Think about when you were a kid and decided you wanted to be just like your favorite author. You may have sat down to write your very first novel—but not knowing what to write about, “borrowed” the characters from your favorite book and started taking them on new adventures.

That was your first foray into fan fiction.

Today, with the internet being the way it is, fan fiction is everywhere. From Wattpad to Tumblr to Archive of Our Own (a site exclusively devoted to fan fiction and known widely as AO3), a simple Google search can often yield any fan fiction, or “fic,” as they’re more commonly known, your little heart desires.

But first: what is fan fiction?

What Is Fan Fiction?

In short, fan fiction is any piece of fiction created based on another work’s characters or world. 

Often, fans create fan fiction based on fictional work—a book, a TV show, a movie. But there’s also the type of fan fiction based on real people. A famous example of this is the book series After, which started off as Harry Styles fan fiction on Wattpad (more on that below).

This fiction then lives somewhere on the internet—at fic-specific sites like AO3 or fanfiction.net, on Tumblr or Wattpad, on more niche sites like asianfanfics.com, or even just on your own website (though most people choose to post it to a site where they can easily share it).

Why do people write fan fiction? Sometimes fans don’t love the direction a story has taken, so they resolve to write it their own way. 

Other times, there are two characters in the story fans desperately want to see get together (commonly called a “ship”). Their “ship” may or may not get their happy ending in the actual book, movie, or show (called “canon”), so fans write up a love story of their own. Fan fiction frequently revolves around non-canonical ships—two characters who never get together in the original work, such as Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter—and allows fans to imagine what their relationship would be like.

And a lot of the time, fans just want to spend more time with these characters and in this world they love! Writing and reading fan fiction allows them to do that.

Is Fan Fiction Illegal?

The short answer: no.

The caveat: Fan fiction is not illegal… so long as you don’t try and make money off someone else’s intellectual property.

There’s nothing wrong with writing stories about Harry Potter, or the Avengers, or any of your favorite characters. But if you try and sell those stories—that’s where the copyright infringement and, in some cases, lawsuits come in.

So rest assured you can write fan fiction to your heart’s content. Just don’t try and sell it, unless you make so many substantial changes to it that it no longer resembles the piece of fiction you based it on. (We’ll cover some famous examples of authors doing just that in a bit.)

Fan Fiction Examples

You can find fan fiction for almost any story under the sun, well-known and relatively obscure alike. 

Some of the more obscure fandoms have just a few works, while the big ones have hundreds of thousands. At the time of this writing, the Harry Potter tag on AO3 has 328,767 fics, nine of them uploaded in the past 24 hours—and that’s just one site out there.

How do fans find the fics that will resonate with them? In addition to browsing by fandoms, most sites have additional tags readers can use, such as specific characters, ships, and content. 

For example, “slash” refers to a fic revolving around two men getting together (the word comes from the symbol in “m/m”), while “darkfic” is tagged in stories that are darker and grimmer than the original. 

There’s a lot of adult fic out there (even a whole site dedicated to it at adult-fanfiction.org), crossover fic (that involves two or more fandoms), alternate universe (AU) fic, where the story takes place in a different universe than its canonical one. And so much more!

But for now, let’s get into some of the more famous fan fiction out there.

Twilight Fan Fiction

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, a quick primer: Twilight is a book series written by Stephenie Meyer about a human girl, her vampire boyfriend, her werewolf best friend, and a whole lot of teenage angst. The first book was published in 2005 and was followed by three subsequent books, five films, and an entire franchise that’s largely credited with reviving the YA age category in publishing. 

As you can imagine, Twilight has inspired countless fanfics since its publication (many having to do with ships). But the most famous fic of all is one that went on to its own book and movie franchise: 50 Shades of Grey.

50 Shades of Grey

50 shades
Source: Mike Mozart via Flickr Creative Commons
It started as fanfic, but Fifty Shades of Grey is now its own franchise.

Some more news you missed while under that rock: 50 Shades of Grey is a book series and movie franchise, featuring a naïve young woman, an attractive billionaire, and their adult relationship (emphasis on the “adult”). It started as Twilight fanfiction.

But wait: how was the author, E.L. James, able to make money off fan fiction?

In short, because she changed the characters and story enough from the original that 50 Shades of Grey wasn’t considered copyright infringement.

The original 50 Shades of Grey was a Twilight fic entitled Master of the Universe posted on fanfiction.net in 2009. It included the characters from Twilight, Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, only it was an AU fic, with Edward a billionaire CEO and Bella the naïve young woman interviewing him. The author, E.L. James, received a considerable amount of interest from her story, so she decided to change the names of her characters, remove all references to Twilight in the text, and publish it as an original work.

The rest is history.

E.L. James isn’t the only, or even the first, author to do this. Let’s look at a few other famous examples.

The Mortal Instruments 

cassandra clare book
Source: flickr
Book five in The Mortal Instruments series.

The Mortal Instruments is a six-book YA fantasy series written by Cassandra Clare, first published in 2007. It’s since gone on to spawn several other books, a movie, and a television series. 

