Certain television shows, certain films, even certain novels seem to cry out for someone to elaborate on this or that character’s trait; to more deeply explore a relationship only hinted at; to fill in the blanks left tantalizingly between the lines of dialogue. And so was born "fanfiction."
Readers gravitate to seeing their favorite characters in new or different situations, situations that time and script constraints don’t allow. What happens after the credits roll? What was that look exchanged between Wilson and House? What gives Cuddy and House the hint of intimacy that is ever present in their heated exchanges? Readers of fanfiction ("fanfic" for short) gobble it up, wanting ever more. For fanfiction writers, these sorts of questions provide fertile ground for exploration. But writing (especially good writing) requires time and commitment; devotion to the craft, as it were.
People write fanfiction for lots of reasons; some write to hone their own writing chops; using someone else’s characters and backdrop helps them focus on dialogue and developing points of view, writing situations, etc. Some simply like to play with the characters, hopefully leaving them unharmed, writing for the simple pleasure of exploring intriguing characters and placing them in altered settings. Some do it because fanfiction allows the sort of instant gratification and feedback that is simply not possible writing original fiction in more mainstream venues.
Some of us have been imagining movie, television, and literary characters in other settings since long before someone coined the phrase. Namaste (and I'm only using pen names in this article), who is one of the most respected writers in the House fanfiction community, explains, “I think I was into fanfiction before I knew it existed. Back in the days before the Internet — way back, like in the 1970s — my friends and I used to make up stories related to our favorite shows: the original runs of The Rookies, Emergency, Starsky & Hutch, you name it.” In the days before the Internet, there were “fanzines,” which were filled with fanfiction and shared within the fandoms of television series like The Man from UNCLE and Star Trek.
People write fanfiction about movies, comic books, anime, video games, novels, and of course, television. The mega-site FanFiction.Net archives stories of every genre — and every quality — from the embarrassingly terrible to the virtually professional. It is the variety that is really astonishing. For example, there are more than 344,000 stories about the characters and plots of the Harry Potter novel series and 15,000 fanfics about Pirates of the Caribbean. Pop culture icons are not the only subjects fertile for fan-fictional treatment. Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, even the very serious film Schindler’s List have their fanfiction devotees represented on FanFiction.Net.
I first encountered the term “fanfiction” at a science fiction convention I was coerced into attending about 18 years ago. I laughed sarcastically at the idea of writing stories about television characters for no other reason but to share them with other fans. “Waste of time,” I grumbled derisively as I walked among the costume-clad Klingons, Romulans, and Tatooinians as my friends scattered off to fanfiction workshops and panel discussions.
Years passed, children were had; careers came and went. I lost interest in both sci-fi and television. Until The X-Files appeared on my radar. Although I didn’t start watching X–Files until sometime in season four, within two months of watching my first episode, I was a confirmed “X-Phile” (the technical term for an X-Files addict).
Slightly embarrassed admitting to a middle-aged crush on a fictional television character, I vowed never to stoop to writing fanfiction, despite the fact that I could not stop reading the stuff. I found myself getting caught up in novel-length dissections of Fox Mulder’s psyche and his relationship to the victims, often emotionally fragile survivors like himself. I poured over the fictional speculations on the intense, but platonic, relationship between Mulder and Scully. Ultimately the lure of writing about an already established character became too provocative as I wallowed in the black hole of writers' block on my “great American novel.” On one April day in 1997, I penned my first fanfic after viewing the fourth season X–Files episode “Kaddish.”
I soon learned that many of the best fanfiction authors were writers who, like me, also wrote original fiction; or were aspiring screenwriters or novelists; even a journalist or two. A couple of these authors eventually landed real gigs on television shows like Millennium (a spin-off of X-Files). Stories were shared on Usenet groups (remember those?) like alt.television.x-files.creative, then archived on speciality sites with creative names like “Muldertorure Anonymous” and on the mega-X-Files fanfiction site called “The Gossamer Project.”
By the time I became disenchanted with X-Files (after season six), I had written at least 35 stories. My last X-Files fanfiction story was written in 1999, quite sure that I had been cured of the fanfiction bug. Then came along House, MD. Damn.
