An Interview with Fanfiction Readers

So I see my teen daughters reading, a lot, on their phones. Turns out the stories that keep them riveted are fan fictions. One is sixteen, and her nom-de-blog is Otaku Princess, and the fourteen-year-old is my Junior Mad Scientist.

Me: So what site are you guys usually reading on?

OP: normally fanfiction.net.

JMS: sometimes on Tumblr.

OP: Tumblr is more of a ‘everything about life’ site.

Me: So why do you like fan fiction?

OP (speaking at the same time as her sister): Because… oh, hi, do you want to talk first?

JMS: same.

JMS (seeing me writing): Mama, no!

All laugh (honestly, there was a lot of giggling all through this. We were having a blast)

OP: I read fan fiction because it expands upon an idea you’re already familiar with, it’s also easily portable and you don’t have to buy them. It’s easier to read something on your phone since you have to jump from class to class and I’m already carrying a phone and more books… well,my backpack is already heavy enough.

JMS: Basically the reason I read fan fiction is that I enjoy reading shorter stories, and you can have one-shots in fan fiction. It’s also a little bit because I really enjoy the characters, and you can put two characters together. I can put them together in my head and play out little scenarios, but I like reading when other people do that. You get different styles of writing, different points of view

OP (muttering): Some suck.

JMS (ignoring her): people have different experience. With all that, you can have an entire ‘nother thing. For example Gravity Falls, it’s written mostly by this guy, Alex Hirsch, and I know he has like female coworkers that put in…

OP (speaking indignantly): female? He has multiple different coworkers not just female! Wait, are you talking about writing, drawing, or acting?

JMS: Writing! He’s writing female points of view and they help him. But then you can read a fanfiction written by a girl, about the girl parts, and you can see a different point of view. And you can see a different take. I’m in love with angst. So, like, I love angst and you can get so many stories about angst. And it’s [Gravity Falls] a show for children. Fan fiction can go deep into the angst with the blood and gore and stabbing people, and people dying and…

OP: Gravity Falls is pretty disturbed, fam.

Me: Guys, back to why you like fan fiction. I get that it lets you explore other parts of the story.

OP: No, it lets you explore the what-ifs of the story. So like, if you have characters that are, like One Piece where all the characters are pirates and that’s the world they live in. So you can say what if they were born in the world we live in. It lets you explore the other possibilities that the storyline can’t because it’s chained to its storyline and continuity. There are some great fan fictions, some awful fan fictions, some of them let you explore the gaps in storyline that happen.

JMS: Like Young Justice, where there’s a five-year gap.

OP: We know nothing about what happened in those five years, so we can go on about what might have happened.

JMS: we know a little about some characters, but…

OP: we’re going off on a tangent again.

JMS: Maybe we should go off on the smutty side of fan fiction.

OP: No, we should talk about shipping.

ME: I think we should talk about how you avoid smut, not find it.

JMS: Smut is easy to avoid. On Fanfiction.net there’s way to sort by ratings from k (which is the lowest) through teen (which is the second highest). Teen tends to have swearing or mild violence. Mature has sex, extreme violence, stuff like self-harm that can be triggering. I think you can flag it if you find sex in Teen rated.

OP: Or sexual themes.

OP: On Archive of Our Own (AO3) they have more settings, K-through-Teen, but then there’s Mature, which isn’t always smut, it really depends on what people think is the necessary rating. Some people are more lenient, others are like ‘ah, geeze, man.’ Mature is normally where the dark themes come in. Explicit is almost always smut.

JMS: The thing I like about AO3 is that they have archive warnings and tags on the outside, so I know I don’t want to read that. Not all authors choose to tag it thoroughly, so you have to be careful.

OP: I want to go on about the tags. You can have have specific tags on fanfiction.net, but AO3 lets you tag whatever you want.

JMS: on AO# I’ve run into stories where it’s all tags and no summary.

ME: Can we move on to shipping now?

OP: YES!! I get to go first because I won Roux chambeaux for this one.

