Fandoms are said to be breeding grounds of many things, from obscure kinks to self-insert fanfiction. The media regards them as something to be ashamed of and people who participate in them (unless it’s going to Comic Cons, which have now attained the reputation of respectable) often encounter harmful stereotypes.
But here’s the catch: fandoms are turning us into more creative people, too.
No matter whether we speak of fanfiction writers (who do it for no money at all – just for the sheer pleasure of writing about their favorite characters), artists (who take commissions and participate with their incredible works) or just fans (who relate to characters in different ways and come up with headcanons), creativity is a big part of being in a fandom.
What is fandom? According to Wikipedia, “fandom is a term used to refer to a subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of empathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest.”
This definition is pretty accurate, but it forgets one important thing – the impulse to create. Somewhere along the way, a lot of creative people lose their motivation and this is where fandoms jump in. They provide a relaxed way to create without the necessity to come up with original characters and/or plots – whether for art or writing.
In short: creating for fandoms is creating freely.
Let’s Talk Fic
Just look at Archive of Our Own, a non-profit organization that collects fanworks which they perceive to be transformative and valuable. The site is mostly dominated by fanfiction where stereotypes are turned up on their heads. If we view characters from our favorite TV shows/animes/movies/books as rough drafts, that is where every individual’s imagination comes into play. People recreate characters they have loved and turn them more relatable. Characters that have previously been straight now become bisexual or homosexual. Characters that have previously resided in a post-apocalyptic universe now reside in modern settings (most popular are so-called “coffee shop AUs”, in which AU stands for alternate universe). Characters to which we could have previously related only in some aspects, we now can relate to fully.
That is why fandom creations are perceived to be transformative.
Unless you perceive them to be weird, but in that case – good luck. Because art, above all else, should be free and it should keep developing. We know that some authors, such as Anne Rice, have openly expressed their disapproval of fan works (in particular: fan fiction), while others have embraced it (J. K. Rowling), which has caused the need for disclaimers to arise (the most popular one being “I do not own any of the characters, nor do I intend to profit from writing about them”) but it has not stopped people from recreating characters and plots.
I can see you asking – why is it so important for people to be able to relate to already existing characters even more?
I have already written about why it is important for girls to be able to relate to female characters, Mel has emphasized the need to see everyday girls kick ass on our TV screens, and so when we cannot find that representation in mainstream media – we turn to subversive ways of getting it ourselves.
Creating for fandom is creating freely, no rules that you must respect, no one to tell you that no, they will not be publishing your novel because something is missing – all you need is internet connection. You are not burdened by the rules of writing and overthinking plots and characters. You create because you want to, and you publish because you are not afraid of bad reviews. Sure, there might be one in a million, but what connects you to your readers is the shared love of characters and stories you are thinking through again.
There is depth to be found in fanfiction, as well. When so many people rethink characters, their motivations, plots and the possible consequences – a creative, unlimited space must be created. Characters become more fleshed-out, plots become more significant, the world of what used to be a book with a single plot and a handful of characters becomes a whole new universe.
If you believe that art is a monologue, a writer shouting their words at the world, then yes – you probably do not like the idea of fanfiction.
But if you believe that art is a dialogue that profits from constant reexamination, replying to it (either in form of reviews, fanfiction, art or anything else), and expanding the universe you, as a writer, have come up with – then you probably support fanfiction, too.
And even if we stray off the often talked about path of representation of minority groups and the endless cycle of creativity, we are left with the fact that a writer can only write so much. Writers don’t have time for headcanons that don’t make it into the book. What you read is what you get. But, as a fan – you have the ability to explore more. You get to constantly relive the book(s) you’ve read and enrich your reading experience. If we talk about the most popular example – Harry Potter is no longer just a wizard in faraway Scotland. Now he’s a coffee shop owner and a law enforcement officer and a child whose parents were killed off by the mafia.
Also, he hooks up with Draco Malfoy a whole lot.
The term “book hangover” is there for a reason. Sometimes, stories affect us so deeply that we aren’t ready to let go of them and leave them just on the pages of a book. Sometimes, they make us want to create more, relate more, live through them more. It’s a universal human longing – to read to know that we are not alone.
Yes, none of us are wizards in a magical castle. Yes, none of us are a pair of brothers hunting supernatural entities across America. We aren’t a bunch of kids trying to survive in a dystopian YA universe.
