Writing a book is both my biggest dream and my worst nightmare because one day, inevitably, someone will ask me when I first started writing fiction and I’ll have to explain that it all began with a 180,000 word epic about the forbidden romance of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. As a teenager in the early 2010s, fan fiction was massive, but a secret – something kept to your Tumblr blog and an already outdated LiveJournal page, never discussed in real life.
But that was before TikTok. While once mentioning that you read – never mind wrote – fan fiction was a shortcut to social ostracisation, it’s had something of a glow-up recently. Suddenly it’s okay to discuss fan fiction out in the open. You can throw around words like “canon”, “soulmate AU” and (if you really want) “mpreg” on TikTok and nobody bats an eye. The same people who share dancing videos and styling tutorials are reeling off their Wattpad recommendations and creating POV videos of their favourite stories. In short, the popular kids are talking about fan fiction.
A lot of this development comes from Wattpad itself. To be crass, ten years ago this was where you went as a last resort if trawling through FanFiction.net or Archive of Our Own hadn’t delivered the results you wanted. Now the storytelling platform (which also hosts some original fiction) is worth just over half a billion dollars and boasts its own film studio to adapt its most popular stories. One of these movies, After We Collided (adapted from a story about a dark Harry Styles) was panned by critics but beloved by TikTokkers and became one of the highest-grossing dramas of 2020. The site’s layout is much more visually appealing than some of its competitors which, combined with the potential to actually make money from your stories, led to a surge in traffic over the first lockdown. To date, #wattpad videos have over 3.3 billion views on TikTok – nearly as many as the app’s most popular literature tag, #booktok.
Archive of Our Own experienced similar success, announcing “emergency measures” to cope with a 60% rise in traffic last spring. Lockdown boredom is largely to blame, but the appeal of fan fiction has always been its familiarity. Just as viewers have turned to old shows and movies over the course of the pandemic, reading stories set in universes we’ve already explored is just different enough to be exciting, but similar enough to be comforting. Fan fiction can right the wrongs of your favourite TV show. It gives both writers and readers more space to explore the dynamics of a relationship, or the repercussions of a film’s events beyond the credits, giving them the platform and support to develop their own writing style and learn the basics of plotting and characterisation without getting weighed down by world building or character development.
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And yet TikTok has also latched onto its dark side. One of the biggest flaws of fan fiction has always been its problematic depiction of relationships, and it doesn’t help that its biggest presence in mainstream media is the likes of 50 Shades of Grey and the After series. Both revolve around toxic, even abusive romances, and the Wattpad corner of TikTok has a habit of romanticising this. Back when After was just a Wattpad story penned by Imaginator1D, it featured Harry (renamed Hardin for the novel and film) seducing the main character, Tessa, as part of a bet to take her virginity, later taking bloodied sheets back to his frat friends to prove his success. This storyline was watered down for the film adaptation’s wider audience and TikTokkers weren’t happy about the change, heralding it a pivotal part of the relationship’s “growth”.
Problematic though some of it may be, the thing to remember is that most fan fiction is written by those under the age of 18 with minimal experience of real relationships, or sex. My own Drarry magnum opus was written way before I had any experience with either. Both then and now, the key to its success is that this is a generation writing its own stories. For every misstep like After, there’s a writer embellishing upon a world that they weren’t entirely satisfied with before. There’s a reason why the top 14 of Archive of Our Own’s most popular ships are all LGBTQ+. With nobody to please but yourself, it’s a much more inclusive space than the actual publishing industry.
As TikTok pushes the fan fiction community out into the open, it’s inevitable that commercial opportunities will follow. Some are already creeping in; Wattpad reports that publishers have started trawling the site in search of future talent. It’s about time fan fiction shed its “embarrassing” reputation – these are the writers of tomorrow.
By Chloe James, fashion and beauty editor of CORQ.