Here’s a thing about me: I fall into fandom blackholes with some frequency, sometimes because I’m looking for happy distractions from sad life stuff and terrifying political news, but also just because I love fanfiction: I’ve been reading and writing it since I was 16-years-old, and I can unequivocally say that it’s made me a happier person
I’d planned to write up a review of Seasons 1-2 of Voltron: Legendary Defender, as that was my fandom blackhole of choice a couple of months ago . . . but life happened, the review got delayed, and I’m now happily in the midst of a Riverdale spiral instead. More importantly, I realized that so much of the review was going to be about discussing the relationship between fandom and show that I realized what I really wanted to do was talk about my experience with fanfiction in general: what I look for, what doesn’t interest me, how it’s made me a better writer, and how it can shape my perception of the canon material itself.
I’m not sure if anyone’s interested in that kind of thing, but hey, that’s why it’s my blog, right? (Also, did I mention I’m throwing out some random fanfic recs? Because I am definitely throwing out a few random fanfic recs.)
So, here we go, people. An essay in list form, because that’s how I roll.
In Note 2, you will find SPOILERS for Voltron: Legendary Defender, Season 1. Also some very minor spoilers for Season 2, but no Big Reveals.
Also, if you don’t read or know much about fanfiction . . . well, first, it’s cool that you’re checking this out anyway! You should know that I’m probably going to use some terms you’re not familiar with. I decided I didn’t feel like linking every fanfiction term to its corresponding definition, but if you’re interested in learning more, they’re all pretty easy to Google.
Also, all GIFs are from GIPHY.
8 Things Fanfiction Has Taught Me
1. It’s relatively rare that I specifically go looking for ship, and I never, ever go looking for porn.
Let’s try and make something clear up front: I’m not saying that to prove what a special, misunderstood snowflake I am in the fanfic community, like, my total disinterest in smut doesn’t somehow make me superior to people who only show up for PWP. Of course, it doesn’t make me inferior, either; people to come to fanfiction looking for all kinds of things. Shipping is a totally legitimate interest, as is erotica. They just generally aren’t my interests, that’s all.
On the more porny side of things: I just . . . I have a really hard time caring. I felt weird about that for years, too, like, does this mean I’m some kind of self-hating prude who needs to take a women’s lib class STAT? I didn’t want to be that person, and it took me a long time to realize I’m not. There’s just a whole lot about sex that doesn’t interest me, and reading sex scenes is almost always one of those things, especially when it takes place at the very end of the story. Maybe this is gonna sound dumb, but . . . it took me forever to realize that for a lot of people, that point where their OTP finally hooks up is the Big Moment they’ve been waiting for. For me, the Big Moment has always been when they decided to hook up, or admit their secret love, or what-have-you. Once the couple gets down to all naked denouement stuff, I’m usually like BORING and have to work really hard not to skim. (I’m not gonna lie: I often fail in that regard.)
Romance itself, though, is different because I absolutely do read ship. Honestly, my reading options would probably be pretty limited if I exclusively read gen fic. But also there are some ships that I’ve fallen head over heels for: Arthur/Eames for instance.
I have bookmarked all kinds of Arthur/Eames fanfic. The Domestic Verse, of course, and the equally well-known and beloved “I’ve Got Nothing To Do But Smile (The Only Living Boy in New York)” by gyzym. I’ve always loved “Jamais Vu” by thehoyden. Also: “a contraption, armed to the teeth” by gunsandbutter. I wasn’t looking for A/E when I stumbled into it, but it’s fair to say that this ship absolutely took over my life for a while.
But a few notes worth mentioning:
1A. It’s not just that I wasn’t looking for Arthur/Eames; I didn’t come to Inception fandom seeking out any ship, nor do I usually go looking for one in any new fandom. There are exceptions, of course; I was absolutely searching for Kaz/Inej after finishing A Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. Also, after tearing my hair out watching the melodramatic nightmare that is Gone With the Wind, I went to Archive hoping for either Mellie/Scarlett or Mellie/Rhett. (There, I’m afraid, I was sadly disappointed: Gone With the Wind appears to be the rare fandom where people prefer the canon hetero pairing to non-canon slash. But feel free to correct me with recs if you think I’ve missed out on some awesome M/R or M/S fics!)