But these characters exist and live on very human motivations. They want to belong, they want to fight for what they believe in, they get their hearts broken and they – ultimately – live. Even if their blood is just ink.
And we can relate to that.
Finally, writing fanfiction is a test of quality. Do a character’s motivations still stand in an alternate universe? Do their characteristics make sense? Is the story we have read and wanted to expand on a plot-driven story, in which characters are subdued to the story’s purpose, or is it character-driven, where characters are the ones running the show?
Can we make it bigger, can we make it better, can we turn it into every possible universe and still be able to fall in love with these characters anew? Did the writer do well, or can we only be entertained for those few days that it takes us to finish the book?
As someone who hopes to publish a novel someday, I’m terrified of what the potential fanfiction might to do my works. But I’m not terrified because they will ship characters I have not thought of as shippable – I’m terrified because it will be a test of quality, a test of reality, relatability. Will I be a good writer or will I flop?
But as much as I’m afraid, I’m excited, too. It will be one hell of a ride.
So You Think You Can Art
There is something very beautiful about seeing a character reimagined, drawn and left to punch the breath out of your lungs. And when you realize that people are doing it out of sheer love for the characters and the story – it’s even better.
The thing is – art is easier to consume, but that does not mean that it’s not just as transformative as fanfiction. We must not forget the trend during which artists reimagined Harry Potter characters as people of color – an example that left a very obvious impression, and even inspired Hermione Granger casting for The Cursed Child, in which the beloved character was played by a Swaziland-born actress Noma Dumezweni.
The decision was met with both positive and negative reactions, which J.K. Rowling settled by posting a tweet in which she said that color of Hermione’s skin was never specified:
And it doesn’t stop there. Fanartists drew Harry and James Potter as characters of Indian origin, too. When a white actor was cast as Newt Scamander in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, there was a wide outrage – everyone had been previously “fancasting” him as Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and/or Suraj Sharma.
Simply, to exist in a fandom means to have your horizons constantly broadened by new and unique takes on characters and stories you have previously loved. There are no limits and there are no rules. You are free to do as you please, as long as you don’t plagiarize.
After all, many of the artists we have interviewed for our Inktober Spotlight have started out and still are fanartists. Why?
Well, to put it simply – they love doing it and it makes them connect to characters in new and unique ways, or, in Rita’s words: “Fanart is fantastic; bringing characters “to life” is such an amazing thing to do and it really makes you feel more “connected” to the book/movie etc. Your fanart is about it in a way that it’s hard to explain. You just feel like these book/bands/TV shows are a part of you and now you get to express that love for them by doing something you love, like drawing.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about the love. Why else would so many brilliant artists spend their time drawing characters that already exist? There is something very human in relating to people, even if they are fictional, and wanting to expand that love, share it with a whole group of others who love them, too.
Where you once had to be academically excellent artist to be able to have exhibitions of your works in galleries, now you just need internet connection and a group of people who love what you love. It makes art more approachable, no longer a luxury good unavailable to people who do not have the funds to attend exhibitions.
Plus, it is amazing to see the characters you love reimagined and plopped on your screen in a way you couldn’t have previously imagined.
As well as that, fanart is also a very good starting point for gaining more exposure. It can take its toll and it may shift the focus from art based on your original characters, but it still helps you build a community of like-minded people.
In short – fanart is the easiest way to examine the creativity that arises out of fandoms. The support, the encouragement to keep creating – and all without having to sit in front of a board of professors at the end of the day. There are no rules to which you must comply. You can, if you wish to do so, but you can be as abstract as you’d like. Fandom is not restricted by academic requirements, and as such, a beautiful breeding ground for artists to figure out their styles by themselves in a petri dish of encouragement and freedom.
Perhaps the best example of this is a project I have recently found out about – the Percy Jackson and the Olympians Coloring Book.
PJO Coloring Book Project
Led by two amazing people I have had the pleasure of talking to, Bruna and Mary, Percy Jackson Coloring Book is a proactive fanart project that assembled fanartists from all around the world to create one joint coloring book, with the fans’ favorite characters. The coloring book, now all finished and containing a total of 215 pages, can be downloaded here – for free.