JMS (catching my mention of their contest): Mama, NO!

OP (laughing and chanting): shipping, shipping, shipping, shipping…

All laughing. Some squeeing from the younger set.

OP: So first off, not all ships are gay, despite what everyone says. Shipping is great because like, two characters that don’t get together in the show… it bothers me when it takes people out of canon ships. No, just no.

JMS: Incest bothers me.

OP: Incest is gross. Oh god why?

JMS: Even if they are adopted siblings it’s still weird.

ME: So you like the romance in fan fiction?

OP: It depends on the romance. There are some really weird definitions of romance out there.

JMS: I can barely find a well-written yandere.

OP: yandere is basically like Japanese for one person that is in love with this other person, but this other person does not know that they are in love with them. The one that is in love with them will kill, or stalk, or do anything to make sure that person stays theirs. It’s kind of like they will kill them if they can’t have them.

Me: I’m redirecting this a bit. Do you have much interest in reading original fiction?

JMS: There are some people who write original fiction and all they use is the character’s names. They are so OOC that they are not related to the original story.

OP: define OOC.

JMS: Off Original Character. They are still really good.

Me: I actually meant like, books.

OP: Like original original? I am interested in them, but I don’t have time to sit down and read a novel. I don’t know about Freshie over here, but as a Junior I don’t have time to read a novel that isn’t assigned for class.

JMS: You have time when you stay home sick.

OP: I haven’t been to the library recently.

ME: Can I blow your minds and tell you there is such a thing as short original fiction, too? (laughing)

OP: Yeah, but they are hard to find. It’s hard for me to go look it up.
ME: so basically fan fiction is easier to find?

OP: Yeah, it’s all condensed on one website.

JMS: creepypasta!

OP: Creepypasta is different. It’s all one genre and I’m not a horror person.

JMS: I tend to go on Taptastic, which is all webcomics, but it’s really good.

OP: There is also Wattpad. Wattpad is, technically, you can put any kind of story on it, but it’s hard to deal with. On a phone, you can’t even go from chapter to chapter.

JMS: On fan fiction.net you can download a story on your phone, it has an app. AO3 it has all those tags, so you can see what you are getting into. Wattpad is the hardest to use out of the three of those.

OP: it’s harder to find stories on it, and there are a lot of twelve-year-olds who make mistakes on there. No offense to twelve-year-olds, but it’s not good.

ME: Have you tried reading from the Kindle library? You both have access to mine.

OP: Yeah, I’ve read everything I was interested in on there. Most of those are yours and not up my alley.

JMS: I’m particular about what I read, and I like fan fiction better.

OP: It’s not that I won’t read any books, it’s just that there’s nothing new for me to read. There are continuations of series I’ve been reading and need to finish. There might be novels out there that are perfect for me, but they are hard to find when I can get fan fiction.

JMS: I’m going to go read some fan fiction.

And that’s about it from our house about fan fiction, at least for today. I wanted to get the teen insight into what works for them. I don’t know if it comes across in this, but both of them are raving fans of it, and it’s very difficult for me to get them ‘into’ books I recommend. So they read, and read a lot, but it’s in a style I find very different. As a writer, I feel that I need to explore this – these young readers like my girls are going to dictate what becomes of fiction, in the coming years, and I want to find the rhythm they enjoy to incorporate some into my own work. I’m not inclined to write fan fiction, for one thing I plan to earn money with my work. But it’s important to see that styles change, and how they are doing so.

JMS pops back into the room: I think I found my least favorite type of fan fiction. The kind where the writer forgets how to use the Enter key.

45 Comments

Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON

45 responses to “An Interview with Fanfiction Readers

  1. Draven

    sounds like they actually read a lot of fanfic too….

  2. As a former Fanficcer myself, this was a very nice interview to read. I think one of the nicer things about fanfiction, as a writer, is you have an audience (the fellow fandom) and you can easily get feedback about the stories. It’s fun, and good practice to some extent. I do have to agree that it’s a bit easier for a reader to find the fiction they want in fanfic; you know it’ll be set in something you’re already interested in and enjoy and the only downside is you might wander into the occasional ship or story you don’t like.

