From personal experience as well as much anecdotal evidence, I know that many people don’t really get fan-fiction – why it exists, why people write/read it, or why anyone cares. This post is intended to be a simple explanation of the three extremely basic categories of fan-fiction, why they exist, and a few hypothetical examples of what I mean. These are all entirely made up out of my head and are not based on any real fan-fiction, I promise. Those already familiar with the concepts involved may wish to wait for installment two (in which I compare fandom to alcoholism, but in a good way), perhaps to show this to the Muggles who question them, or alternatively to go through this post and point out all the places in which I am wrong. Whichever is fine. And for the record, I write fan-fiction, and have done for nearly fifteen years. I’ve won several awards. I know a little something about the subject.
For those who are new to the subject, I will note that fan-fiction can be written about pretty much anything, including books, tv shows, movies, computer games, comic strips, comic books, radio shows, the private lives of celebrities, and Minesweeper. (No, I did not make that last one up) Some of it is very good, some of it is excruciatingly bad, most of it is in between somewhere. It comes in a bewildering variety of flavours, from canon-compliant to alternate reality to g-rated to pornographic to just-like-the-real-thing to what-were-they-drinking-when-they-wrote-that… but they boil down, mostly, to three very general categories. These are:
1. You’re Doing It Right
2. You’re Doing It Wrong
3. You Can’t Do That On Television
1. You’re Doing It Right.
Into this category falls all forms of canon-extending and canon-compliant fan-fiction. The Doctor and Rose have a thrilling adventure involving alien invasion and 300 chickens. Kit and Nita fight the Lone One. Buffy slays the Monster of the Week – this time with extra noses! The sort of thing that you see/read/hear in the source material, that might work as an episode or an arc or whatever. It also includes Plausible Futures, wondering what the characters would be like in ten years or twenty, since it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that the Source Material will cover that in any detail. Unless it’s one of the long-running soaps, in which case you’re bound to find out someday but may not be willing to wait that long. (Implausible Futures and Alternate Histories go in category 3)
This category is written and read by people who liked the Source Material so much that the existing quantity is insufficient for their needs. The wait for the next Harry Dresden or Song of Ice and Fire novel, or the new season of Doctor Who or Once Upon A Time, can seem almost infinite while you’re suffering through it… and a little supplementary material helps that wait go a bit faster. Ditto for series like Harry Potter or Firefly that are now finished… once you’ve gotten through all the official stuff, there’s nothing to do but make your own if you want more.
This one is, I should think, fairly self-explanatory. If you liked something a lot, more of it is good. It is also likely to include Deleted Scenes – the stuff like sex or secondary-character development that wouldn’t necessarily be included in a real issue/episode/whatever, so in some cases it will be more comprehensive than the real thing.
Category 2: You’re Doing It Wrong
This category is probably even bigger than Category 1, but it’s basically the reverse – not to put too fine a point on it, it’s what gets produced and read by people who don’t like the choices made and directions taken in the original. The ‘it’s broken and it needs to be fixed’ approach. Lorelai and Luke get together in season one or two. Jean Grey stays dead the first time she dies. Sirius Black survives to book 7.
There are a variety of reasons for this. Sometimes it’s the loss of a beloved character – say, because the actor quit the show and had to be written out, or because the novelist couldn’t plausibly let everyone survive. Sometimes it’s a general dissatisfaction with the direction a show or series has taken. Sometimes it’s because the creators of the Source Material have fallen into the More Of The Same Trap and can’t seem to get out again.
The More Of The Same Trap consists of any situation in which the status quo is infinitely extended because the creators are afraid that if the characters are allowed to change and grow, the audience may lose interest. For example: tv shows in which the two primary adult characters have Unresolved Sexual Tension prolonged by a series of Silly Misunderstandings or Irrational Fears long past the point where any sane person would have either taken their clothes off or just moved on; James Bond; any Source Material of episodic nature in which no character growth lasts past the end of the episode, and will probably be rehashed next season. In comics, it often shades into the even-worse Rebootitis, where characters, teams, and often whole universes are reset at the drop of a sales point, because alienating your remaining fans will DO WONDERS FOR SALES OBVIOUSLY.
