Mastering the Universe, Part Two: Behind the Scenes

Jonni Andre has been visiting the parallel universe of fan-fiction regularly since he was 14. A dedicated writer of fan-fic about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X-Men comics, he's here to explain a little more about the underground literary culture that creates and recreates stories over and over again.

For those of us who are still a little shaky on the rules here, can you please explain what fan-fiction is about?
In my mind, there's two different approaches to the core of fan-fic. One is someone watching, reading or listening to a piece of fiction and thinking, “Oh, that was alright but I could do better.”
The second approach is, “I like those two people, I want them to have sex.”
I mean, there's all types of different variations and subgenres, but basically it's those two things either separately or combined which let people expand and continue on a story.

So it's people taking the bits they like from fiction they like, and doing different things with it.
Yeah, mostly. There's a kind that's called “original flavour” which is just written as if it was another chapter or episode in the same thing, but a lot of fan-fic can depart quite wildly from the source material. We'll get into the different “flavours” later.

What kind of fiction do you tend to see original flavour stories about?
I guess it's for anything. The more major cult things like Buffy, Dr Who, Harry Potter and that sort of thing tend to attract it, although they've got the widest range of fan-fic around. Mostly the original flavour ones or continuations are things that got cut off early like shows or books...

Like Firefly.
Oh, yes. People have written screenplays continuing Firefly on for many seasons online because it's got such a big fanbase. The bigger the fanbase, the greater the amount of fan-fic. Another thing is rewriting, like a whole season of a show up until, say, season two will be rewritten mostly as-is and then the fan-fic just diverges into an alternate universe with certain events which are different.

Another leg in the trousers of time, as Terry Pratchett said.
Yeah. “For want of a nail,” that sort of thing.

Ok, cool. I hear the category names can get pretty creative, what other flavours are there?
Well a lot of the time you get slash fiction-
That's the one you talked about with the sex thing, right?
That's right. Slash can be male or female, it's shorthand for “This person slash that person.” It is usually gay male.

Even if the main character isn't gay?
Yes, that stops nobody! That's the beauty of fan-fic. Anyone, regardless of how they're portrayed in the source material, can be of any sexual orientation – and occasionally gender.

So there'll be, for example, a spinoff where Harry Potter is a girl?
There's countless. Gender-benders, body switching, male pregnancy, anything that can be thought of in fan-fic is there.

For example, Harry Potter could be a cat in somebody's story?
I'm pretty sure he has been, especially considering that in the Harry Potter world, that stuff isn't out of the ordinary. In fan-fic someone in Grey's Anatomy could be a cat. If you can think of it, it's probably already out there somewhere.

So I understand you've been active in the fan-fic world. What do you write about when you create stories?
I'm usually an original flavour person, I don't really like the ones that are just sex. They're often porn without plot- “PWP” is the tag that gets thrown around in the community.

Is PWP a derogatory term?
Not really, sometimes it's a selling point. It's what some people want to read – they just want to see Character A and Character B having sex without any context or realism. I prefer to write about things that I think could conceivably just be slotted into the work or source material.

What happens when something runs for a while and gets popular? Are there huge serials, collaborations?
There are sometimes writers who work in a tag-team alongside one another, but I think that's rarer. Sometimes fics just die out. In the end, all that's keeping a writer going is their enthusiasm and their readers' enthusiasm. They're not getting paid, and they're not really getting famous or anything.

So there's a lot of material out there, isn't there.
There's a lot of material. A lot.

How much are we talking? Is there a few main sites?
There are hundreds of fan-fic sites, and most of them are based around a specific fandom. Fanfiction.net is a general sort of site that covers everything, there's more than 2 million users on there. If a book or show is large enough it will usually have its own site that features fan-art, fan-shows and fanime as well.

Is it worth the effort?
In fan-fic there's a lot of stuff that's not great quality because really, every fan-fic writer is an amateur. However, mixed in with the thirteen year-old girl writers and the weird, crazy stuff, there are some fan-fics that are incredibly well-written and just as good if not better than the source material. What's that law with the monkeys and Shakespeare? It's like that.