J.M. Frey was nine years old when she wrote her first fanfiction.
In the early 90s, she didn’t have access to dial-up internet at home or school yet.
Her childhood best friend in Fergus, Ont. had a computer in her basement. There, Frey learned she could find anything online.
Curious, she and her friend searched Dracula: The Series, Frey’s favourite TV show.
She discovered a Yahoo forum with stories about the show’s characters. None of the storylines were from the 21 aired episodes Frey had seen.
What Frey and her friend discovered was fanfiction.
Inspired, the pair wrote a story of their own, titled The Battle for the Crystal. Their fanfiction was based on another popular ‘90s TV show, the English dub of Sailor Moon.
They wrote, illustrated and bound two copies. To this day, Frey still has her copy.
What is fanfiction?
According to Merriam-Webster, fanfiction is “stories involving popular fictional characters… written by fans and often posted on the Internet.”
For young creatives like Frey, fanfiction was so much more: entertainment, community and self-exploration.
Frey said she couldn’t get enough of fanfiction. She even used her high school library to print and bind thousands of pages of fanfiction from the internet.
She would read them offline, uninterrupted by limitations of dial-up internet or shared family devices.
Frey also wrote and uploaded her own fanfiction to the internet. She once attempted to count how much fanfiction she’d written in her life. It totaled more than 200,000 pages.
Yet Frey never considered writing to be a legitimate career path. That was until she was hit by a car in Japan in her 20s.
The accident forced her to reconsider her career ambitions as a stage actor.
While bedridden for six weeks, Frey wrote a novel called Triptych. The science and literary fiction novel was eventually named one of Publisher Weekly’s best books in 2011.
“If I hadn’t had fanfiction as a hobby — if I didn’t know that I liked to write for fun — I don’t think it would have crossed my mind while I was high off my face on Japanese painkillers to be like, ‘Let’s write a book,’ ” said Frey.
Frey said she believes she would not be such a skilled writer if she didn’t spend years writing and reading fanfiction.
“Fanfiction was absolutely my apprenticeship into being a professional writer,” she said. “It helped me find my voice.”
Can fanfiction make you a better writer?
Andrew Deman is an English professor at St. Jerome’s College. He said fanfiction writing sharpens imaginative world building, deeper literacy and character development skills.
“You’re coming into a world of pre-existing characters and dynamics,” he said.
”Your task, largely, is to be sensitive to those dynamics — which means to be a good reader — and then to be able to interject your own voice and your own perspective onto that.”
He added “I don’t want to sound condescending by saying it’s kind of like training wheels, but it really is.”
Traditionally, writers often receive feedback in a workshop setting with other writers. Deman said the instant, enthusiastic online comments on fanfiction pieces is a “feedback mechanism that’s unparalleled.”
Fanfiction and community support
Vicki So is a Toronto-based romance and fantasy writer under the pseudonyms Vicki Essex and V.S. McGrath. She said she has felt the fanfiction community’s support firsthand.
“I was actually in a terrible, terrible job. It was a soul sucking part of my life that I managed to get through because of fanfiction,” she said.
After watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, So became enamoured with the story’s universe and had her own stories to tell.
At 24 years old, she wrote her first work on fanfiction.net. It was an Avatar story more than 30,000 words long.
“Fanfiction was what got me into writing to start with,” she said. “I had always had hopes and dreams for it, but I’d never really completed a piece of work that I was really proud of, or that I really enjoyed a great deal.”
Because of fanfiction, So was hired as a proofreader at Harlequin Enterprises, the largest publisher of women’s fiction and romance. There, So wrote her first romance novel Her Son’s Hero.
Fanfiction and identity
Other fanfiction writers have taken different paths, like Daniella Sanader, a Toronto-based arts and culture writer and scholar. For her, fanfiction was a way to critically assess and process artistic work while examining her own identity.
Sanader wrote and read Harry Potter fanfiction when she was in high school.
She, like many young people, used the internet as a means to evaluate her own identity, particularly her queerness.
Many fanfiction works often revolve around gay and lesbian characters, whether true to the original work or not.
“It was quite the solidified community,” she said. “I built a lot of confidence at that time, partially because of support from other people. I hope I did the same for others too.”
But not everyone feels the same
Some major authors are against fanfiction entirely.
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are the creators of the Liaden Universe, a science fiction series. They have asked their followers to avoid writing and reading fanfiction based on their work.
“I don’t want ‘other people interpreting’ our characters,” Lee wrote on their website.
“We built our universes, and our characters; they are our intellectual property,” she wrote. “Steve and I do not sanction fanfic written in our universes.”
Those who have developed their passion for writing and skillset using fanfiction, like Frey, So and Sanader, disagree.
Sanader said dislike of fanfiction may be rooted in gender discrimination. She added that she thinks teenage girls, who normally write the majority of fanfiction, may be targeted.
“There’s a lot of layers to that assumption of badness,” she said. Common criticisms of fanfiction writing is that it’s “too emotional, sincere or dramatic.”
“Writing with emotion actually taught me a lot — and writing from a place of sincerity is not a bad thing. There’s a lot of intellectual rigor and depth in working from a place of emotion, or sincerity or of attachment to something,” said Sanader.
So added “Writers are free to write whatever they want to write. Writing is writing. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you write, you’re a writer”
When asked about opposition to fanfiction writing, Frey said: “Go take a long walk off a short pier. No writing makes you a worse writer.”