Writing and reading fanfic is a masterclass in characterisation.
Consider: in order to successfully write two different “versions” of the same character – let alone ten, or fifty, or a hundred – you have to make an informed judgement about their core personality traits, distinguishing between the results of nature and nurture, and decide how best to replicate those conditions in a new narrative context. The character you produce has to be recognisably congruent with the canonical version, yet distinct enough to fit within a different – perhaps wildly so – story. And you physically can’t accomplish this if the character in question is poorly understood, or viewed as a stereotype, or one-dimensional. Yes, you can still produce the fic, but chances are, if your interest in or knowledge of the character(s) is that shallow, you’re not going to bother in the first place.
Because ficwriters care about nuance, and they especially care about continuity – not just literal continuity, in the sense of corroborating established facts, but the far more important (and yet more frequently neglected) emotional continuity. Too often in film and TV canons in particular, emotional continuity is mistakenly viewed as a synonym for static characterisation, and therefore held anathema: if the character(s) don’t change, then where’s the story? But emotional continuity isn’t anti-change; it’s pro-context. It means showing how the character gets from Point A to Point B as an actual journey, not just dumping them in a new location and yelling Because Reasons! while moving on to the next development. Emotional continuity requires a close reading, not just of the letter of the canon, but its spirit – the beats between the dialogue; the implications never overtly stated, but which must logically occur off-screen. As such, emotional continuity is often the first casualty of canonical forward momentum: when each new TV season demands the creation of a new challenge for the protagonists, regardless of where and how we left them last, then dealing with the consequences of what’s already happened is automatically put on the backburner.
Fanfic does not do this.
Fanfic embraces the gaps in the narrative, the gracenotes in characterisation that the original story glosses, forgets or simply doesn’t find time for. That’s not all it does, of course, but in the context of learning how to write characters, it’s vital, because it teaches ficwriters – and fic readers – the difference between rich and cardboard characters. A rich character is one whose original incarnation is detailed enough that, in order to put them in fanfic, the writer has to consider which elements of their personality are integral to their existence, which clash irreparably with the new setting, and which can be modified to fit, to say nothing of how this adapted version works with other similarly adapted characters. A cardboard character, by contrast, boasts so few original or distinct attributes that the ficwriter has to invent them almost out of whole cloth. Note, please, that attributes are not necessarily synonymous with details in this context: we might know a character’s favourite song and their number of siblings, but if this information gives us no actual insight into them as a person, then it’s only window-dressing. By the same token, we might know very few concrete facts about a character, but still have an incredibly well-developed sense of their personhood on the basis of their actions.
The fact that ficwriters en masse – or even the same ficwriter in different AUs – can produce multiple contradictory yet still fundamentally believable incarnations of the same person is a testament to their understanding of characterisation, emotional continuity and narrative.
So I was reading this rumination on fanfic and I was thinking about something @involuntaryorange once talked to me about, about fanfic being its own genre, and something about this way of thinking really rocked my world? Because for a long time I have thought like a lawyer, and I have defined fanfiction as “fiction using characters that originated elsewhere,” or something like that. And now I feel like…fanfiction has nothing to do with using other people’s characters, it’s just a character-driven *genre* that is so character-driven that it can be more effective to use other people’s characters because then we can really get the impact of the storyteller’s message but I feel like it could also be not using other people’s characters, just a more character-driven story. Like, I feel like my original stuff–the novellas I have up on AO3, the draft I just finished–are probably really fanfiction, even though they’re original, because they’re hitting fanfic beats. And my frustration with getting original stuff published has been, all along, that I’m calling it a genre it really isn’t.
And this is why many people who discover fic stop reading other stuff. Once you find the genre you prefer, you tend to read a lot in that genre. Some people love mysteries, some people love high-fantasy. Saying you love “fic” really means you love this character-driven genre.
So when I hear people be dismissive of fic I used to think, Are they just not reading the good fic? Maybe I need to put the good fic in front of them? But I think it turns out that fanfiction is a genre that is so entirely character-focused that it actually feels weird and different, because most of our fiction is not that character-focused.
It turns out, when I think about it, I am simply a character-based consumer of pop culture. I will read and watch almost anything but the stuff that’s going to stick with me is because I fall for a particular character. This is why once a show falters and disagrees with my view of the character, I can’t just, like, push past it, because the show *was* the character for me.
