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Confronting taboo: The importance of fanfiction as a form of escapism

When the real world seems too intense, the fanfiction community offers a form of solace for many.

By Isabel Williams, Second Year English

Have you ever read a book or watched a television show and found yourself longing for more time with the characters? Ever craved an escape from the gruelling mundaneness of everyday life? Ever wanted to read a sequence in which the fictional children’s book character Harry Potter has sex with a dragon?

If your answer to any of these is yes, then you are not alone: with more than one hundred million readers and writers worldwide, fanfiction is a hugely popular enterprise that shows no signs of faltering anytime soon.

Much of the appeal of fanfiction is derived from sheer escapism; like any story, it offers an opportunity to immerse oneself in fictional worlds and the lives of fictional people. Sites like Wattpad and AO3 offer individuals the benefit of publishing their work anonymously, for free, and without a secondary editor, meaning writers have the freedom to explore their ideas without the pressures and specifications that come with more traditional forms of publishing.

Courtesy of Isabel Williams

That being said, the best fanfictions are usually formatted like traditional novels: they are immersive with well-rounded characters, have good pacing and dialogue and are (at least for the most part) grammatically accurate.

The main difference between fanfiction and regular fiction resides in the fact that fanfiction aims to explore fictional variations of already existing stories, such as building a narrative for less-explored side characters or changing the dynamic between already existing characters. However, there are also a great number of fanfictions written about real-life celebrities, some of which can be seen as promoting parasocial relationships, the likes of which we see in much of celebrity culture.

In these relationships, an individual has an emotionally invested, one-sided relationship with a celebrity figure that is totally unaware of their existence, at times glorifying them to a godlike status. These parasocial relationships even exist to some degree in stories about fictional characters, to which readers and writers may also form close emotional attachments.

Courtesy of Isabel Williams

Despite its popularity, fanfiction is rarely discussed openly in the same way other supposedly “nerdy” pursuits (e.g. videogames, cosplay, board games). Much of this is due to the fact that fanfiction has a reputation for being sexually explicit. Many fanfiction stories contain what is referred to as “smut”: vividly erotic scenes in which every action is described with painstakingly intimate detail.

Some stories even take things a step further; those with titles such as “HARRY STYLES X READER” address the reader directly as “you”, including abbreviated terms such as y/n (“your name”), or y/h/c (“your hair colour”), during which the reader is expected to insert their own personal characteristics so as to solidify the sexual fantasy.

Some of these stories include depictions of relationships that could be seen as romanticising abuse, such as the notorious fanfiction After; originally a Harry Styles fanfiction, in which Styles was portrayed as a brooding bad-boy character with whom the main character falls in love, despite his aggressive and manipulative tendencies. This portrays an unhealthy example to readers, as the majority of fanfiction consumers are young women and girls.

Courtesy of Isabel Williams

It may be partly due to this largely female readership that fanfiction harbours the stigma it does; whilst it is societally accepted that young men and boys will consume large amounts of pornography, historically and societally speaking female sexuality is much more of a taboo topic. Feminine infatuation with celebrities has also been historically regarded with disdain, as with Beatlemania in the 60’s. But although there is some validity in the concern over exposing young girls to misleading

depictions of sex and relationships when they are at a more impressionable age, fanfiction offers a discreet way for female readers to explore their sexuality safely in a non-judgemental environment.

Much of the stigma surrounding fanfiction is blown out of proportion; many will reference the more infamous or sexually ludicrous fanfiction and make the assumption that these examples are representative of the majority, when in reality this is not the case. Many fanfictions are more focused upon “fluff”- romantically intimate or “cute” scenes - or negate the subject of sex altogether. Such fanfiction is popular with asexual readers who may feel that sex scenes in more traditional forms of media detract from the main plot.

Courtesy of Isabel Williams

In this way, fanfiction offers a kind of freedom that traditional fiction does not, in that people are able to rewrite their favourite narratives to suit their individual preferences. Ultimately, fanfiction is a fantasy, and we have all indulged in fantasy at some point, sexual or not. When the real world seems too intense, the fanfiction community offers a form of solace for many, with creativity and artistic interpretation at the core of its passion for story-telling.

Featured Image: Isabel Williams

Have you ever indulged in fanfiction?