What do a Wattpad story about One Direction, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet all have in common with each other?
The answer: they all qualify as fanfiction. The first one is pretty obvious — the use of preexisting characters and events to create an original story is essentially the definition of fanfiction itself. What’s less obvious about the other two works is that they are also original adaptations of existing source material; Tolkien’s entire Middle-earth fantasy heavily borrows from features of Norse mythology, with many of Tolkien’s figures being based on Norse deities. Shakespeare’s play is a direct dramatization of the 1562 poem by Arthur Brooke, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.
Though Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Rings, and Wattpad stories are separated by several centuries, no amount of time and space can deny the common thread that unites them — love; specifically, love for stories, self, and human connection. To be impacted by a story so profoundly and to be inspired to honor that impact shows how stories and lives become inseparable; a part of one will always find its way into the other, much like the bonds that connect human hearts. Creating fan media, it would seem, is the ultimate act of devotion from a creator to a piece of media.
Fan–created media takes on many forms, from novels and art to musicals and TV shows. In the 21st century, the subcultures of fandom creation can be found all over the Internet. Fanfiction writers publish on AO3 and Wattpad, fan artists upload their works to Instagram and Twitter, and cosplayers post videos on TikTok and YouTube. With the rise of greater online connectedness, it has become easier than ever for those within fandoms to engage with fan–created content and find communities of creators who share similar interests. The internet is more than a place for exchanging ideas; it is a digital immortalization of people's love for media and the relationships that they form with each other over that shared love.
Though fan–created media primarily lives online, its effects on the lives of those who consume it hardly exist in a bubble. Aled Dillabough (C’25) started writing fanfiction when he was in elementary school, before branching out into fan art as well. He said that his current choice to study communications with a fine arts minor was strongly influenced by his history with fanfiction and fan art. He explained that the analytical processes of figuring out how to accurately portray a character in writing are very similar to the skills he uses in communications, and his deep connection with fandom culture has inspired him to find a job where he can write about media after college.
Aled explained that a major appeal of writing fanfiction is that it can be difficult for writers to create their own characters from scratch, but fanfiction allows them to tell the stories they want using characters that they already connect with. For Aled personally, writing fanfiction gave him the freedom to explore his own identity and emotions through his characters, as well as helped him develop more confidence in sharing his ideas.
“Sharing my writing in class … used to be something I struggled with, but sharing my art and writing [online] helped me become more confident with participating and sharing my ideas,” he said. “I also think it’s helped with my ability to articulate myself and communicate because I write about a lot of stuff that is reflective of my experiences, so it helps me understand [my experiences] and be able to talk about them.”
Through creating fanfiction, writers are not only demonstrating their love for the original source material but also discovering themselves. Self–expression, understanding, and acceptance are the key components of creating any sort of art, and the relationship between a writer and their work leaves an indelible mark on the writer themself.
For those who may not be pursuing a field that is directly related to content creation, the experiences of engaging with fandom still enrich their lives in equally significant ways. Ku Li, a first–year student at the University of Maryland studying social data science, has been drawing fan art since the fourth grade and reflected on how creating art motivated Ku to independently develop art skills. Ku sought out art classes and self–studied anatomy and color theory, hoping to go into art. While it didn’t turn out that way, Ku believes that making art for so long helped hone Ku’s creativity and taught Ku the satisfaction of achieving personal goals in the form of creations that Ku could be proud of.
Ku described social data science as being a “computer science–adjacent field” and pointed out how the problem–solving aspects of art have translated to Ku’s academic work.
“Since programming languages only give you the bare building blocks to do whatever you want, it’s up to you to decide how you want to approach whatever you’re trying to make … and I think that the sense of satisfaction [of solving problems] translates over to art, like when you finally learn how to draw a hand correctly or grasp how colors work,” Ku said.
Ku started posting art on Instagram and Twitter and gained traction with those accounts, eventually hitting over 1,000 followers. Ku said that it was encouraging and motivating to receive other people’s feedback on Ku’s work, and seeing the positive reactions of others further inspired Ku to create more.
However, at a certain point, Ku started experiencing burnout in the face of constantly trying to please an online audience. From the experience of sharing work online and navigating post engagement and audience feedback, Ku learned the importance of staying true to one’s wishes when creating art. Creating art is not only a way for people to understand themselves but also a means of standing by the authentic version of themselves; through sharing their work with audiences, artists learn how to find their voice in a world where it is so easy for it to get drowned out.
“At the end of the day, you’re trying to do what makes you happy, and you shouldn’t be trying to cater that to people,” Ku said.
Ku is inspired by the passion that those in fandom spaces devote to their work and said that fandoms allow Ku to connect with others who share similar interests, as well as people across the world who would otherwise be inaccessible outside of an online context.
“[Fandom] offers a kind of family where everyone is united around a central interest and everyone can contribute their own experiences to it,” Ku said. “It’s really a beautiful thing to witness and be part of.” And since fandoms are built upon fiction, Ku pointed out, they allow people the opportunity to engage with concepts and topics that would otherwise never be encountered in real life. “[Ideas] are not limited by physical bounds or science. It’s just based on whatever your imagination wants to come up with,” Ku said.
