Once a shameful secret, fanfiction has exploded into a mainstream internet phenomenon about as popular as the original fiction it’s based off. But, as its cultural cache increases, it’s becoming clear that fanfiction doesn’t work on simple dynamics of imitation—of original and homage.
Construing fanfiction as an act of blind devotion to media misunderstands the reasons so many writers invest hours and energy into creating content that has no monetary return. The fanfiction writing process necessarily involves connecting with something in the source material—a love lost, a past trauma, a crippling secret—and exploring it in ways the original creators can not, or dare not.
For instance, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Bucky Barnes struggles with a past dominated by bodily trauma. While serving as a soldier, Bucky is horrifically injured in a train attack: he suffers from brain damage, amnesia, and loses his entire left arm. Marvel takes this dark past and uses it as the origin story for the Winter Soldier, a brooding, albeit tortured, assassin with a powerful bionic arm. But in online fanfiction communities, Bucky’s trauma goes beyond what Marvel could have realistically explored in a PG rated, commercial film. Many fanfictions position trauma as a radical break in Bucky’s life; in one fiction an unexpected trigger compromises Bucky’s ability to be the Winter Soldier.
Grappling with trauma’s lifelong impacts is a reality for so many people but is often underexplored in mainstream cultural production. The Marvel films, by virtue of their genre and target audience, can not hope to fully depict a hero who enters, exits, then re-enters therapy, who struggles to form meaningful interpersonal relationships, who feels psychological impaired because of what happened to them. In fanfiction, trauma is a whole-body tragedy that doesn’t dissipate—it’s dormant, active, and dormant again, in an endless and frightening cycle.
Fanfiction writer Sarah Blake* tells me, “Bucky’s whole thing is that his body was violated. There is an entire phenomenon in the Marvel fanfiction community where women were obsessed with Bucky because they identified with that.”
Blake explains how Bucky’s trauma event surfaces in fanfiction not as a homage to the canon text, but as an avenue through which writers can work through their own problems. “My friend wrote a story set in an alternate universe in which Bucky started running because he felt like he had to find joy in his life again and heal his body. It was a great story, yet very obviously drawn from her own feelings after dealing with depression.”
It’s not just about the writers though—for many readers, seeing their favourite characters deal with trauma is cathartic. “At one point in time, I remember there was an entire tag titled ‘Recovery Fic’”. This tag referred exclusively to stories about Bucky rebuilding his life after trauma. It was, perhaps surprisingly, a highly sought after genre of Bucky fanfiction.
“During the peak of the Marvel era, there was also a lot of Bucky/Steve Rogers fanfiction, which seems indulgent, but actually dealt a lot with entering a relationship after trauma and how that relationship can be awkward and angry.”
“So many people would talk about how realistic that fiction felt. But it wasn’t realistic because it was in line with the movies—they don’t provide the deep basis for that stuff. It was realistic because the emotions the characters were experiencing came across very real.”
The emotional resonance between fanfiction writers and audience is key. Another fanfiction writer tells me that online communities easily become insular worlds, where ideas or storylines from the most popular fictions are adopted as canon. “It was a whole accepted universe in itself, where people used the same phrases or referred to the same dynamics.”
In this way, fanfiction communities write stories which sometimes respond to the source material in an aggressive and commandeering way; they break rules, they manipulate content, they create precedents to fully interrogate the interiority and possible experiences of their favourite characters. As one writer says to me, “Why would I create my own world when there is an entire existing universe of people I love and stories I’m invested in?”
“I don’t want to world build. I want my favourite characters to be closer to a world I experience.”
* Names have been changed