On Harry Potter Fanfiction, Pt 1

I wrote this essay as my senior thesis for English at Whittier College. Writing, research, and review were guided by Professor Andrea Rehn, in a Critical Procedures class in the fall semester of 2011. I have preserved the text mostly as it was written, with gratuitous verbiage, grand rhetorical flourishes, and all. However, I have broken it up into sections for easier reading, and added footnotes to share my more recent thoughts. Special thanks to Professor Rehn, who suggested that I follow my passion; Professor Morris, who encouraged and believed in me; and all of my friends, for keeping me sane. This first section is the longest.


            Great fiction lives beyond the page. A good story, regardless of tricks or thrills, must grip and seize the reader, and live in them even when the last page is turned. Often, another author’s story, place, or character births new inspiration. How many poets have responded to Christopher Marlowe’s Passionate Shepherd, or countered the argument of Walter Raleigh’s Nymph? Kurt Brown and Harold Schechter have compiled seven contributions to the original debate in their collection “Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems.” In the foreword, Billy Collins states that “the real reason why poets – or any writers – write is that they have read and been moved to emulation” (Collins 15). Before the age of Romantics, authors did not place a high priority on originality. Most of the plays of William Shakespeare, for example, are based entirely on pre-existing material. Perhaps he and his contemporaries had a clearer vision of the “plundered, fragmentary state” of literature, or of the simple fact that no writer creates in a vacuum (Lethem, shamelessly snatched from Jonathan Rosen). If a story influences a future artist, this is not a crime on the part of the protégé. It only means that the original artist has done their job right. Whether populated with compelling characters or set in almost-tangible worlds, good fiction is the act of creating a space that the readers want to remain in, even if they have to extend it themselves.

            J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter septology has been praised for making readers out of what would otherwise have been a generation of children lost to the nascent Internet. Less attention has been given for encouraging countless budding writers to play in her world – writers who share their multitudinous “fanfictions” on the Internet. Fanfiction is any writing that supplements, extends, or reinterprets another’s original work.[1] Fanfiction writers, who come from all backgrounds and levels of writing experience, united by a love of Potter, create new situations and invent new characters and places, at the same time that they use the same overall world and story of the existing material.

To begin with, I must place a disclaimer – or quote one. Any fanfiction worth its salt – and many that have no redeeming qualities otherwise – include a disclaimer of ownership, for example, “The Harry Potter world and characters are the property of J.K. Rowling, not me. I’m not making any money from this, Etc etc, you all know the drill.” By the time this particular fanfiction – Mind’ s Eye, Soul’s Reflection, written by Tim M, alias MysteriousMuggle, in 2005 – was written, disclaimers were already a cliché of fanfiction etiquette. However, to drop the disclaimer would go beyond negligence. Tim M goes on to give thanks to Rowling “for writing Order of the Phoenix,” and thus “providing the inspiration for this [story]” (Mind’s Eye, Prologue). To a fanfiction author dedicated enough to create a labor of love – not a “crack fic” written on a fleeting inspiration or a bit of wish-fulfillment – respect and admiration for J. K. Rowling must form the backbone of their creative process. She is the author – her name is synonymous with the truth of Potter. She cultivates a relationship with her fans. Interviews abound, most with a conversational and friendly tone. “Pottermore,” a new, interactive online experience for fans, extends this conversation. However, talk as she may on Pottermore, she has lost one element forever: the anticipation of future books, and their air of mystery, died the morning of July 21st, 2007. [2]

