I’ve been doing a spot of research on behalf of my boss, trying to answer one question: what are readers getting from fan fiction that they can’t, from the primary source?
My inclination was to say “sex”—to not read a bunch of fan fiction, pretend I had read a bunch of fan fiction, and come back with sex. But I’m trying to be more honest, lately—or less of an arsehole, at least—and that wouldn’t be nice. Besides, the answer (as far as I can gather) is more interesting than that.
Bear in mind, the following observations are based on a fairly small data set. I’ve read 50 works of fan fiction in the last 14 days, between 500 and 150,000 words in length. Each had at least 500 kudos (the equivalent of a like, on the site I used), and at least 100 comments. The most popular had nearly 9,000 kudos and upwards of 6,000 comments. The least popular had exactly 500 kudos and 122 comments. Here are the things most of them had in common:
I know I said that wasn’t the answer, but 44 out of 50 works featured completed sexual acts. The other six featured romantic relationships that didn’t exist in the source material. Most of the sex was, hmm…ever read a romance novel?—not the old-fashioned type, but, like…something with a title on the order of Bound: A Billionaire Secret Baby Romance? Like that. Very explicit. Loads of butt stuff. So, there was that.
Here, I’m referring to human interactions in the text, but also to conversations in the comments. First, I noticed that most fan fiction contains a lot more just talking than you’d get in a proper book. If you hand something like that to an editor, you’ll get a lot of “…but how does this scene advance the plot?” In fan fiction, it doesn’t seem to matter. Readers exclaim over random fishing trips and chats over lattés. They respond well to subplots that do nothing but show the characters living their lives: the more ordinary, the better.
They also love non-sexual expressions of affection. People hugging: that’s great. People sleeping together without having sex; people leaning against each other while they wait for the bus; people holding hands—all that stuff’s golden. There are entire works, some of them novel-length, devoted to little more than that. I get it. Who doesn’t like to be touched and held? If you’re not getting a lot of that, why not read about it?
But you can’t disregard the actual human connection going on. These popular authors engage with their readers. They chat in the comments. They answer questions. They take suggestions. Sometimes, they get fan art, which attracts more notice, still. It’s all rather lovely. Welcoming, sort of thing. Something you’d do, just to talk to people. (Well, and because you like writing, I’d presume. I do the same with art. Sure, I love it; sure, I profit. But if I could lose my right hand or my community, I’d be hard-pressed to choose. I mean, probably my community—losing a hand sounds horrible. Still, I don’t know. Maybe….)
Absurdities and Soapy Drama
It’s hard to sell a publisher on something really over-the-top. The grotesque, the strange, the goofy, campy weirdness—there’s a market for all of it, but the niche is comparatively small. Actual Star Wars is a safer bet than the entire cast living in a trailer park, running a freak show out of a caravan. (Yep. That exists. I didn’t read it for this project, though. Someone texted it to me, line by line…oh, I’ll get to that some other time.)
Another thing I read, as it’s pretty much fan fiction, was Modelland, by Tyra Banks, which…it’s like….
Oh. I’ve been staring at the wall, now, a while.
Let me try that again. Tyra Banks is a reality star, and Modelland is fan fiction for her show. Which she wrote, herself, and she put it on Amazon. I read it, and I read its reviews, and one thing jumped out at me: the critical ones (and there were heaps of them) weren’t from people who didn’t want soapy trash. They were from people who did—but they wanted well-written soapy trash. Or coherent soapy trash, barring that.
(Did I like it? No. I adore rubbish—I wallow in it. But this was, like…smelly rubbish. And it had lots of vomit in it, and I’m very anti-puke. Someone gets the boak, I’m away.)
A lot of folks want to be writers. Both readers and writers seem to take courage from the stars of the archive. The authors see the kudos pile up; they think about taking the next step. The readers see it, and they think “I could do that.” And, hey: they might be right. People hop from fan fiction to just plain fiction all the time. Sometimes, they even turn their fan fiction into regular fiction. They call that “filing off the serial numbers”—like when Edward Cullen stops being a vampire and turns into Dorian Gray.
Cliffhangers and Episodic Content
The longer works told an interesting story: most of them were posted over a period of weeks or months, one chapter at a time. Comments on early chapters tended towards the sparse, only to multiply exponentially as the story progressed. This is the opposite of how things work in mass-market publishing: with each book in a series, more readers drop off. I’m not sure why the opposite is true of fan fiction. Maybe it’s because a chapter’s more easily digestible than an entire book. Or maybe it’s the cliffhangers plus the wait: most authors introduce a question or problem in the last paragraph of every chapter. (This isn’t unique to fan fiction—what is unique is the pause between chapters. You don’t get much episodic fiction in the mainstream, these days.)
I’m not sure how useful any of this’ll be to someone who mostly publishes mass-market SF&F. Readers in those genres aren’t big on cliffhangers or ambiguity, even if a new book comes out every month. Romance readers like it even less. Uncertainty means one-star reviews. And the sex, the human connection—it’s hard to fit too much of that into a 50,000-word military fantasy…IN SPACE. I suspect most readers would find it odd, given the context.
Bugger. I hope this doesn’t mean I’ll be doing more romance. Not that I mind romance. It’s just…man, I love a bloody ending.