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From “Fifty Shades of Grey” to “After”: 5 Fan Fiction Stories That Became Published Novels

Following the SXSW premiere of 'The Idea of You,' PEOPLE dives into what published — and bestselling — novels started out as fan fiction

<p>Penguin Random House; St. Martin

Penguin Random House; St. Martin's Press; Simon & Schuster

Fanfiction that became published novels: Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James; The Idea of You by Robinne Lee; After by Anna Todd

Between Anyone But You's smashing box office success and the buzz around the SXSW premiere of The Idea of You, it seems we're in the midst of a rom-com renaissance. Though Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney's hilarious love story didn't have its roots in any major pop culture figure, the same cannot be said of The Idea of You, which was inspired — at least in its early days — by One Direction and Harry Styles.

Following the premiere of the Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine-led film at SXSW's closing night, we're taking a look at a few of the most beloved romance novels that have their roots in some surprising places: fan fiction.

Whether it's One Direction who inspired the author, everyone's favorite vampire Edward Cullen or even characters from a galaxy far, far away, these five authors found major mainstream success — and some of them, even box office hits — in the stories they'd originally dreamed up as part of a fandom.

'Fifty Shades of Grey' by E.L. James

<p>Bloom Books</p> 'Fifty Shades' by E.L. James

Bloom Books

'Fifty Shades' by E.L. James

While this X-rated series is now better known as a trilogy of blockbuster movies that grossed more than $1.3 billion worldwide (courtesy of Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson’s on-the-nail portrayal of the protagonists), Fifty Shades of Grey began as many other steamy romances did: fan fiction.

E. L. James reimagined the relationship between the gorgeous and mysterious vampire, Edward Cullen, and the shy, love-struck object of his attention, Bella Swan. But in this version, Edward became a top-of-his-game businessman and Bella a young college graduate eager to make her mark on the world.

Related: Romantasy 101: Here's Where to Start Reading the Hottest Genre of 2024 (Exclusive)

The author originally published the story on Fanfiction.net under the title Masters of the Universe in 2009, Forbes reported, before she self-published it as a novel in 2011 with a new title — and all the explicit Twilight references removed. With that, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey were born.

By 2013, James had become the highest-paid author in the world by Forbes' count. Her success inspired dozens of authors to follow in her steamy footsteps.

'The Idea of You' by Robinne Lee

<p>St. Martin's Griffin</p> 'The Idea of You' by Robinne Lee

St. Martin's Griffin

'The Idea of You' by Robinne Lee

The exact inspiration behind Lee’s story remains contested by the author herself, but according to one of the first interviews she gave describing the novel ahead of its release in 2017, the actress was admittedly inspired by a real-life boy band member.

In the Q&A-style interview with fellow author Deborah Kalb, Lee — who actually appeared in Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed prior to trying her own hand at writing romance — recalled a late night she spent surfing music videos on YouTube when she came across One Direction's Harry Styles. "It was so aesthetically perfect it took me by surprise," she said at the time.

“I spent a good hour or so Googling and trying to figure out who this kid was and in doing so I discovered that he often dated older women, and so the seed was planted,” she continued.

“When my husband returned a couple of days later, I joked with him that I’d found the perfect guy and I was leaving him and our two kids, ‘Oh, and by the way, he’s half my age.’ My husband laughed, and then a moment later said, ‘You know, that would make a great book.’ He’d no sooner said it than I just knew. I could see it playing out so clearly in my head. I thought the story was rife with possibility.”

<p>Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC Newswire/NBCUniversal via Getty; Prime Video</p> Harry Styles performs on the Today show; Nicholas Galitzine in 'The Idea of You'

Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC Newswire/NBCUniversal via Getty; Prime Video

Harry Styles performs on the Today show; Nicholas Galitzine in 'The Idea of You'

In 2020, the novel had a resurgence amidst the pandemic, and Lee spoke to Vogue about her intentions with the story, which she said, “was never supposed to be a book about Harry Styles.”

The inspiration for the love interest, Hayes, turned out to be a mix of elements: ex-boyfriends, her husband and a sprinkle of Eddie Redmayne. “I made him into my dream guy," she said. "Like Prince Harry meets Harry [Styles].”

