Fanfiction can be a messy topic, usually for legal reasons, but it has more potential than people realize. A growing trend has fanfiction authors editing their stories to republish as original works. Is that fair? Is it possible for your own fanfiction? We have some lessons from history and practical tips to give you perspective.
Learning from the Classics
Fanfiction isn’t new. It’s a very, very old form of fiction, and labeling works with borrowed characters and story elements as “fanfiction” is a purely modern phenomenon. The Divine Comedy falls under modern fanfiction labels easily: self-insert, Gary-sue, etc. Dante, the author, spends the entire story with his favorite poet, receives praise and friendship from all the cool people he meets, and he even has a tendency to faint (and be carried to safety).
Paradise Lost treats Christian scripture as source material that it retells from the villain’s perspective. It’s even arguably responsible for the ‘sexy Satan’ trope.
M rated fanfictions abounded, even in the 1700’s, and they were much more explicit than we often imagine the good folk of ye olde history could be. Jane Austen fans published their fanfiction long before the renewed wave of interest in Regency romance as a genre. When they wrote it, Regency romance was simply romance.
All this goes without mentioning every story with characters, stories, and themes borrowed from the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Lewis Carroll. There is a long and literally storied history of fanfiction. Embrace it, use it, and see what can grow from it.
The two biggest series to grow out of fanfiction in recent memory are, of course, Fifty Shades and Mortal Instruments. They strike two vastly different corners of the book market. One began as a Twilight fanfiction, and the other stemmed from the Harry Potter fandom. As different as they are, they both became bestsellers and maintain a faithful following and have screen adaptations.
The moral of this story is that fanfiction, while a legitimate writing exercise on its own, has a path to traditional publishing. If you write fanfiction, you may already be writing – or have written – a marketable novel.
Lean into What’s Yours (but Keep What’s Fun)
AU (alternate universe) fanfics have the greatest publishing potential. Writers introduce original elements and invest in worldbuilding beyond the canon story’s universe. That’s the groundwork of any great story. These fanfics straddle the line between original fiction and fanfic from the outset, and usually the greatest indication that they aren’t already stand-alone stories is naming.
Character names are often copyrighted. Those that aren’t still reveal the source material that inspired the rest of the story. They have to change for legal reasons, but often the characters themselves have already grown into original creatures.
Keep the elements you like and let the rest grow out naturally. Does a character have striking hair? Heroes with unusual hair are par for the course in most genres. If you like it, keep it. Lean into the sass, backstabbing, “whump,” and other character/story features you most enjoy.
One of the reasons fanfiction remains so popular is that it’s clearly written to be enjoyed. While there are highbrow snobs in all art communities, the basic premise of fanfiction is that the writer loves a story so much, they want to slip into the author’s skin and continue the tale. That passion carries through to readers. Make sure you don’t lose that when you’re reworking fanfic into original fiction. Have fun, make the necessary tweaks, and dig into what makes your story unique.
Do you write fanfiction? Have you considered revising it for publication as an original work? Why or why not? Share your thoughts with other writers below!