There was her genius, there was the fire that drove fanfiction writers to pick up writing implements and hash out their own ideas for histories, missed moments, and most importantly, what would happen next. Like Scheherazade, Rowling “knew how to wield the weapons of suspense,” cultivating a sense that merely because the book is closed does not mean it is finished (Forster 46). Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the pivotal fourth book, expanded the wizarding world considerably and hinted at a broader plot for the entire septology. The possibilities were unlimited.  Fanfiction authors expanded canon in all directions – many were the stories that attempted to delineate Harry’s fifth year, and what mystery he might unlock during Voldemort’s rise to power. Others looked backwards, to try and create the Hogwarts of Harry’s parents generation, or further still, to the founding of Hogwarts itself. A few skipped past Harry’s school career to imagine his hypothetical children. Fans imagined entire new chronologies – what if Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, had raised him instead of the abhorrent Dursleys? And then there are the fanfictions that settled themselves around the series’ own timeline, and did not progress linearly but sought to broaden the wizarding world outside of Harry’s own perception. Harry could not have entered every Hogsmeade shop and demanded the life story of every shopkeeper and customer, interrogating Mr. Ollivander for his tragic past. But someone could. Welcome to the Hogsmeade of fanfiction.


Like a good potions recipe, the suspense of the “Three Year Summer” after the release of Goblet brewed up profusions of fanfiction, with a wide range of topics and execution. This is not the first time that suspense proved a fertile ground for fanfiction. Fanfiction as we know it today developed from self-published and self-distributed magazines circulated among the Star Trek fan community. The serialized stories depended on keeping their readers in suspense, and their writers, too, would “continually revise” their engagement with the text, leading to a literary practice of “[postponing] resolution, transforming Star Trek into a ‘never-ending story’” (Jenkins 49). Goblet of Fire was perfectly placed to create such a never-ending story. The canon was at a transformative moment, and fandom took advantage of it. Many transformations were effected in this moment. Harry Potter was not only British literature – he turned into a global creation. The wildly different life experiences and viewpoints of readers further shaped the interpretation of Potter in individual stories. So passed the Three Year Summer.

With the release of Phoenix, the tone of the septology changed greatly. The action in Phoenix – the darkest book of the series so far – changed the trajectory of further adventures. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, released two years after Phoenix, narrowed down the possible paths for Harry even further. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows finished the series on July 21st, 2007, and dropped the curtain on what had been, without question, the most successful franchise of the decade.  However, although the vast majority of fans were satisfied with the final act, a significant number – myself included – found Hallows to be a severe disappointment. The flaws of the book are the subject for another essay. However, the one aspect of the last book that irked even fans who otherwise loved it is the Epilogue. The criticism most often leveled at it is that “it reads like bad fan-fiction” (emphasis original): in a blissful future, Harry drops off his children at Platform 9 ¾, taking care to name each one after someone deceased, and proving that the world is at peace by returning to the simplistic tone of the first book (Koski). Bless her heart, Rowling clearly remained more or less entirely ignorant of fanfiction – otherwise, she would have known that fan authors had written out variations on this theme a thousand times over. The original book failed to be original compared to its imitators.

             Partially motivated by the disappointment of Deathly Hallows, I am driven to establish the validity of fanfiction as a creative exercise that deserves recognition. I admit that the great majority of fanfiction is juvenile and amateurish, and has meaning only as writing practice or shallow entertainment for the writers. But a discerning reader will find fanfiction that matches the standard set by Potter, on Rowling’s own terms – stories that thematically adhered to the structures and patterns established by Rowling even when the author herself abandoned them. It is these fanfictions that redeem the otherwise derogatory term, these stories that signify a very different relationship with the text than the passive, accepting reader. Now readers are writers in their turn – bringing themselves closer to the creation of the work that inspired them by creating new stories, and having the chance to develop their own interpretation of Rowling’s themes.