Still, it generally doesn’t occur to me go looking for ship. If I fall in love with one, it’s almost always by chance.
1B. Even when I do fall in love with a ship, I’m usually reading much more for one character than the other.
Perhaps this is common; I’m not sure. But if we look at Arthur/Eames again, I’ve discovered that while I love both characters and their dynamic together, at the end of the day I am absolutely showing up for Arthur. A story that focuses on Arthur’s POV or Arthur’s angst is going to perk my interest considerably more than an A/E story where Eames is the focus. This is true in basically every ship I’ve ever been invested in.
Another example of this? Stormpilot!
I shipped Finn/Poe in The Force Awakens pretty much immediately, but I didn’t go to Archive specifically looking for their ship. I actually didn’t go looking for anything in particular. I just liked the movie and was desperate for the sequel that was clearly sometime away, so off I went to Archive and found my new love . . . Poe.
I honest to God didn’t anticipate this. Oscar Isaac is an attractive man and I liked him in TFA, sure, but he’s probably only in that movie, what, twelve minutes? But despite how great Finn is and how much I adored John Boyega (who, BTW, is an equally attractive man), there was something about Fanon Poe that I just loved. (It’s probably all the aftermath of ‘brain being invaded by an evil dude’ stuff. I’m totally into that shit.) If it’s a Finn/Poe story, I’m usually hoping for heavy Poe whump, like in The Hoth Affair by ester_inc. And if Poe’s not in the story at all, I’m much less likely to be interested. This is true even of stories that primarily feature the characters from the original trilogy, like Leia, who I freaking LOVE.
Which brings to me to this:
2. My Favorite Canon Character is not necessarily My Favorite Fanon Character.
Often, they are one in the same. Stiles from Teen Wolf, for instance.
If you’ve read any of my many Teen Wolf season recap/reviews, you know that Stiles is my absolute favorite character, and this is certainly true in fanfiction as well. I can ship him with almost anyone; I also don’t feel any particular need to ship him with anyone. I have read and enjoyed a bazillion Sterek fics, but Derek/Stiles aren’t my OTP because I have no OTP for that fandom, just the requirement that Stiles is somewhere in there. (Okay, the word “requirement” is a little strong, because it’s not like I haven’t read and loved fics that don’t include him: “a few notes on foxfire,” by subnivean, for instance, is a beautiful Kira character study. But it’s worth pointing out that my interest in checking that fic out in the first place was higher because of how much I loved the author’s other work, particular “one art,” which observant readers will notice has a considerably higher Stiles focus.)
So, yeah, Favorite Canon Character and Favorite Fanon Character are often the same. But not always, as Voltron: Legendary Defender taught me this year. My absolute favorite Paladin in the show? Pidge. Like, without question.
Is it because Pidge is the only girl Paladin? Sure, that’s probably one of the reasons. I was very relieved when the show revealed Pidge’s gender because, not being familiar with the original cartoons, I hadn’t been anticipating the all boys club feel of the first few episodes. (Mind you, I wasn’t entirely surprised by the twist, considering Bex Taylor Klaus was a big motivation in checking out the show in the first place–but it’s not exactly unheard of for women to voice male characters in cartoons, or vice versa.)
Other reasons? Well, she’s awesome. Pidge is an ultra competent mega nerd with a personal agenda to save her family, making her both a) incredibly useful to the team, and b) a female character with an arc that doesn’t center on romance at all. In fact, until I see evidence otherwise, I totally head canon Pidge as ace/aro, since the closest thing I’ve seen to her expressing romantic attraction is her massive geek love for alien tech.
Also: there’s a pretty interesting scene in “Space Mall” where Pidge can’t decide which bathroom to use, either because she doesn’t know which one is which, or she doesn’t know which one she’d be more comfortable using. And while I can’t say I actually expect the show to go anywhere with it, I was really intrigued by the idea of Voltron giving Pidge a storyline about gender fluidity–because it does feel telling that Pidge is the one struggling here, especially considering that Keith doesn’t seem to have any problem, at least, not if his casual stroll out of what’s presumably the boys’ bathroom is any indication.
