Fanfiction, how does it work!?
September 3, 2012 7:08 PM   Subscribe

What makes an original work particularly suited to being followed by fanfiction?

I'm curious though generally neutral/accepting/uninterested about fanfiction, but I've been wondering, what makes a book (or a film, or a TV series) particularly appealing to writers of fanfic? Why do some properties have thousands of fanfiction stories written about them, and some have very few? I'm particularly thinking of why, say, there is a HUGE fanfiction following for JK Rowling, and almost nothing for Terry Pratchett. Also there seems to be a lot more Star Trek fanfic than there is Star Wars fanfic. Why does Doctor Who appeal more than Blackadder? What is it; characters? world building? writing style? story? that makes viewers/reader go, "Wow, -but-, Harry should -totally- turn into a wombat and team up with Picard to save Narnia!"

(Note; I'm not saying there is -no- Blackadder or Discworld fanfic; I know there is.... but there's not as -much-, at least in the brief trawl of Google I've done.)

Bonus extra-credit question:

If someone was going to create a new property (a book series or a TV show) with the deliberate intention of appealing to fanfic writers (and courting their business, rather than stomping on it as some seem to), what would they want aim for?

Further bonus question: What further makes a good source material for EROTIC fanfiction? Same things? Or do you need a more prudish source, or a more easygoing source, or just lots of hot bodies?
posted by The otter lady to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Pure speculation here --

a) I'd wager that one reason that Terry Pratchett hasn't had much fanfic written about his characters is because he'd beaten everyone to it. The "world" of Discworld is very rich and detailed as it is, so it's almost like...there isn't room for other people to come in and write stuff because he wrote it already.

b) I come of fanfic originally via the X-FILES, and I think what was fueling a lot of the erotic impulses in that regard were that there was a strong connection we saw onscreen in the characters that wasn't being resolved via sex onscreen. People wanted Mulder and Scully to hook up, but the writers of the show weren't making that happen, so viewers had PUH-LENTY of motivation to imagine "I bet when they DO hook up it'd be like this....." Same too with DOCTOR WHO - The Doctor and Rose had a very obvious "they're in luuuuuuuv" sort of connection onscreen, but it never declared itself, and audiences wanted to see it happen and made it happen themselves when the show didn't.

So I guess the recipe for fanfiction is to create a property where you have intriguing characters, but don't write TOO much about them. Hint at things but don't tell everything. And the audience will take it the rest of the way for you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:17 PM on September 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

Re: erotica, Well, we all know the story of early Star Trek slash. Probably attractive lead male characters with some sort of tension in their relationship. In the case of Twilight, attractive lead characters with tension and BDSM potential in their relationship. I'm not familiar with Doctor Who but the doctor/companion relationship seems ripe for tension.

Also, this might sound weird, but since most of the people I knew during Harry Potter fanfic-writing were underage, having characters their own age (who were going through exciting times of sexual discovery) seemed like a draw. (Though, of course, there was always Snarry.)

Discworld fanfic is weird for me to consider because the humor is the main draw(?) rather than the characters (I... think). I don't remember there being characters who were particularly... attractive. At all. They were more often the butt of a joke. My memory could be faulty, it's been a long while. In terms of prudish/easygoing sources, I don't think it matters quite so much.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:18 PM on September 3, 2012

A big part of it is momentum. Writing fanfic is a social activity, and isn't much fun if no one is reading it or leaving you feedback. Once a fandom reaches a certain critical mass, it will grow much more quickly. The create --> reward --> create cycle encourages writers to be more prolific, and also attracts other fans to the community, who in turn pump more enthusiasm and energy into the system.

Attention is the currency of fandom, basically. And fan writers want to join in on a robust economy.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:20 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it's a combination of several things:

1. Some degree to which the canon (the cheeky fanfiction term for source material) is "open". There should be some aspect of the story that is left untold, or room for original characters or storylines.

2. Flaws in the canon. I think part of the drive to write fanfiction comes from the sense that something hasn't been explored to a satisfactory degree or something was executed in a slipshod manner.

3. This is less a quality of the canon, but if someone whose fanfiction is already very popular has started writing for a new canon, it's probably more likely to have a lot of stories written for it.