Now, this is not always the fault of the creators of the Source Material. Sometimes they have studio execs or editors or agents leaning on them to produce more of what does sell, not what might sell. Sometimes they’ve only been brought in for a couple of issues or episodes, and aren’t allowed to make any permanent changes. Sometimes the company announces a reboot and they just have to do the best they can. But whatever the reasoning, it can be annoying as all get out for the long-term reader/viewer/listener. Category 2 fan-fiction allows an escape from irritating characters, a series that has lost or changed direction, plot arcs that you just don’t like, or the More Of The Same Trap.
Again, I don’t think this requires too much explanation. If something you love becomes something that makes you want to cry, reading some fan-fiction in which the characters don’t behave like idiots purely to increase the angst-levels can make you feel much better.
Category 3: You Can’t Do That On Television
This one is for the things we all know are never going to happen in the real story. It’s the biggest category of all. The subcategories here are by no means complete – these are just the ones I’ve run across the most. There’s more. There’s always more.
Category 3A: They’ll never get together – Clark Kent and Lex Luthor are never going to confess their love in the back of a limo – or in the upper atmosphere (certainly not on the WB, anyway). Draco is never going to be redeemed by a relationship with strong-willed, sensible Ginny. J.D. and Dr Cox are never going to get it on in a supply closet. Raven and Kory are not going to live happily ever after despite their brief island fling. There’s still hope for Sherlock and John, but Moffatt is a cruel and capricious god, so I wouldn’t get excited.
Raven and Kory are, for reference, both female. While I did include an unlikely heterosexual pairing in there, a *lot* of Category 3 revolves around those mysterious, rarely televised creatures known as same-sex relationships. Why? Because there aren’t enough of them. Whole fictional universes exist without a single gay person to be found. Until you start reading fan-fiction, and then why hello, they’re everywhere. Not unlike real gay people. And Captain Jack.
Of course, there are a lot of unusual het pairings in fan-fiction too. Snape/Hermione (it’s all about the intellect), Starbuck/Admiral Adama (we all KNOW she has issues), Simon/Inara (they just want some tea and a civilized chat, damn it!)… it goes on. Sometimes it’s because two characters just work together. Sometimes it’s give a relationship that failed in canon another shot. Sometimes it’s because the character’s canon partner is a twerp and requires the falling piano treatment. Sometimes it’s a way of redeeming a ‘bad guy’… or trying to. Sometimes you just want to mix things up a bit and play pin-the-tail-on-the-relationship, or put all the names of the Enterprise (any Enterprise) bridge crew into a hat, pull out two, then put them in a turbolift that gets stuck. Ship Darcy with all the things, am I right?
Some pairings gross some people out. Some of them gross me out – I know there’s Dumbledore/Dobby fic out there, and I really wish I didn’t. But there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with people having happy relationships with someone who happens to be twenty years older than they are, or a different race, or a ‘working girl’ or Slytherin or other social undesirable, or a bit weird, or the same gender… and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to read about the above, either. Human relationships have a much broader scope and variety than what we usually see in popular media, and fan-fiction gives them a chance to come out and play.
Category 3B: Heroes don’t die – well, we all know that one, right? We all know, really, that Harry Potter wasn’t going to die at least until Book 7, that Dorothy Gale will survive Oz, that Hook was never really going to kill Peter Pan. (Of course, Song of Ice and Fire is always an exception, and the 3B category for that fandom is ‘someone didn’t die, everything is different’) There are some major characters who are allowed death, or the appearance of it – wise mentors, troubled secondary heroes, the lesbian, the black guy, the fat one – but primary characters are supposed to survive. We expect it.