So, yeah. Pidge is obviously the best. I look forward to her episodes the most, and you’d think I’d be inclined to filter for Pidge-centric stories while reading Voltron fanfiction. But to my surprise, I don’t really go seeking Pidge-centric stories. Instead, I go looking for Keith.
You may or may not have noticed that all my favorite fanon characters I’ve mentioned are male. That’s pretty true of my fanfiction experience in general, and that used to bug me, too. I’m always looking for complex, interesting female characters. I complain about the lack of them in Hollywood all the time. I enjoy reading and writing them in novels and short stories. Why is it that I specifically fixate on dudes when I read fanfiction?
Here’s what I’ve discovered (and I may have touched on this before on MGB, so apologies): in general, I like my male characters tortured and bleeding and needing a shoulder to cry on, and I like my female characters fierce and weird and competent AF. This is important because it ties in directly to what I usually come to fanfiction looking for:
3. I need panic, I need trauma, I need bloodshed and tears . . . followed by deep conversations . . . followed by hugs.
There is nothing this nerd likes better than some good old-fashioned H/C or Emotional H/C. I’m not saying I won’t read other stuff, but I am saying that the quickest way to my heart is to take my Favorite Fanon Character, give him a concussion and a secret, and trap him with another likable character who a) wants to know the secret, and b) preferably has a strong emotional connection of some kind with my FFC.
Keith, in particular, seems to fascinate me not just because he has a secret (in Season 2, at least), but because I find his characterization so interesting in fanon: he’s highly reserved, easily the most emotionally stunted team member, and rarely knows what the hell anyone’s talking about when they make references to normal childhood things. There’s something about how he’s always just on the outside of things that appeals to me. The obvious ship of him and Lance works fine (I do enjoy their antagonistic chemistry), but the relationship I actually care about is the more familial one with Shiro. (Some people also ship them too, of course, like in this awesome pre-slash fic “as the feather falls” by radialarch, but I personally much prefer a non-romantic bond between them–possibly because I initially assumed Shiro was Keith’s dad in the pilot. I tend to think of Shiro as being a good two decades older than the other Paladins, so I was super thrown when I came across multiple fanfictions referring to him as a cadet, albeit a senior one.)
Also, I’m 100% for Pidge helping Keith with his repressed emotional woes, less because they have a strong canon friendship and more because I love her and I can see her being both wonderful and terrible at it, all at the same time. I’m always happy to see my Favorite Canon Character show up in fanfiction; it’s just that, depending on the character, I’d rather they’d be the comforter, not the comforted.
4. I will always be a sucker for certain tropes/types of fanfics.
Would you like an incomplete list of these tropes? Sure you would!
TEAM FIC. ALL THE TEAM FIC.
High School AU (well, sometimes – there are fandoms where this doesn’t interest me)
Kid Fic (assuming it’s de-aging canon characters, and it’s a universe with spec elements)
H/C or Emotional H/C, obvs (including panic attacks, PTSD, fallout from A+ Parenting, etc.)
Any kind of Trapped Together Fic (including Hypothermia/Huddle For Warmth)
Groundhog Day Fic
Episode Tags/Missing Scene Fic
5. Other tropes/types of fanfics, however, are hard sells, if not outright no’s, for me.
RPF anything (unless it’s specifically parody, or about historical figures)
Aliens Made Them Do It/Sex Pollen/Fuck or Die/Heat Fic (basically anything that might lead to dub-con or non-con between people I’m supposed to ship)
Kid Fic (assuming it’s about the kids of canon characters)
Crossover (assuming it’s between two fandoms that could not possibly exist in the same universe, AND it’s not meant to be total crack)
The interesting thing is my I Don’t Like It list used to be much longer. Well, maybe that’s not interesting so much as obvious . . . I’m 31 now, and it makes sense that my tastes have changed (at least somewhat) since I was 16.
But I’ve also, well, grown as a person. I’m a little better at seeing outside my own direct experience. Still have work to do on that cause obviously. But when I was 16 (and probably into my early 20’s), I didn’t really like slash fic between I thought it was weird to ship two characters who weren’t canonically gay–and never mind the fact that you were lucky to find even one gay character in many early 2000’s shows. I thought it was the same thing as making gay characters straight, which obviously wouldn’t have been right, either. So, yeah. Like I said, there’s been a growing process.