Extra credit #1: In my opinion, the only correct way to do this is to completely ignore fanfic writers. You can say you think

Extra credit #2: It's a variation on the above three points: Does the canon not give us the full information about the characters' sex lives? Is the canon not particularly good on the relationship front when it succeeds elsewhere? Do other authors already write adult-themed fanfiction for the canon? And of course, the fourth point here would be what you mentioned, which is the attractiveness factor.
posted by capricorn at 7:21 PM on September 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oops, left a sentence hanging there. It should have said:

You can say you think fanfiction is great and you approve of it, but as soon as creators start engaging with fanfic writers a lot of fans feel uncomfortable.
posted by capricorn at 7:28 PM on September 3, 2012

From my fanfic experiences, I think there are two types of works that appeal to fanfic writers:

1. Erotic tension between a pair of characters, yeah, or a very attractive/charismatic character (usually male, often oddly unapproachable/inappropriate for shipping in the canon incarnation--Fox Mulder, Spock, the Doctor are all examples) with which a writer could imagine a romantic relationship, either via an original creation (Mary Sue) or using a canon character as your wish-fulfillment vehicle.

2. Immerse and broad universe with a large cast of characters who form subclasses or groups through some sort of sorting or ranking system. Star Trek has this, with the various ships and their crews. Anne McCaffrey's Pern, which has one of the longest fanfic histories, has different weyrs with dragons ranked by color. Harry Potter has different houses. This provides ample opportunity for creating original characters and also imagining yourself in the universe. It invites speculation--would I be a goldrider or a greenrider? In science or engineering? A Ravenclaw or a Hufflepuff?

If someone was going to create a new property (a book series or a TV show) with the deliberate intention of appealing to fanfic writers (and courting their business, rather than stomping on it as some seem to), what would they want aim for?

Were I to do this, I'd create a series about a male character who is a lot like Moffat's Sherlock--cool, charismatic, snarky, sexually inaccessible, who the viewpoint character meets after being sorted by personality in some sort of fantasy or science fictional job assignment system. Viewpoint character--and the reader--is smitten, but Awesome McCool dude has no interest in him! Then they go have awesome adventures. Or something like that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:31 PM on September 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think that a key element in the creation of fanfic for tv shows and movies is the chemistry between the actors involved. If there is chemistry between actors, no matter how unrealistic/inappropriate/offputting it would be if they would get together, someone will write fanfiction about it.
posted by crankylex at 7:40 PM on September 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and a note on the sexually inaccessible male character thing--these characters are usually largely asexual either due to facts of biology (Spock), angst (Fox Mulder), or just being so awesome that no partner could ever be their match (the Doctor). When they are paired with someone, either in canon or fanfic, she's usually presented as the superspecial exception--the one woman (usually) who can crack through his exterior. I mean, Twilight has this built in--Bella is Edward's first girlfriend in a hundred years, smells like freesia, and is the only person immune to his mindreading. See also Rose Tyler and River Song. I think this is important to the appeal of many of these franchises, and it plays into a lot of societal myths about how, if you're an enough awesome lady, you can be the one to fix/tame/catch a guy, no matter how unlikely it should be.

If I were creating a franchise to capitalize on fanfic predilections, I'd definitely play with the trope of the amazing guy and the really, really special girl (or guy, but in that case I'd probably just make it a homosocial friendship with lots of underlying sexual tension) who is the only person who gets him. Have him spurn all women but her. Something like that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:47 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Definitely the openness and incompleteness of the universe is a big part of it. Tons of HP fic spends a lot of time on details of wandlore, magical portraiture, spells used in canon, etc that aren't satisfyingly explained in the books. A sadly tiny but super interesting subgenre that I wish were more popular is that of HP fanfiction set in non-Hogwarts magic schools. It makes sense that there isn't more of it since it basically requires the creation of loads of original characters, but it's fascinating how authors have tried to translate the "magic school" concept to the States, Brazil, etc.

Also, a very identifiable character who ends up in an imperfect relationship helps. Basically 98% of fanfiction authors saw themselves in Hermione Granger and many of them did not think she and Ron were good together (specifically, he reminded many fans of high-school boyfriends they were glad they'd left in high school), so finding a better match for Hermione became an itch that really needed scratching. I'd say in general a good way to ensure a long-lived fanfiction ecosystem is to piss off a bunch of fans just enough that they want to rewrite the ending.

Good source material for erotic fiction: doesn't hurt to have a cast of dozens, most of whom don't end up in relationships in canon. Everyone loves a niche ship!
posted by town of cats at 8:03 PM on September 3, 2012

I suspect tv and movie fandoms trade a great deal on actor charisma. For Game of Thrones, I don't know if the book series got much fanfic (and the author was against it, which will slow but not stop fic being written) but once the tv show came out, and good-looking, charismatic actors were inserted (Jorah, for example), suddenly interest was piqued. (And then GRRM said you could write about the show, which was an interesting change of position.)

I *think* a similar thing happened with LOTR - in some ways, the movie shrunk the canon down a bit from JRRT's immensely detailed world to something complicated enough to wrap your hands around, but not with every detail filled in. Lots of slash couples to choose from, a range of "types" from Viggo to Orlando to Elijah so you could take your pick, and lots of opportunities for angsty love. Add to that a close cast and a lot of behind-the-scenes footage, and you have an explosion of RPF.

