When I was 10 years old, I read “The Lord of the Rings” and fell in love with Tolkien’s world. But there weren’t enough female characters. So I rewrote it, fixing that problem and adding some scenes I thought were missing, like the part where a female hobbit devised a clever plan to foil the Balrog and save Gandalf.
I was a shy, nerdy girl — and, as the daughter of immigrants from Chile and the Philippines, a complete oddity in the Indiana town where I grew up. In writing these stories, I was creating a place where someone like me could feel at home. But I never showed my spiral notebook to anyone, partly because I didn’t know any kids my age who’d even read “The Lord of the Rings.” Sharing my writing was too scary and embarrassing.
I didn’t realize I was writing what is known today as fan fiction — stories that build on characters or settings from others’ work — and that I was not alone. Today, millions of young people are writing fan fiction and posting their stories to online sites such as Fanfiction.net.
Fan fiction is a private universe — a secret garden — that has become a welcoming community, particularly for those from marginalized groups. In it, young people are mentoring each other to become skillful writers and thoughtful readers — and they are doing it entirely on their time and their own terms.
Through research with my colleague Katie Davis for a recent book, we found that most of the millions of authors on Fanfiction.net are girls and women between the ages of 13 and 21, and nearly half are 15 or 16. These authors are teaching each other how to write through feedback on each other’s stories. When people post stories, they can receive comments from hundreds or even thousands of readers. The fan-fiction community is surprisingly positive. Despite the fact that readers post reviews anonymously, gratuitously negative or “flame” comments occur less than 1% of the time.
Even short comments on a piece can be helpful. If a dozen people comment positively on a character or scene, that’s pretty strong evidence the author has done something right. Through our analysis, we saw that authors’ writing improved when they received more feedback. Authors also found that the creative thinking involved in writing fan fiction helped them become more open-minded and willing to help others.
This kind of mentoring is particularly valuable for members of underrepresented groups who may have no one nearby who understands what they’re going through. This may explain fan fiction’s draw for gender-nonconforming authors. We found that fan-fiction writers are more likely to identify as gender-nonconforming than male.
Writing teachers can borrow from this mentoring approach, transforming writing from a largely solitary activity to a collaborative one, where students from multiple schools critique each other’s work. The discovery of this vast and vibrant resource for kids has been especially meaningful to me as I recall my own hidden efforts. More than anything else, I remember feeling isolated, lonely and like something was wrong with me.
Today, millions of young people in online fan-fiction communities are finding their identities, building community and developing critical skills necessary for thriving in the interconnected 21st-century world — and they’re doing it on their own. Perhaps it’s time for parents and teachers to support them.
Cecilia Aragon is a professor in the University of Washington’s human centered design and engineering department. She and Katie Davis, a professor in the UW’s Information School, recently published this research in the book “Writers in the Secret Garden: Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring.”