Indeed, the beauty of fandom creation lies in its ability to facilitate the exchange of ideas and imagination that cannot be found anywhere else. Olee Banerjee (E’27) used to write fanfiction with her friend in middle school. She found that experimenting with creative writing allowed her to practice writing skills that she did not get as much exposure to inside the classroom, as her school did not provide many opportunities for students to learn about creative writing.
“When you’re doing analytical writing, you’re not learning how to write dialogue or how to define character types,” she pointed out. Creative writing allowed Olee to improve her fluency with figurative language, imagery, and grammar rules. She said that, in aiming to evoke certain feelings through her work, she learned which techniques work and which ones don’t when trying to garner specific reactions from her readers.
“You start being able to identify how to connect emotionally with readers, or the people looking at your art,” Olee explained. “Just because you think something is sad might not necessarily mean that it is sad unless you give it context, and using figurative language, symbols, and foreshadowing to do so lets you learn those skills.”
Olee noted that she used to not be a very strong English student, but writing fanfiction allowed her to translate her creative writing skills to her English classes, which made her more comfortable with the process of brainstorming ideas, revising drafts, and analyzing other literary works.
Aside from improving her writing skills, Olee said that writing creatively taught her how to see a project through from start to finish and think critically about situations. “When you’re writing a fanfic, you’re trying to fill in the holes, or you’re trying to add a character that you think will actually add to the plot, so you’re trying to figure out, ‘What can I improve about this thing?’” she pointed out. “You get used to this kind of analysis of any piece of art or anything that you look at.”
Olee currently enjoys writing her own songs and believes that the skills she gained from writing creatively have had a significant impact on her ability to express her ideas through her music. Similarly, Aled said that his experiences with writing fanfiction inspired him to branch out and explore new genres of writing. So far, he’s written scripts for his own TV shows and musicals, and he really enjoys coming up with stage interpretations of the media that he consumes.
Further highlighting the importance of writing in different contexts, Fayyaz Vellani, a lecturer in critical writing at Penn, explained that the more students practice writing for different audiences outside the classroom, the more effective they become in writing for their day–to–day lives as well. A solid handle on structure and outlines is required for creative writing, as chapters, chronology, time, characters, and plot are all elements of creative writing that require thoughtful planning, so practicing creative writing can help solidify these organizational skills.
Vellani also teaches PROW 3010: The Power of Storytelling, a postgraduate course that is offered through the Certificate in Professional Writing. His students come from a variety of backgrounds, such as doctors, lawyers, actors, artists, and dancers, and storytelling plays a role in each one of their lives.
“I had a Hollywood actor who said, ‘I want to be able to tell better stories when I go to auditions,’ and he was like, ‘I’ve been getting more work since I’ve been using these methods,’” Vellani recounted. He explained that, from elevator pitches and interviews to resumes and visualized data, storytelling plays an important role in all sorts of day–to–day applications.
“A job interviewing someone says, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ They’re asking for a story, so just having [my students] feel more comfortable with that self–expression in a structured way … it helps us tell better stories in the professional world,” he said.
Indeed, storytelling has played a meaningful role in Vellani’s life, as he is not only a professor but also a novelist. His novel, Tea with Ms. Tanzania (2022), is a historical fiction piece that revolves around a relationship between a mother and a son, as well as the story of Tanzania after it gained independence from Britain. “It’s a part of the world that’s very beautiful but under–acknowledged — a lot of people don’t know about it,” Vellani described.
His favorite part of writing the novel was researching the history of Tanzania to include in his work. “In the process of doing that research, I uncovered that there hasn’t been a lot written about those historical events, so it further cemented my desire to get this book out there,” Vellani said.
As someone with a family history rooted in Tanzania, writing this novel allowed him to better engage with that part of his identity. “I think we make sense of who we are through stories, so the stories that we tell about ourselves to others, and also stories that are told to us … give [us] a sense of completeness as a person,” he said. “In the same way this story is from Tanzania, even though I was born in England, [writing the story] gave a completeness to my life because the Tanzanian part of my identity has always been a part of my life.” Dedicating time and energy to understanding the stories of others, whether fictional or real, represents our human desire to know others and be known.
Olee explained that creative writing, especially in the context of fanfiction, can be a meaningful way for writers to not only understand their identities but also express them. For example, the Marvel franchise is heavily built upon traditional notions of masculinity, as it is dominated by male characters who exhibit stereotypically masculine–coded traits of physical strength and emotional toughness. However, with most fanfiction writers being young females, writing fanfiction gives them an outlet to reflect their identities in a media where they don’t normally see themselves represented.
As an Indian person who grew up in America, Olee feels that she has not really seen herself represented in a lot of the narratives that she consumes. Indian characters in pop culture, such as Raj Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory, are often built upon stereotypes and primarily function as a laughingstock for non–Indian audiences.
