Between Truth and Fiction: Rethinking the world through fanfiction

8 minutes to read
Femke Pulles

Fanfiction is a piece of writing that continues an already-existing story. It can be about works of fiction or real-life writing. In fanfiction “fan authors imaginatively extend the original plotline or timeline, create new characters and/or develop new relationships between characters that are already present in the original source” (Black, 2006). Fanfiction, at first sight, is a simple imagination about the author's favorite show or celebrity. Maybe for some, it is, but what if it is more than that? Fanfiction existed for many years now and according to the research of Rebecca W. Black (2006) at first, it only existed in print. Still now, with the emergence of digital media, it exists much more often in the form of online fanfictions. This allows people to meet in digital spaces where it is possible to collaborate together, criticize, discuss, and exchange fanfictions. So in terms of online culture, it changed in a positive way, because it is much easier to talk to each other about what other fanfic writers are doing.

Fanfictions are about fans leaving their creative mark on the world and it also functions to create social and cultural bonds in communities. It “allows writers to rethink different aspects of their own worlds and even their perception of their object” (Duffet, 2013). Writing and reading fanfictions have an effect on the world of the one conducting the practice. What these effects are will be discussed in another section of this article. Even though it is fiction, it can possibly change someone’s life and therefore can feel more real than anything else. This article talks about how people use fanfiction as a coping mechanism, while also talking about the effects fanfiction can have on the real world. Fanfiction makes the line between truth and fiction blurry, so how does fanfiction connect fiction to the real world?

Para-social relationships and escapism

The practice of making fanfiction comes from a fan wanting to extend a world or a plotline that already exists. Therefore you have to be a fan of something. Being a fan often means being in some kind of para-social relationship with someone or something famous. A para-social relationship is having the illusion of a face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer (Horton & Wohl, 1956). This creates an intimate feeling for the fan, they feel like they have a connection with the object they are a fan of. Being a fan and having this kind of para-social relationship is also often a form of escapism as was mentioned in the article Take Me Away (n.d.).

The same goes for fanfiction, people use it as an escape, and they use it to forget the real world

Escapism makes people want to flee from the real world. The same goes for fanfiction, people use it as an escape, and they use it to forget the real world. They want to flee the real world and do that by extending the world of the thing they have a para-social relationship with, an example of this can be found in an article by Romano about the relationship between grief and fanfiction. The article shows an interview with someone who dealt with grief by reading fanfiction. Fanfiction would fix the things that happened in the show Supernatural by making characters come back alive after watching an episode where people died. While watching the show the person could flee from their own grief by continuously watching episodes of the show and then cope with the characters dying by reading fanfiction afterward to make it a more positive experience. This is seen as both a coping mechanism but also a form of escapism.

Filling the void during the pandemic

What also is noticed in this article is that people during the pandemic tended to do the same, they fled the world by reading fanfiction. A reason why people would do this in the first place, especially during the pandemic, could be because of some of the reasons mentioned by Mark Fisher in No One Is Bored, Everything Is Boring (2014). People do not know boredom anymore in this time of neoliberalism, they just know anxiety. Every empty space feels like it needs to be filled up by something. During the pandemic, people had more free time, and therefore more time to fill up. After a tv-series, a book, or an activity from their favorite celebrity ended, instead of seeking something new to fill up the space, it would be easier to look for or make something that continued the story of what they have been watching before. Fanfiction is then an obvious choice to fill up that space, especially because most of the platforms such as Archive Of Our Own have filters to make it possible to find a certain topic fairly easily. When an audience looks for positive stories on a platform like this then it is a form of healthy escapism. If the topics are more negative then it is a way of less healthy escapism, since it may cause people to spiral further into their negative thoughts, and then it might as well not be escapism anymore, even though it was meant to distract the reader from the negativity in life.

Real-world events

Even though fanfiction can be a way of escaping the real world it can also create a possibility to bring real-world events into the writing. With fanfiction being created often one chapter at a time, it is easy to bring real-time events into fanfiction, and they tend to reflect the current state of the world very clearly as Zubernis (2021) mentioned in her reasoning for why people tend to read fanfiction. Covid for example can therefore be found in a lot of the stories already, while in traditionally published books it is not that easy. Traditional publications tend to go through a much longer process before they are published. The issues in fanfictions are real ones that could be debated on the internet right now too. Covid is not the only real thing that can be found in fanfiction, it could also be other real-time events. A debate can be started in the morning on an online platform and could be in a fanfic this evening.

