Oh man, I have so much to say about fanfiction. Be warned, this is going to be wordy. Also, everything is solely my opinion, and should not be taken as absolute fact. I encourage you to find more sources to educate yourself if you want to.
TL;DR- I personally really like and support fanfiction. There are aspects that I don’t like, though, and I talk about both. Trigger warning: brief discussion of rape culture/abuse, sex, and fetishization.
Let’s start with a short background on my personal experience with fanfiction, just so there’s some context. I first discovered fanfiction when I was in fifth grade (I think?). My first fandom was either Harry Potter or Avatar the Last Airbender- I can’t even remember at this point, but I think I got into both around the same time. I was in the forums on Nickelodeon’s website, and AtLA had it’s own sub-forum for fanfiction. (I shipped Zutara, if you’re wondering.) For Harry Potter, I think it was some random website I stumbled across that had a few HP fanfics. I only read the Dramione ones (and already, there is a theme emerging, lol), and some of the fic writers included notes saying that their story was also posted on a site called “fanfiction.net” and down the rabbit hole I went. I didn’t really get too involved into ffnet then, though.
Fast forward about a year later, and I had discovered anime. Those first HP and AtLA fanfics were just the first climb up the hill of a very high roller coaster, but once I got into anime and went back to ffnet for anime fanfics, that was when the cart tipped over the top of the hill and went careening down at exponentially faster speeds. And now it’s been like ten years and I still haven’t figured out how to get off the ride. I was fiercely loyal to ffnet for years and years and years, and that blue/gray/white theme still holds a special place in my heart. In the recent years, I’ve sort of switched over to Archive of Our Own, because I like the tagging system better on there, and the writers and general community seem to be more mature overall. I have accounts on both sites and visit fairly regularly. There was a short phase in middle school where all my friends were into fanfiction too, and a few even started writing some, but I never wrote anything (that I put on the internet, at least). I just read and favorite and sometimes leave comments. I’m not even in that many fandoms, because it’s just anime, HP, and the occasional kpop fic rec. So yeah, that’s the summary of how I was dragged willingly into the pit.
Alright, time to talk about what I like about fanfiction, and what I don’t like. Let’s start with something positive: promoting writing. Writing skills are needed pretty much no matter what you do or where you go. I think it’s very important that people are able to express themselves and their opinions, and one of the more simple and straightforward ways to do that is through writing. I’m doing it through this blog. Fanfic writers are doing it through their stories. Fanfiction attracts people of all ages, but it seems that a large chunk of the writers are student-age (teenagers, maybe early-20s). I think this is really great, because these kids are writing of their own volition. I certainly didn’t do that while I was in high school, and I kind of regret it. They’re motivated to write, because they’re writing about something that they love, and at the same time, they’re practicing their writing skills. Over time, it’s almost inevitable that they’re going to get better, because they’ve practiced so much and also have feedback from the fanfic communities. This is something that they don’t really teach you in school. Sure, teachers make you write essays and stuff to try to improve your writing skills, and most colleges require you to take an intro writing course as a graduation requirement. But I think the self-motivation that comes from writing fanfiction is a lot stronger than anything that the classroom demands.
Speaking of community, that brings me to the second thing I like about fanfiction. Fanfiction is mostly put up on the internet, where anyone with an internet connection can access. It does not exist in a vacuum. People, complete strangers, read other people’s stories, and they’ll favorite it, or leave kudos, or write back with reviews saying how they liked that one part, or thought that line of dialogue was funny, or that sentence structure is awkward, or this action is out of character. Sure, there are the flamers. It can get really bad on some fics where the author is clearly very young or just starting out, and they’re still not really used to writing fic. As someone who doesn’t actually write fanfics, I can’t say whether the good comments and the flames balance out, especially since I only read certain types of fanfiction. I hope that it does, though. Although people are generally less inhibited behind internet anonymity, I (perhaps idealistically) think that the more serious fanfic community is generally nice.