    I’d always translated OOC as ‘out of character’ myself but the explanation here is pretty much the same thing.

    I haven’t done it in years though but it was some of the most fun I had as a teen.

    RL yandere are scary.

  3. This echoes some points that I have been pondering for a while now, regarding genre fiction in general. What I personally want in SF/F is something new and different, stories about strange people doing strange things in strange places.

    However, I am beginning to realize (late, as usual) that many—maybe the majority–of SF/F readers are looking for the familiar. Not as dramatically as the fan fiction audience, but still the market for specific niches in genre fiction such as Military Science Fiction, Paranormal Romance, and Cozy Mysteries seems to indicate that readers want to know the specifics of what they are getting into before they open a book.

    • Well, mostly people want a guarantee that they won’t be kicked in the teeth. Having a familiar character is one way to try that, but there are other ways. Trust of the author, for instance.

      • Depends on what you mean by “kicked in the teeth”. If you mean that they want assurances that everything will turn out ok in the end and the good guys all live while the bad guys all get their comeuppance, I don’t want that. This isn’t to say that I want the bad guys to win, but I do want to believe that there is a serious chance that they could, that happy endings are not a forgone conclusion, and that the risks are real.

        But what I am speaking of is more that many readers want a world that they already are familiar with, and characters who will fit a particular template. I’ve seen reviews that complain that the werewolves in a particular novel aren’t “real” werewolves because they didn’t do this or that. I’ve seen people complain that the male lead and the female lead didn’t end up sleeping together. There are people–a lot of them–who expect a particular style of speculative fiction to conform to the tropes that earlier authors have used, and get very upset when it doesn’t happen like that.

        • As a writer, one of the hard things is to occasionally kill a good guy. Just so the readers worry that you might do it again.

          Mind you, this depends on the type/genre of story. If the setting’s a war or a plague, you expect lots and lots of people to die.

          • People want to know that they are more or less getting the kind of story they signed on for, and not the kind they didn’t. If you want to read a story where the main character suffers a lot (and I wallowed in them as a teen and at some other times; and there are several fanfic genres of this type, especially the medical suffering genre written largely by nurses), you don’t want to read a comedy or a wish fulfillment story.

      • Well, one of the things I like about FF is that they mark what the story will be; I’m not exceedingly fond of yaoi pairing fanfiction so I can avoid it.

  4. Interesting. “If it’s not assigned . . . ” I keep hearing this. And recalling my own assigned reading, well, I’m glad they’ve found reading they like and may explain why I have no trouble selling short stories and novellas *in the series*. The younger generation of readers may grow up _wanting_ shorter work, instead of the goat gaggers.

    • I think it’s possible. I’ve also thought that I may introduce my girls to KU, as they can’t buy books online right now, but if I offer them a way to find new stuff… Without that price point to worry over.

    • If they’d stop overwhelming kids with useless homework, maybe they’d have time to do more reading! /rant

  5. Bob

    Thinking of all the HP fanfics I’ve heard of where Snape finds love and redemption …

  6. Interesting perspective, thanks to you and them for giving us a ‘look’ at how they view fiction and FF in specific…

    • It was my pleasure! I have promised the OP we will do a post regarding her feelings about “nature romantic” writers (think Thoreau) but that will be on my blog. I love getting them talking books and reading.

  7. What I REALLY want to do is go to the range and practice with my surplus Israeli Defense Force FN High Power in 9 mm.
    But now I’m wondering if in addition to all of the other things keeping me from doing that, I might have the professional responsibility of investigating and reviewing some of the fan fiction your rulers-in-training have described for us.
    Maybe 20 years ago, back when I was still using a dial-up modem, I stumbled upon (@14.4) a fanfic website devoted to the television series Law & Order. The idea intrigued me, and I actually sort-of formed an idea, but never put any words down.
    In conclusion:
    1. KU for a Christmas present is a wonderful idea
    2. I was gobbling short stories like peanuts long before I could tolerate book-length fiction, and I think it was the difficulty of having a good delivery system that suffocated the market, not a weakness in the form.

