If you’ve been on the internet a while and are interested in artistic endeavors like books, movies, and television, you have probably heard of fanfiction. You may have even heard of some of the most notorious ones like My Immortal, or ones that were ultimately traditionally published like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Fifty Shades of Grey.

If you have not read any fanfiction, it can be difficult to grasp. So we’d like to explore the basics of fanfiction with you: What is it? Why do people write it? Why do people read it? Where do they post it? What do all these tags mean? Where is the line drawn, legally?

What is fanfiction?

Fanfiction is a piece of fiction that uses elements from a published, and often well-known, canon (and sometimes is about famous people, often members of band). Fanfiction asks what if? What if I took these characters and put them in an entirely different situation? What if X happens? What if Y never happened? What if instead of Y, Z happened? What if A and B fell in love? What if we had the exact same story, but werewolves/zombies/demons were there? What if the story taught a different set of values?

People write fanfiction for a variety of reasons. They may do it to express their creativity. Or maybe they had a thought and felt compelled to share it. Sometimes, they might write fanfiction to explore a “ship” (basically, a pairing of two existing characters) they love that they know won’t become canon. (We will explain ship and shipping more below).  It can be a form of wish fulfillment. Also, oftentimes series end too soon, and people want to know what would happen next—or what will happen to the characters ten years down the line. Fanfiction offers a place to speculate.

People read fanfiction for many of the same reasons. They want to see the characters they love in a new situation or speculate on “what would have happened if . . .” They may also ship a set of characters, making the fanfiction more like a wish fulfillment process for the reader too. Alternatively, they might not understand why someone would ship those characters, so they read fanfiction about them in hopes of understanding.

Why fanfiction?

Fanfiction is a way to express yourself by creating something around art you love. With the internet, communication has changed. It’s no longer just media broadcasting to passive consumers. There is a feedback loop.

Fans create communities around their favorite media. Fanfiction is just one of the ways they generate content celebrating the works. People also make art, music, parodies, trailers, videos, and more. These communities offer more than just a platform to share your creativity and enjoy others’—they foster friendships with people all over the world who share your mutual interests.

Where can you read fanfiction?

While you can find fanfiction all over the internet, some of the biggest archives and communities can be found at the following sites:

Archive of Our Own


If you go onto one of these websites and do a search for a particular fandom (the source material), you’ll see some posts come up. Under the title and author, there will be tags. Some of them will be easily understandable, like names of characters and keywords like POV First Person and Humor. Others will be a bit more complicated.

One of the most tags you’ll see is the names of two characters separated by a slash. For example, if you were looking at Harry Potter fanfiction, you might see the tag Neville Longbottom/Ginny Weasley. This indicates that the fic has a romance between these two characters. The pairing is called a ship, and the act of liking the pair together is called shipping.

Every fandom will have their own tags specific to that fandom, so we can’t go over every tag that might be confusing. However, we can go over some of the tags that are more universal. These usually describe some element of the plot or writing style.

Tag Reference Guide:

M/M or slash: This indicates that the ship is between two men.
F/F or femslash: This indicates that the ship is between two women.
Crossover: A crossover is when characters from multiple fandoms interact. An example would be a fic of entering Cisco from The Flash in the Hunger Games.
Drabble: This indicates that the fic is short. The length requirements to be considered a drabble is up for debate.
Crack: This means that the fic is intentionally silly or ridiculous.
Fluff: Fluff doesn’t really have a plot. It’s usually humorous or romantic scenes.
Angst: The characters in these fics experience a wide range of emotions and angst a lot.
Darkfic: In a darkfic, everyone is miserable and nothing gets better.
PWP: PWP stands for “plot, what plot?” or, more crudely, “porn without plot.” This indicates that the fic is mostly just sex scenes and the story never really moves forward.
Fill-in-the-blank AU: Anytime you see something with a tag that ends in AU, it means that the story is set in an alternate universe. Whatever comes in front of it describes the universe it is in.

When writing fanfiction, where is the line drawn legally?

While parody is clearly defined as fair use, the legal status of fanfiction is very gray. Fanfiction may constitute a derivative work, which is legally protected under copyright law. However, if the source material is in the public domain, you’re in the clear.

The argument for fair use when the source is not public domain is that they do not deprive the copyright holder of income or attempt to substitute the work. In fact, they may serve as free advertisement, and the fanfiction author will not likely make any profit from writing it.

Authors and other copyright holders have had a range of reactions. On one end of the spectrum, some have decided to sue. Others who are upset with the use of their characters and world have simply denounced fanfiction. Some fanfiction sites even provide a list of authors whose fandoms are prohibited, as those authors do not approve of fanfiction.

On the other end of the spectrum, some copyright holders encourage fanfiction. Joss Whedon encouraged fans to read fanfiction when Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air. The BBC has recruited fanfiction writers into the ranks of their canon writers for Doctor Who.

No matter how you look at it, fanfiction will only continue to grow in all mediums, and it can be a fun reading experience—or even inspire you to write some of your own!