When I was 10, I was a lonely, geeky girl, a first–generation Latina growing up in a small town in Indiana. I happened across J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, and immediately became enraptured by the richly woven world of elves, orcs, and small but heroic hobbits fighting against impossible odds to combat a powerful enemy.
But one thing disturbed me: the lack of female characters. The main party of adventurers accompanying the hobbit protagonist, Frodo, didn’t contain a single female. Not only did I feel shut out—the way I sometimes did in school when my teachers told me that girls weren’t supposed to be good at math—but it offended my sense of fairness. Surely girls and women could have adventures and take on risky challenges too?
So I sat down with a spiral notebook and rewrote the story, re-gendering a couple of the main characters and adding new scenes, such as one where a female hobbit devised a clever plan to foil the Balrog, a gruesome monster who threw one of my favorite characters, the wizard Gandalf, into a bottomless pit.
By reimagining Tolkien’s fantasy world, I was creating a place where someone like me could feel at home. Writing my story gave me comfort. It also taught me about the effort involved in creating a narrative. I never shared that spiral notebook with anyone, but if I’d been able to get constructive feedback on it, I might have learned even more about writing.
What I didn’t realize then is I was writing fan fiction—a story based on characters or settings from another’s work—and that I was not alone. Fan fiction has many literary precedents. John Milton wrote Paradise Lost using characters from the Bible. Shakespeare retold ancient folk stories. Today, millions of young people are writing and sharing fan fiction on a variety of websites. They are giving and receiving feedback and teaching each other how to write. They’re not only learning about writing; they’re finding community, establishing identity, and exploring new trends that have not yet found mainstream acceptance.
On the basis of our research, my colleague Katie Davis and I at the University of Washington believe fan fiction could be more than just a source of support and self-expression for lonely kids; it could also be an important tool in formal education.
Defying the stereotype
In the past 20 years, over 60 billion words of fan fiction have been written and posted on Fanfiction.net, the world’s largest repository. The site’s 10 million members have collectively authored a corpus about three-quarters the size of the entirety of published English-language fiction. This outpouring of creativity has been generated primarily by young people, with a median age of 15 ½.
Katie and I have been studying these sites since 2013, when we first met and chatted about a recent news story claiming that young people today can’t write—all they can do is produce broken, misspelled short texts. Both of us had teenage relatives who defied this stereotype. The young people we knew were skilled writers and thoughtful readers. They were also heavily involved in online communities and fan fiction. This apparent contradiction, backed up by my childhood experience, struck us as fertile grounds for research.
We recruited four students to join us in the project. Our group started out by selecting three fandoms, representing a range of genres and media types: one book, one cartoon, and one TV show. For the book, we selected Harry Potter, the popular young adult fantasy series, in part because it’s probably the single most prolific generator of fan fiction today, with over 800,000 stories archived in one repository alone. We also decided to study My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, a children’s animated fantasy TV series, and Doctor Who, a science fiction TV show that’s been running since 1963. For each fandom, it was important that at least two of us were deeply familiar with it, and that it was popular enough to have plenty of material for us to study.
We started out by reading stories and interacting with authors, and we each wrote and posted our own fanfic stories as participant observers. On our profiles we explained that we were researchers as well as fans of the communities we studied. As a group, we spent about 10 to 20 hours per week immersed in these communities. We ended up with over 1,000 hours of participant observation and several hundred pages of field notes and memos. We also interviewed authors both formally and informally.