Somewhat surprisingly, I made this over the past few weeks:
There are a few interesting things about this picture. First of all, it’s different from my usual lines-first style; this time I drew colored blobs first and filled them in. Another nifty feature is that except for the text, I drew all of this with “normal” colors and then put a purplish-blue layer on top, which means I got a daytime version for free. And speaking of layers, this image had so many that my editor was lagging.
The characters in the picture are Mercury Black and Yang Xiao Long from the show RWBY…except that if you’ve seen the show you’d know that you’d never find them together like this. The trick is that this is actually the Mercury and Yang from an alternate universe fanfiction story called “tell your lemons to fuck off” by a writer named Adox.
(The words “you wanted from me / some honesty / so honestly / I wanna feel you breathe” are lyrics from Nathan Sharp’s “Smoke and Guns”, which I covered a few weeks ago. “Lemons” is actually part of why the song stuck with me.)
Given this and other things I’ve been doing lately, I wanted to talk about what fanfiction’s come to mean to me.
A few weeks ago I was at a party and I mentioned to a friend-of-friend that I was writing fanfiction in my free time. As a creator themself, they asked me a pointed question: why write fanfiction at all? Especially for someone who does original work as well.
Fanfiction gets a bad rap, and I think a good chunk of that is that it’s easier for the bad fanfiction to get out into the world and read than it is for bad original work. (Most people won’t read through a list of All New Literary Stories, even if there were a centralized place to submit them, but they might browse All New Harry Potter Fan Works on one of the main fanfiction sites.) So I got a bit defensive in my answer at the time, since fanfiction is valid storytelling.
But to be honest, I was probably also a bit defensive because I didn’t have a good answer. Isn’t there more opportunity to make something lasting and important in fully original work? Something that won’t always be compared to “canon”, that people can read without having any background…that one could monetize without worrying about copyright infringement…
But none of that is why I write. None of that is why I write any of my work—short-form, long-form, novel, fanfiction, original, poetry, whatever. Almost everything I create is more of an itch in my brain that I want to get out, that I want to see become reality just for its own sake. In some cases I’ll have an ulterior motive, in others it’s for some kind of challenge, but for most pieces it’s really just “this is an interesting idea; I want to see it play out”.
(A few too many of them are “this idea is too clever not to do”, which doesn’t always make for a good result.)
So what’s different about fanfiction? It means you get a world and characters and established backstory for free. The obvious effect of this is that you don’t have to spend effort and pages setting that up, but there’s a more subtle bit too: your readers will be relating what you write back to canon. They know that you don’t have control over canon, and therefore how your story relates to canon becomes interesting itself.
A friend of mine has described at least some of their fanfiction work as similar to essay-writing, in that they have some sort of point they want to make about canon. I don’t think I’ve had anything that strong, but I guess my adult fanfictiony work has at least been about sharing possibly-new perspectives on canon. That includes everything from the one-page “Mask of Lies” for Majora’s Mask to the recently-completed, 15,000-word Memoirs of a Student for Revolutionary Girl Utena.
And yes, some of it is just about telling more stories about beloved characters. Indulgence for the writer and the reader. That’s okay too—plenty of non-fanfiction I read is indulgence.
(On that note, yes, it’s also exciting and motivating to have people read what you write, and it is easier to get that to happen when writing fanfiction.)
So, why do I write fanfiction? Ultimately, because I want to, mostly for itself. And that’s okay.
Which brings us back to “tell your lemons to fuck off”. “Lemons” is set in our world rather than the fantasy world of RWBY-the-show, and in many ways is barely related to the source material. All that’s the same is the cast of characters and the shape of their initial relationships. What benefit does that get from being fanfiction instead of an original work? Well, still some of the same things as before: we can already picture the characters, and we’re relating what we read back to the original canon, possibly being given new perspectives. And it’s still a story in its own right that has little to do with the original plot, just like Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.
“Lemons” isn’t the best thing I’ve ever read. But it made me happy to read it, and stuck with me enough to draw the picture above. If fanfiction can do that, why not write it?