            I had a difficult selection process to choose the fanfictions to best illustrate my thesis. Popularity is no guarantee of quality – one Potter fanfiction with high recognition value is My Immortal, hideously bad by all accounts. Not all popular Potter fanfics even respect the original – Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality seeks to improve upon the existing books, and appears to regard them with contempt and dislike. Length is also significant. There exist many brilliant fanfictions the length of a short story, but to prove fanfiction as a complement to the original series, I decided that novel or novella length would be a requirement. Furthermore, I chose to only use fanfictions with which I was personally familiar, and I eliminated a promising contender on the grounds that it has stopped without a conclusion (a common risk in internet literature, even that of the highest quality). I considered many excellent fanfictions, (see Bibliography), but have decided to focus on two that share the following qualities:

            They are told in the same third person limited narration as the original books, and emulate the style and tone. Both retell a specific book from the original septology from the point of view of a minor or invented character. Both were written to retell a book in the gap between that particular book and its sequel, therefore they work within the yet unfinished world of Potter. In each case, the viewpoint character is female, and Harry in her stories is as peripheral as she is to his. They are alternate point-of-view stories.

I find Alternate-Point-Of-View fanfictions to be among the most fascinating of the various genres of fanfiction. Lethem, stealing from Christian Keathley, describes surrealism as looking for the beauty of “simply placing objects in an unexpected context” to “reinvigorate their mysterious qualities.” In the light of this, alternate point-of-view (POV) fanfictions are surrealist exercises. They reinvent the everyday and the background character and make them startlingly animate. In canon, there is no reason for Madame Rosmerta to be anything other than “a curvy sort of woman with a pretty face” who takes drinks from time to time with the Hogwarts Faculty and Ministry of Magic (Prisoner, 200). Of course Rowling can use flat characters, meant to be nothing more than background decoration – every writer does. No one expects her to have a detailed character arc and history for every single nonexistent person.  It’s already astounding the amount of detail that she has invented. From the start, her world developed along a vision of complexity and elaboration – Harry Potter recalls the works of Dickens, with its wide swath of eccentrics crowding every scene. In light of that, the profusion of fan writing, as it annotates and delves into the backstory of characters major and minor, becomes a favor. Fans are assisting Rowling to realize her vision of a full and complete wizarding world, which she could never have accomplished alone.[3]

            However, it is not as though there’s a vein of Harry Potter truth in the collective unconscious, into which all writers of Potter, including Rowling, Steve Kloves, the translators, adaptors into video games, and fan writers tap. Rowling talks about Potter as arising from her inner beliefs and convictions. In an interview after the release of the seventh book, she confessed to Meredith Vieira that to talk about her personal religious convictions “would give away a lot of what was coming,” respecting the atmosphere of suspense which she created (Accio Quote!). Rowling does not consider herself a blank conduit for a story. Her fan writers do not see it any differently – the aforementioned, ubiquitous disclaimer states this clearly. Rowling’s influence is acknowledged in any Potter fanfiction. While there may be a thousand different “Harry’s fifth year” stories, there is only one Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. There may be hundreds of thousands of fanfiction authors, but there is only one J. K. Rowling – and she does not believe in the Death of the Author.

Then again, fanfiction writers have a very strange relationship with Death of the Author. On the one hand, fanfiction authors in the age of the Internet are dead on arrival – more dead than Barthes could ever hope J. K. Rowling to be. It is the simplest course of action for readers to just let MysteriousMuggle be exactly that – a mystery. He or she is an unknown value, a name on a screen and a collection of stories, only speaking directly to the reader in the disclaimer or other author notes. Male or female, English, American, Australian, Irish, perhaps a shared pseudonym between two or more writers, even their real name – silence is the simple answer to all of these questions. But it is also possible for the author to be completely alive and well. Go onto the (inactive) forums of the Sugar Quill and many – but not all – authors can be found there, talking.[4] They shared their writing processes, aspects of their day-to-day lives, and of course there’s pages and pages dedicated to their interpretation of Harry Potter. There were even threads dedicated to summits where fans could meet up in person – including fanfiction authors.

It’s also possible to ignore the forums entirely. But what is harder to ignore is the fact that, in the heyday of fanfic, to post on a particular fanfiction website – the Sugar Quill versus Gryffindor Tower versus Harry Potter For Grownups versus Fictionalley – was in itself a statement of a certain interpretation of the texts. Participation attests to membership of distinct interpretative communities. For instance, Harry Potter readers are a general interpretative community. But the size of the fandom led to innumerable sub-communities, whose differences hinge on nuances such as, is Professor Snape out for his own ends or deeply loyal to a particular side, and if so, which one? Communities analyzed which storytelling structures and allegories would prove the truest to predict and understand Potter books present and yet to come. And of course, the virulent and infamous “shipping wars,” where preferred romantic subplots became the most important factor in determining one’s interpretation of the text.

