Fanfiction: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Let’s talk fanfiction.

That murky area of fandom where imaginations run amuck and new stories, new characters, and new outcomes spring up in worlds we are already familiar with, such as Harry Potter, The Walking Dead, or Firefly. It’s a form of fan fawning that many writers (be they of books or tv shows or movies or video games) openly disdain and others outright forbid with respect to their own works. And yet, in a world where we are told every day about instant gratification and nerds who can’t even communicate with real people because they’re always on their phones, fanfiction stands as a testament to the hard work and blood and sweat and tears and first-born children that passionate fans will pour into their work.

Too much? Right, full disclosure, I am a fanfiction writer. Oops! Bias maybe?

Okay, so we aren’t writing the next Great American Novel here. And yes, a lot of fanfiction sucks. But if you stick around long enough, and dig deep enough, and pinch your nose hard enough at some of the worst of it, you might just find something truly remarkable in this little niche area of the world of fandom. In fanfiction, new theories can be explored and gaps in canon that were not central enough to the original story can be filled in. Even J.K. Rowling, famous for the tidbits of information she has released over the years about the history and post-book universe of Harry Potter, is rumored to have quietly approved of some of the theories written about in Harry Potter fanfiction, though it’s unknown if she actually reads fanfiction herself.

However! I’m a rip-the-band-aid-off-scream-a-little-and-then-get-to-the-good-stuff type of gal, so let’s start with…


The Bad

Yeah, a lot of fanfiction is bad. And I’m not just talking where’s-the-Oxford-comma bad or my teeth hurt because your clearly making you’re English teacher roll over in his or her grave. I’m talking flying between six different perspectives in a single scene. I’m talking changing from past to present tense, and third to first person, in the space of two paragraphs. I’m talking Captain Malcolms with no sense of humor, Gandalfs with no sense of worldliness, and Mr. Spocks with no sense, period.

I give you…


“AAH!” He shouts, dodging the beast and grabbing his spear. He aims it at the ram who only snorts and begin charging at him again. As it rushes towards him, he throws the spear at the ram.

It stabs into it like nothing and just continues after him. “MOVE!” Coba quickly pulls him to the ground as the beast runs straight past him. During that entire battle, I’d been trying to get my Sickle off my bag like an idiot and had only just then succeeded.

Right as it went to go target we too…

Missing or wrong letters aside, this just feels kind of…meh. It comes from a fanfic based in the Hunger Games universe, a book series renowned for its edge-of-the-seat action and very real sense of lethal threat. And honestly? Reading this made me imagine a child playing with toys, complete with sound effects of AAAHH!, RAWR!, and PEW PEW PEW!

How about plot? Oh you wanted plot, did you? I just wanted to see Harry and Hermione hook up. And yes, of course there’s more to my story than angst! No one understands what I am trying to show, no one understands me – I mean my characters. Just, whatever.


Every morning he wakes up to a cold, empty bed, his fingers curl across the space where she should have been. It is agony to him, as if he is literally ripping his own heart from his chest.


Whether it be bad characters, bad plot, or just bad writing, there’s plenty of reason that much of fanfiction gets a bad rap. The magic is lost – the depth or complexity or quirkiness or desperation of the world we’ve come to know and love is lost at the hand of poor writers. The stories are flat, the characters forgettable, and the snooty elite who disdain fanfiction get one more (thousands more?) reason(s) to write off fanfiction writers and readers as base and ignoble.

What about the smut? Surely the smut is another reason to write off fanfiction. Were this during the reign of Queen Victoria, I’m sure there would be plenty of cries of How outrageous! and I am astounded, madam! But fortunately, we live in the 21st Century and (most) of us are adults (okay, some of us are more adultier than others). Smut in and of itself is not a bad thing, if done right. That does, however, bring us to…


The Ugly

You know what kind of fanfiction smut is bad? The bad kind. You know the kind I mean. The kind worthy of a Razzie award for Worst Description of a Sex Scene This Decade, where you could play a drinking game based on the number of times the words “pulsing” and “wet” appear in the story (although a drinking game would, admittedly, much improve such stories).


Nope. The censors are doing you a favor, boys and girls. You wanna read this, YOU go browse all the explicit-rated fanfics and find the best (worst), juiciest (wettest) example.

