Writing stories is one of those things that for some reason people seem to think is a cheap and easy thing to do until they actually get around to trying it themselves. Fanfiction authors have it the worst, of course. In theory, people know that a fanfiction can be good. Unfortunately, most fanfiction is crap. The reason that this is so is because, even more so than regular writing, fanfiction is incredibly hard to pull off convincingly.
I wrote this post to shed some insight on the fanfiction writing process – but of course most of this does apply to original writing as well, so anyone interested in stories and how they’re constructed should find this useful in some way. It’s a lot more involved than it looks.
Note: This is a lengthy post, which delves into academia and literary theory. I’ll try to explain it all in an accessible way, but nonetheless, I wouldn’t call this light reading.
Introduction and Background Context
I should start this off by saying where I got the inspiration for writing this post. Righteous indignation at the poor reputation fanfiction gets is one motivating factor, I suppose, but the really interesting thing for me was entering the academic sphere and discovering that fanfiction is a serious area of study. This shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise as it did, since academics write papers about everything, including the snot that comes out of your nose.
Still, a couple of ideas stuck with me: that fanfiction is an example of a cybertext (Viires, 2005). Being written and distributed primarily through the web means that fanfiction creates its own culture that transcends culture and physical space. You have a bunch of random strangers from any number of countries coming together and forging their author identities through a common interest. When you pause to think about it, that’s pretty amazing. Academics are seriously interested in whether engaging with fandom affects how students perform in regular English studies (Black, 2005; Chandler-Olcott & Mahar, 2003), but my thoughts went into another direction. It got me thinking about the nature of fandom and how we interpret media in general.
You see, fanfiction actively pushes the boundaries of traditional literacy by drawing from multiple mediums and visual texts. This is where the term multiliteracy comes from (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000). When you’re writing fanfiction, what you’re doing is drawing a general interpretation – usually from a variety of mediums, since franchises tend to spread themselves out quite a bit – and then channeling your ideas into one particular form, usually a written story. It’s actually not much different from the art of adaptation, only it requires much more original input from the author.
It’s this process of interpretation that I’m going to focus on in this post. My argument is that fanfiction and simulacra (the ‘imitation’ of reality) is a conscious product of the author’s interpretation. This goes without saying, of course, but then we can also go deeper than that. What about the consumers of fanfiction? By reading fanfiction, one’s interpretation of the original work (i.e. the canon) is expanded to incorporate new ideas, depending on whether you accept or reject the fanfic author’s vision. This is where we get widely accepted theories of fanon from. What this then leads to is a “flattening”, so to speak, of the original source. As fanfic culture flourishes, the consumer’s interpretation of an anime becomes much more deeply personal. This effectively breaks down the barriers that generally arise when we go from interpreting a text to actively taking it in as a creative influence.
Don’t worry if you didn’t understand that last paragraph. I’ll be breaking down the ideas in that paragraph one at a time. But tldr; fanfics do make you a more versatile writer/reader, whether you realise it or not. Yes, even bad fanfiction can have this effect!
Processes of Interpretation
First off, I’ll start with describing the process of interpretation that occurs when we consume media.
In his post about “Interpreting Interpretation“, Joshspeagle described ‘interpretation’ as follows:
(1) The process of associating meaning with images.
(2) The process of associating deeper/underlying meaning with images beyond those that are readily apparent.
This is a pretty good definition for practical purposes, but I’m afraid from here our takes on the subject differ. Joshspeagle goes on to describe types of anime fans but doesn’t really go into much detail about detailing why interpretations differ from person to person. (You should still definitely check out his post because the conclusions he makes are utterly brilliant, although alas not related very much to this topic.)
So here I’m going to propose an alternate model for interpreting media, which I call the Spheres of Interpretation Model, which you can see below:
In any person’s Sphere of Interpretation, we have in the middle the person’s core being, which determines one’s general perspective – the default lenses, so to speak, through which we look at the world. Our manner of interpretation is generally wider than what our core being suggests, though. This is usually because of our experiences, which make up a multitude of factors, summarised broadly as follows:
- Extrinsic influences: Our relationships, family, friends, education, reading material, etc. all push us towards incorporating certain values systems and beliefs into our own thinking. These influences tend to push the sphere outwards. Interacting with the outer world broadens one’s sphere of interpretation.
