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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

InternetJanuary 12, 2022

How it feels to write a wildly popular work of fanfiction

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Rohini*, a master’s student in Wellington, learned last month that a fanfic story she wrote has surpassed 100,000 readers worldwide. This is her first-person account of the experience, as told to Shanti Mathias for IRL.

I never expected my fanfic to have 100,000 readers. The story was based on a superhero TV show my best friend and I had become very invested in. We didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, so we wrote a fic. It was set in an alternate universe, and it took the characters of the show and set it in a high school. It turned into a whole enormous world. 

We wrote a chapter a week, working together – one person would take up the writing when the other got stuck. Each chapter was 5,000 to 10,000 words long. When we finished it was 342,000 words – that’s 100,000 words more than the biggest Harry Potter book, so it’s pretty massive. It’s massive because the point of fanfiction is to be self-indulgent. It exists for the little details, the insanely indulgent things you would not be able to get from a TV show. I knew that if this was in an actual book those details would be culled instantly – but the people who are reading this specific fanfic wanted to read it, so I wrote it anyway.

There was a big turning point in our fic, around chapter 20, months after we started posting on Archive of Our Own. An online friend of mine texted me and said, “Hey, look, do you have Twitter? You should make an account.” When I did, I was  immediately bombarded with dozens of followers and messages who were like, “I love this fic so much”, “it’s the highlight of my week”, “I love it more than the actual show”, “this story means so much to me”.  We were also starting to get messages on Tumblr – some people had made a group chat to discuss the fic, people made these beautiful gif edits, there was fan art. 

As a kid, when I started reading fanfic and seeing how popular they can get, all I ever wanted was to write a fanfic that got that big. But it was so surreal when that actually happened. It’s different to writing a published book, because authors don’t usually get to interact with the readers as they’re writing. But with fanfiction, you’re not doing it for money, you don’t care if it becomes a real book; you’re writing because you love it and you get feedback from people who also love the source material. It’s collaborative: we’d add an author’s note with each chapter that we released and ask readers if they had ideas or predictions, and if we liked it, we might add it to the story. 

When I was younger, I’d see a movie in the theatre or I’d read a book, and I’d think, “I want more”. I would be writing tiny, 600-word fanfics for everything I ever watched or read so I could stay in that world a little longer.

Traditionally masculine fandoms, like team sports, are generally less stigmatised than feminine ones, like fanfiction. (Photo: David Gray/AFP via Getty Images)

It was such a relief when I discovered fanfiction online. I thought I was this weird kid who obsessed over everything I read and watched. When I was 11 I found, and I found LiveJournal – back in the day those were the main platforms for fanfiction. Online, I wasn’t alone; once I started getting more involved in fandom culture I realised there was this whole community of people talking about the media that they love in their spare time. There were hundreds of thousands of people doing the exact same thing that I was. 

I started making close fandom friends on my gap year, when I really threw myself into fan communities. I got invited to join a group chat to talk about a show, and we became really good friends – people from all over the world; Europe, the US, the UK. I’ve now met about half of those people in real life on trips overseas. 

The person I wrote the fic with, she lives in the UK, and she’s my best friend. We talk every day. We met on Tumblr – we followed each other’s accounts and then messaged each other, and we realised we got along really well, which makes sense since we had similar interests and hobbies. It’s a cool thing to meet someone through something you love so much and have it blossom into a friendship that lasts. 

When I first got into fandom spaces a decade ago, TV and books and movies were very white, straight and heteronormative. Fanfic and fandom provided a space where people could create original characters to insert into this world that provided that diversity, or to interpret queerness into characters that already existed, to look at that through a new lens – something you didn’t necessarily get that in the original work. That was always quite a big pull for a lot of people towards fandom and fanfic; it becomes a space that has a lot more diversity and representation of the world you want to see, that’s more accurate to the real world anyway. Then you look at the original work and realise that oh, it’s really lacking. I think that’s part of why our fic resonated – it was queer and it was about a coming out experience based on our own experiences of coming to terms with our own sexualities. 

There’s a stigma, even now, around fanfiction, and fandom more generally. It’s the same way that teenage girls are shamed or stigmatised for the things they enjoy whether it’s boy bands or TV shows – there’s a huge percentage of people in fandom who are teenagers. There’s a shamefulness about how intensely people will like something, that they dedicate that much thought and effort into art and writing. But when you think about how much people will invest in sports or that kind of thing, it’s not that different

Fanfiction is more socially acceptable now. My flatmates and my friends knew about it because I was always talking about it, I was always excited about it. It was kind of an inside joke that if I wasn’t at uni or wasn’t doing work, I was writing the fic.

I’m so proud of it. I’ve written a lot of things in my life, but I wouldn’t go back and change anything about this one. It feels like a haze, I don’t think I could ever do that again in the same way, but I am insanely proud of it. 

Thousands and thousands of people have read it in the two and a half years since we stopped posting. It has been getting a few thousand hits every month, and at the end of 2021 we hit 100,000 views. It feels ridiculous because we never went out thinking about who and how many people were going to read it, we just wanted someone to. And that wish came true. 

*Name has been changed for privacy.

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