Related: Is The Idea of You Based on Harry Styles? Breaking Down the References

The story begins with a meet-cute that will feel familiar to fanfic readers: Soléne catches the boyband member’s attention while bringing her daughter to a meet-and-greet before their concert in Las Vegas, and Hayes is so smitten right off the bat that he invites the girls backstage after the show. From there, he can’t control his pursuit of her (despite their nearly two decade age difference).

Lee's novel will soon hit the big screen as it's been adapted into a film starring Anne Hathaway as Soléne and Nicholas Galitzine as Hayes.

'After' by Anna Todd

<p>Gallery Books</p> 'After' by Anna Todd

Gallery Books

'After' by Anna Todd

Like The Idea of You, After sees smoldering senior in college Harry Styles fall in love with the innocent and naive Tessa Young, an origin story Anna Todd has always embraced since she first published After and its sequels on Wattpad.

She described the story — which she wrote after devouring One Direction fan fiction herself — as a "modern-day Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights," in a 2019 interview with StyleCaster.

<p>Colbert/CalMaple/Kobal/Shutterstock </p> Hero Fiennes-Tiffin as Hardin Scott and Josephine Langford as Tessa Young in 'After'

Colbert/CalMaple/Kobal/Shutterstock

Hero Fiennes-Tiffin as Hardin Scott and Josephine Langford as Tessa Young in 'After'

The first book was such a quick hit that Todd soon found interest from traditional publishers. It soon became a New York Times bestseller, and Todd sold more than 10 million copies before continuing the series with three sequels and a prequel.

Todd's series later got adapted for the silver screen, with Hero Fiennes-Tiffin starring as the renamed Hardin Scott and Josephine Langford as Tessa Young, in all four films. Dylan Sprouse joined the cast in After We Collided, bringing some star power to the sequel film. The final installment, After Everything, premiered on Netflix in the fall, but some fans were disappointed with the way it strayed from Todd's original storyline.

'The Love Hypothesis' by Ali Hazelwood

<p>Penguin Random House</p> The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

Penguin Random House

The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

The most recent example of a fan fiction success story comes from Ali Hazelwood, whose first book, The Love Hypothesis, not only secured her spot as a New York Times bestselling author. It also marked the entrance of Star Wars into the traditionally published fan fiction canon.

In 2020, an agent contacted Hazelwood about a story she'd published on Archive of Our Own about Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey Skywalker (Daisy Ridley) — characters introduced in 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, per Vulture. She reworked the story to flesh it out further, but kept the general plot the same.

The Love Hypothesis stayed true to its origins in many ways, and even features fan art on its cover.

Related: PEOPLE Picks Our Staff's Favorite Romance Novels

'Beautiful Bastard' by Christina Lauren

<p>Simon & Schuster</p> Beautiful Bastard by Christina Lauren

Simon & Schuster

Beautiful Bastard by Christina Lauren

E.L. James is not the only author who found inspiration in Twilight and went on to carve out a successful book series because of it — author duo Christina Lauren, a joint pen name for authors Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, traveled a similar path.

Hobbs originally published the fan fiction story The Office online, where it garnered millions of views and became an instant hit in the vampire fandom, before she met and developed a friendship-turned-partnership with Billings. The pair rewrote the story to submit to traditional publishers.

Hobbs told Forbes she had Billings “dissect” and “do whatever she wanted” to the original story as the pair was facing pressure to act as publishers were looking at modifying fan fiction for publication. The authors thought the newly imagined version would just be published online in its new form, but instead, their agent sold it to Simon & Schuster and it ended up with editor Adam Wilson, who’d previously worked with Anna Todd. It came out in its current form in 2013.

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While The Office originally reimagined Edward and Bella’s relationship, Beautiful Bastard follows intern Chloe Mills and her heated (and steamy!) relationship with her boss, Bennett Ryan. Following its success in 2013, the author pair went on to expand the series into five books and five related novellas, and have since published more than 30 books, including Love & Other Words and The Unhoneymooners. 

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