An Introduction to Fan Fiction
In the gaping sea of information we call the internet there exist many outlets for creative works and varying genres of creativity among them. One of the more extensive, and in some cases more underground, bodies of works is the collection of "Fan Fiction" that fills the databases of journaling websites like FanFiction.net, LiveJournal.com, FictionAlley.com, and many others.
Fan Fiction, for those of you not in the know (and those of you not so good with context clues), is a creative work of literature in which the author (the "Fan" for our case) makes extensive use of another author's (THE "Author" from here on out) characters and settings. This is often done as an homage to the original author's work, but commonly is utilized as an outlet for the Fan's personal desires and fantasies. Much of fan fiction is G-rated, but a large component of the fan fiction universe is dedicated to creating sexual works exploring relationships between characters that might never even touch within the realm of the Author.
Pairings and Ships
These relationships are oft referred to as "pairings" or "ships" and are designated in the following manner (I will use Harry Potter characters as examples since they are easily recognized):
This particular designation is an indicator that the fiction within focuses mainly on the relationship between Severus Snape and Harry Potter from the Harry Potter universe designed by J.K. Rowling. Note: this indicator alone implies romantic, but not necessarily sexual, content as the main focus of the piece. This designation may be extended with multiple slashes to indicate the inclusion of multiple parties (usually threesomes, but sometimes... well, let's just not go there).
Another commonly seen Fan Fiction designation is the marking "OTP" or "One True Pairing", indicating that the Fan believes this pairing to be the ideal for these two characters. Examples of use:
Snape + Harry = OTP!
Harry + Hermione = OTP!
Dean + Pie = OTP!
That last one was thrown in for all the Supernatural fans out there. The equation syntax also occurs with slashes in lieu of pluses and does not necessitate the equals sign. Over time, the fan-fic crowds found that "Snape/Harry" or "Harry/Hermione/Ron/Dean/Seamus/Dobby" took far too long to type or just weren't nearly fun enough to say so mashup names or other fun names were developed to take their place. You will often find Snape/Harry shortened to "Snarry". Some places, like SugarQuill.com, prefer to use colloquial names like "The Good Ship" (referring to Hermione/Ron) or "Orange Crush" (referring to Harry/Ginny).
Perhaps the most impressive facet of the Fan Fiction world is the sense of community and fellowship amongst the Fans (both those that write and those that do not). Livejournal.com is filled with groups hosting fiction marathons, themed fiction, and the interesting idea of gift fiction. One such group is "Merry_Smutmas".
Merry_Smutmas is a seasonal "gift" writing group (clearly this is a Christmas time... uh... adult
exchange). The community allows users to sign up and list what sort of fiction they would like to see written as well as what sort of fiction they are willing to write. Once the signups have concluded, a moderator performs a sort of Secret Santa
ritual and anonymously pairs up each participant with an idea/genre/pairing they are to write and tells them who it is for. The stories are submitted by a set due date and are posted slowly over a period of a few weeks. The authors' identities are kept secret until all the submissions are posted publicly, but it is known who the "recipient" of each story is.
Fan Fiction authors are a tight knit group (well, within each "Fandom", or fictional universe. Harry Potter fan-ficcers and StarGate fan-ficcers may have very little cross over in participation). As well, it is reported that as much as 96% of all Fan Fiction authors may be female. It is no such surprise then that the community is often fraught with drama. Sometimes this comes about for reasons like Cassandra Claire's plagiarism, sometimes it's for something as minor as one Fan publicly announcing a personal problem with another Fan or a dislike of another Fan's work.
Drama aside, the Fans' ability to come together to create is impressive, to say the least. Conventions sponsored by companies such as Harry Potter Education Fanon bring hundreds to thousands of fans together to discuss their favorite stories, write more stories, and experience "their" universe together. These conventions are usually non-profit as the idea of profiting from Fan-Fiction in any way is still highly controversial (see FanLib).
The Legality of Fan Fiction
Contrary to the statements made by LadyChris and GalahadTheFish, there is neither anything illegal about writing Fan Fiction nor posting it online for the world to see, so long as the author derives no income from the work. You are not legally obliged to list disclaimers disavowing ownership of the characters (because saying "Oh, by the way, I totally don't own these. You can't sue me since I told you." would not be any sort of defense in court. "This is fair use, bitches!" would be WAY more effective.) and a substantial number of Fans do not use any disclaimer of the sort.
The legality does come into question when looking at the works of the aforementioned Cassandra Claire, who is known as one of the few Fan Fiction authors to ever strike an actual book deal as well as one of the few Fan Fiction authors ever accused of wide spread plagiarism. Much of the dialog from her well known Draco Trilogy series is, purportedly, taken from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a popular TV series from the late 1990's) episodes. At current, it is not legal in any way to profit from Fan Fiction writings without express permission of both the Author and his/her publisher(s) due to copyright law.
The Future of Fan Fiction
Fan Fiction communities are in a constant state of flux as some groups thrive only if their source material continues to provide for them, while others continue to produce material long after the original creation fades from common popularity.