“It becomes hard to see yourself in media. You’re just like, ‘Oh, it won’t work, because if it works, people would have done it already. I get that my culture is so different — it wouldn’t make sense for an Indian kid to be on a superhero team,’” Olee explained, “But when you start questioning [this belief], especially when you start writing fanfiction, it fosters self–confidence in a way because … you see that people like you can be part of that narrative.” It is not only our desire to be known that drives storytelling but also the drive that compels us to tell the stories of those who cannot — creating space for the voices that have historically been silenced and uplifting their narratives.
Ku discussed how fandoms can be a space for discourse around important social issues. For example, Genshin Impact’s Sumeru update sparked controversy over some of its culturally inaccurate character designs. Initially, it was difficult for some POC fans to make their voices heard, as their critiques of the character designs were met by backlash from white fans who wanted to defend them. However, Ku noted, POC creators started proposing their own fan art and designs to show how the characters could be made more culturally accurate, such as by changing the hair texture and skin colors of certain characters to match people from the specific regions of the world that they were supposed to represent.
“Again, white people would start sending a lot of backlash to these edits, so it’s another example of how marginalized people are silenced within fan groups,” Ku said, “But I do think that fan works can also create these spaces for positive change, especially if it’s coming from the people who are most impacted by [these issues]. The worlds that they create are their voice within the fandom space.”
Ku’s experiences with social issues in fandom have inspired Ku to incorporate social work into Ku’s future career. “I’m invested in equity within fandom culture and letting marginalized people have a safe space in fandom, so I feel like that could translate into the work that I actually do in real life.” This empathy for others that is generated in fandom communities carries effects that extend beyond the online space, shaping livelihoods with it.
There’s no doubt that the skills, insights, and experiences fan creators take away from their work shape the other aspects of their lives, whether it be personal, academic, or professional. For some, fandom is their life, as is the case for creator Rox Adams.
Rox, who graduated high school in 2021, has spent most of their life engaged in fandom — drawing fan art, writing fanfiction, and cosplaying. For them, fandom started as an escape from some of the events of their younger years. Having not had consistent access to electronics, Rox used any materials they could find — journals, binders, and loose–leaf paper — to handwrite fanfiction, often spending class periods to do so. Despite their circumstances, Rox’s love for writing allowed them to overcome the barriers that stood in their way; noticing their aptitude for writing, Rox’s sixth–grade English teacher helped Rox found their middle school’s creative writing club, of which Rox served as president for two years.
In high school, Rox’s pre–AP English teacher encouraged Rox to participate in the NaNoWriMo challenge, where participants are challenged to write a certain number of words every day for the month of November until they complete a 50,000–word manuscript. Rox completed a 50,000–word piece of Undertale fanfiction, and after November ended, they went on to write a sequel that was triple the length of the first book.
Rox attributed their growth as a writer to the encouragement of their English teachers, and writing fanfiction helped Rox discover their love for English, finding the subject “beautiful” and “something that [they] wanted to pursue.” Writing became their whole life, and the beauty that they found in the subject served as a safe space when they needed it the most. Rox is planning to study creative writing in college once they are able to go back to school. They are also hoping to pursue game development, as they are in the process of building their own video game.
“Even if I do find something professional, I think there will always be a part of me that will always go back to fandom content,” Rox said. “It’s been such a huge part of my life for so long, and I don’t think it will ever not be.” Within all of the experiences that life has to offer, the initial calling of fandom creation continues to have its place in creators’ hearts, a first love that they will always return to.
Rox’s discovery of the Attack on Titan fandom inspired them to start cosplaying, which allowed Rox to meet some of the most influential people in their life, including their now–best friend. “If I had never gotten into cosplay, I know for a fact that my life as I know it right now would absolutely nowhere be the same,” Rox said. “I’ve met so many different people that have changed my life so drastically in such a positive way.”
“Some of them in such a not positive way,” Rox acknowledged, “but I think that’s just life.”
With a vast majority of fandom spaces serving as an intersection between neurodiverse and queer communities, the sense of belonging generated by the convening of people with shared interests carries implications that extend beyond just bonding over a favorite TV show; members of marginalized communities are able to find comfort in being surrounded by people with similar experiences online. “It’s kind of like laying on a bed of nails your whole life, and for the first time getting to lay on an actual mattress with blankets,” Rox described.
It is often the case that people deeply engaged in fandom face criticism and mockery from those who see their interests as “cringe” or “embarrassing,” to which Rox maintained that cringe culture is inherently built upon ableist beliefs that shame hyperfixations and special interests, a significant draw for many neurodivergent people to fandoms. “I think people should be able to enjoy whatever they want in any capacity,” Rox stated. “If you are that upset by somebody else having fun … it might be because you aren’t able to find that happiness yourself, and I think you should try to find it.”
Indeed, from reading the stories of others to seeing their passion for art and bonding with them over shared interests, Rox believes that the most important lesson they have taken away from the world of fandom is to be kind. “You never know what someone is going through … so if you can be kind and help that person in their darkest hour, that's everything,” Rox said. And as someone who has witnessed firsthand the positive impact that storytelling can have on people’s lives, Rox seeks to inspire and uplift others by writing their own stories.
“If those [stories] are the impact I leave on this world … I don't care if my name isn't written in lights, because I know that I've left a little firefly with the people I've helped,” Rox concluded.