer only drabbles or even to create the concept of "daily drabble" to attract readers on a regular basis (e.g. www.100words.com or German www.daily-drabble.de). In the general opinion, the great popularity of this particular form can be attributed to the fact that it offers easy access to novices at writing because of its short length, while simultaneously requiring accuracy and astuteness, important qualities also essential for authors of longer works.

Most recently, the definition of drabble has been expanded to include varieties such as double drabbles or droubbles (compromising exactly 200 words), half-drabbles (50 words), etc. The general tendency culminates in the use of the word drabble for stories between 50 and 500 words.

Until now, however, fanfictions of this particular length have been called "flash fiction" (also "sudden fiction"), as first termed by James Thomas, Denise Thomas, and Tom Hazuka in their 1992 collection called "flash fiction". In contrast to drabbles, flash fiction is rather rooted in literature (though mostly in original fiction). Amongst the most known representatives are Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury; some experts also consider Aesop's Fables to be a very early example of flash fiction. A literary form often confused with pieces of flash fiction are so-called vignettes, which do not show the typical elements or characteristics of a short story (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, etc.), but only disclose impressions of a single scene or character (comparable to a snapshot in photography). The aim of flash fiction in contrast is to insert all classical features of a short story in even fewer words.

This integration is also the aim of "short short stories" (as per a very narrow definition a story between 500 and 1000 words) and thus, the threshold between short short and flash/sudden fiction has often diminished, leading to the very unreserved use of the designation "short short". Because of the relatively small difference in length, however, the difference in content in comparison to flash fiction is only marginal, and hence does not constitute a new genre of fiction writing.

At 1000-15000 words (~4-60 pages), a story is normally considered a short story, though by theoretical definition, a short story can have any length as long as it can be read in a single sitting, as postulated by Edgar Allen Poe in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition". However, as this definition is very impracticable for print media or normally length-restricted writing contests, there are also limits by word count – popular ones including 7500 words, 15000 words or even up to 20000 words. Because of the strict characteristics demanded in a classical short story mentioned above, though, only few fanfiction authors take the trouble of writing this particular kind of story or if they do, they do not automatically comply with the aforementioned "rules" of short stories – foregoing a high condensation of language often results in the formation of a novella.

Such a novella instead offers a higher volume of information and emphasis on the plot than a short story and can offer a greater complexity due to the length of up to 25000 words (some sources also consider novellas to be up to 40000 words long, taking them in one stride with the textually very similar novelette.

Last but not least, from 40000 words upwards, a text can be considered a novel. As with all categories, this limit is, of course, very loose and, as before, the content is what makes out a novel: The Encyclopedia Britannica defines a novel only as a "prose narrative of considerable length" (without making any specific comments on what "considerable" is) and subsequently lists the characteristics of a typical novel. Similar to the above-mentioned short stories, a classical novel is very unusual for fanfiction; because of the open-end character of fan writing (only a very small percentage of authors have an idea or even a plan how long their story is going to be due to the long writing periods of up to six years), most novel-length stories are not carefully constructed as commercial novels are. However, this lack of formal correctness does not have a negative impact as it would have for commercial novels, since a fan novel can be published over the Internet without the need for a publisher who would reject a inaccurately structured commercial novel.

Such a novella instead offers a higher volume of information and emphasis on the plot than a short story and can offer a greater complexity due to the length of up to 25000 words (some sources also consider novellas to be up to 40000 words long, taking them in one stride with the textually very similar novelette.

Last but not least, from 40000 words upwards, a text can be considered a novel. As with all categories, this limit is, of course, very loose and, as before, the content is what makes out a novel: The Encyclopedia Britannica defines a novel only as a "prose narrative of considerable length" (without making any specific comments on what "considerable" is) and subsequently lists the characteristics of a typical novel. Similar to the above-mentioned short stories, a classical novel is very unusual for fanfiction; because of the open-end character of fan writing (only a very small percentage of authors have an idea or even a plan how long their story is going to be due to the long writing periods of up to six years), most novel-length stories are not carefully constructed as commercial novels are. However, this lack of formal correctness does not have a negative impact as it would have for commercial novels, since a fan novel can be published over the Internet without the need for a publisher who would reject a inaccurately structured commercial novel.