  8. Hm. So we need a new delivery system, some place where people, especially perhaps kids and teens, could find well labeled short stories – so that they can easily pick what they want and are looking for, and so that they can also easily avoid what they don’t want to read – in series we write, and put there as free advertisement. Something very, very easy to navigate.

    Seriously – if there isn’t anything like that yet, would anybody be willing to start one? Not me, first I don’t have the skills needed, and besides I do spend nearly half each year in state I have sometimes problems managing even simple things like cleaning my apartment regularly, much less doing anything which demands the ability to concentrate.

  9. Albert

    I read fanfiction because it’s cheap – but I’m picky about quality because Baen’s spoiled me.

    Anyway, since shipping was mentioned, have an AMV:

  10. This might be speaking to a problem with short stories more than the quality of fan fiction. You see writers continually asking why short story magazines are failing, asking why they can’t give away short story collections, why it’s like pulling teeth to get readers to read them, and not looking at what’s almost always the correct answer; the content.

    Not necessarily their content, their short stories, but the consistent state of short stories over the last four or five decades. In a novel most authors seem to remember that they’re writing for an audience and have to fulfill some basic expectations; explain what’s happening, start well, have interesting and sympathetic characters, a central theme or conflict, and a satisfying ending that follows through on the premise of the story. Any twists are there to bolster those basic traits (not all novels but the vast majority do keep that in mind) and the writer strives to stay invisible.

    But in short stories? So often the characters are unlikable, the twist ending is unearned or, if earned, irritating, the setting is rendered in such a minimal fashion that it’s hard to feel its reality. The authors seem to treat the short story form as an excuse to write what they could never ‘get away with’ in a novel. Because they would anger and annoy the reader if they did it in a novel. To such an extent now that I’ve seen authors lament not being able to do their ‘short story endings’ in a novel because the readers would revolt.

    Still, I have to ask: Why would it be okay to anger and annoy the reader who is reading your short story? Ideally they would have bought it, is their money not worth being honored with a satisfying story? They didn’t give you money to irritate them. And if you do what is the likelihood of them giving you more money to irritate them some more? And would they trust your novels to not follow through on your irritating short story traits and give them something that matches their expectations?

    Someone gave me a one year subscription to Ellery Queen magazine and initially I thought it was a great gift. The first couple of months I read every story, then as I got used to it I read less and less (I’m a very heavy reader, especially at the time) until with the last two or three magazines I didn’t even bother to crack them open because I knew if I started to read a story I would finish it and end up irritated. There was a series of stories starring a thief called Nick Velvet and I loved those stories, they followed the satisfaction arc of a novel but were small enough stories they were meant to be short stories. One of those last two or three magazines must have had a Nick Velvet story but I couldn’t do it, even though I loved those stories I couldn’t consciously open those magazines out of a vague, back of the skull tingle, that I would end up irritated when I accidentally read another story.

    • TRX

      Nick Velvet is one of Edward D. Hoch’s characters. Hoch has been around a *long* time. He wrote mainly mysteries, but he also wrote some SF that wasn’t bad.

  11. Laurie

    Yup, I’ve written fanfic myself (Harry Potter, non-romantic, very angsty) and enjoyed it thoroughly. In my case, for writing it, I had, as one friend put it, “an itch that needed scratching” about certain characters that I needed to get out of my system.

    People read fanfic because they love a world and a group of characters, and they want more of it, but can’t find it. They’re read up to the latest book and have to wait another year for the next one, or there aren’t any more – hence all the professional Sherlock Holmes fanfic. Or they want to see issues or relationships that aren’t explored in the original – this is particularly true of media fanfic, since movies and tv have more limited time and space to work in, and leave all kinds of things to explore.