It's true what town of cats says. That sort of...hmm, customization? seems to be appealing to people in many fandoms. What sort of house would I be put in, what wand would I have, what colors would I wear, what cutie-mark would I have, what dragon would I ride. A writer could roll through all these combinations and come up with something unique to them but which still fit inside the story.
posted by PussKillian at 8:22 PM on September 3, 2012

I definitely seek out fanfiction almost exclusively for those unrequited romances - like others here I came into it through The X-Files. (The late '90s were an awesome time for X-Files fanfiction, for real.) Later on I read a lot of Whedonverse stuff, also impossible romances (Buffy/Angel! Simon/Kaylee! Wesley/Anyone!) I think I'm not alone in this. When you get really invested in a relationship and then you never actually get to see it - well, your brain starts filling in the blanks. And happily, the brains of much more competent writers than me also start filling in the blanks. Sometimes they're better at it than the show's creators.

re: Star Wars - there's actually a lot of Star Wars fanfic! (And if you think about it, the entire Extended Universe of novels, comics etc. fills a lot of that need commercially.) A lot of the SW fanfic is about characters most people have never heard of. Five or six years ago there were tons and tons of stories about Han and Leia's daughter and her love interest from the SW novels, for example. Again, for a lot of us I think it's really about wish fulfillment. You got to see lots of Han and Leia kissing and living happily ever after (...for a while anyway), but poor Jaina just got the shaft all the time, and we just wanted her to be happy!

I do think of alternate universe stuff as a totally different animal from the kinds of fanfic I was interested/involved in - like, I'm not interested in "what if Harry Potter and his friends were just regular kids getting drunk at a fancy prep school called Hogwarts" or - ahem - "what if Bella Swan was actually a college student and Edward was a BDSM guy." I think the motivations there are really different, and honestly I don't know where they come from. I've pretty much always been a canon-romance girl.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 8:50 PM on September 3, 2012

I thought this was an interesting question and started trying to answer it in the same way others have, but then I checked my guesses against what series are actually popular right now at

There's a strong selection bias built into that source, but nonetheless, now my thought is that generalizations about this may not have as much practical utility as immersion in a dozen series that didn't appeal to you before, so your assumptions about this question are tested and perhaps you see what can make a series engaging from more of an external point of view.

I think it's fair to say most of these series feature distinctive, memorable characters. I only doubt that for a couple of them. And it's also likely that in most cases the audience feels they're onto something special that not everyone else gets. PhoBWanKenobi's point that the same dynamic is common within fan-favorite storylines themselves might well be allegorical for the condition of being a fan. But I doubt that too for a few series.

So I wonder if anyone can really say with reproducible precision what makes all these currently the most popular series for fan fiction (at least, at this one site that doesn't allow fiction aimed at 18+).

Naruto (309,944)
Inuyasha (104,569)
Hetalia - Axis Powers (68,748)
Bleach (67,373)
Yu-Gi-Oh (60,468)
Gundam Wing/AC (40,908)
Fullmetal Alchemist (40,793)
Dragon Ball Z (37,715)
Digimon (37,558)
Sailor Moon (36,504)
Death Note (31,440)
Card Captor Sakura (25,172)
Yu Yu Hakusho (24,006)
Katekyo Hitman Reborn! (21,710)
Prince of Tennis (21,227)
Beyblade (19,992)
One Piece (17,371)
Fruits Basket (17,268)
Ouran High School Host Club (17,262)
Rurouni Kenshin (16,428)
D.Gray-Man (15,467)

Harry Potter (608,601)
Twilight (200,383)
Lord of the Rings (46,670)
Percy Jackson and the Olympians (29,402)
Hunger Games (23,725)
Maximum Ride (16,353)

Avatar: Last Airbender (33,628)
Teen Titans (31,672)
Transformers/Beast Wars (18,947)
X-Men: Evolution (15,685)

[None over 15,000, but X-Men has 11,077 under comics, 14,964 under movies, and 15,685 for a particular cartoon version]

Kingdom Hearts (67,013)
Pokémon (53,085)
Final Fantasy VII (37,114)
Sonic the Hedgehog (26,605)
Legend of Zelda (21,418)

Star Wars (28,884)
Pirates of the Caribbean (19,584)
High School Musical (17,964)

[None over 15,000]

TV Shows:
Glee (79,217)
Supernatural (65,405)
Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (44,653)
Doctor Who (39,894)
NCIS (31,799)
CSI (26,308)
Stargate: SG-1 (26,005)
Criminal Minds (21,412)
House, M.D. (20,827)
Sherlock (20,230)
Bones (18,251)
Vampire Diaries (18,104)
Stargate: Atlantis (17,932)
Gilmore Girls (16,155)
Degrassi (15,000)
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:54 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

If the characters are your imaginary friends, then it's natural to want to read and write fanfic about them - you want to know more about your friends. But if it's the author you identify with, then fanfic is just a weak substitute, and less appealing.