The issues in fanfictions are real ones that could be debated on the internet right now too

While someone is possibly censored by a social media platform since things have been said that are not in line with the rules of the platform, on platforms for fanfiction this is arranged a bit differently. For example, the platform Archive Of Our Own was made to archive the creative work from fans, this makes it a bit different in the case of censoring since the case is not about using literal speech (Minkel, 2018). It is claimed that a user should just use filters to filter out things they do not want to see if they think it can possibly hurt or affect them in a certain way. While this could be harmful it can also possibly change the way people talk about things on the internet. It allows them to have a much more fierce debate on sensitive topics while still being on the internet. In this fierce debate then readers also have a choice to not come across it through the filters. This could change the way people think, and could possibly be more like the liberating internet that was promised to us in the 1990s as was described by Kiberd in the opening of her book The Disconnect (2021). Fanfiction is therefore a way of bringing the real issues outside through writing stories.

Feelings, emotions, and identity in cyberspace

Fanfiction helps people work through real-time events but also through their own feelings and emotions. Zubernis (2021) talks about this by bringing in a case where somebody experienced emotional pain and then wrote a story about it by comforting the character the way they would want to be comforted. Fanfiction reflects the world but also accommodates it. Next to emotions and feelings, fanfics can also help the readers with accepting or getting to know more about their identity. Authors of fanfiction can insert their own identity into fanfiction throughout their characters, throughout this they can get to know more about themselves and can also create new identities as they write fanfiction (Thomas, 2007). The characters are like a rehearsal for who the authors really want to become. It is a part of cyberspace (Barlow, 1996). Cyberspace is in this piece a global social space, where anyone can express everything they believe. The concept of your identity can only apply to the one writing so they can do whatever they want with it. Fanfiction can help people about finding out more about their identity, especially when it is about sexuality. People can safely explore what it feels like to have a certain identity (The Establishment, 2019). The communities are also helpful since they can give the authors reassurance about being who they are, so that is a win for posting fanfictions online.

Fanfiction and Reality

At the beginning of this article, it was stated that fanfiction allows people to rethink different aspects of their world. Because of this, there was a need to explore the effects of fanfiction on the real world and also the way the real world affects the world of fanfiction. The question was: How does fanfiction connect fiction to the real world? It was established that this fanfiction can be connected to the real world in multiple different ways. First of all, fanfiction can be used as a form of escapism. People will flee the real world and trade it for a fictive one so that they do not have to deal with it. This was especially clear during the pandemic. Readers and authors will look for something they have a connection with, a para-social connection. A connection like this has a more intimate feeling and will make someone want to have more of that thing. So they start writing or reading fanfics. During the pandemic they also wanted to fill the void of boredom, they got too anxious about doing nothing. People filled it with watching series, reading books, and watching their favorite celebrities doing activities online. After these were finished they extended the storyline by switching to fanfiction. It gave them more of their favourite thing and there was no time open for being anxious with so much stimulus.

The real world has an effect on the world of fanfiction and the other way around

Second, fanfiction is a place where real-world events can be inserted in real time since they are not published per book but often per chapter. This allows fanfiction to be current and can therefore stimulate debate. This debate can be more fierce than on social media, especially when looking at the platform Archive Of Our Own since there is much less censorship on fanfiction. In the archive, fanfiction is treated as a creative work and not as an actual statement by someone. This fanfiction platform allows the internet to be a bit more like the liberated internet that was promised in the 90s. Third, fanfiction helps authors with their emotions, feelings, and their identity. Writing about it can help make emotions feel less painful, and an author using the characters as an extended version of themselves can help them discover their identity. The evidence is there, fanfiction can be connected to the real world. The real world has an effect on the world of fanfiction and the other way around. Fiction is more real than it seems.


Barlow, J. P. (1996). A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Black, R. W. (2006). Language, Culture, and Identity in Online Fanfiction. E-Learning and Digital Media, 3(2), 170–184.

Horton D. & Richard Wohl, R. (1956, August). Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction. Psychiatry, 19(3), 215–229.

Duffett, M. (2013). Chapter 6, Fan Practices. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture (pp. 275-315). Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Fisher, M., Ambrose, D., & Reynolds, S. (2018). No One is Bored, Everything is Boring. In K-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (New edition). Repeater. (pp. 549-550)

Hitchcock, C. (n.d.). Take Me Away. Real Life.

Kiberd, R. (2021). A History of the World Since 1989. In The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet. Serpent’s Tail.

Minkel, E. (2018, November 8). Fan fiction site AO3 is dealing with a free speech debate of its own. The Verge.

Romano, A. (2021, March 2). The delicate relationship between grief and fanfiction, explained by a psychologist. Vox.

 The Establishment. (2019, January 26). The Revolutionary Power Of Fanfiction For Queer Youth. Medium.

Thomas, A. (2007). Blurring and breaking through the boundaries of narrative, literacy, and identity in adolescent fan fiction. A new literacies sampler, 137-165.

Zubernis, L. (2021, July 31). Looking for a Covid-Safe Hobby? Fanfiction To The Rescue! Psychology Today.