However, that doesn’t mean that even the occasional flame is okay. I don’t think it’s ever okay to put down someone’s creative work for no reason than to be negative. (If that work is actually damaging in some why, then there’s a reason to criticize.) I’ve seen authors outright address the more ignorant and ridiculous reviews in their author’s notes; those authors are usually the ones that can take it. Who knows how many young authors become insecure about their work when they don’t get many reviews and some of those reviews are just haters, especially if the problem that the haters have is that the fic features a non-cishet ship or something like that. Sometimes I’ll read reviews if I can’t decide whether I want to invest time in reading a fanfic I’m unsure about, and even I get kind of sad and down if I see hate comments that seem to be for no good reason. Imagine how the authors feel. ffnet seems to get the most nonsensical hate comments just by being the largest fanfc hosting site, because I’ve actually never seen any hate comments on ao3. Who knows. Maybe the readers on ao3 have enough sense to just close out of a fic they don’t like instead of leaving unconstructive comments. (I’ve certainly done that same thing, for pettier reasons. My biggest fanfic pet peeve is when authors don’t know the difference between “defiantly” and “definitely,” and messing it up is sometimes my breaking point for quitting a fanfic. But do you see me leaving comments calling the author “stupid” or “retarded”? No. First of all, rude. Second of all, that’s ableist.) Overall, I still think that the feedback system and the fanfic community is pretty good, especially if you purposely steer away from the more toxic communities, but that toxicity can reach even the best.
On a slightly unrelated, but also related, note, I want to take a second to talk about the general distaste towards mary-sues and gary-stus. I used to hate them myself, and I would silently judge the people that wrote them. (Again, they don’t deserve senseless hate, and I never left mean comments, thank goodness.) But now I think that mary-sue fiction, and relatedly, self-insert OC fiction, is actually a good thing. This leads into the next part on fantasizing as well, but writing in a “perfect” version of yourself into a fic is a nice way to bolster self-esteem, in my opinion. Especially for young women, who are so often put down and held to impossible standards, having a fantasy version of yourself that meets those standards and manages to kick ass and do all the things you wish you could do is very powerful. That said, there are a bunch of mary sue fanfics where “getting the guy” is the end-all-be-all goal, and despite being all-powerful or whatever, they still somehow need their fantasy boyfriend to save them. I mean, okay? Doesn’t make much sense. There’s already like full saturation of “damsel-in-distress” fanfics, so I do wish you can expand into something else. There is the possibility that it’s a reflection of the mentality of the writer, where this person fantasizes themself as this perfect being but also wants someone else to save them because they feel kind of powerless in real life. (I can relate.) But hey, writers have the right to write (lol) whatever they want. Especially with students, as long as they’re writing, and also giving appropriate warnings and labels for anything potentially harmful or triggering, I think it’s okay.
Feedback and comments aren’t the only aspect of fanfics that can be a double-edged sword. The inclusiveness of fanfiction and fandoms in general is what continues to draw me in to fanfics in general. Perhaps the biggest appeal of fanfiction is the capacity to support any sort of fantasizing. You want to headcanon that one character as genderfluid and asexual? There’s a fic for that! (There are many, many fics for that. I know.) You think that these two characters would have a really good romantic relationship except the show they’re in won’t let them? Yeah, me too. There are thousands and thousands of fics for that. (Kiyoyachi should just get together already.) People headcanon characters as anything under the sky. Authors will write characters with disabilities, with mental illness, with various gender and sexual identities, with different family structures, in different AUs. The possibilities are endless, and so are the fantasies. They could write characters with certain characteristics as a reflection of themselves, in order to make sense of their own thoughts or to explore their own questions. Sometimes authors will write characters or stories a certain way in order to promote diversity or advocate for a particular marginalized identity that mainstream fandoms won’t (I’ve seen it a lot with asexuality, though that might be because I go searching for it). Even in the cases where terrible things happen in their stories, or they make the characters do despicable things (not going into detail for my own sake), as long as there are appropriate warnings or tags, I still think this form of fantasizing is far safer than going out and actually forcing it onto real people. Emphasis on the appropriate warnings and labels. It’s when there aren’t those things that it becomes a huge problem.