Right now my big thing is the Juno Steel stories, and I know that they’re doing all this genre stuff and they have mysteries and there’s sci-fi and meanwhile I’m just like, “Okay, whatever, I don’t care about that, JUNO STEEL IS THE BEST AND I WANT TO JUST ROLL AROUND IN HIS SARCASTIC, HILARIOUS, EMOTIONALLY PINING HEAD.” That is the fanfiction-genre fan in me coming out. Someone looking for sci-fi might not care about that, but I’m the type of consumer (and I think most fic-people are) who will spend a week focusing on what one throwaway line might reveal about a character’s state of mind. That’s why so many fics *focus* on those one throwaway lines. That’s what we’re thinking about.
And this is what makes coffee shop AUs so amazing. Like, you take some characters and you stick them in a coffee shop. That’s it. And yet I love every single one of them. Because the focus is entirely on the characters. There is no plot. The plot is they get coffee every day and fall in love. That’s the entire plot. And that’s the perfect fanfic plot. Fanfic plots are almost always like that. Almost always references to other things that clue you in to where the story is going. Think of “friends to lovers” or “enemies to lovers” or “fake relationship,” and you’re like, “Yes. I love those. Give me those,” and you know it’s going to be the same plot, but that’s okay, you’re not reading for the plot. It’s like that Tumblr post that goes around that’s like, “Me starting a fake relationship fic: Ooooh, do you think they’ll fall in love for real????” But you’re not reading for the suspense. Fic frees you up from having to spend effort thinking about the plot. Fic gives your brain space to focus entirely on the characters. And, especially in an age of plot-twist-heavy pop culture, that almost feels like a luxury. “Come in. Spend a little time in this character’s head. SPEND HOURS OF YOUR LIFE READING SO MANY STORIES ABOUT THIS CHARACTER’S HEAD. Until you know them like a friend. Until you know them so well that you miss them when you’re not hanging out with them.”
When that is your story, when the characters become like your friends, it makes sense that you’re freed from plot. It’s like how many people don’t really have a “plot” to hanging out with their friends. There’s this huge obsession with plot, but lives don’t have plots. Lives just happen. We try to shape them into plots later, but that’s just this organizational fiction we’re imposing. Plot doesn’t have to be the raison d’etre of all story-telling, and fic reminds us of that.
Idk, this was a lot of random rambling but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.
“fanfiction has nothing to do with using other people’s characters, it’s just a character-driven *genre* that is so character-driven that it can be more effective to use other people’s characters”
yes!!!! I feel like I knew this on some level but I’ve never explicitly thought about it that way. this feels right, yep. Mainstream fiction often seems very dry to me and I think this is why – it tends to skip right over stuff that would be a huge plot arc in a fanfic, if not an entire fanfic in itself. And I’m like, “hey, wait, go back to that. Why are you skipping that? Where’s the story?” But now I think maybe people who don’t like fanfiction are going like, “why is there an entire fanfic about something that could have happened offscreen? Is anything interesting ever going to happen here? Where’s the story?”
Yes! Exactly! This!!!
This crystallized for me when I taught my first class of fanfiction to non-fic-readers and they just kept being like, “But nothing happens. What’s the plot?” and I was so confused, like, “What are you talking about? They fall in love. That’s the plot.” But we were, I think, talking past each other. They kept waiting for some big moment to happen, but for me the point was that the little moments were the big moments.
This is such an awesome conversation, but I think there’s
even another layer here that makes ‘fic’ its own genre. And it is the plot.
Everyone who’s experienced in reading fic has their little ‘trope
plots’ we are willing to read or even prefer in order to spend time with our
favorite characters. We know how it’s gonna end and we genuinely don’t care,
because the character is the whole point of why we’re reading. And that is
unique. That’s just not how mainstream media publication does things.
But there are also hundreds of thousands of fics people
might call ‘plot driven’ and they have wonderful, intricate plots that thrill
But they’re not at all ‘plot driven’ in the same way as
other mainstream genres.
The thing about ‘plot’ in fic is that it tends to ebb and
flow naturally. There’s not the same high speed, race to the finish you’d get
from a good action movie. There’s no stop and start of side plots you get in TV
genre shows. The best fic plot slides from big event to restful evening to
frantic activity to shared meals and squabbles and back, and it gives equal time and attention and detail to each of these
Like @earlgreytea68 said, “There’s this huge obsession with
plot, but lives don’t have plots. Lives just happen. We try to shape them into
plots later, but that’s just this organizational fiction we’re imposing. Plot
doesn’t have to be the raison d’etre of all story-telling, and fic reminds us
Fic plot moves at a pace similar to the life of whatever
character it’s about. Not the other way around. There’s a fundamental difference in prioritization in fic.
I think this only adds to the case of ‘fic’ as its own,
distinctive genre. Stylistic choices of writing that would never work in
traditional, mainstream fiction novels work for novel-length fic. Fic
adventures spend as much time fleshing out the little moments between romances
and friendships as they do on that plot twist. The sleepy campground
conversations are as important to the plot as the kidnapped princess, because that’s
how the characters are going to grow together by the end of the story. It’s not
a grace note, it’s not a side episode or an addition or a mention – it’s
integral and equal.
