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From Wattpad to Indigo: The explosion of fanfiction tropes on our bookshelves

Ezra Bucur

Creative Writing Editor


Fanfiction can be described as a fan-made, amateur-written work of a pre-existing piece of media. It is usually crafted as a means of celebrating the original source material, and  expanding upon the established universe and characters to explore new ideas, reinterpret characters, and delve into unexplored concepts. Its main appeal, however, remains its accessibility to fans across the world, as anyone, regardless of age, writing skill, or fame, can create their own spin on a beloved franchise, and publish it online. Even without being heavily involved in consuming or writing this media, there is still an interest that can be found in analyzing how many of its tropes have seeped into popular, non-fanfiction media, absorbing other genres of literature. However, fanfiction is not the problem, it is rather the exploitative publishing companies that capitalize the sheer fun of it at the cost of the freedom and accessibility that fanfiction once enjoyed.


     Over the years, fanfiction has gained an increasing amount of mainstream attention, leading not only to popular fan works being published, but also to the popularization of these tropes in unrelated, non-fanfiction media. This has resulted in a loss of credibility for fanfiction within its fan spaces, as it is only seen as a way to vent out sexual frustrations, but also for current publishing trends to lean in on these tropes, further delegitimizing even published novels.


     Whilst most credit fanfiction as being a product of the Internet, it actually has deeper roots spanning all the way back to the 18th century. Whilst characters had been repurposed for other stories for hundreds of years, such as in religious works, it is with the development of copyright and individual property that fanfiction became more than just taking inspiration from other existing works. Authors such as Daniel Defoe accused amateur authors of “kidnapping” his work, but others’ work had lived on through fanzines and other published works. Jane Austen is a prime example of this, as many fanzines of her work, especially Pride and Prejudice, were created in the 20th century, primarily due to recent developments in printing technologies. Many of these works were sexual in nature, and this pattern replicated itself in more modern fanfiction pieces. One of the first modern examples of fanfiction were the famous Spock x Kirk zines from the 1960s. This was one of the many installments in the “slash” genre, which consists of fanfiction revolving around pairing same sex relationships. Today, numerous fanfiction websites such as Wattpad, Fanfiction.net, or Archive of Our Own (AO3), host millions of user-created stories.


     Despite the existence of the online space, fanfiction is still traditionally published to this day, and sometimes even gains widespread mainstream popularity, to the point of even getting movie adaptations. One of the most famous example of this is Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L James. The series is incredibly sexual, as it follows the relationship between a woman named Anastasia Steele and a wealthy man named Christian Grey. Fifty Shades was negatively received by critics, both as a novel and as a film adaptation. Salman Rushdie, an acclaimed British-Indian author, remarked  that the book “made Twilight look like War and Peace.” Ironically enough, the plot of Fifty Shades originated from a Twilight fanfiction James had published on Fanfiction.net years prior. Other examples of this include After by Anna Todd, which was adapted into film in 2019. Originally, After had been a Wattpad fanfiction centering around the romance between former One Direction member Harry Styles and the elusive “Y/N” character, which stands for “Your Name”, and is meant to represent the reader. Social media has also popularized fanfictions-turned-novels, with a prominent example being The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood, which was inspired entirely by  Ben Solo and Rey from the Star Wars franchise.


     Since many fanfictions revolve around romance, it only makes sense that the fanfictions that make it into publishing houses would as well. For this reason, many tropes that originate from fanfiction also become popular, whether problematic or not. These tropes are often romantic, such as enemies to lovers, friends to lovers, or academic rivals. However, there are also incredibly sexual tropes that also got popularized by fanfiction. While there is nothing wrong with erotica nor sexual themes in literature, these tropes revolve around abusive relationships, non-consensual sexual interactions, or physically traumatic sexual interactions. There is also no broader plot nor themes within these books, as publishing companies try to push tropes for the sake of tropes.

These books often reach younger audiences, and normalize not substance, but only romance for the sake of romance. With social media like TikTok, it is almost impossible to regulate whether underage audiences are exposed to abusive erotica, all whilst publishing companies capitalize on a bastardized version of what fanfiction should be: enriching fan spaces and community and sharing the love for a franchise with others. Even as someone who does not read fanfiction, the way some of its more problematic tropes have seeped into published works has affected literature as a whole, commercializing it even further whilst negatively impacting fanfiction as well. 

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