And of course, there are always tropes that just probably won’t ever be my thing (sex pollen, for instance, is extremely unlikely to ever become a favorite), and that’s fine. But one of the things I like best about fanfiction is this:
6. Fanfiction can and has opened me up to new ideas, experiences, and perspectives outside my immediate worldview.
There are some personal examples I could give here that would probably prove this point better, but . . . they’re personal, and I’m not sure I’m up for talking about them in detail today.
So let’s talk about something else. Demisexuality, for instance. The first time I ever came across the word ‘demisexual,’ I was reading fanfiction. I didn’t know what it was; I had to go look it up, and on first blush, honestly? It didn’t totally feel like a real thing to me. I’m not proud of admitting that, but I want to be as honest here as I can be: while I didn’t dismiss demisexuality as total, utter BS, I also couldn’t initially let go of that back-of-your-mind suspicion, that one you mostly get from either cis/allo/hetero folk, or folk who haven’t yet figured out they aren’t cis/allo/hetero: weren’t people just making up terms at this point, maybe to make themselves feel special? Could there really be this many types of sexualities? (The answer to the latter question, of course, is yes.)
There’s this excellent video you’ve probably seen about whether all white people are racist or not; in it, Mamoudou N’Diaye makes the point that social contact with different types of people improves cultural understanding, which makes sense. No matter how liberal you think you are or how well-intentioned you try to be, a lot of times a different culture or sexuality is ultimately just an idea to you, a concept, unless you actually know someone personally who identifies with that sexuality or is from that culture. Diversifying your friend group is probably the best way to go about unlearning prejudice, but of course you can’t just go shopping for Diverse Friends, and if you’re not a socially gregarious person and/or you’re living in a very racially and culturally homogenous region, sometimes you have to find other ways to expand your horizons.
One of the primary ways I first became exposed to different sexualities and gender identities was through fanfiction. I’m not saying anything silly, like, reading one slash fic instantly made me the most tolerant, bestest person ever–change isn’t that easy, people are more than stories, and you’ve got to watch out for inaccurate and shitty representation–but for me, fanfic was an introduction to a lot of stuff I’d never heard of or thought about before. It made me ask questions about own identity. It taught me terms I didn’t know and then helped me apply those terms to characters I cared about, so I could begin to move past thinking of someone else’s identity as merely a ‘concept.’ It’s one of the reasons that whole ‘it’s just a story’ defense that’s given when anyone criticizes all white/cis/male stories is such crap. Stories are important; they help provide context for our worldview. And one of the things that fanfiction consistently does more than any other medium is tell queer stories. That’s important; it just is.
7. Years of reading and writing fanfiction has made me a better writer.
I don’t just mean that in the ‘being a better person makes you a better writer’ sense, although that’s also true. I mean that in a very technical sense. There are authors out there who think writing fanfiction is, at best, a waste of time (we won’t get into what they think it is at worst because I don’t feel like frothing at the mouth today), and you know, maybe that’s true for those particular writers. We do all learn and process stuff differently.
But that’s not true for everybody. It sure as hell isn’t true for me. I’ve been writing stories for basically as long as I can remember, but we didn’t have any creative writing classes when I was in elementary school, junior high, or high school. Other than a state-funded summer workshop I got into as a teenager, I had to wait until college before I could even take a creative writing class. When it comes to writing, I cut my teeth on fanfiction: my very first fandom was CSI–oh yeah, I said it, I’ve watched a whole bunch of CBS procedural shit, COME AT ME–and I also spent a lot of time writing on an RPG, where I wrote for specific OC’s in a pre-established universe, in this case, Star Trek.
And you know what? It’s not a bad way to learn. Part of that is just getting yourself to write something you’re excited about, and part of that is getting your stuff out there so someone other than you reads it. But it also teaches you actual tools, like voice. If you’re trying to write IC fanfic? Voice is HUGE. You learn to emulate voice, you learn different types of voices, and eventually your own voice emerges.
