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The history of fanfiction

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When I speak to people about fanfiction, a lot of the time they dismiss it as being something that only angsty teenage girls read and write. For those of you who don’t recall from my previous column about the subject, fanfiction ‘is a story that is written about an already established fictional universe and the characters within it, including books, movies, TV shows, and video games.’ The modern version of fanfic kicked off in the 1960s when Star Trek fans published stories in the fanzines of the time, and it has only grown since then, especially with the rise of the internet.
However, fanfic has been around for much, much longer than that. Before the phrase ‘copyright’ was coined, authors regularly used already established characters and even entire plotlines in their works. Some of the most famous pieces of literature are, by definition, fanfiction.

Dante’s Divine Comedy from 1320 is a Bible fanfic where he goes on a tour through hell and includes several popular fanfic concepts. It is a self-insert fic (he writes about himself); it has an OC (original character), Beatrice; it is also a RPF (Real Person Fiction) as ancient Roman poet, Virgil appears as Dante’s guide through purgatory. There are numerous other famous works based off the Bible but one of the most famous is the epic poem, Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667) which is a retelling of the biblical fall of man.

Shakespeare was an extremely established fanfic author, with numerous works using characters and plots from other stories. Romeo and Juliet from 1597 is actually a retelling of the 1562 verse The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brookes (which was also retold as prose in 1567 by William Painter as The Palace of Pleasure). Hamlet is based on a Norse legend composed in the early 13th century, and he borrowed ‘heavily’ from the lost play, Ur-Hamlet by Thomas Kyd.

Another common example involves the stories of King Arthur, which have been doing the rounds for many, many centuries. Sir Thomas Mallory collected many of these tales into a book in 1485 called Le Morte d’Arthur and since then we’ve had everyone from Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) to T.H. White (The Once and Future King) writing their own version of the story.

The implementation of copyright laws brought a halt to officially distributed works of fanfiction (with the exception of fics based on works in the public domain). It is now mainly published on free-to-use websites such as Archive of Our Own and Fanfiction.net but every now and then, a fanfic escapes from the wild. The most famous is Fifty Shades of Grey which started as a Twilight fanfiction called Master of the Universe. E L James sneakily changed the names of the main characters to avoid copyright issues and published the novel as an original work. If anyone would like to discuss the ethics behind that scenario at greater length, I’m always happy to have an audience to listen to my passionate rant. You know where to find me!