Then again, it has always been possible to write fanfiction and publish it without declaring loyalty to a particular interpretative community, in which case the author can once more crawl into their silent, Barthesian grave. I’m talking about fanfiction.net, which bears no loyalty to any interpretative community, save the one of simply “fanfiction writers.” Fanfiction.net accepts stories derived from any source, save those whose authors have specifically forbidden fanfiction of their work. Unlike the Sugar Quill or Harry Potter For Grownups, it has no manifesto of purpose, no preference for character interpretations, style, or story type. For the Harry Potter fandom, fanfiction.net is distinguishable in its size and its lack of affiliation with any interpretative community. However, this is its Achilles’ Heel as well. Fanfiction.net has the lowest standards for submissions, and therefore is infamous for possessing massive amounts of utter garbage, bringing Sturgeon’s Law – that 90% of all published material is worthless – to life. (Science Fiction Citations).

Interacting in the interpretative community of Potter means, among other things, adopting a screen persona and learning to use the language of the community. I will be using such language in this paper. For example, “Fandom” refers to the body of fans for Potter as a whole, a general term. The words “canon” and “canonical” refer to the original books of Potter, and sometimes to interviews and attributed statements from Rowling; for example, Violet Azure’s High Spirits is expected to adhere to canon up to Goblet, as it was written after Goblet’s release but before Phoenix. In contrast, “fanon,” as defined by the Sugar Quill Glossary, is “Works of fan fiction which have become pseudo canon to their fans.” This word has two meanings. The first applies to, say, a fan who has read High Spirits. Finding it a compelling story, the fan may take that for their interpretation of Madame Rosmerta’s experience of the Triwizard Tournament year, and of her life, until J. K. Rowling says otherwise.[5] “Fanon” can also be used to refer to widely held beliefs in fandom or in certain sections of the fandom, which are not canonical, and whose source is unknown, but are pervasive nonetheless. For example, multiple fanfictions and fans assumed that Ginny Weasley’s full name is Virginia Weasley, until Rowling’s official site stated that her name is in fact Ginevra.[6]

In my experience, among the interpretative community known as the Sugar Quill the predominating opinions were a preference for the romantic relationships of Hermione and Ron, and Harry and Ginny, and a desire for fanfiction that not only matched the original text’s tone, but contributed something to further broaden the world. There are threads on the Pensieve (writing discussion) forum devoted to small details and worldbuilding around characters, places, and historical eras.

As well, the prevailing opinion of this community is that Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the Harry Potter books. And no wonder. Azkaban, even after the series has closed, is striking in its mature conflict, grounded in human weaknesses and misunderstandings. It is the only book in the septology where Voldemort does not make a physical appearance. However, his cruelty is never shown to better effect than when the sad tale of Harry’s parents and their friends is unraveled – how four friends, closer than brothers, were driven apart by Voldemort’s evil, with the survivors left to each suffer alone for twelve long years. Fanfictions by mature writers on the Sugar Quill from before Phoenix, therefore, are more likely to emulate Prisoner than any other Potter book. The preference for “a psychological problem with psychological action leading to a psychological resolution,” as Prisoner displays, loans itself well to a feminist interpretation of Potter, as the same preference lent itself to a feminist interpretation of Star Trek (Jenkins 50).