That’s just accepted as fact by fic writers and readers. It’s
expected without any particular mention. And it gives a very unique flavor and
pace to fic that makes a lot of mainstream stories feel like stale, off-brand
wonderbread. They are missing something regular fic readers take for granted
(and it isn’t just the representational differences, because we all know that’s
a whole different conversation). There’s a fundamental difference in how ‘fic’
is written, detailed, and paced that is built on its foundations as a ‘character
And it isn’t only action/adventure/mystery plots that have
this difference in fic. Those ‘everybody’s human in today’s world’ AUs, those ‘friends
to lovers’ slow burn stories have it too. They have a plot, but it’s the life –
the grocery shopping, the dumb fights and sudden inescapable emotional blows, those
moments of joy with that person you click with, managing work and family and
seasons – that’s the whole plot on its own.
And that’s almost impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t
really experienced fic as a genre, who’s used to traditional person A and person
B work together/overcome differences/bond to accomplish X. In fic accomplishing
X might be the beginning or the middle, not the end result of the story, and A
& B continue to exist separate from X entirely. X is only relevant because
of how it relates to A & B, not the other way around.
Fic is absolutely its own genre and it has a lot to do with plot. I’ve been calling this ‘organic
plot’ in my head for months, because I knew something felt different about
writing this way, how long fic plot ebbs and grows seemingly on its own
sometimes. ‘Dual plot’ could be another option, maybe, though the character plot and
life experience plots aren’t really separate. Inverted plot? Hm. I’m sure a good term will develop
OH MY GOODNESS I LOVE THIS.
I was always fond of saying, about my own fics, that my plots show up about two-thirds of the way through, because it takes me that long to figure out where I’m going, and then I would lol about it, because, ha, wouldn’t it be great if I organized it better.
And now I read this and I’m like, WAIT. YES. THAT’S WHAT’S HAPPENING. IT’S BEEN HAPPENING ALL ALONG. I NEVER REALIZED IT. The idea that the primary importance is the throughline of the characters, and that’s what we’re following, and the plot is what’s dangling off the side of their story, that is SO IMPORTANT. You’re right, that usually we’re told as writers to construct stories from the plot outward. “Here are the beats your plot needs to hit, here’s the rising action to the climax to the falling action, now make sure your Character A makes this realization by Point X in order to get your plot into shape for Point Y to click in.” It’s *such* a plot-centric way to write and I am *terrible* at it. And I’ve always said, whenever I sit down to “outline” a story, like, How do you this? How do you know where the characters are going until they tell you where they’re going???
But it’s not that I’m “bad” at this, which is what I’ve always thought, it’s just that I’m coming at it from the opposite angle. I can’t plan the plot before the characters because I’m sticking close to the characters, and the traditional “plot” is secondary to whatever’s going to happen to them. And that’s not a wrong way of writing, it’s just a different way of writing. And it’s wrong of me to be thinking that my stories don’t get a “point” until they’re almost over. THEY’VE HAD THE POINT ALL ALONG. What happens when they’re almost over is that the characters come to where they’ve been going, and then the traditional “plot” is what helps shape the ending. The traditional “plot” becomes, to me, like that epilogue scene after the biggest explosion in an action movie, where you’re told the characters are going to be okay. I spend the entire movie telling you the characters are going to be okay, and then my epilogue scene is tacked on “oh, p.s., also they saved the day.”
Oh my. Yes.
“Like @earlgreytea68 said, ‘There’s this huge obsession with plot, but lives don’t have plots. Lives just happen. We try to shape them into plots later, but that’s just this organizational fiction we’re imposing. Plot doesn’t have to be the raison d’etre of all story-telling, and fic reminds us of that.’”
“I was always fond of saying, about my own fics, that my plots show up about two-thirds of the way through, because it takes me that long to figure out where I’m going, and then I would lol about it, because, ha, wouldn’t it be great if I organized it better.”
I’ve always identified with authors who say, “… so I thought I knew what I was doing, and then he made me write this whole other thing, and I was like, no, that’s not the story, but he kept saying YES, THIS IS WHAT I’M DOING NOW!”
Maybe these are character-driven authors, as opposed to, for example, Anne Patchett, who I heard speak once, and when an audience member asked her if her characters change things as she’s writing, she said, “Hell, no. I have a plot and I make my characters do those things, because I’m the author.”
Of course, she also said that she based Easter (in State of Wonder) on a dog because she neither knows nor likes children, but I digress. She’s a plot-driven author.
