How Fan Fiction Inspires Kids to Read and Write and Write and Write

 (Kelly Heigert/KQED)

Staring at a blank page can be daunting for anyone with a writing assignment. As one writes, there are all kinds of rules to adhere to: grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. In school, writing can feel like a chore if it's part of a class assignment or a topic the student doesn't care about. But for those who have experienced the thrill of writing fan fiction, there’s a certain flow that can feel liberating.

“I’ve had several students over the years who've come to me with the fan fiction that they've written that's in the hundreds of pages," said Julia Torres, a teacher-librarian in Denver Public Schools. “I had one student, his name was Arturo, and he had written several novels’ worth of fan fiction. And they want you to read it as their teacher because they want your feedback.”

Fan fiction is a type of writing that builds upon or takes liberties with existing stories. Writers can create alternate endings for stories, create parallel worlds, develop side characters more deeply or cross over characters from different stories. Some of the most popular fan fic subjects are Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes and Marvel comics. There’s also fan fiction about real people, like members of the K-pop band BTS. Fan fiction can be challenging because writers have to be knowledgable about what existing characters would do or how their worlds operate.

"The imagined worlds that I have read are free of a lot of the oppressive structures that we have in the real world," said Torres. "So that's a place where our students escape from all of that, and they might do that through their favorite fantasy characters."

Fan fic can also enhance existing stories by adding characters students don’t see, like Black, Indigenous and People of Color.

Reading Fan Fiction

“The main thing I love about fan fiction is that it’s so inclusive,” said Julie Stivers, librarian at Mt. Vernon Middle School in North Carolina. She said fan fiction can provide students with stories they might not be getting as part of the curriculum, either because they’re not represented in the books or they just aren’t interesting. “We’re about 90 percent BIPOC students [at school] and I want my collection to be 90 percent BIPOC.” She said there’s greater motivation for students to read when they're provided with stories that build upon interests they already have.

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“If you’re a student who doesn’t read a lot, I can probably find a fan fic story for you,” said Stivers. “Let’s say you love manga and anime, there’s literally hundreds of thousands of stories you can find online. It’s another access point for literacy for kids.”*

As a librarian, Stivers will read in advance anything she recommends to students in order to monitor for what’s age appropriate. And in the era of distance learning, she said reading fan fic can be far more accessible than waiting for a physical book; it’s a lot easier to print out pages of fan fic for students to read instead of waiting for a physical book to arrive or wait for it be returned by the patron. Fan fic can also be written by fandoms quickly, whereas authors might take several years to write a book.

Teaching Fan Fiction

“When I was in high school, I did not enjoy reading,” said Andrew Tucker, an English teacher at Manchester Valley High School in Maryland. It wasn’t until his Shakespeare teacher showed him that a love of literature has the same value as a love for movies, video games or comic books. He learned how to analyze stories and think about characters beyond the typical literary canon and tap into what he loved to read, watch and play growing up. As a kid, Tucker loved Star Wars, Batman, Godzilla and Dragon Ball Z.

You can see stories everywhere — in books, movies and games. And one type of story Tucker teaches his students is the Hero’s Journey. It’s a framework for telling stories that was popularized by Joseph Campbell in the 1950s but dates back to ancient mythology. One of the most visible modern examples of the Hero’s Journey is in the movie Star Wars. When Tucker teaches a unit on Beowulf fan fiction, he'll start by showing students a clip from Star Wars to show how Luke Skywalker answers the call to adventure and crosses the threshold – key elements to the Hero's Journey. Then, students write from the perspective of someone who is not a main Beowulf character – the mother of the monster Grendel. Tucker advises students to make up any details they want, but they can’t contradict anything that’s in the original poem.

“I even had a student say one time, 'Are we essentially writing Grendel fan fiction?' I said, 'Yes, you are. But you're showing me that you understand, A, how to write a narrative, and B, that you can write from a different point of view.'

Tucker’s excitement about stories caught the attention of Kirstie Troutman, a school colleague. Her son, Drew, is passionate about writing, so she hired Tucker as a tutor to help him explore fan fiction.

“If your child was into sports, you'd search for the teams that could build those skills and the coaches,” said Troutman. “[Writing] is where my son's interest is, so I found the coach to match him with his interest.”

Fan Fiction and Learning

When Tanner Higgin was a junior high school student, he wasn’t motivated to do homework. He would do the bare minimum to stay on a college-bound path. But when he discovered a Star Wars fan fiction community through an America Online hub, his world and word count expanded.

“It was a tremendous amount of of writing,” said Higgin of his contributions.

The Star Wars community was designed as a massive role-playing game. It involved writing dialogue and storylines for characters, creating challenges and organizing the members of the community. Higgin started writing for Han Solo but ultimately got recruited to write for the Imperial forces and bring order to an unruly group.

“The Imperial side of this community was constantly facing mutinies,” recalled Higgin. “There was always someone looking to grab power and usurp power so you needed a lot of management to keep those things in check.”

Higgin's organizational skills gained him attention in the group and he was asked to take on more management roles. This meant holding regular meetings, sending official emails and creating rules and regulations for the community.

“I ended up getting promoted and was one of the leaders for a time and really found myself extending my leadership skills,” said Higgin. All of the Star Wars fan fiction writing and community organizing skills were crucial developmental experiences he didn’t appreciate until he was a school teacher trying to motivate his own students.

“This was really my introduction to the idea that you could take something you love and put your own spin on it, and most importantly, work with other people to build a shared world and –sort of like improvisational theater – play off of the contributions of other people and really try and think from the perspective of a character and act how that character would respond to other people,” said Higgin, who is Director of Education Editorial Strategy at Common Sense. “It was really a kind of mind-blowing, mind-expanding way of thinking about what art is.”   

Fan Fic community

One unique element of fan fiction is the community that coalesces in support of writers. The feedback writers get in fan fiction communities helps them get better.

Professor Rebecca Black learned about how helpful fan fiction communities can be when she studied English Language Learners who write fan fiction. These students felt insecure about their language skills in school, but developed confidence by practicing writing in fan fic forums and getting feedback.

“They really represented themselves as ‘I’m not a good writer,' 'I'm not very good in English,' 'I hate English class,' 'I hate school,’ but they would spend hours and hours writing these stories online that people were reading and giving them feedback on,” said Black, professor of informatics at UC Irvine.

Engaging in online forums might feel risky for parents of adolescents, but Black says that the community is mostly focused on writing. It's also a place where teens can role-play some of the issues they're dealing with through characters in their stories.

I’ve been part of sites where people were very strong in their critique of writing and feedback,” said Black, “but never just sort of wanton abuse that I think a lot of parents worry about." 

However, fan fiction isn’t without its critics. Fan fiction is getting more visibility for its sexual reputation with the popularity of sexual storylines, the HBO show "Euphoria" and the best-selling book of the decade, "50 Shades of Gray." For those reasons – in addition to time constraints and testing requirements – teachers have mostly kept their distance from deep fan fiction. However, that doesn't mean teens will stay away.

For students who are interested in writing fan fiction, teacher-librarian Julia Torres recommends the tools at NaNoWriMo that can help people get into the writer's habit. As for reading fan fiction, fanfiction.net has a ratings system for what's appropriate, like what you see in movies, and teens flock to Archive of Our Own.

"Please, give your students the freedom to read it without having to prove to you that it fits some sort of adult guidelines," said Torres, "because being able to indulge in a reading life that is free of restrictions is something that we don't really often allow kids to do. And there's a reason for their curiosity."

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*An earlier version of this story misquoted the number of stories. We regret this error.