Cape Breton University delves into booming phenomenon of fan fiction

Fans in the thousands are penning stories, cartoons and even producing videos based on books, television shows, movies and interactive games.

Devoted fans who can't get enough of fictional heroes are writing their own stories

The Harry Potter books and films continue to attract the largest groups of fan fiction writers. (CBC)

You may think you've read all of Harry Potter's adventures and are familiar with every Game of Thrones episode and storyline.

You'd likely be wrong.

In the exploding literary world of fan fiction, book and movie characters are constantly being reinvented and their lives and worlds embellished. 

On websites devoted to the genre, such as FanFiction, the section devoted to Harry Potter has over 780,000 entries.

Literary form

Cape Breton University professor Sheila Christie is fascinated by how budding writers are penning stories, cartoons and even producing videos about their favourite characters found in books, movies, interactive games and television shows.

Sheila Christie is an associate professor of English and drama at Cape Breton University. (Submitted by Sheila Christie)

She periodically teaches a specialty course on fan fiction. She said in its current form, fan fiction became popular with writers in the 1960s who were inspired by science fiction television shows and movies.

"I think it is a great course and I really love teaching it," Christie said.

Princeton University, an Ivy League school in New Jersey, even offered a course called Fanfiction: Transformative Works from Shakespeare to Sherlock.

Anne Jamison, an associate professor at the University of Utah, taught the Princeton course, offered in 2014-2015.

She's the author of Fic: Why FanFiction is Taking Over the World and is considered to be an expert in the burgeoning literary field. 

"There's always been people telling stories about a common set of characters — Greek mythology or Arthurian legend. That's very old. What's made it progressively more popular is the means of reproduction and distribution … making it more accessible," she said in an interview from Salt Lake City, Utah.

"There are a lot of people reading it and writing it on their phones."

Fan fiction strikes back against the perception that people aren't reading anymore, Jamison said.

"There's a huge appetite. People are reading and writing all the time. They're just reading and writing somewhat differently."

For example, fans of the musical group One Direction are producing reams of material, she said.

"You've got more people writing One Direction fan fiction, by far, than works being published." 

One Direction has even embraced the trend, offering prizes in fan fiction contests, she said.

"Fan fiction writers are such engaged fans. They love the thing so much, they want more of it."

The musical group One Direction has held contests with prizes for fan fiction submitted by its fans. (CBC)

On Thursday, Cape Breton University invited the public to a presentation about fan fiction, with materials produced during one of the fan fiction courses, including creations inspired by interactive games and other topics.

"I'm interested in it as a literary form but also in terms of its cultural function, because I think we have a very strange period in our culture where we understand writers and creators of culture to be professionals who are paid, when historically everyone told stories," Christie said.

Taking back creative control

"Fan fiction is a way that individuals take back that creative control and they tell the stories that matter to them. So that tells us a lot of things about what contemporary media provides but also about what it lacks," Christie said.

"What are people looking for? They are looking for relationships, they are looking for depth in their characters. They are looking for characters that are regular people who can participate in grand narratives."

Jamison believes fan fiction will make its way into mainstream education at primary and post-secondary levels.

"Some of it is very good and some of it isn't very good. It's a very interesting field."

Challenging youngsters to write an essay on a subject becomes easier when the subject is a popular cultural entity such as Minecraft, she said.

Harry Potter continues to inspire large amounts of fan fiction, while Star Wars has resulted in more than 47,000 stories on one fan fiction website alone, Christie said. Twilight has also spawned thousands of works by fans.

Fan fiction writers also like storylines inspired by the 1986 movie Labyrinth. (CBC)

Christie herself contributes to work based on Labyrinth, a 1986 British-American musical and dark fantasy film starring Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie.

She said fan fiction can inspire the creation of communities that help people become better writers or even sort out social or emotional issues.

"So, people might write about mental health, this is an opportunity for them to cope and they may also get feedback, comments and support from people who have read their stories and have had similar experiences, or they can provide comfort. It is a use of art to connect people."

Dark side to fan fiction

Christie said she's hosted fan fiction events where writers connect with each other in person.

"People came out and they were interested and they wanted to talk about it. I think a lot of fan fiction writers are a bit shy about their work."

There is a dark side to fan fiction, too. Some writers use the form to explore violent or sexually explicit fantasies involving popular culture characters.

"There is a lot of smut," Christie acknowledged.

However, websites that archive fan fiction try to be self-policing and rate submissions. For example, "k" for kid-suitable and "t" for teens, Christie said.

Writer Anne Rice is against her books, such as The Vampire Chronicles, being used as a basis for fan fiction. (Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)

Authors and producers of the original work are divided on fan fiction, she said.

Copyright issues haven't been a big issue because the work isn't produced for commercial purposes, but some authors such as Anne Rice are firmly against fan fiction and have made it well-known, Christie said.

One the other hand, J.K. Rowling has been fine with writers experimenting with the world of Harry Potter but has spoken out against violent, sexually explicit stories and cartoons.