One of the things I know about myself as a writer is that I have a strong, pretty distinct voice. I know it because I hear it basically anytime I get feedback on anything. And mind you, that’s not always a compliment; there are definitely people who prefer quieter, subtler voices than mine, which is fine . . . but generally, it’s something I consider a strength, something I like about my own writing. And I firmly believe that my . . . training, for lack of a better word, in fanfiction directly correlates to that voice.
Oh, and as far as writing for an RPG? That teaches you character, specifically the evolution of one. Growth and change and consequence. Learning how to develop a character arc is also not a bad thing to learn.
Which leads us, finally, to the last thing I’ve learned (or, at least, the last thing I can think of at present):
8. Fanfiction often makes me appreciate the canon work more, and–in some cases–got me interested in the work to begin with.
Sometimes, I think there’s a fear that people will fall in love with a fandom and reject the source material for not adhering to that fandom. Maybe that’s true for some people, I don’t know. In my experience, however, it’s the opposite.
Can we go back to Inception? Because I enjoyed Inception. I thought it was a pretty fun movie. But I didn’t love it until I got involved in the fandom, until I saw all these different people with their own separate interpretations and spins and what-ifs sharing stories back and forth until they pretty much created their own shared Inception universe, like a parallel world that occupies the same space as the canon world.
And sure, my experience with the film changes because of that: I read more into every Arthur/Eames interaction, I find myself glaring at Cobb more than I ever used to, etc. Some people might argue that stuff like that wasn’t necessarily Christopher Nolan’s intent, that I’m valuing the fanfiction over the canon material. But that’s the thing about art: you don’t get to control how your audience interprets it. And seeing this world from a different lens doesn’t make me like it less. It makes me like it more. It fascinates me more. No one’s ever making an Inception sequel, much to my sorrow, but if someone had announced one before I read the fanfiction? Yeah, I’d probably have some mild interest. I’d want to see the trailer. I’d expect some amazing fight scenes and cool cinematography. But if someone announced one now? Holy Jesus, I’d be so THERE. I’d have, like, ALL THE IDEAS.
Meanwhile, I don’t often read fanfiction before I’m familiar with the canon work itself, but there are exceptions. Let’s talk Supernatural.
I won’t lie: I was initially interested in Supernatural because of a pretty boy. Yeah, that one right there. I’d really liked Jensen Ackles a hell of a lot in Dark Angel, but then that show got cancelled and I never saw him again . . . until I caught a promo for a television show I couldn’t watch because I didn’t have the damn channel. This drove me nuts, partially because Supernatural looked interesting, and partially because not having WB was the true trauma of my adolescence. So, one day I decided to check out the fanfiction.
People. I fell in love.
It’s been years since I’ve read or written for SPN because it’s been years since I watched it; I’m one of the people who dropped the show in the sixth season. (The only fanfic recs here I can offer are great, but old, like “Borrowed” by pdragon76. That one always springs to mind for some reason.) But for a while, SPN was basically my life. In fact, though there’s no evidence of this on Archive (because I was using fanfiction.net at the time and I didn’t transfer the majority of my SPN fic), the only novel-length fanfiction I’ve ever written was for Supernatural. Maybe I’d have watched the show eventually. I’m not saying Jensen Ackles’s pretty face wasn’t a draw. But it was the fanfiction itself that made me so desperate to see the show that I bought it on DVD without having watched so much as a single clip.
So, yeah. People who don’t get invested in fanfiction? That’s cool. I can’t get invested in lots of things, like sudoku, or golf. We’ve all got our own interests. But people who only talk smack about fanfiction, who thinks its indulgent or lazy or disgusting? I’ve just got zero patience for that, and hopefully the last 4,000 words have helped explain why.
Anyone who’s stayed with me through all that–and I’m currently suspecting there will be two, maybe three of you–well, thanks! More importantly, I would seriously love to hear any thoughts you have on fanfiction yourself: if you’ve read fanfiction before, if you have favorite fandoms or tropes, if reading fanfiction taught you something you weren’t expecting, etc. The more I think about it, the more I realize that one of the reasons I was interested in writing this list/essay in the first place was because of a survey I took last year about what types of fanfiction stories or tropes people liked. (I’d link to it or the results if I had any idea where I could find it.) I think it’s fascinating to see the different things people come to fanfiction looking for, so if you have some opinions on that, I’d really love to hear them.