If you had asked me what fan fiction was a couple years ago, I wouldn't have had a damn clue what the hell you were talking about. I discovered the existence of the strange land of fan fiction after having a lengthy text conversation with my friend about what actually happened at the end of the Nickelodeon cartoon series Hey Arnold, and what the main character's last name was. (Our conversations tend to wander off into odd places). In order to satiate our curiosity, we did what any normal person does when they need an answer: we Googled it. I entered "what happened at the end of the Hey Arnold series?" or something to that effect in the search box and hit enter. Now, when I look for answers using Google results, I just start clicking away...I never really look at those nifty little description/preview things under the links and I found one that basically said "this is how the series ended" so of course I clicked on it.
So I read the story that the link took me to (I don't remember what the name was) and thought, "That's a pretty good way to end things. The show's writer did a good job." I thought that maybe this was written by the show's creator or something to give those who wanted to know what happened some closure, but then I got to the bottom of the story and saw that there was a comment section. In the comments, people where saying things like "This is how it should have ended" or "Good work on getting the characterizations right" and I thought to myself "...the hell?" I had inadvertently read a Hey Arnold fanfic. (Fanfic being a term in the fan fiction word to use in place of story).
I did some cursory research into the subject, because I don't like not knowing about things. I did just enough research to find out that fan fiction is the process of fans of TV shows, movies, or anything really, writing stories using the various characters. After answering that question, I moved on and forgot about it. That probably would have been the end of it, but then a while later, I got sucked into the TV show Supernatural and the subject came up again. I didn't know it at the time I started watching the show, but apparently the Supernatural fandom is notorious for its presence in the land of fan fiction. When I would try and Google for spoilers (I know, I'm a cheater, but I get impatient), I would not only encounter the term fan fiction again, but terms and abbreviations I had no clue about as well, so once again, I went into research mode.
My first move was Wikipedia because, excluding Google, that's the first place anyone goes for basic info on something. There I learned that the concept of fan fiction is actually pretty old. Back in the olden days, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll had quite a few unauthorized sequels and rewritings. (Unauthorized seems like a harsh term to me, but it is accurate, as in my research I've learned that fanfics are almost never given permission by the original creators, so technically they could be seen as plagiarism). I thought that it was pretty interesting that this concept was not technically modern. The modern version of fan fiction, the way the it is recognized today, didn't come about until the 1960s when Star Trek became a thing. The fan-created works were only published in fanzines, or magazines created and published by fans for other fans, so fan fiction remained in the background, but then the internet happened.
With the advent of the internet, fan fiction has become more prevalent as those who write and read fan fiction can easily find like-minded individuals to share their works with. From what I can tell, there are a ton of sites where fanfic writers can post their work and have it read and reviewed by others. One of these sites actually made it on Time magazine's 50 Best Websites of 2013. The site called Archive of Our Own, or AO3 for short, was featured in the Special Interest section of the list and got there because apparently it is a very organized site. According to an article by The Daily Dot, AO3 is well liked because of a sorting system they have in place that works using various tags, which help readers sort through the multitude of stories by selecting specific genres, ratings or other types of descriptors that they want to see. What I find interesting is that the site is run mainly by volunteers and on donations; considering they are wrangling 320,870 members and about 1.1 million stories, that seems pretty impressive, from my standpoint.
In order to understand why the monitoring of fan fiction works is regarded so highly, you have to understand the basic breakdown of the story types. Luckily for me, an AO3 user used the site's tagging system to make an unofficial census so I can find out this information and pass it on to you. One of the major categories the site uses to sort is the gender of relationship pairings and according to the unofficial census, the big three relationship pairings are male/male (45.5%), general (24.3%) and male/female (20.2%). Another major category is ratings and the top three are as follows: Teen and Up (31%), General Audiences (29.4%) and Explicit (18.1%). The last safety net that AO3 has in place that I think is probably a good idea is called Archive Warnings. These warnings help writers tag their works for aspects that may upset their readers, such as graphic language, graphic violence, descriptions of rape and warnings about underage content. So I can see why it's nice to have the sorting system, because it probably prevents fans from stumbling onto works that they aren't
comfortable with. (And in case a fan fiction person is reading this, I
am not putting down any classifications of fan fiction works, I say
read/write whatever floats your boat. I'm just saying some people aren't
comfortable with certain things.)
There are many types of fan fiction but one of the most popular seems to be stories that involve alternate universes, also known as AUs, where key aspects of the original story is changed. Characters that had died may return, entire worlds may change (the example on Wikipedia is that all the characters are regular humans instead of magical) or relationship pairings may change in these works. Some stories stick to the original plot, called canon, and are seen as missing scenes that wouldn't affect the storyline. Another notorious aspect of fan fiction stories is slash fiction, which is the practice of matching up various characters romantically. Slash pairings (so called because they are expressed by a / like so: character A/character B) can consist of any gender but a large portion of fan fiction consists of same sex pairings such as Kirk/Spock and Sherlock/John. The final type of fan fiction story I want to address is the "Mary Sue" story where the author participates and has a major influence on the original characters' adventures. From what I saw in my search, these stories are typically not received well, as they are seen as very cliche and not as creative as other types.
The final aspect of fan fiction that I have to touch upon, in order to give you a good idea about the fan fiction universe, is the one that has most likely given fan fiction the somewhat taboo side of its nature, namely the porn aspect. In an article on The Daily Dot, fan fiction is described as having a reputation of being made almost entirely of "mommy porn" (which I hope means porn for older women, because the other possibility kinda weirds me out), but if you look at the statistics above, it seems to me that isn't accurate. Obviously since 18.1% of the stories are explicit, which means there's most likely some sort of sexual content, there is some aspect of smut to fan fiction, but the probably non-sexual General Audience stories nearly double those so it can't all be porn. I think this concept of fan fiction always being porn wasn't helped by the publishing of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which was actually a rewritten Twilight fanfic. (I found this out after I read the books and it did explain a lot of the choices that the author made involving the characters).
I personally think, after looking at the statistics, that the slight taboo on fan fiction is unfortunate, because it seems like it would be a good way for those who are starting to write to get an idea on what their style is by writing stories that begin with characters that are already solid. My little sister is an aspiring writer and after reading some of her work, I think that her basic plots are pretty good but her characters are very two dimensional so the stories fall a bit flat. Obviously, I'm not saying she should steal other people's characters, but if she could get a good storyline going, maybe the characters would fill themselves in. (I'm not a good storyteller so this bit could be absolute bullcrap but hey, it's just a theory).
And that's it, my bumbling attempt at an analysis of fan fiction. I hope that I didn't offend anyone who may be into fan fiction, as that wasn't my intention. I just wanted to learn more about this phenomenon, as it seems like it's a big part of being involved in a fandom in this day and age. I also just realized I didn't define any of the terms, phrases or abbreviations that seem to be unique to the world of fan fiction (I'm actually still looking into that) so I think I'll make a glossary of terms just in case someone decides to do their own research.