As a first-generation Latina growing up in a small town in Indiana, Cecilia Aragon often felt very alone. The 10-year-old Aragon found solace in the fantasy world of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, though she noticed a glaring omission: “There weren’t enough female characters in the book, the adventurers that accompanied the hobbit protagonist were all male... This offended my sense of fairness because girls could have adventures too, right?” she recalls.
Bothered by the lack of female characters in the trilogy, Aragon sat down with her spiral notebook and rewrote the story—a writing process we now call fan fiction. “I re-gendered some of the main characters and added some new scenes, like one where a female hobbit devised a clever plan to foil one of the monsters in the story,” adds Aragon, now a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in human-centered data science and co-author of Writers in the Secret Garden: Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring.
While fan fiction as we know it today is a relatively recent phenomenon of the digital age, the sheer volume of content created by fan fiction writers worldwide is enormous. Aragon notes that in January 2018, one online repository alone, FanFiction, hosted nearly 7 million stories with more than 176 million reviews and over 1.5 million authors—mostly young writers ages 13 to 25. These stories are based on original works ranging from fantasy best-sellers such as the Twilight series to literary classics by Jane Austen to podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale.
So Aragon clearly wasn’t alone in creating stories that spoke directly to her experience and identity. It’s not uncommon for students—even those who struggle with school writing assignments, especially when the assigned topics don’t interest them—to be prolific writers of fan fiction based on their favorite stories.
Writing Without Constraints
As a medium, fan fiction gives students the liberty to alter existing worlds or create new ones where they can build upon stories or topics that excite them.
The genre also allows students who are still learning about the elements of a good story to “jump right into a preexisting world, and they can really just attend to things about plot and characterization and create new characters without having to do all those other world-building aspects,” says Rebecca Black, a former high school teacher and now professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied the impact of fan fiction on adolescents and English learners.
Writing fan fiction not only helps a writer develop storytelling skills but also requires them to read a text deeply to thoroughly understand the plot and the nuances of the characters while thinking critically about how to generate new ideas out of that foundation, says Abby Kirby, an educator who has taught online classes on writing and fandom—a community of enthusiasts who share a common interest in certain comics, books, movies, or shows—and is now a middle school English teacher in Illinois.
“Let’s say a student really liked the Percy Jackson book and wanted to write a Percy Jackson story, except he goes to Hogwarts and belongs in Hufflepuff,” says Kirby. “I’d say, ‘That’s great. I love that. In order to make that work, you want to have to have a really good understanding of who Percy Jackson is and why you think he embodies all the traits of a Hufflepuff versus why wouldn’t he be, like, a Gryffindor or even a Slytherin. How are you going to show that through his character and tell me that you understood the story that you read? And you have to do the same thing for Harry Potter.’”
A lot of schoolwork tends to be concerned only with right or wrong answers, Kirby adds, but adding a written assignment where students get to reimagine a classic story, like Romeo and Juliet for example, in any direction they like could be a great opportunity for them to demonstrate their understanding of the text in an inventive and artistic way. “So you can say, ‘Why don’t you change Romeo and Juliet and set it in a different country, perhaps the country that you and your family might be from or some place that has really interested you in the past?’” Kirby says. “Or you can say, ‘Hey, the ending of Romeo and Juliet was really quite a bummer. How would we change that ending so that it’s less abrupt? What’s life like for these characters after just about everyone is dead?’”
In order for students to succeed in writing fan fiction, they need to master a host of literacy and critical thinking skills, Kirby says, including close reading, inventing new narrative developments, and mirroring specific sentence structures to resemble the original source—all of which can be tied to core standards in English writing and reading.
Creating Diverse Narratives
Fan fiction also provides students who don’t often see themselves represented in mainstream media with a platform to generate more diverse characters and inclusive storylines that both honor an existing story and expand its limitations, teachers tell us.
“One of the things that my students love the most about it is that it’s a place where some of the more restrictive and more archetypal personality types and relationships are put to the side, and people are free to explore their wildest imaginations,” says Julia Torres, a language arts teacher and librarian in Denver Public Schools. She typically recommends directing students to look into different fandoms online, such as Archive of Our Own, where they can read and evaluate various types of fan fiction as well as different styles and levels of quality of writing. Many students are drawn to fan fiction partly because they’d like to come up with plotlines that “decenter White, cis, heteronormative storytelling,” Torres says.
The genre has a particular benefit for English learners, giving them an opportunity to leverage their home languages and cultural backgrounds in their writing, says Black, who found that sparking conversations around fandoms in languages other than English heightened a sense of belonging as students were more inclined to bring their unique contributions to the classroom.
“I was looking at anime and manga fandoms, and the Japanese writers certainly had a sort of insider cultural knowledge that the people from Western cultures didn’t have,” says Black. “Rather than just being somebody who was learning English, they were somebody who had a lot of expertise in many of the cultural themes and linguistic features of these worlds.”
In addition, writing fan fiction in English benefits these students in their language learning endeavors. “For a lot of students, I have seen their vocabulary grow immensely through fan fiction because they are using the words that they read about in their books that they hear repeated on the screen,” says Kirby, who has taught courses on fandom with international students.
Entering the Fandom World
When Aragon was doing research for her book, she and co-author Katie Davis discovered a new form of mentoring that they called “distributed mentoring,” meaning that fan fiction writers don’t get feedback from just one teacher but from multiple writers and readers online, or their peers in the classroom. With more emphasis on the quality of the storytelling and less on the technicalities of writing, says Aragon, fandom sites can serve as interactive platforms for constructive feedback and encouragement from a large number of writers and fans who care about stories born from their favorite novels, podcasts, or TV shows.
But with those advantages come a few drawbacks that teachers should make sure to address before introducing fan fiction to their students, says Kirby. If a student is putting their writing on the internet, it’s important that they’re aware of the potential risks associated with online communities—like cyberbullying and privacy issues—and think through a few ways to keep themselves safe, she explains.
Yet, Kirby stresses the need to discuss the positives, too, especially with students new to fandoms. Consider asking questions like “What lets you know that this is a community you really do want to be a part of and a place where you want to share your thoughts and ideas?” At the end of the day, fan fiction can teach students not just critical thinking and English writing skills but also safe and respectful ways to interact with people on the internet, adds Kirby.
For language arts teachers in elementary and middle school, fan fiction is one of the ways they can break away from having students work in only a few types of writing, says Torres: “We can just make space for enjoyment, expression, and exploration of well-known tropes and stories without having to quantify it and say what’s either brilliant or not, you know?”
Fan fiction may not be for every student, so it’s important to consult your students first about what interests them and to provide alternatives—such as making up their own stories—if they would like to opt out of writing fan fiction. Torres suggests putting together a questionnaire to get a better sense of what your students are reading and where they might need some guidance, if they are interested writing fan fiction:
- Who are some of your favorite authors?
- What fandoms do you think other people should know about?
- Have you read the books that these TV shows are based on?
- Have you done any exploration into the databases of fan fiction? If so, what have you found? How good is the writing on these sites?
- How true is it to the story portrayed in the movies compared to the books? How much does it matter whether it’s true to the original stories or not?