The Red-Headed Stepchild

Gretchen Tessmer

Fan fiction is the red-headed stepchild of the writing world.  It searches for a home among reputable houses but, walking that fine line between plagiarism and hackneyed parody, it’s forced to live in the leaky, damp cardboard box in the dank and dingy alley outside, hoping tonight’s trash yields more than banana peels and half-burnt muffins for dinner.  The fact that it’s directly responsible for such illustrious (that’s straight up sarcasm, boys and girls—in case the tone fails to come through) works as Fifty Shades of Grey certainly doesn’t help its reputation.


But I feel sorry for the red-headed stepchild.  At least, I feel sorry for how the kid has been treated by the family—by our cigar-smoking Grandfather (classics), our gin-swilling Aunt Vi (contemporaries), our overly dramatic younger sister Lisa (memoir) and slick Cousin Perry (critics), who can be somewhat of a pompous know-it-all.  Sometimes I even want to sing its praises, if only because no one else will.

First of all, it’s not masquerading as high-brow anything.  It knows its own limitations.  No fan fiction writer will ever achieve great fame and fortune for a job well done on a piece.  Even if the prose is all original, the manuscript has commandeered something, whether it’s a character, setting, or major/minor plot point.  Otherwise it wouldn’t be fan fiction.  So at least it’s self-aware.  Unless it’s pure plagiarism, of course, which is neither self-aware nor particularly bright—that would be Lisa’s ex-husband (let’s call him Bobby) who can’t seem to stay out of jail.

Like any storytelling, fan fiction is imagination-heavy.  But whereas original fiction requires a writer to lay structure, fan fiction is all about the paint and trimmings.  A writer who sets out to save Jack and Rose from their tragic ending on that cold, North Atlantic night or who wants to extend their visit in Hogwarts or Middle Earth by inserting new characters or exploring further plot lines is not looking for material gain.  They’re looking for creative release.  They’re looking to transcend the limitations of being just another consumer who reads and writes whatever will satiate Cousin Perry’s tastes this evening—peanut butter and jelly, most likely.

Fan fiction websites are a community playground for writers and readers alike.  Many of the writers on fan fiction websites can attest to the fact that readers of fan fiction are both voracious and generous (meaning prolific here) with their comments.  Encouragement is often offered but more critical (meaning useful here) comments are in no short supply.  Online writer’s workshops should envy the give-and-take between writers and their audiences on fan fiction websites.  For even a short vignette (1,000 words of less), it’s possible to garner the attention of dozens of readers.  These readers often give feedback.  As with any feedback, there’s trash to sift through.  We’re out in the alley, after all.  But illuminating criticism can be found in the humblest of places.

As a writer, I’ve used fan fiction as a creative outlet for years.  It’s a quick fix for writer’s block.  The rules are simpler in the fan fiction arena: plot is flushed out, setting is fixed.  Insert your character(s) and go wild.  Try creating a side plot in someone else’s universe and then lift it out and carry it over to your own.  Interact with readers and find out if your style of writing (which has very little to do with the story itself) can get a reader’s heart racing or bring on the waterworks.

Almost anyone will tell you that the problem with fan fiction is that it’s an exercise in wasted effort.  You can’t sell what you create; you can’t even call it your own.  Well…yeah.  But consider this.  You bake an apple pie (shamelessly stealing a recipe from Nana—no relation), cut the slits for tiny puffs of steam and fragrant autumn-flavored, apple-ly goodness to escape, sprinkle the flaky crust with just a dust of white sugar and set it out on the window sill to cool.  Then you eat it and that’s it.  Nothing to show for it.  Except a memory of something delicious.  Or not so delicious—I mean, it really depends on Nana.  But either way, you see my point.

So maybe we won’t invite the red-headed stepchild into the house.  Those muddy shoes, this white carpet—I know, I know.  But we could send a piece of warm pie out to the alley, couldn’t we?  Maybe a little ice cream on the side too…because who doesn’t deserve a little ice cream?

Gretchen Tessmer is a writer based in Northern New York.  For her latest projects/publications, follow her at Gretchen Tessmer is featured in North American Review's issue 297.4, Fall 2012.

Illustration: Junghwa Park is an illustrator and craftier based in New York City. She had numerous exhibitions in NYC and South Korea. Her illustration Spring Flood was the honor selection for 3x3 magazine. Her illustration does not only create an illustration, but she also make experimental object out of her illustration. She is working on upcoming art and design shop with her illustration and craft. You can see more of his work at