Out of all of the strengths of the Potter books, I argue that they succeed in part because they are basically conservative stories. They adhere to similar middle-class values as Jane Austen and Dickens, within the formula of a British boarding school story, applied to one more of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, here dubbed Harry James Potter. These conservative values are also present in the characters of Potter, especially the women. The story is not especially groundbreaking in terms of gender representation. Harry, after all, is a male, as is his saintly mentor, his guide into the wizarding world, his godfather, his rival, his arch-enemy, that enemy’s most enigmatic follower, and, in the epilogue, the child that Harry appears closest to is his second son. Rowling does include many women of power, strength, expertise, and authority in the world around Harry. The strength and variety of her female cast is, I am sure, a large part of what drove the force of female fanfiction authors, letting female writers know that this universe is one where strong female characters are welcome. Rowling even builds gender equality into her universe with the founding of Hogwarts, her functional creation myth, where two women and two men together founded the school, equals in all things (Chamber 150).

That said, the presence of women as caretakers and nurturers is pervasive. The Hogwarts Herbology Professor, coaxing mandrakes to grow into medicine, and the school nurse are both women. These women are both minor characters, but the two most familiar adult females in Potter are also maternal at heart. Professor McGonagall, though she enforces school rules and justice, shows time and again that she cares deeply about her Gryffindor charges. As an actual mother figure, outside of Hogwarts, Mrs. Weasley welcomes the orphaned Harry into her family almost at once. She ends the nightmarish climax of Goblet by taking Harry into her arms. It affects him profoundly, as “he had no memory of ever being hugged like this, as though by a mother” (Goblet 714). Thematically, strong, maternal role models make sense: Harry is an orphan, and his quest, especially in the earlier books, is to find a family he can call his own. As Hogwarts becomes his home, Professor McGonagall is a part of Harry’s adopted family. As Harry is embraced into the Weasley clan, Mrs. Weasley becomes his mother in all but blood and name.

Another point for strong female characters in Potter is the fact that the greatest act of magic in the series is performed, not by Dumbledore, not by Voldemort, and certainly not by Harry, but by Lily Potter née Evans, Harry’s mother. She dies shielding her baby from Lord Voldemort, and this sacrifice destroys the Dark Lord, and saturates Harry with a protection that resides “in [his] very skin” – her love (Stone 299). Lily Potter, as of Goblet, means Love, Sacrifice, Purity, and Death. She is the perfect Angel in the House – not least of all because she is dead. Harry idealizes her to near-reverence. Rowling fairly wisely kept Lily the sole image of this perfect, distant femininity. Mrs. Weasley, in contrast, is an earthy, stay-at-home mother, with her own personality and temper. Her love for Harry manifests in warmth: hand-knitted jumpers and homey cooking rather than the cold, heavenly light of Lily. Rowling had, with the figures of McGonagall, Mrs. Weasley, and Lily, not to mention budding genius Hermione, varied visions of female power. It then fell to fanfiction writers to carry these sorts of power to the hidden corners of the wizarding world, and to create new strong female characters. I shall use Abigail Loomis, of Katinka’s Interwoven, as an example of one such character.

[1] Even in 2011, this was a challenging definition to cling to—is She’s the Man a cinematic fanfiction of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night? I’m reluctant to admit it, because I don’t think She’s the Man is a very good fanfiction, if so. It’s even thornier in 2018, when major studios remix, rewrite, extend, and supplement their own IP all of the time. Oh well, it’ll do for now.

[2] And then she released the Fantastic Beasts series, which have made decent bank but it’s not the same, Jo. Not the same.

[3] Not that she lets that stop her. On Pottermore of recent years, and in the Fantastic Beasts series, Rowling attempts to keep expanding the world of Potter. Sometimes her additions make sense, sometimes she showcases her own cultural myopia, and some of her additions are frankly insulting to fans of common sense. Sometimes it’s better to quit when you’re ahead.

[4] Today you can find this kind of talk on tumblr, or twitter, or reddit, or any number of social media sites. 

[5] A more recent term for this same idea is “headcanon,” the canon that lives within one’s head.

[6] An example of this kind of widespread fanon in recent Potter fandom is the idea that Charlie Weasley’s sexual orientation is asexual. Do I like this or agree with it? No, but it’s out there.