In fan-fiction, there are no safe characters. Anyone can be killed off, and it’s almost certain to be permanent. Mal can die. Hiro can die. Cinderella can die, and that can go to some interesting places… not to mention Little Red Riding Hood, who doesn’t even survive in all the ‘real’ versions. Evil can win in fan-fiction. Our heroes can die alone in the dark in fan-fiction. In fan-fiction the safety-protocols are off the universe, and so in some ways it can be much more thrilling or viscerally terrifying than the real thing.
Category 3C: Alternate Histories, Improbable Futures and Recasting for Time and Space.
Victorian Era Harry Potter? We have that. NYPD Blue in space? Gotcha covered. What if all the characters in Doctor Who were mice? It’s probably out there somewhere!
Retelling the same story in a different era, or writing about what happens twenty years before or after, or moving one character back and forth in time just for the heck of it, can be a lot of fun. Steampunk Harry Dresden? I would read the heck out of that. It can get particularly convoluted in comics, where characters actually were around during WWII – but in very different incarnations. So you’re rewriting a story that actually happened with a later incarnation of the same character and incoporating several historical reboots but not others because they were stupid and… yeah. Comics continuity is a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff to start with, but it is always possible to make it even stranger.
Category 3D: The Next Universe Over – canon, all canon, is almost always restricted to its own universe. There are a few crossovers (Marvel and DC comics occasionally work together, for example), and Diane Duane has inserted a sly wink or two, but by and large it’s one reality per reality. Captain Kirk and Admiral Adama are never going to have a drink together. Spike and Angel will never beat the flawless stuffing out of Edward in an alley behind a bar. Wonder Woman and Xena will never chat about cute girls during a hunt. Anita Blake will never meet Sookie Stackhouse in Luke’s diner for a burger.
Wouldn’t it be cool if they did, though? What would they say to each other? What would happen? Would Mulan make a good Slayer? How would Beauty and the Beast fare in the 24th and 1/2 Century? What if Serenity was one of the ships in the Battlestar Galactica’s fleet? Fan-fiction in this category can range from the hilarous to the terrifying to the wonderful to the insanely cute (and, as always, plenty of it is just plain awful), and the stories could never happen anywhere else.
Category 3E: The Weird Stuff.
Yeah, I won’t go into a lot of detail on this one, because there may be children or other impressionable persons (or people who are eating) reading this. Let’s just say that when a writer can use any characters, have them do anyTHING they want to/with anyONE they want anyWHERE they want and anyWHEN they want, with or without implements, scenery, or ratings requirements… yeah. There’s some weird. There’s a lot of weird. Oscar the Grouch and the Comedian celebrating their love by stabbing Barney the Dinosaur to death with toothpicks in a Satanic ritual in the Acropolis weird and believe me, even weirder than that.
Some of it is terrifying, some of it is awesome, and some of it will scar you for life. Unlimited freedom can go to some strange, strange places. So if you’re a child or impressionable person or just don’t want to have to pour bleach onto your eyeballs, trawl through the mountains of fan-fiction *carefully*.
Whew. That took a while… and that was the Incredibly Short, Simple version of the whys and hows of Fan-fiction. Believe me, it gets way more complicated than that, as does fandom in general. (There was a schism in the fandom of My Little Pony once, I am not kidding, between those who believe that ponies are for playing with and those who think they should be preserved forever in the original packaging as a treasure of Our Cultural Heritage. People went out and bought ponies just to open them, as a pony-political statement, which I can swear to because I have seen these actual ponies in person. You can’t make this stuff up.)
But boiling it right down… fan-fiction exists because there is not an infinite supply of the Source Material. It exists because sometimes the Source Material starts to suck, or because some people don’t like how it ended, or because it could have gone another way and didn’t. It exists because there are things that will never happen in the Source Material, and it’s sad that they won’t.
It exists because if you really love something, you can’t get enough of it. Fan-fiction may get a little kinky sometimes, but it is a work of love.
Points to anyone who can identify every fandom referenced in this post!