Besides these mainstream forms, there are also rarer ones that should also be mentioned to complete the picture of the great multitudinousness of prose fiction: One of the most curious forms is "pinhead fiction", meaning its text can be “written on a pinhead”, which generally comprises stories of less then 50 words. This type of fiction was popularized by Ernest Hemingway's "For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn." - This quote is not the title, it actually is the complete text of the story. Other examples can be found at special writing contests, e.g. by WIRED magazine.

Another form which is unrestricted in its length, are so-called songfics, which spin a storyline around original lyrics which are incorporated into the story in a way often compared to music videos. A typical songfic carries over the original plot from the music and expands it to include (e.g. literary) original characters and topics. There are, however, many forms of songfics, which are just as well accepted – examples include texts in which the plot is only complemented by the song, thus reducing its importance. Due to these discrepancies, there are also differing possibilities how to position the lyrics in the story: While authors who emphasize the importance of the lyrics often entwine them with their own text, others post them right above or below it.

Equally length-independent are "crossover"-stories, which combine two literary universes: Usually, an author transports original characters between the universes or uses plot elements from one of the canons in the other one. A common example is the appearance of a character from the Harry Potter series in the Charmed series or vice versa, since both universes deal with magic as the main topic. What reasons there are for an author to combine two stories in such a manner will be pondered in section 5.

Criticism and legal problems

First of all, it has to be stressed that all stories will be treated under the aspect that they are purely light fiction, meaning they are written for entertainment purposes only and readers should not set as high expectations on fan-authored stories as they would do with commercial texts, since fan authors are mostly not versed in writing like professional authors are and just want to enhance their writing skills or express their opinion on certain topics – in general, they do not aim to express a moral or the like.

The most common issue which readers that are new to the world of fanfiction are easily confronted with is that of literary quality; since stories published via the Internet are not necessarily subject to a professional editorial office or even a proofreading process, many are deterred by potential grammatical and/or orthographic errors, plot holes or original characters acting out-of-character. For these purposes volunteering "beta readers" come into play to support authors in their creative process by performing aforementioned tasks for them. While some betas work exclusively as correctors, most are authors themselves and thus also rely on beta readers for their own stories. Even though the publication process does now include a corrector, this does not mean automatic correctness like professional editorial offices would ensure: In many cases, neither or only one of author and beta speaks English (or the corresponding language in which the story is written) natively, or the beta reader is not very thorough in his analysis of the text, not surprising given that their work is honorary and that many stories reach lengths substantially greater than a commercial novel. This lack of motivation is also explicable by the anonymity which the Internet provides, facilitating an ample distance between author and c orrector, thus reducing their responsibility to act. Amongst others, this is the reason why beta-archives such as "Perfect Imagination" include only accredited betas, so that authors can be sure of his/her dedication.

While the above-mentioned points mostly address superficial aspects such as spelling errors or coherence issues in stories, betas are also important counselors for authors in so far as they express their opinions about the plausibility of plot elements or a certain character's actions. Beta readers thus have a bigger impact on the outcome of a story than expected from a corrector.

Another recent problem both readers and authors are confronted with is the issue of copyright.

As of lately, the legal steps taken by commercial authors to prohibit the publishing of derivative works has gone as far as the general ban of any story based on material which is copyrighted or trademarked by a particular author on the biggest site for fanfiction, www.fanfiction.net, causing both a general deletion of all existing texts of that kind, and a forbiddance to upload new texts. A breach of this ban can be punished both by deletion of the story and/or the removal of the account on fanfiction.net. Bans of this kind have e.g. been imposed on works by Raymond E. Feist, Robin McKinley and Anne Rice. In contrast, however, some companies allow the use of their copyrighted material for special purposes, e.g. fanfiction contests that they hold themselves, as the case with a Lara Croft writing contest arranged by Core Design Limited, or those companies which see fanfiction as promotion for the original works and hence support its publication, a policy employed by Paramount Pictures.