As mentioned earlier, a large chunk of fanfic writers and fanfic readers are younger people. They are kind of at a disadvantage just by being young, because they haven’t really been exposed to enough of the world to be fully educated in certain topics. (Sex is a big one. I’m not saying that you have to have had sex to be able to fully understand it, but sex education in schools is terrible across the board in the US, and it’s hard making sure that the info you find online is actually good info.) The best and more illustrative example of what I’m talking about is gay fiction. I actually wrote an entire term paper about this for my Japanese pop culture class last year, so I’ve got a lot to say about this. (I also identify under the LGBT/MOGAI umbrella, though I won’t go into specifics on this.) I’m supportive of anything that brings awareness to marginalized groups in general, but I also tend to be very critical about gay fanfics because many times, they are written by people who don’t really know what they’re talking about and rely on harmful stereotypes, or they fetishize the relationship and the characters. And then that will lead to situations where 13-year-olds read a couple of fanfics about guys having sex and decide that they will also write about two dudes having sex based solely on what they “learned” from those fanfics that may or may not be tagged correctly.
A common (and maybe most widespread?) issue I keep seeing in these types of fanfics is the complete absence of lube during anal sex, and everyone somehow being okay with it. Another one (that I think is more prevalent in yaoi doujinshi actually) is the rape-y nature of a lot of the gay sex that people write. Like, I’m not saying that rape and other kinds of non-con or abuse should never be written about, but if you choose to write about it, make sure you 1) label or tag it appropriately so that people who don’t want to read about it know that it’s there and 2) don’t perpetuate harmful ideas like victim-blaming. A lot of younger writers and readers simply haven’t been exposed to the kind of social commentary that some older people have, so I think it’s a problem when younger people read the kind of fanfics that contain harmful stereotypes or unsafe practices that are not warned about. In general, ao3 writers tend to be good about doing this (the tagging system is good for that), and I think lj is also pretty good about it, but others? Not so much. It’s kind of like how 50 shades of gray is passed off as some sort of steamy bdsm romance when the relationship is actually unhealthy and abusive. Again, having these sorts of themes in fiction is not the base problem, it’s not acknowledging them and trying to present them as acceptable that is the problem. It misleads people, especially uninformed people who then don’t go on to try to educate themselves more. I agree that it is also the responsibility of the reader to assess things for themselves and educate themselves, but when you’ve got 13-year-olds trying to figure out their sexuality looking for something to help them, and there are explicit fanfics on the internet that they shouldn’t be able to access but do anyways, I think we should also collectively at least try to protect them and give them adequate warning.
Even as a young adult, I still sometimes don’t take the time to stay adequately informed on some issues, and sometimes I just take people’s word for it when I know I shouldn’t because they are literally strangers on the internet. So I really don’t want 13-year-olds walking away from a fanfic thinking that spit and one finger is an adequate and equivalent replacement for lube and proper stretching during anal intercourse, or that having some guy force himself on you even when you don’t want it because he “loves” you is a romantic thing to do. I mean, yeah, you shouldn’t dictate what other people do or like, but damn it, let teenagers have all the information they need and all the possibilities presented to make a good decision about what they like or what they are comfortable with. The general ignorance I keep seeing among younger writers and readers just keeps on seemingly going unchecked, and I really hope that changes. On one hand, I don’t want there to be restrictions on what younger people can write or read about, but on the other hand, I’m kind of afraid of the spread of misinformation, which is really easy online where not many people bother to check sources. (I know, there are no sources on this post either, but it’s an opinion piece.) It’s the one issue with fanfiction that I’m conflicted over, and one that I don’t think will ever really be resolved.
Right, okay, I think I said everything I wanted to just get off my chest. It’ll be interesting to come back in a few years and see if any of my opinions changed. I’m still young right now, so I don’t have a lot of life experience that might affect my outlook on things. For now, this is kind of where I stand, and yeah, I probably definitely missed a few points. It would be nice of there could be some sort of discussion (like in the comments of this post, hint hint nudge nudge), but I’m sure that there’s plenty of discussion going on elsewhere on the internet as well. I’ve even participated in a few myself. Again, I want to close my saying that this is all my personal opinion and point of view, and I encourage everyone to seek out their own information and sources as well.