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Fan-fiction writers aren't guys who live in their parents' basements. They aren't even all guys. If anything, anecdotal evidence suggests that most fan fiction is written by women. (They're also not all writers. They draw and paint and make videos and stage musicals. Darren Criss, currently a regular on Glee, made his mark in the fan production A Very Potter Musical, which is findable, and quite watchable, on YouTube.) It's also an intensely social, communal activity. Like punk rock, fan fiction is inherently inclusive, and people spend as much time hanging out talking to one another about it as they do reading and writing it. "I've been in fandom since early 2005, when I was getting ready to turn 12," says Kelli Joyce. "For me, starting so young, fanfic became my English teacher, my sex-ed class, my favorite hobby and the source of some of my dearest friends. It also provided me with a crash course in social justice and how to respect and celebrate diversity, both of characters and fic writers."
Diversity: the fan-fiction scene is hyperdiverse. You'll find every race, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, age and sexual orientation represented there, both as writers and as characters. For people who don't recognize themselves in the media they watch, it's a way of taking those media into their own hands and correcting the picture. "For me, fanfic is partially a political act," says "XT." "MGM is too cowardly to put a gay man in one of their multimillion-dollar blockbusters? And somehow want me to be content with the occasional subtext crumb from the table? Why should I?"
Alternity and Beyond
Fan fiction is a world unto itself, with its own rules and genres and conventions. It's its own pocket ecosystem the literary equivalent of Australia. There's no way to make a definitive or even convincing taxonomy of fan fiction, which is huge and ever evolving and constantly the subject of heated internal debate, but if you wanted to make a quixotic stab at it, one place to start would be with canon. Canon, in the fannish sense, refers to the facts and laws of a given fictional universe as laid out by its creator: Harry Potter is a wizard, his parents are dead, and so on. Some fan fiction coexists peaceably with canon and operates within its constraints. You wouldn't think that would leave a lot of room for creativity, but you would be wrong.
Fictional worlds, while they appear solid, are riddled with blank spots and unexposed surfaces. There's a moment toward the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Dumbledore suggests offhandedly that Sirius Black should "lie low at Lupin's" for a while, referring to Harry's former teacher Remus Lupin. What exactly did Sirius and Remus get up to there, chez Lupin, while they were lying low? How low did they lie? (Cough, slash, cough.) Rowling never says, but that one little gap has given rise to so much fan fiction that "lie low at Lupin's" has become a recognized trope of Harry Potter fan fiction, a sub-subgenre in its own right.
It's human nature to press at the boundaries of stories, to scrabble at the edges, to want to know what's going on just out of range of the camera. Fan fiction teems with prequels and sequels, missing scenes restored and plot holes patched. It retells canonical stories from new points of view the reverse-angle instant replay. How did the events of The Prisoner of Azkaban look from Neville Longbottom's perspective? Moaning Myrtle's? Mrs. Norris'? "To say that a story stops after we close a book is absurd," says Maltese. "To say that we can think certain things about a story or what might happen next in a story or what might have happened if someone had turned left instead of right but that we can't write them down is absurd."
The Potterverse has an unusually detailed and well-documented canon. More-minor canons offer less raw material but more space to play in. FanFiction.net hosts 21 stories set in the universe of Covington Cross, a TV show with a medieval setting that even though it starred the exquisite Ione Skye lasted only seven episodes in the fall of 1992. The same site also has 87 examples of Tetris fan fiction, which are a showcase for the resourcefulness of writers spinning stories from the thinnest of threads: "L-block has just found out that his life partner, Square block, was cheating on him with his brother, Inverse L-block ..."