I am not. None of my stories have been outlined or plotted in advance. I am constantly swinging by the seat of my characters’ pants (or tail feathers). I though it meant I wasn’t following the rules, or that I hadn’t really learned how to write the right way yet, but maybe it just means I’m a different kind of writer.
And I see this is my life, too. I want to hear about my friends’ feelings, about their friendships and relationships and love interests and how they fell in love or what it felt like when they broke up, and I’ll cry with them when they’re sad and be thrilled with them when they’re happy. I don’t really usually care about who got a promotion at work, you know?
What a fascinating, important conversation.
Oh. My. God.
Right, so… yeah. This makes sense. This makes many many sense.
You know, some of the very first fics I read actually borrowed the setting, not the characters. I didn’t even know the term ‘OC fic’, for one of them I wasn’t even familiar with the original, I just knew that I loved thos cute lil shits.
My first instinct when reading this was to go ‘no fanfic doesn’t necessarily borrow characters’ but then I realized that it wasn’t about borrowing.
Those fics, they still focused on the characters. My favorite one is a series of one-shots that maybe has some continuous storylines, but at no point do they feel like ‘plot’, like they have to work toward resolution or anything like that. It’s just a thing that’s continuously going on in that one character’s life, so if we follow him (…they were all boys) for now, we get an update on it, fair enough. The exception that proves the rule, here.
And you know, this explanation right here, it also talks about why I just can’t seem to write anything. Every time I’m writing, I want to focus on characters, their interactions, their inner monologues. I want them to recap the same event to ten different people all on-page just to cover all the spins they put on it, all the tiny emotional reactions, all the embarrassments and embellishments – and of course every single bit of reaction from the other character, every touch of interplay between them.
Plot? Oh yeah I also have to think about what exactly happens so they can talk about it. Ugh.
And I don’t want coffee shop AUs! My thing isn’t romantic relationships, it’s trauma and pressure and responsibility, accepted freely or unwanted, it’s selflessness and selfishness and all other Epic Adventure Plot things.
I kind of want the plot to go on in the background, so I can reference it as much as I want, focus on pivotal emotional moments in it, but nothing else. Politics of the situation, who wants what and their attitudes towards each other – yep! What they actually do about it – uuugh… I have no idea what to write next…
Like. this is just. not the way stories are written. I want to throw ‘the best part’ (what’s supposed to be one) overboard and wave goodbye. Write action in short snippets of sentences that reflect the character’s confusion or focus or priorities, but don’t actually give a good idea of what’s going on. Focus on the heroes, skip antagonists entirely. THE TRUE ANTAGONISTS ARE THEIR OWN SELVES OKAY. Or not antagonists. It’s this thing…
I found a way around this by saying that the emotional wave of the drama doesn’t have to follow the PLOT plot, it can just as well follow the talky-feely plot. The real antagonist is yourself, and the real conflict is getting to some arbitrary emotional point, and goddamn that’s what I’m going to have the tension and drama hinge on.
Except that’s not right either. This ^^^^ is right. My favorite fic stories are those I wish would just continue forever. Webcomics also often follow this scheme, actually. Ebb and flow with arcs and mini-arcs that kind of maybe provide some structure but mostly just tack on the CHARACTERS and their internal lives.
Actually, yeah. Lately all the fiction I’ve read has been webcomics. I don’t actually read fic all that much. But webcomics have this same intensely character-focused structure, and it can be a coffee shop or an adopted family or a bunch of college freshmen or a non-human spaceship crew. Sure, there are plot-focused webcomics too, but to me the real heart of the genre lies in the long-runners, those that have no intention for the comic to ever be over – or at least, any time soon. Those that let the events that could be plot roll through them and let us see every detail of what characters think and feel about them as the primary focus.
When I was a kid, I also wished that the books I read never end. People grumbled about infinite series running out of steam, and sure, the ones I did get my grabby hands on that seemed infinite weren’t very good, so eventually I accepted that ending was a very necessary virtue.
But… no. It doesn’t have to be. There can be another scheme by which to do it.
(I gotta catch up on those Marinina detectives… those were good. So good. Crime-of-the-book with its own cool plot, and meanwhile the life of the police who investigate it going on with their own relationships, events, marriages, deaths, highs and lows. So good. Alas, she also decided that every good thing should come to an end and had Nastya retire… and then let her continue as a private detective? Seriously I gotta catch up. It followed her life from a bitty twenty-something shy mouse who couldn’t believe she was actually valued for what she did by her boss, to a wiry bitey old rat who would put any boss in line and knew exactly what her value was. Glorious)
…so yeah. Webcomics. Webcomics are good.