Another problematic use of copyrighted material lies within songfics, which implement unchanged lyrics of copyrighted songs (contrary to traditional songs which are part of the Public Domain) into the storyline, e.g. to underline the actors' emotions or to embellish the scenery. As this direct copying of the original material can be considered a violation of copyright, record companies have threatened various sites with cease and desist orders; consequently, some bigger homepages including www.fanfiction.net have distanced themselves on legal grounds from the publication of songfics by imposing a ban on using copyrighted song lyrics to ensure the legality of their homepage and to be secured against possible fines.

To outline the general attitude towards copyrights and the accusation of unauthorized use of copyrighted material, one has to look at the general situation addressed by the authors of fanfiction. Their justification is mostly based on the fact that no fanfiction author is making any kind of profit with his or her work, as the stories are published on a basis that give readers access free of charge – be it on the Internet or through cost-effective fanzines. The creative rights to the characters and setting are also usually credited to the original authors. Both these concessions are made in disclaimers that are usually positioned above each chapter of a fanfiction and are helpful in case of an actual trial according to myths circulating on the Internet – while this statement is not true in every aspect of copyright impeachments, the damages in a trial will in fact be lower if the fan author has not charged money for his or her works.

While all above-mentioned points relate to the difficulties between commercial and lay authors, there is also – because of the grand number of published fanfiction – always the accusation of plagiarism amongst fanfiction authors. While some authors allow their created characters and plots to be carried over to other fanfictions as long as they are mentioned as the original authors, others claim copyright on their characters in aforesaid disclaimers. Claiming plot elements is – as mentioned above – not possible for legal reasons, as the right to derivative works lies with the creator (the original author); because fan characters are not element of the original story, they are intellectual property of the fan author. But even though no fan author can have the copyright on a plot idea, there are often disagreements over who originally introduced a specific storyline into his or her fanfiction. However, the general consensus on the Internet is that, since neither of the disputants suffers any material damage from the intellectual theft and neither has any legal possibilities to enforce their aim, the conflict should be settled with the mentioning of the other author's story in the disclaimer, as is customary in special disclaimers.

Motivational analysis

As observable from the great plurality of fanfiction stories shown above, there are also many considerable differences between fan authors, which also manifests itself in their motivation to write. The assertions presented in the following paragraphs are thus only applicable to parts of the writing community and should not be regarded as the only driving forces behind writing, but rather the most common and the most deducible ones.

To be able to talk about what moves authors to write fanfiction, one first has to analyze the age and gender distribution of authors. Most interestingly, about 80% of fanfiction.net members in 2002 were female, a third underage, thus more or less inexperienced in writing – hence, many studies about fanfiction already assume a young, female author as normal, thus using the words she and her instead of the gender-neutral his/her or their. While there is no statistical proof for consequences of this distinct gender disparity, for which science has found numerous, yet not definite reasons, there are many theories based on it. A very specific hypothesis is postulated by Joanna Russ in her 1985 essay "Pornography by Women, for Women, with Love": According to her theory, by writing fanfiction which includes homosexual relationships (so-called "slash"), women can depict romance without patriarchal gender roles, and thus a more equal relationship than through heterosexual romance. A more extensive illustration of these theories, however, would deviate too far from the actual topic.

Original works can compensate for the authors' lack of experience by substituting canonical characters and hence freeing authors from one of the hardest creative steps in writing, the creation of new personae, in the process making entrance into fiction writing much more accessible to lay authors; readers will already recognize characters from the original work and will not depend on the fan writer's skills to communicate their mental images. This thesis would suggest that an author's first attempts at walking usually do not introduce new characters, but rather totally rely on original characters ("OCs"), which is, of course, due to the grand number of available texts very hard to prove, but rather has to be confirmed through reading experience.

