Fanfiction has long been a realm in which readers can take control of source material, add to it, and rework it with their own imaginings. It is often focused on characters and their relationships, primarily romantic and/or sexual (often queer), and therefore contains much critical reading of characters as written as well as radical rewritings of those characters. However, it is also valuable to examine the potential of fanfiction to give insight into the worldbuilding of its source material, especially when that source material is science fiction, fantasy, or speculative fiction that is set in a constructed world. Whether intentionally or not, fanfics often expand and critique the worlds they’re writing about in a variety of ways.
One of the most common ways that fanfiction does this is by exploring areas of the worlds they inhabit that aren’t visible or are not fully fleshed out in their source material. For example, a Lord of the Rings fic might describe life in the Hobbits’ home, the Shire, with more mundane detail than was possible in the books. We could meet new characters and places, learn about customs and experiences, and visualize social interactions and structures that give a deeper perspective into this part of the fantasy world. Fanfiction provides a place to answer questions that would never be answered in their source material. What educational systems exist for children on the planet Coruscant in the Star Wars universe? What does a typical day of living in District 8 of the Hunger Games world look like? In canon-compliant fics in particular, this is the kind of worldbuilding that is most present.
Some fics, known as Alternate Universe (AU) fics, reshape or completely diverge from the worlds of their source material. The point of these fics is often to explore how the original characters would react if they were placed into an entirely new environment, and thus an entirely new scope of worldbuilding akin to any other piece of fiction writing is required. Oftentimes this takes the form of placing the characters into a “real world” setting. The most well known example of this is Fifty Shades of Grey, which infamously began as a Twilight fanfic on fanfiction.net. This trope highlights the ways in which worldbuilding shapes the plot and characters of a story, often allowing for new ideas and scenarios that add new perspective to the source material’s existing world and characters.
Books are imperfect; movies, TV shows, bands, celebrities, and other content we consume is imperfect. Oftentimes important perspectives and concepts are missing or erased from the source materials we love. Not only does this cause harm in that it can perpetuate stereotypes and/or erasure of marginalized communities as well as promoting messages and ideologies that have a real life negative impact, erasing critical perspectives or concepts from a world leaves the world that much less full and real feeling. For example, in the Harry Potter books there are no canonically (using this word to refer only to original source material, not retroactive information sharing by the author) queer characters, and few characters of color and/or differing religious background. Fanfiction provides an arena in which to explore these concepts and integrate them into a constructed world, expanding and deepening its boundaries and possibilities. The most widely popularized Potterfic, All the Young Dudes, is an excellent example of this.
Fanfic writers are frequently dismissed as writers and as worldbuilders because they are assumed to be solely co-opting existing stories, characters, and worlds without the same level of creativity as other writers. The wealth of creative imaginings and reimaginings, of world building and rebuilding, that exists within fanfiction disproves this misconception. Fanfiction is critical, creative, cooperative, queer, and reconstructive of the worlds we love exploring.