I read a lot of fan fiction. No, seriously. I read *a lot* of fanfic.
Of course, I read a lot of things and always have. High literature. Sure, got an Honours degree in that kicking about here somewhere. Pop culture. Yep, studied a Masters analysing that stuff, somewhere in my deep, distant past. Everything in between? Shelves and shelves full of it. And because this is 2015, ereaders full of it too.
Hell, I’ll read the back of a cereal carton if the plot catches my interest or the characters are worth my while. And should that cereal packet happened to be shortlisted for the Booker, all the better.
My point is, I don’t much care whether what I read is culturally or critically acclaimed. I read what I like, what I enjoy, what turns me on in any number of senses from the physically base to the lofty and intellectual.
Which is not the same thing as saying I’ll just read any old thing regardless of its quality. Be very sure on this: for me to enjoy something, it has to be good quality writing. That is essential. I’m not going to bother with that cereal packet if the writing is not top of the range stuff.
I should also point out that fine writing alone is rarely enough to sustain my interest. You can write a beautiful sentence. You can put together an amazing page of prose. But unless you have a narrative drive which keeps pushing me forward, or a plot that snags me in, or most importantly, characters and relationships between characters which keep interest, then I’m not going to get past that sentence or page. I’ll dump you as fast as I dumped that cereal packet.
When the writing is not good enough – in anything, any form of fiction – then plot, character, theme, narrative voice, atmosphere, mood, and all the other cogs which go into making up the fictional wheel, will not work at a level sufficient to secure the reader’s emotional investment. Doesn’t matter if it’s a Booker winner or a fanfic over on AO3, a story has to get the reader emotionally invested and to do that the writing has to be of a certain decent standard.
Which brings me back to where I began. Fanfic. Oh, I do love it. Which is not to say there isn’t a lot of fanfic dross out there. I’m not saying there isn’t. There’s a stack of stuff that ranges from pretty bad to downright awful, but you know what, every writer has to start somewhere and being able to put their stories up online for a readership is a good place to start. Sure, I don’t read anything that’s too awful. But I’m glad it exists, because somewhere amid all the crap, there might just be a future Booker winner or two in the making, still learning their craft.
And regardless, my point here today (yes, I do have one) is there’s also some absolutely brilliant writing in the world of fanfic. Some truly subtle, well crafted, exceptional well written pieces of fiction that just happen to be based on existing media franchises.
I’m always surprised when I run into someone who sniggers at the mention of fanfic, as if its a synonym for lowest-common-denominator writing. Writing fanfic well is a very specific skill and one that requires an incredibly degree of expertise in characterisation and narrative voice. For fanfic to work, it is essential to get the characterisation right. To get that narrative voice of the POV character spot on. When 99% of your readership is utterly rabid in loving the characters you are writing, then you don’t get to fudge character in your fiction. You must nail it.
Then there’s plot and story and atmosphere and theme and mood and all the other curriculum items my creative writing teachers used to list in the syllabus. Fictions based on movies or TV shows or books which their fanbase adore, sometimes to obsessive levels (and I do celebrate said obsessions, I am a fangirl geek and proud of it), do not get to screw up the mood or feel of a story – it has to match the original media, it has to replicate the kind of plot and story and theme of the core franchise it’s based upon. These fictions must ‘feel’ like they’re part of the canon.
Fanfic works when it gets all that right, and then adds it owns layer of story and character and love-for-the-fictional-universe on top. And those who judge whether or not the fic works in accordance with all these things are not literary heavyweights or publishing industry notables – it’s obsessive fans who live and breath these worlds and these characters and these shows or movies or books.
I’d rather stand in front of a Booker judging panel telling them they got it wrong than cross a comic-con full of fangirls by screwing up their favourite pop culture character, let me tell you.
What I mean to say is that all the writing techniques that are taught in creative writing schools, that writers try their hardest to perfect, that are the basic toolkit for any writer – fanfic writers are expert at them. Well, the good ones are anyway, and the not-so-good ones are aware of the need for decent characterisation and all the rest, even if their writing skill isn’t quite up to the job of managing it – yet.
So three cheers for fanfic and the amazing things it does with character and story. Now, let’s all head on over to AO3 and start trawling the archives…