- Intrinsic influences: One’s personal values, motivation and focus. These attitudes determine which external influences you choose to accept or reject into your own being. Often, this is subconscious, although this can be controlled. For example, when you are focusing very hard on something, you tend to block out distractions. Intrinsic influences tend to narrow or refine one’s sphere of interpretation.
The relationship between extrinsic and intrinsic influences is complementary, meaning they constantly affect each other. But it’s also symbiotic, which means that while contact with others may prompt us into broadening our thinking, it also makes us more aware of our inner self, which wants to retain its individuality. So as people, we’re always in a state of conflict about interpreting ideas through a pre-established method or through our own gut.
I’m starting to realise how pathetic my MS Paint skills are at this point, but bear with me.
As you can see from the diagram, the clash between a person’s inner and public self is what makes us so dynamic as human beings. It explains why we are all so different, despite superficial similarities. This is also what makes us able to engage with a story on multiple levels, or to form completely contrasting interpretations of the same event.
The size of one’s sphere of interpretation matters. Theoretically, you can interpret something however you like – but this is physically impossible if your mind has not been exposed to a reality that you can link the interpretation to. Readers of the Bible a thousand years ago would never have interpreted the messages as offensively anti-gay or sexist, for instance, but these are valid interpretations today. No one back then would have written a Naruto yaoi fanfiction, either.
So when you write a story – or express yourself in any form, for that matter – your work is formed out of a subset of your own interpretation of life and is limited by the range of your own perceptions and insights.
Arguably, the more a story crosses over with our core being, the better, more focused and “truer” to life it feels.
Now here’s where it gets slightly complicated. As soon as you write a story, it ceases to be a part of you. You, the writer, will from then on continue to constantly develop, but the story remains static. The way you interpret your own story is therefore guaranteed to change over time.
So the author and reader thus become consumers of the same work, each perceiving it through their own distinct spheres of interpretation.
The diligent reader can position himself to stand partly within the author’s sphere of interpretation and thus attempt to perceive the work in the spirit it was intended to be written. Yet because we can never be fully exposed to the same ideas and influences the author had, we can never fully connect with his experience – and neither can we fully connect with that of a fellow reader, for that matter. In this case, broadening one’s sphere does not capture the same depth of the experience. The outer edges of one’s sphere of interpretation constitute shallow understanding – interpretations we can accept on an intellectual level but don’t accept on a deeper, emotional level.
Let’s use an anime example for this. Say you watch Death Note and you’re convinced Light is evil. Now you might, if you were an open-minded person, accept another person’s justification that Light was really a good guy all along, but you would not be able to accept that interpretation with the same conviction that you would have about Light being evil. Becoming open-minded or learning more doesn’t necessarily change the size of our core being.
To gain a broader, deeper understanding of the story in all of its complexities, what you need to do is position your core being closer to that of the story’s core.
That’s nice, but what does it have to do with fanfiction?
Fanfiction is the tool that allows the reader to position their core being right into the story by making the original material part of their own creative process.
The difference between the quality of fanfiction can be seen from this model: bad fanfiction is drawn from only the outer layers of both the fanfic author and the original material, while good fanfiction draws much more deeply from both spheres. The closer the fanfic author positions his core being towards the centre of the canon story, the more “in-character” the fanfiction becomes.
The skilled fanfic author thus absorbs the influence of the canon story entirely and becomes able to shape it according to his writing needs. This is where we get the different styles of fanfic, which can range from Original Flavor (attempting to copy the tone and style of the canon) to Alternate Universe (keeping the characters and thematic elements recognisable but placing them in a different setting). If the fanfic author has done his job particularly well, the fanfiction holds up as its own work of art, which then exerts its own influence back on the canon.