Complex, flawed, intelligent characters, unexplored subtext, intriguingly unspoken sexuality, snappy dialogue all dangled themselves in front of me like catnip (if I had been a cat). Resisting for months, I found that I couldn’t help myself. Starting out as a reader, I soon was drawn to delve into the characters (especially House) myself, penning my first story sometime toward the end of season one.
House fanfiction writers range in age from pre-teen to grandmother; they are often highly educated, mostly female (but not exclusively), and many are in demanding careers, including professors, journalists, domestic engineers, librarians, editors, lawyers, and even doctors. In other words, there is no “type” who picks up a pen (virtual pen, anyway) and spends hours writing fiction that they can never hope to publish for profit. (The characters do not belong to them, but to David Shore and his company). Readers are equally diverse, since writers tend to be readers as well.
More mature readers often tend to look for true-to-the series characterization. The relationships explored and the tone of the piece is often less important than the writing itself.
Fanfiction writer Tidewell explains: “(As a reader,) I like House stories that have a certain uniqueness about them." If the characters don’t ring true, however, that’s a huge turnoff for a lot of readers. Blacktop, another writer, likes to read “a bracing story with strong dialogue between House and Cuddy (tingling with the eroticism that is definitely canon between them) with a delicious side of Wilson.” Jair likes "introspective pieces that explore House's internal landscape — his demons and his hopes. “But if I can't picture the characters behaving the way they do in the story, I'm not interested,” she says. “I'm very picky and don't read a lot, because not a lot of stories meet my criteria.”
I think that many people (particularly adult women) gravitate to fanfic about shows like House because the characters are complex, and the stories are ambiguous. Multiple interpretations can be garnered from a glance thrown between Cuddy and House, or a remark made between House and Wilson.
Deelaundry, another respected House fanfic writer, explains that she “adore(s) the relationship between House and Wilson. They are two intelligent people who have an intriguing, complex relationship.”
Like many in the fanfiction community I am completely drawn into the character of House for both my reading and writing pleasure. House is written as such a complex character that it’s almost irresistible to explore his traits, his motives — his mystery. I agree with Jair who says: “House is such a vividly realized character with so many interesting facets to him that I could see why he would be fun to write and therefore to read. The way the House writers incorporate so much ambiguity into the story lines allows the imagination to roam, as well. There is a lot of space for stories to be told.”
Despite the fact that House appears to be complete jerk (he’s surly, mean, bitter, and cynical), quite a few writers (me included) see something different in him, and fanfic lets writers explore that side, only hinted at in series episodes. Brandy71 explains: “I’m a 43-year-old Mum. I was drawn to House fanfiction when I just couldn't get enough episodes. House is the perfect hero in my eyes; wounded, misunderstood, socially inept yet always battling to do the right thing for his patients.” Bmax agrees. “Hugh Laurie plays it so well. Maybe I like the vulnerability he portrays. I don't know. It could also be those gorgeous blue eyes that can emit so many different emotions without him saying a word.” And those emotions provide fertile ground for the imagination. For writers and readers alike.
So, go forth and read; if you dare. There are nearly 9,000 House, MD stories listed on the FanFiction.Net site. But there is a prolific and very active fanfiction community beyond that site.
There are general House fanfiction communities like Housefic (more than 1,800 members) and the House fanfic archive, and those devoted to sub-genres have sprouted up over the past three years, honing in on both the general and specific tastes of House fanfiction readers. Some focus on specific relationships suggested by the series: House and Cuddy (nearly 1,500 members); House and Wilson (more than 3,000 members); Chase and Cameron, and the ubiquitous House and Cameron (about 2,200 members). Fanfiction fans also have their preferences beyond pairings, whether it is a story focus on medical cases, the angsty exploration of House’s damaged psyche, or the series’ ever-present humorous side.
Many of the more prolific authors maintain their own work in personal LiveJournals or other sites. For fear of omitting any of my favorites, I have chosen not to name specific authors' sites; my own fiction can be found by clicking on my byline. My best advice is to start reading and identify authors and styles you enjoy. Once you’ve read one (good) story, I’m pretty sure it won’t be your last. But don’t blame me for your addiction. You’ve been warned.
Thank you to all of the fanfiction authors and readers who contributed to this piece by your kind and overwhelming response to my queries on several House fan forums. Much appreciated.