Secondly, the on line community does not only constitute a popular platform for fanfiction because of the speed and ease of publishing, but also due to the very pleasant and acceptive contact over the Internet; the Internet basically constitutes the completion of the ideals which were introduced in APAs, only made possible through the overwhelming amount of data accessible to a likewise vast number of readers – in 2007, the Internet was available to over 1,1 billion people; many fan authors draw their motivation from reader feedback, often leading to author statements such as "[feedback] is so crucial to my continued motivation in getting stories out when my life can be so hectic", as written by Suz W, fanfiction writer in the Stargate SG-1 universe. Some authors have also introduced a highly disputed review-publishing ratio system, meaning an end chapter author's note states that the next chapter of the story will only be published after a certain number of reviews for the current chapter have been posted. All this evidence strongly indicates that the reader-author communication and interaction is one of the key motives for lay writers who were already interested in creative writing to join the on line fanfiction community.

Another important factor stemming from the Internet is the so-called shipping phenomenon, meaning that certain groups of fans represent certain relationships between original characters. This phenomenon has an incredibly high prevalence amongst both readers and writers, which is recognizable by the fact that there are many discussion boards about which pairing is most probable or most hinted at in the original works, as well as the fact that many smaller homepages only allow stories with a certain pairing to be published. The most prominent examples for ship-specific homepages in the Harry Potter-universe are www.portkey.org and www.harryloveshermione.com, which was unfortunately not accessible at the date of research, but can still be accessed through the Internet Archive. Fanfiction.net, in contrast to constraining their range of publications, has introduced a relationship-specific filtering system for some universes, including Harry Potter.

For specific categories, though, there are preciser dissections of the author's motives: a good example being crossovers. It becomes quite obvious to readers of crossover fanfictions that many authors choose to combine two literary universes to depict the huge plot or setting similarities. Popular examples include Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings-crossovers due to the similar hero motif or Harry Potter/Buffy the Vampire Slayer because of the similar ages of the main characters and the occurrence of magic. Another driving force for fan authors, is, according to fanfiction research luminary Henry Jenkins, the fact that they want to experiment with the characters and see how they adjust to the foreign environment. This theory is supported by Camille Bacon-Smith in her book "Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth" , in which she states: "In cross-universe stories, the purpose is not necessarily to permanently change any of the characters but to see how those characters would react with each other.". Additionally, crossover fanfiction also constitutes a bigger challenge for the author than a normal story, as visible in author statements such as "I find them fascinating and fun to write, like many others, because of the intriguing challenge of bringing two worlds together. You say to yourself, 'how can I possibly make this work?' Or 'what if…?' ").

In conclusion, the motives of fan authors are as numerous as the authors themselves, yet the passion to write is the lowest common denominator which drives every single author.

Conclusion and prospects

Summarizing, fanfiction is a literary category which is entrenched both in ancient and recent history. It was only through modern media, especially the Internet, however, that the phenomenon fanfiction drew the attention of the masses, leading to an exponential rise in the number of fans, authors, and stories alike. This development supported the great multifariousness of forms and topics and even made it possible that literary experiments such as drabbles or flash fiction became just as widespread in fanfiction as they are in original fiction, if not more so. As copyright holders, though, realized this high popularity, some took action to prevent the publishing of derivative works of copyrighted material, as the case with few authors and German record labels. And while there are often disagreements amongst fan authors, they are all connected by their common passion for writing; yet, the motivation of each individual author may come from different sources.

All these changes are potentially predictable to continue in the current manner, if not increasingly in larger numbers, as the Internet as the most established fanfiction publication platform becomes available to more and more users; also, with its growing ease of use, it will become simpler for laypersons to publish their works; all in all, the Internet is simply the most future-proof medium, and thus it can be expected that the phenomenon fanfiction will cumulatively attract interest amongst the general population, causing a steady growth of the community.