In Bruna’s words, they were talking to a friend on Instagram and the friend said how much they would like for the fanartists to create official art for the series. In case you are not familiar with Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, it is a child-friendly rendition of Greek mythology, beloved by many children and young adults all across the world. Fanart for it is created every day, even with the series being done, and Bruna had an amazing idea.
They created a blog and asked artists in the fandom to help out in any way they can. As Mary told me, they recruited artists in different ways – some volunteered, others were nominated, and ultimately, they contacted all of them.
“We had an overwhelming positive reaction from artists willing to donate their time and creations to our project, which is probably shown by the vast number of drawings we managed to get in the end,” Mary said, adding that most of the artists were enthusiastic about the project.
The whole project took about three months to complete, and during those three months – fans joined their forces to create art for other fans.
The Percy Jackson Coloring Book now has over two thousand downloads and it is to be expected that the number will only grow from here.
When asked about the importance of books and what might have ultimately led to the whole project being executed, Bruna said – “The books teach us friendship, love and how to pass through hard times. But us, the fandom, we are the ones to learn, spread those messages of love. That is what we are doing. Spreading that love.”
And what else, really, could they be doing? In a world where so many value money over enjoyment, these people have decided to volunteer their free time to create something that would enrich others’ experience in the fandom, others’ experience of the books.
They are keeping that fictional universe alive and ultimately, that is the most beautiful thing about fandom. No matter the various talks about its weird practices, at the end of the day people want to show their love for stories they have read or seen. They want to keep them going and keep them alive for much longer than they might have lasted had it not been for the fandom.
And finally, it poses a question – why does a series matter so much?
In Bruna’s words – “Not many books made me feel so represented in my life.”
And that is just it – the difference that makes or breaks a work when it comes to the question of whether it will be expanded on. Can we relate to it?
In a world as tumultuous and lonely as ours can be, books and other forms of media can provide comfort and understanding. Four of the seven main characters are people of color. Every single character is dyslexic (Riordan’s own son is dyslexic). In Heroes of Olympus, Nico DiAngelo comes out as gay. And out of all those reasons, and so many more, the Percy Jackson series provides so much ground to relate to. The characters struggle with things a lot of us struggle with and as such, it does not matter that they are descendants of ancient Greek gods – what truly matters is that they are human.
Through and through.
Where Do We Go from Here?
A friend of mine once told me that I should stop writing fanfiction because it will only impede my ability to come up with original characters and plots in the future. It’s a closed circle, he said, explaining that I am just adding onto an already created universe and as such, it cannot give me the ability to create something of my own.
Fortunately, he was wrong and where you once could have asked me to talk about my original characters – only for me to say there is nothing to talk about, now I’m able to explain exactly why these characters demand to exist and why I’m in love with them.
And I’m not the only one.
So many authors I have only heard of through fandom have sprung up in the media years later with their own novels and series. Rainbow Rowell, after all, admitted to reading and writing Harry Potter fanfiction. In the end, she published a whole novel – “Fangirl” – whose main character is a girl who writes fanfiction. Personally, I disagree with her portrayal of the fanfiction writer as a recluse who has a rich life online because she falls short at creating it in her immediate surroundings, but she let the cat out of the bag.
It turns out that fanfiction writers can write original stories, as well. Whether they show them through self-publishing or traditional publishing, they are still here. We are still here because sometimes, the only acceptable motivation to start writing again is to write a story based on characters you already love. No one was born with knowing how to write quality, and fanfiction is just a step in the process.
Recently, I talked to one of very popular fic writers for a TV show fandom, who said that she had stopped writing altogether and writing fanfiction reminded her of why she loved writing so much.
In the end, it’s all about creativity.
Artists who started by creating fanart realized that they want to pursue art in as a career, got enrolled into art schools. They developed their own ideas and their own rules.
Fanfiction writers who started by barely being able to string two sentences together for a pair of characters they particularly love now churn out novels about their own characters because they have tried and failed and cross-examined every character they have ever loved.
Fandoms have helped us learn how to think critically and how to create beautifully. And from the Percy Jackson Coloring Book project that brought people together, over black Hermione who went from being a headcanon to actual canon, to fanfiction published on the daily – fandoms are changing the world.
And I, for one, can’t wait to see where that creativity takes us.
Bruna and Mary are hoping that Rick Riordan will see the coloring book and they are planning to publish it in a physical edition. You can follow news and updates about the project on the PJO Coloring Book Project blog.