It might seem strange and contradictory that a static piece of work can become fluid and dynamic because of someone else’s interpretation. But this is how art interpretation works in general; fanfiction merely exaggerates the process. In truth, we are all fanfic authors in a sense when we engage deeply with a text. We think about possibilities that will never happen or we think up details about characters that seem likely, given what we know about their personality/background, but was never stated in-story or by the author elsewhere. Fanfic authors call this headcanon, but more widely accepted headcanon is called fanon. In the Naruto fandom, for instance, the identity of Naruto’s father was generally accepted fanon well before it was formally revealed. Fanfiction authors were already using this implicit fact as part of their own stories, thereby further influencing each other to continue acknowledging this speculation as actuality. The distinctions between canon and fanon become blurred.
To understand this phenomenon in full detail, it might be helpful to draw on the ideas of Jean Baudrillard and his theory of hyperreality. Instead of being the canon, fanfiction is an encoded representation that both reflects what it’s trying to be and distorts it. Think of it like a slanted mirror. Things get really postmodern when the fanfiction author inserts a character representing himself or herself into the story or projects personal issues into a story, deliberately disregarding the context altogether. What we get is often a very disjointed piecemeal-like narrative (most readers can spot a “Mary Sue” miles away) that actually succeeds as a “vicious cycle” in postmodern literary terms – when a “real” character interferes with the fictitious. It’s all very meta, but you can also say that’s just shit writing and no one would argue with you there.
Putting It All Together
- Author produces a story.
- Consumer reads the story and forms an interpretation.
- The consumer reads more deeply into the narrative and starts to put himself directly into the core of the story.
- The consumer writes a fanfiction, becoming a creator in his own right.
- The fanfiction is a work of interpretation that is itself open to further interpretation.
- Fanfiction culture influences the canon and alters fan perceptions of the work.
- Fanfiction breaks down the barriers between the story and the consumer.
This last point is the most important of all. This is why fanfiction, for all its seeming stylistic constraints, is useful in developing an author’s range of creativity. By allowing the consumer to engage with a story on a far deeper and more personal level than simple interpretation, analysis or discussion can allow, fanfiction allows writers to apply their creative influences in original ways.
I think that it gives you a sense of flexibility, most of all. If you’re skilled enough, you can watch almost anything and make a fanfic out of it. Like anything, it becomes an intuitive process. Stories can be melded in whatever shape you like.
So, even if you don’t actually read or write fanfiction yourself, by tapping into your inner fanfic author, you can start to apply a more flexible understanding of the structure of stories, literature and art itself. A story is a work of art that an author and reader create together. An interpretation is something that you create by yourself – no one else is in charge of that. The deeper, more nuanced and more flexible that interpretation is, the more you ultimately gain from being a fan.
(tldr; I got back into writing fanfiction lately and it’s really exhausting but really, really fun.)
I only touched on this idea very briefly in this post, but fanfiction is very much like adaptation – you need to be conscious of what conventions work for different media before your work can be effective. So, keeping that broad idea in mind, why not try reading these two posts and see what happens when you mentally substitute ‘adaptation’ for ‘fanfiction’?
List of Academic Citations
For this post, I used sources where I own the articles in question (except for the third one). So if you want to read the sources I used, you can just ask in a comment or something and I can email them to you – as long as you promise not to redistribute them.
Black, R. (2005) Access and Affiliation: The Literacy and Composition Practices of English-Language Learners in an Online Fanfiction Community, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49(2).
Chandler-Olcott, K., & Mahar, D. (2003) Adolescents’ anime-inspired “fanfictions”: an exploration of multiliteracies: the authors explore “fanfiction” as a valid literacy practice in the context of the multiliteracies framework, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46(7).
Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2000) Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures. New York: Routledge.
Viires, P. (2005) Literature in Cyberspace, Folklore (Tartu), 29.
Congratulations for reading this 2.5k word post all the way to the end. Holy crap. Give yourself a pat on the back. I hope you learned something.