    I found it a great place to practice writing, to get immediate feedback, to see if I could pull things off – if I write a dreadful cliffhanger and don’t get people calling me evil, I have failed :-). Plus, as I said, I got ideas about characters I loved out of my system – I, too, am a fan who wanted more. I haven’t posted any fanfic for almost a decade, but I still get comments and reviews every week from people who like the fics. That alone has been very gratifying.

  12. That last remark – about writers forgetting to use the Enter key – is something that I’ve seen plague fan fiction and some self-published non-fiction at times. A wall of text is seldom a good thing. Breaking text into paragraphs should not be a lot art. 🙂

  13. Add “I ship it; ship; shipping” to the List Of Things I Don’t Understand Which Are Defined By A Culture Which Passed Me By Because I Ignored It (LOTIDUWADBACWPMBBIII).

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      It’s a combination of pattern matching and tribalism.

      Fanfic pattern matching is a subset of head canon or fan canon (fanon). These are similar to academic literary analysis and criticism.

      Like formal academic analysis, they can perceive things which arguably have no basis in the original work. The fan who thinks that Darth Vader and Sailor Mars were meant to be before George and Naoko screwed things up is like the academic who thinks Dickens is a Nazi apologist and Holocaust denier.

      There are cases where fanfic comes from profound insight based on deep study of the original material.

      The tribalism comes in with disputes between, say, A/B shippers and B/F shippers.

      Think of King Arthur. There are a lot of King Arthur stories. There are people who like reading different King Arthur stories. There are people that only like studying the oldest and most original versions.

      • King Arthur is an *excellent* example to use when discussing fan fiction, because that’s what a lot of the later stuff is. There’s also cosplay, since a chivalric-era jouster got bored with winning all the time and got dressed up as Arthur, got a bunch of his compatriots to dress up like the other Knights of the Round Table, and went touring around Europe, where everybody fell in with it and feted them as though they were the real thing. (Similar impulses to modern Renaissance Faires, I think.)

        I’d always wondered why so many people were convinced King Arthur was medieval rather than late Roman/early Dark Ages. Apparently the fanfic and cosplay left a huge mark on the stories. (19th-century artwork also contributed to this impression.)

    • Laurie

      It’s just romantic pairings, though it can also include friendship pairings.

      For example, a lot of people were unhappy with the romantic relationships in Harry Potter, and wanted to write their own alternatives. Somehow, this became a verb, as in: to ship Harry and Hermione instead of shipping Harry and Ginny.

      (Given the huge cast in Harry Potter, this allows for a lot of possible pairings, to the point where fans got deliberately silly about it, as in who could come up with the most ridiculous x ships y. I think I recall a “Hagrid and the Giant Squid” one listed somewhere.)

  14. Ah. Fanfiction. I’m not sure if I should admit that I haven’t quite grown out of it (yet). I remember that one summer vacation when the only thing that I’ve read was Homestuck fanfiction, and later I got engrossed by MLP:FiM fanfiction (still haven’t gotten through my to-read list yet).

    OK, sometimes I’m more “grossed out” than “engrossed” by the stories I stumble upon (goddammit, MLP fandom, will you quit it with the lesbian obsession already!)… and, yeah, the average quality of the stories is way low, and it can be a chore to find something that isn’t marred by clumsy writing or sleep-inducing clicheness. On the other hand, you can sometimes find some true gems in there.

    Anyway, one interesting aspect of fanfiction subculture, that makes it distinct from original (i.e. “normal”) fiction, is the emphasis on making sure the reader knows in advance what he’s getting into. Hence the wide usage of “tags” such as “sad” or “slice of life”, taking care to list all the “ships” present in the story (people can sometimes treat these things VERY seriously), and warning about any and all controversial content like “character death” or “rape references” (sometimes to the point of spoiling plot points). What do you think about this? Is this coddling the reader too much, by trying to shield them from any kind of potentially upsetting content? Or is this the kind of courtesy that you wouldn’t mind seeing applied to your everyday reading?

