J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series wrapped up in 2007, but for Dian, a 40-year-old housewife in Bandung, the story continues.
While her kids are at school and her husband is at the office, she finds time to craft tales about her favorite characters, sharing them with fellow Indonesian Harry Potter fans on www.fanfiction.net, the largest and most popular fan fiction online archive.
The Bandung mother of three is just one of many Indonesians involved in the genre of creative writing known as fan fiction, which involves fans of an original, canonical work, referred to as canon – be in literature, cinema, comics or even video games – writing their own stories revolving around original characters and settings, often adding new characters and extending the author’s world.
Dian, who has been involved in fan fiction since 2001, also writes about Japanese manga series Naruto, American television series Supernatural and American animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. She enjoys that the characterization is ready-made, enabling her to focus on plotting and take a beloved tale in new directions.
“Like, if someone dies in the book, and we could write that they didn’t die, or something like that. Or, if the writer didn’t tell us about something, we could write it ourselves,” says Dian who often writes about Severus Snape, Harry’s grumpy and conflicted teacher.
Works of fan fiction are rarely professionally published, although a few highly popular fan fiction writers have attained publishing deals, such as Cassandra Clare, who wrote The Very Secret Diaries, using J.R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings characters.
Her bestselling The Mortal Instruments trilogy has even attracted its own fandom, a term that refers to the subculture that gathers around a particular work.
Although fan fiction is largely associated with the Internet – and certainly exploded with its advent -the form has likely been around as long as stories have, and has much overlap with re-tellings, parody and homage.
In the 17th century, unauthorized sequels to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote appeared, to which the author fiercely responded. Earlier forms of fan fiction can be seen concerning King Arthur’s tale in the 8th century and in medieval Arabic fiction, especially in the case of Arabian Nights, which inspired and encompassed many parodies of existing tales.
Clare follows in the fantastic footsteps of Frances Hodge Burnett (The Little Princess) and E. Nesbit (The Five Children and It), who both wrote their own versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland at the turn of the 20th century.
Modern fan fiction has its roots in 1960s Star Trek fanzines, which bred many of the conventions and terminology used today, although the fast interplay of the Internet leads to many new terms.
A new fan-fiction enthusiast might feel a little lost with the jargon, but most of it is intuitive shorthand. “Slash”, for examples, refers to same-sex-relationship-focused fan fiction, linking to the slash (/) symbol between the pairs’ names (Spock/Kirk), while “fanfic” is a shortening of fan fiction, and “ship” or “shipper” is a shortening of relationship, referring to a writer’s interest in pairing characters not involved in the canonical work.
Fan fiction can arguably be used as a barometer for popular culture. Dian’s favorite Harry Potter currently has one of the most thriving fan-fiction communities in the world. A search on fanfiction.net reveals 2,700 related communities and 47,000 stories, while harrypotterfanfiction.com boasts that it hosts 60,000 stories and podcasts.
In Indonesia, the boy wizard’s fandom is relatively small. The most popular is Naruto, accompanied by other popular manga and anime, with Indonesian fans writing mainly in Indonesian and English.
Involvement in fan fiction seems almost inevitable for those passionate about storytelling, if only subconsciously.
Melissa Chandra, 22, a recent English graduate from Atma Jaya University, says even before she encountered fan fiction in 2003, thanks to her newly installed screen-reader – she is sight-impaired – she “used to dream about tweaking the story” she knew (at the time, The Lord of the Rings) “into a different ending or lengthening the story beyond its *official’ end”.
“I saw it just as the creative part of my mind being too mischievous. Until now, I still see it like this: The story unknowingly *invites’ me to play in its *sandbox’ to challenge my own creativity,” says Melissa, who participates in fandoms related to Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle, Harry Potter and Tolkien’s writings.
“The only reward from that *game’ is when I can pull out a story alike yet unlike its original from all the mess I have created.”
Duckie, 40, a secretary who lives in Jakarta, mainly writes Supernatural slash fanfic, and first became involved in 2002, when a friend set up a website for anime/manga Gensoumaden Saiyuki.
“She asked if I could fill in the *fan fiction’ section. I had no idea; I just wrote what came in my mind.”
Eve, 34, Jakarta-based freelance translator, has participated in fan fiction since the late 1990s, when she first learned how to use the Internet. While she had written her own fiction beforehand, she found in fan fiction a twin opportunity to write about her favorite characters and hone her writing skills, developing a stronger authorial voice.
“Writing fanfic helps me practice my writing, and comments from those who read my fanfics help me recognize my strengths and weaknesses,” says Eve, who is current writing an anime/manga/wuxia fan fiction.
Duckie agrees, revealing that before writing fan fiction, she had never dared to write in English. Like Dian, she also feels at relief at getting to bypass character building, her weakness.
“Writing fan fiction I don’t have to worry about it. The characters are there, shaped and ready. All I have to think about is what kind of situations I want to put them in,” she says.
“It’s challenging as I learned on the way that there are rules I should follow to be able to make the story interesting and bearable to read. And if you write really well, lots of fans do read the stories and appreciate them.”
Studies, such as one by Massachusetts Institute of Technology academic Sharon Cumberland (“Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture”), have repeatedly demonstrated that women dominate fan fiction.
Melissa theorizes this is because “women have more knack of creativity to see what men have not seen”.
“And, well, who ever heard of the term fan-boys?” she asks.
“Usually girls are more insecure than boys too… That is why there are many *Mary Sues’ [idealized characters standing in for the author] littering the fan-fiction world.”
Eve guesses “it’s because women are usually more willing to spend time doing their hobbies”.
“Maybe because there’s some kind of romanticism in writing fan fiction,” Duckie suggests.
Community is another important aspect of fan fiction, with fellow fans sharing stories and offering constructive criticism, on sites such as Livejournal and fanfiction.net.
Duckie describes her own community as “bat-s**t crazy” but notes her favorite fan-fiction authors include one of her closest friends and her beta reader, someone analogous to an editor for a professional author. A beta reader reads a work of fiction with a critical eye, offering suggestions for improvement, before the work is publicly shared.
Eve appreciates getting to learn how others interpret canon and having the chance to discover good writers.
Melissa describes herself as a “loner” on the sites she posts on, but adds she has a few online friends who share her addictions.
“In a way, every site is like a very large, very diverse community, because often times we recognize the authors’/reviewers and their stories and/or the style of their reviews. Almost like meeting them physically.”
Alongside their devotion to fan fiction, creating their own stories remains a priority.
Dian says writing fan fiction encourages her to write original stories, although “sometimes writing non-fan fiction also encourages me to write fan fiction”.
Eve, who recently completed a non-fan-fiction novel for National Novel Writing Month in November 2009, says she’s since been working more on original fiction, some of which is shared on her personal site athousandsakura.net.
Returning to her sandbox analogy, Melissa says that “the sandbox never grows bigger, while one’s mind does, especially when given a lot of stimuli”.
“The longer I try my hand on an original story, the cleaner it is from outside influences.”
Duckie has similar sentiments and aspirations.
“Original fiction has always been my passion,” she says. “Writing fan fiction helps my writing style and what I really want to write about.”