The Common Weirdness of Fanfiction

I may have mentioned it a few years ago, but I’ll say it again: I occasionally read fanfiction. It functions as a kind of release from the “proper”, complicated reading I do for university on a daily basis. It entertains, and mostly amuses me, to read contrived stories about some of my favourite characters without having to think about it too much. I even sometimes write my own fanfics, just to get a sense of gratification that it doesn’t matter so much if it’s illogical, badly written or stupid. There’s always worse!

Then again, I am one to actually advocate fanfiction. It has been shown that while the literary quality of the material is lacking, it is a way for teenagers and adults who are otherwise not big readers to find a way into a reading/writing community. That in itself is a positive effect. It also has the potential to make people think about their favourite franchises, question the decisions story writers have made, and take their characters into new directions.

It’s a wide field. There’s spectacularly bad fanfiction out there, just as there is remarkably good stuff to be found if you’re looking for it. But there are certain rhetoric features and narrative styles that are massively common and to be found in almost all fanfics – or at least the ones I’ve read. So here’s a random list of all the observed stylistic weirdness we love to hate.

1. “She was wearing a slim-fitting, silky, mauve dress that perfectly accentuated her figure.”

The most obvious problem that occurs in the transition from a TV series or film to a written medium is the lack of images. A lot of popular series often depend on the phenomenal looks of their characters, and when set in a non-fantasy, non-space, present-day world, the clothes the characters wear become more than props. They’re a statement. They help viewers to identify with the styles their heroes wear.

When writing fanfiction, then, many writers try to capture this idea by vividly and over-exaggeratedly describing what people are wearing. (Actually, this also happens in bad novels a lot.) In a series, as long as the characters don’t directly discuss their appearance, it might sometimes even be ignored in favour of  dialogue and plot development. Sure, I want the protagonists to look good, I suppose, but I do care more what happens to them, right? This means that by describing in intricate detail what a person is wearing means drawing attention to it a lot more than in a film or series. It makes it seem really important and central to a reader: Description is there to give my imagination something to latch on to, and fill in the blanks.

The irony here is that a fanfiction reader always has a pretty clear idea what the characters are wearing, since they’re familiar with the show or film. Especially in real-world settings I don’t really need the author to provide me with images – I have plenty. Having another description clash with my own imagination breaks the illusion and hinders the suspension of disbelief. Still, the writers of most fanfiction want to be perfectly clear about what their vision of a certain scene is like, and style be damned, the clothes are an important part of that. There’s nothing to do but to nod, smile, and imagine something else.

2. Use ALL the focalizers!

In all types of narratives there’s always a narrator. According to Gerard Genette’s narrative theory, the narrator always has a certain perspective on the story they’re telling: Either they’re a force outside the story – having insight into a character’s thoughts or not; or they’re a character in the story themselves, limited to their own conscious thoughts and beliefs.

In fanfiction, focalization is all over the place! Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that in many novels the reader is presented with a variety of perspectives and several different narrators and focalizers (think only of the A Song of Ice and Fire series). But what I’ve seen in fanfiction beats even some modernist novels. Often just within one paragraph, several characters’ states of mind are described in close succession. It produces a peculiar sensation not unlike sitting in a merry-go-round.

The intent of this is clear, of course: Once again the writer wants to make absolutely sure we know what’s going on in a scene. In the fanfiction vision, there’s often no room for ambiguity or much interpretation. It’s all about describing the scene that the author wants you to see; you need to feel about it exactly what the author wants you to feel.

Once again: there are fanfics out there that allow themselves the leeway, and that leave something open to the imagination. But a lot of them jump around heads so much you get whiplash.

3. “She knew this was because of… something he said in the last chapter.”

Extreme obviousness is also a necessary consequence of what I described above. Fanfiction is often published online in installments, chapter after chapter spanning months and years until completion. Just like a good “Last time on…” or the weird “reminder” dialogues on TV shows, the fanfiction writer needs to make sure we know what they’re alluding to.