For example, when I read Terry Pratchett before going to sleep, my husband refers to it as "going to bed with your other man." He says the same thing about Sherlock Holmes. Notice that the "other man" is always Terry or Sherlock. It is never Sam Vimes or Arthur Conan Doyle. I would have zero interest in discworld fanfic because, well, it wouldn't be written by Sir Terry. But I will read just about any badly-written Holmes pastiche, because Holmes is my always-interesting imaginary friend.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:11 PM on September 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

The target demographic plays a big role. Harry Potter and Twilight and such are aimed at teenagers, Discworld at young adults/adults. Generally, the number of fangirls are probably the difference. Not as in "female fan". "Fangirl". It's a teenage thing to be a fangirl, so things aimed at younger audiences are bound to have more of them.
In Star Trek, as example, it's a pretty clear split - female fans and fangirls just pair up everyone; male fans write about the tech and ships and wars. You can almost always tell if a story was written by a male or a female author - even teenage boys are a lot more likely to write themself into the captain's chair than in a relationship with Uhura. And male authors are a small minority due to that, because female readers are not interested in these parts of the fandom (technology, most notably).

If you want to write a work with the goal to spawn fanfiction - appeal to teenage girls.
posted by MinusCelsius at 3:11 AM on September 4, 2012

The answer I always thought was the main reason: UST. Unresolved Sexual Tension. If it doesn't get "resolved" in the original work, someone's definitely going to write a fanfic to deal with it.
posted by gakiko at 3:22 AM on September 4, 2012

I think stoneandstar has a salient point about how for humor series (Blackadder, Discworld), it's a lot harder to write fanfiction because the important part of the stories is the humorous "voice" of the series, and without the author/writer, the humor is hard to match, and it doesn't "feel" like the same world. Sure, you could write about Nanny Ogg getting together with Dibbler (or his local variant), but if you can't match the tone, it would just seem uncanny-valley-ish.

Series like Twilight and Harry Potter (and many TV shows) are easy to write fanfiction about because the characters are not actually that multifaceted, or at least aren't shown that way in their environment. It's easy to write a story about Bella because she's not very complicated, and you can add nuances of your own without running into cognitive dissonance from the actual books.

For erotic fanfiction I it's best when there are characters that interact with each other regularly and closely without being romantic. If you don't see any of their home life, even better.
posted by that girl at 4:32 AM on September 4, 2012

I think a lot of its got to do with a narrower focus on just a few strongly individual characters --- 'Star Wars', 'Star Trek' and 'Harry Potter' for instance, all present a smallish group of the same people in a variety of situations, whereas something like Terry Pratchett's Discworld involves a wide variety of characters in a single (if deeply-detailed!) world. Blackadder is an outlying case: basically the same character, but he's a bit of a chameleon who fades into the situation.

Think of it this way: it's a lot easier for a casual fan to write something about Kirk, where no matter what planet, they can throw a blue-skinned space-babe in a bikini in there and be satisfied that they've hit the mark.
posted by easily confused at 4:46 AM on September 4, 2012

If you are looking for ideas to aim at the slash writers you'd do no better than to watch the "Due South" series. While it's less apparent in the early seasons, when they bought in the new Ray half way through, they did so knowing that the slash writes would love him and played the two main characters with lots of homoerotic subtext on purpose. Also it's a great show.
posted by wwax at 9:44 AM on September 4, 2012

1. Some degree to which the canon (the cheeky fanfiction term for source material) is "open". There should be some aspect of the story that is left untold, or room for original characters or storylines.

Not too open though. I think the reason that there isn't really Discworld fanfiction is because may Discworld stories don't feel like they are firmly in the Discworld universe. They're obviously all written by Terry Pratchett, but many of the books are quite loosely coupled to the rest in terms of world building. If the world is very open and there are relatively few recurring characters then fan-fiction very quickly detaches from the source and just becomes regular genre fiction. That doesn't happen with the Discworld books because of the distinctive writing style, but fan fiction cannot usually match that style.
posted by atrazine at 2:08 PM on September 4, 2012

1) Vivid, appealing, easy-to-empathize-with characters...

2) ...who have basically static and inflexible roles and relationships.

What you want is for someone to say "Oh man I love these guys but they've really just had the same interaction in every single chapter/episode/issue so far and there's so much unexplored potential here."
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:03 PM on September 4, 2012

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