Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone turned 20 yesterday. There are various ways the series has continued to inspire an entire generation of kids and adults, but to see the true legacy of Harry Potter, you only have to look at fan fiction.
Fan fiction, for those who’ve never waded into the multicolored, strange waters these millions of stories live under, is a story that uses pre-existing characters to tell an original story. One of the most popular and well-known examples if Fifty Shades of Grey, which started as Twilight fan fiction and was later changed to feature original characters in a different setting. Fan fiction has been around for decades, but something special happened around the mid-aughts: the internet reached a new era of accessibility. Writing online had become something everyone and their mom could do — and a large portion Harry Potter fans were entering adolescence.
It was the perfect recipe for fan fiction to take off.
In the beginning
In 2001, Harry Potter fan fiction saw a big boom, which shouldn’t be too surprising. The period was just after the first Harry Potter movie was released, seeing an incredible success of close to $1 billion worldwide, and just before the release of the fifth Harry Potter book. It was the ideal time to be a Harry Potter fan and, with a pool of interesting characters with endless romantic possibilities, Harry Potter fan fiction became the home to the most important part of Harry Potter subculture: shipping.
This theory is broken down further in Playing Harry Potter: Essays and Interviews on Fandom and Performance, a book by Lisa S. Brenner, associate professor of theatre at Drew University. Brenner argues that the fan isn’t just core to the monetary success of a book or movie, but because they become invested in the very thing they’re committing time to, they end up adding more knowledge and context to the world that was never there before.
“Because the items that fans create are easily available worldwide over the infrastructure of the internet not only to other consumers but also to the authors and producers themselves,” Brenner wrote.
Harry Potter didn’t just lead to fans getting their work online and forming communities with other readers — quite literally millions of readers around the world — but it also caught the positive attention of studios. Back in the ‘90s, when fandom and fan fiction was just beginning to take advantage of online forms of communication, there was a term used by those who subscribed to listserv email lists and wrote on various websites: TPTB. It stood for “The Powers That Be” and referred to cases where copyright infringement notices would be handed down to creators because of the work they were publishing based on pre-existing characters.
That all began to change, thanks to Harry Potter and a woman named Heidi Tandy. Following the release of the first couple of Harry Potter books, Tandy created a website called FictionAlley, which was dedicated to collecting stories and fan art about various Harry Potter characters. And in 2002, she received an email from Warner Bros. offering to give FictionAlley a place in the Warner Bros. store, so Tandy could sell merchandise. She was confused, but later learned that a studio representative had seen an article about Pottermania in the New York Times and was interested in trying to get in on the action, rather than trying to shut down her site. As Tandy would later note in her book, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, Harry Potter fandom had changed everything.
The “Three-Year Summer”
One of the most important seasons for Harry Potter fan fiction, which saw an exponential increase in stories and community members, is referred to as the “Three-Year Summer.” It was between 2000 and 2003, following the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and before the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. For three years, Harry Potter fans had nothing to read. The story fans had invested hours into couldn’t be continued without Rowling’s next chapter, so people took it into their own hands. They started writing their own stories. Fan fiction had become the fandom’s lifeblood.
Like almost every cultural revolution, timing was everything. Prior to that three year drought, author J.K. Rowling released four books back-to-back: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000). Between 1997 and 2000 something important happened that would change the way fan fiction was consumed forever: the average number of internet users in America jumped from 19 million to 100 million.
“The Internet changed Harry Potter about as much as the Internet was changing everything else,” Melissa Anelli wrote in her book Harry: A History, as reported by Slate.
There were now more people than ever using the internet on a daily basis, reading Harry Potter — and Harry Potter-adjacent stories — and joining forums. Like a cluster of vampires looking for something to sink their teeth into, Harry Potter fan fiction became like a healthy dose of fresh blood to get them through the rough patch.
More stories started sprouting up over the internet on various websites. By 2003, Fanfiction.net, one of the largest websites devoted entirely to fan fiction, popped up. More than a decade later, Harry Potter still makes up the biggest collection of works on the website, with more than 750 million stories. In comparison, the next biggest fandom is the anime Naruto, which has just over 440 million. Twilight, the teen vampire romance books, is third at just over 200 million.
It was thanks to Harry Potter that terms like “slash,” to refer to gay relationships and “twincest,” which refers to a romantic relationship between twins (like Fred and George) became known to a more mainstream audience. The terms were coined in other, older fan fiction works, including stories based on Star Wars and Star Trek, but it was Harry Potter that helped introduce them to a much larger new audience.
With no original work coming from Rowling, imaginations were allowed to run wild. It was three years of changing the direction the Harry Potter series was headed in. The main characters were slowly becoming teenagers and, thanks to the first movie, the fandom found an entirely new audience. Between the drought, in increase in attention to the series and more people online than ever before having access to the internet, Harry Potter fan fiction was able to thrive, forever changing fandom and internet culture.
It’s not going anywhere
The last Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was released in July 2007, nearly 10 years ago. The last movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 was released nearly six years ago. In that time, Harry Potter fan fiction has slowed down in production, but the communities are still active.
Sites like HarryPotterFanFiction.com, FictionAlley.org, and SugarQuill.net, MuggleNet.com and The-Leaky-Cauldron.org are all still incredibly active with writers contributing new chapters to ongoing stories every single day. A report from Wesleyan published in 2013 concluded that Harry Potter fan fiction wasn’t something that people stumbled onto. They were actively seeking it out and talking about it with friends. It was spreading because there was an interest from Harry Potter fans to devour more content created by other fans.
“The two most popular ways of encountering fan fiction were word of mouth and through fan sites,” Caroline Clark, the report’s author, discovered after surveying 158 students.
Even more importantly, however, is the fact that the majority of people became daily, recurring visitors to the site, eventually writing their own fiction. This wasn’t just a trend that people were paying attention to, but a community that was being built every single day.
Since Harry Potter, almost every single television show, anime, manga or film develops its own fanbase — many of whom turn to fan fiction as a way of carrying on the story.
Harry Potter fan fiction has become such a big part of the Harry Potter experience that it’s led to countless studies, novels and reports about its very existence. While fandom obviously existed before Harry Potter, it’s impossible to talk about how big fandom has become without acknowledging the boy who lived.