    • Laurie

      I’m not wild about the tags, but I started using them myself. For some reason, I seem to write suicidal characters fairly well, and I got enough emails from people saying, “Yeah, those are the same excuses I used when I made my suicide attempt” or, “That’s what my brother did before he killed himself” that I put in the tags “suicide attempt” or “suicidal thoughts” even though they are tremendous spoilers.

      I don’t want that kind of thing for my real world reading, but, these days, I want one where I’m assured there will be a reasonably happy ending, or at least one where not everybody dies.

    • Albert

      The bronies will quit their yuri obsession around the same time that slash and yaoi both stop being popular.

      Which is to say, some time after the heat death of the universe.

  15. Nathan

    Yanderes? I feel old. The age of tsundere has passed…

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      I thought yandere was coined around the same time.

      Tsundere most commonly is a girl who likes a guy, but fears the face hit too much to admit it, so she insults him, but sometimes acts sweet.

      Kuudere is a cooler sweet archetype.

      Yandere presents as sweet, but is a really nasty piece of work whose feelings do not really fit the definition of love.

      Yangire I gather is worse than yandere.

      • Nathan

        Yandere was coined a little later, but really didn’t rise in prominence until after anime, manga, and renai games ran the idea of the tsundere into the ground.

  16. ravenshrike

    Huh, really should have posted this earlier since it gives a much better rundown and reasons for fanfic, as well as common themes running through them.
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Fanfic

  17. As a side note, I have been reading through the creepypasta archives of late. I’m not really much into horror, though I did have a bit of a Stephen King/Dean Koontz obsession for a while. But the creepypasta stuff isn’t actually scary to me, probably because I’m in a stage of life where there’s a lot of real stuff that is terrifying, usually involving threats to children from real-life causes. So I can read through it for relaxation, and for trope-spotting, and for seeing what works (and doesn’t) in terms of storytelling styles.

  18. Arwen

    Fanfic is my guilty pleasure. If I were to attempt writing, that’s what I’d do.

  19. Um… Think of all those folks paid to write “tie-in novels”

    Fanfic.

  20. Not really a fanfic person myself, but there’s plenty of original short fiction on the web that isn’t fanfic, too. 🙂 A lot of what DH reads these days are original web serials. Top Web Fiction is the aggregator I tend to gravitate towards for that, but there are others, too.

    Heck, I’m building up a buffer right now to put out a serial of my own. The idea of releasing novel-length stories in 1-3k word chunks definitely has a certain appeal, and following a few serials means you’ve almost always got some fiction on hand.

  21. This is a fantastic topic. That interview was awesome. 😄

    I’m a big fan of fanfiction, and have been for so many years I won’t admit the number. It’s not simply a matter of further exploration of beloved characters, I think (though that’s part of it), but rather the free, wild west nature of the creativity involved. Reading and writing fanfic, (which I still do both of), is an exposure to all kinds of strange and wonderful ways to invent and subtly change characters and worlds. There really aren’t any boundaries, or forbidden topics, or rules keeping the storyteller from bending and forming the world and the characters. You can take a hidden moment in between, flesh out a time-skip, or invent an entirely new frame with an AU (like the girls sort of referenced in their One Piece example). It’s a blender-bust of really good, really wretched, and much mediocre. It’s exciting.

    I happen to find AUs particularly challenging and interesting because they’re about exploring character outside the setting that helped produced them. They’re easy to get very, very wrong, and an extraordinarily difficult line to walk character-wise, because it’s so easy to lose the thread of what makes a character them. Lots of good practice and interesting things going on there.

    Original fiction should be like that, but for some reason fanfiction (and with some varying exceptions) has managed to corner the market on that kind of excitement. Wish I could figure out how to transmit what I get from writing fanfiction into what other people get when reading my OF, but so far it’s eluded me.

    It’s been a while since I’ve looked at some of mine. But all of a sudden, I have a hankering to write fic.