Many times, I’ve seen writers describe a character’s thougts and feelings in an overly referential manner. “She remembered that he had said that yesterday” or “he felt angry because she had been so mean just then” give me a clear idea what’s going on. Describing the feelings without explaining why they happen would give me something to think, to wonder why the character is reacting that way; but sometimes I guess cause and effect need to make perfect sense for the story to progress in the way the author wishes. I often feel condescended upon or treated like I’m dumb – of course I know why she’s feeling that way, I just read it all, damn it!

4. The inevitable sex scene.

I don’t even need to go into much detail here – not into as much detail as most fanfiction writers deem necessary. Many fanfictions are of the romance kind, and many a romance must end with the happy couple in each others arms. Preferrably naked. The same is true for bedroom scenes as with everything else: less is more. Please, dear authors, leave something to my imagination. I don’t want a decent narrative the one moment, and a steamy porn the next.

5. On the outside, she was always stern and professional, but on the inside…

This is probably mostly true for romantic fanfictions, and thankfully not for all of them. But somehow a lot of the romance protagonists follow the “underneath I’m different” trope. Even if a character is generally known for being a hard-ass, a fanfiction writer will somehow find a way to expose their softer side. Their “yearning” for romance and passion will eventually surface and can only be “satisfied” by giving in to the love interest. I haven’t come across much fanfiction that properly explored the complications of love and relationships, nor do I expect to. Oftentimes, a good old, comfortable love story is all you need to read.

But this is something that has gotten on my nerves more than once when it felt totally out of character, and it’s not only true for romance. The hardest part of writing fanfiction is nailing a character true to the original. I take my hat off before those writers who can do that convincingly, and maybe even get a love story in where I wouldn’t expect it. Sometimes, writers surprise you.

6. Alcoholics and Chain-Smokers

There is another technique that fanfiction copied from the visual mediums: Symbols. In a 45-minute episode or a normal-length movie, sometimes there’s no time to characterize everyone thoroughly through dialogue. Symbols are the things the characters do on the side; the little touches to their appearance, the habits acknowledged with one sentence, the props at their homes. One of the things I’ve seen most frequently in modern TV shows is the use of smoking and drinking.

Sure, there are shows where everyone smokes, but that usually makes a statement all in itself. But nowadays, it’s less common or even totally uncommon for characters to openly smoke a lot unless it has some kind of message to convey. Smoking, as I interpret it, usually stands for stress, nervousness and concern – occasionally, of course, coolness. Characters who worry, smoke. If they pull an all-nighter, they smoke. If they’re in a dangerous situation, they smoke. It goes “yes, I know this is bad for me, but in these special circumstances…” and we accept it readily. Smoking is a short-hand, just as drinking.

Drinking alcohol is similar to smoking: Depending on the context of the drink, it stands for recklessness, troubles or exessive hedonism; who can think of a troubled hero sitting alone by his table without a glass of whisky by his side? A glass of whisky means: this guy is in trouble, he’s so deep and emotional right now, he can’t deal without a drink. Coffee, by the by, has a similar function, of course. Again, alert people, hard workers, dedicated people don’t appear in screen without coffee, I think.

Sure, that copies real life, mostly. People drink plenty of coffee and whisky. But take that to fanfiction, and the same effect occurs as with the clothing. Mentioning the fact that characters consume alcohol or smoke has a much harsher effect than when there’s a glass somewhere on a desk. I’ve read some Superman fanfics that made poor Lois Lane seem not only like a terrible chain smoker, but also a serious alcoholic; the former basically stems from the movie Superman Returns, where her smoking is a running theme in her meeting with Superman. In the fanfics, it just seems ridiculous. The amount of drinks people consume to make them seem deep, edgy or troubled in a lot of stories is rather alarming and mostly absurd. It would suffice to describe the person’s thoughts and feelings, or describe their actions based on those feelings. That’s the beauty of written stories: you don’t need all the visual short-hands. Again, less is more, people.

That concludes my first, randomly assembled list of fanfiction tropes. Please understand that this is just a really selective and utterly biased collection mostly written for entertainment. What are your experiences with fanfiction?

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