And it started off as Harry Potter fanfiction.

The Draco Trilogy was a fic written by Clare and posted over a period of six years, revolving around the titular Draco Malfoy and his relationship with Ginny Weasley (two characters who canonically do not have a relationship). While all Harry Potter characters and references have been scrubbed from The Mortal Instruments franchise, there are some similarities: Clary, the heroine of the series, is a smart and fiery redhead, much like Ginny, while her love interest Jace is an angsty, wounded boy with white-blond hair, much like Draco. Some of the supporting characters share similarities with Harry Potter characters as well, and there are some lines that can be found both in the original fanfic and the published novels.

But Clare sets the characters in an entirely new world and creates entirely new plotlines for them, as well as adds in new characters, making her work different enough from Harry Potter that she was able to publish it as its own series—and develop an entire franchise out of it.

After

A more recent example of fan fiction turned successful franchise is the After series by Anna Todd.

Anna Todd was a Wattpad author who, in 2013, wrote a story about a college student named Tessa who encounters Harry Styles, the then-lead singer of the popular band One Direction, as well as his band mates, and falls in love with him. 

The story racked up 1 billion reads on Wattpad, leading Todd to ink a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster just a year later. In order to publish the story, Todd had to change the names of the real-life people she’d based it on, namely Harry Styles and the other band members. So, Harry Styles became Hardin Scott, a book series and movie franchise followed, and Anna Todd’s fan fiction habit made her a bestselling author.

Of course, these examples of fics that turned into successful franchises on their own are the exceptions, not the rules. Most people get into fan fiction not for the potential money (because there usually isn’t any); they get into it because they love their fandoms and want to participate in them.

So, are you one of those people thinking of writing fan fiction?

Read on to find out how.

How to Write Fan Fiction

Why write fan fiction instead of your own original work?

For one, there’s no rule out there that says you can’t do both. A lot of now-bestselling authors of original work talk about their love of writing and reading fic, including N.K. Jemisin and Rainbow Rowell. (Rowell even wrote a bestseller about a fanfiction writer called Fangirl—then in a super-meta twist, wrote that fanfic as its own series, called Carry On.)

For another, a lot of writers cut their teeth on fanfic for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there’s less pressure—when you’re writing a fic rather than in pursuit of publication, you can let yourself have fun with it. Some writers write only scenes or short stories, rather than entire novels, so it doesn’t take as long. And you don’t have to worry as much about story structure, or hitting certain beats or word count, or any of those other pesky (but often necessary) writing rules when you’re writing fic. (Though you definitely can do all those things—it’s a great way to practice if you plan on writing something original someday!)

Secondly, if you’re someone who struggles with creating characters or worlds—you don’t have to worry about that with fic. They’re already created for you. 

And most importantly, being part of a fanfic community is so much fun!

So, how to get started?

Decide What to Write

If you’re thinking of writing your own fanfic, you probably have a fandom in mind already. Whether it’s one of the big ones, like Supernatural, or something more obscure, like The Chaos Walking trilogy, pick what you’re going to do, think about how you want to put your own spin on it, and jot down some notes. 

Read Up

It can be helpful to reread or rewatch the franchise you’re basing your fic on, as well as to read the fic that’s already out there. Engaging in the existing community is a great way to start, because ideally you’ll want people engaging with your fic, too. Leave comments, encouragements—the fanfic community can be incredibly supportive!

Decide Where to Post

If you’re already reading fanfic, you probably already have a favorite site. But if you aren’t, take a look at what’s out there—AO3, Wattpad, Fanfiction.net, Tumblr, or any of the other sites—and set up your account.

Plan Out Your Fic

Outlines can help, especially if you’re writing a longer fic, but if you’re writing something shorter (often referred to as “fluff”) you don’t necessarily need one. Look at the notes you wrote down before, refer back to the original work you’re drawing from, and make your plan. Decide who your main character will be, what other characters you want to include, where to set it, and what the plot will be

Write It!

Now for the fun part: write your fic!

Brush up on your writing essentials, and get started. Work out a killer opening, refine your plot and characters as you write, and make sure it all nods to the canon in the way you want it to. 

Depending on its length, the writing process may take you days, weeks, or months. A lot of fic writers like to publish a chapter at a time for longer work, which can help them build a following. And unlike stories you intend to publish traditionally or self-publish, fan fiction doesn’t necessarily need to be edited extensively or perfectly to be published (though it doesn’t hurt to take a few passes at it to make it the best it can be.)

Post Consistently

You don’t have to write every day, but to build a following, it helps to update your fic regularly, especially if it’s a longer-form fic and you intend to keep the story going. So set out a schedule for yourself (a chapter a week, or every two weeks, or once a month) and stick to it, so people know when to come back for more.

What Will You Write?

Writing fan fiction is a lot of fun, but it does require some work to do well. But don’t let that stop you—once you get the hang of it, it’s a great way to hone your skills without the added pressure of publication. Plus, the fanfic community can be filled with some of the most supportive writers on the internet.

Start Your Fic

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