Worse still, you have the fanfiction where it’s hard to even laugh at the smut because it gets to the point of gross (and illegal, anyone?), ala Snape and Hermione pairings. My personal favorite (read: super-most-not-favorite-you’re-making-me-throw-things-at-my-laptop) are some fanfiction stories within The Last of Us video game universe, where a powerful father figure/daughter figure redemption story is reduced to an upper-40s-something man sleeping with a 14-year-old girl.


Snape looked at his hands, he had no choice. He loved Hermione, maybe if she belonged to him for even the shortest of time periods, she would return that love.

Yeeahh, swiping left, Mary Kay Letourneau.

Whether it’s because reading it on the page somehow less reminds people of the pedophilia aspect or because fanfiction, like any niche area, gets its fair share of weirdos, fanfiction can admittedly go from bad to ugly very quickly and in a way that turns many away from the medium altogether.


The Good

But wait, you promised us some good? Or at least your clichéd and unoriginal article title did.

I did indeed. And that’s because despite all the bad, despite even the ugly, fanfiction has an enormous potential for good.

To start, some fanfiction is simply written extremely well. Plots are well-paced and entertaining, canon characters are true to form and original characters are interesting and complex, and that spark that sucked us into the original story is somehow present in a story written by someone who had nothing to do with the original.


For the most part, Garrus kept to the battery. This wasn’t, in and of itself, strange. He’d kept to the battery as long as the Normandy’d had a battery to keep to. It was, by unspoken consensus, his domain, and everybody knew it.

Once, and only once, he’d found a tech poking around the Thanix, trying to bring it back in line with Alliance regs. Never mind that Alliance regs would’ve had the guns running at five percent lower efficiency. He had no idea what memo Shephard sent out, or what words she’d spoken on her next tour of the ship, but no one ever showed up unannounced after that. Except Shepard herself, of course. And no one touched the gun. Ever.

Is this excerpt perfect? There’s probably a few things I would change, but overall it flows well, it’s interesting, and it captures that edgy sarcasm that characterizes Garrus in the Mass Effect video games. In these types of artfully written fanfiction, the stories are often worthy of publication and the writers often aspire to one day go on to publish their own original works.

Which brings us to another reason that fanfiction so easily checks the “good” box. For new writers who dream of becoming published authors, fanfiction is the perfect incubator. Here you go, folks, your own fully furnished and perfectly packaged world, complete with characters and settings and technology all ready for you to put your own spin on. In fanfiction, the bones of a story are already there. One of the most intimidating aspects of writing for novices is research and creation, particularly in fantasy or science fiction, where many stories involve building entirely new worlds, assumptions, and perspectives. The risk is overthinking and never actually writing.

“You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is…to write, not to think.” So says Sean Connery’s William Forrester in Finding Forrester, a film where a recluse writer helps a kid from the hood find his voice in part by copying articles and other written pieces already published. In the same way, fanfiction means that most of the heavy lifting is already done and young writers can concentrate instead on refining their style, strengthening their plots, and exploring their characterization.

Perhaps most importantly of all, however, at its heart fanfiction is just another expression of passion. Fans spend weeks and months building the most detailed cosplay costumes, painting or drawing their favorite characters, or compiling digital posters and fan videos for their favorite tv series. Some of us (read: me) have exactly zero talent with a pencil or paintbrush and are prone to breaking computers by merely glancing at them, but we do have a marginal ability to put words on paper in a way that is mostly not annoying.

So what if some of us end up writing stories that are the fanfiction equivalent of stick figures? In the end, they are still an ode to the power of whatever book, show, movie, or game that impacted and moved us. And like any other creative outlet, that’s something worth celebrating.

What do you think?


2 thoughts on “Fanfiction: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  • Interesting article. I agree that it’s about love of the book/movie/series and its characters. Even the stories that seem very far off to me and not very close to canon is somebody’s baby and very important to them.

  • “…your clearly making you’re English teacher roll over in his or her grave.” That was funny! Well done!

    It’s hard to criticize bad fanfiction, at least for me, because so much is clearly written by very young people who haven’t read much. You don’t want to discourage them from writing, and it’s really not fair for snobs to include those pieces when they spurn all fan fiction, because it’s like sneering at an 11-year-old when she doesn’t write like J.K. Rowling.


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