Or at least, the plot isn’t what’s most important to me most of the time.
Hey! Get your mind out of the gutter! (I mean, yes, I do read explicit fics. But that’s not the point here.)
According to my reading log, which I have doctored to include a “fics” tab and to pull the number of fics and number of words into stats, I have finished more works of fan fiction so far this year than I have books. Some of them might have been only a few thousand words, but others were well into the six-digit category. They all have some manner of setting — soul bonds or happenstance meetings or time travel — but that setting is just the setup for a relationship. Because come on, I’m still me: romance lover through and through, I got into fan fiction for the HEAs. (We won’t talk about the fact that before I even knew the word “fan fiction” Baby Jess was writing tragic, secret baby, racebent-except-for-Mercutio Romeo+Juliet stories on a DOS computer; thankfully, those floppies are lost forever.)
There’s a period in my reading history that, were there to be a graph, would be relatively low on reading books of almost any variety that weren’t assigned for school. As a romance reader, I have to remind myself that I *was* reading, sometimes to the detriment of my other life experiences. I was even reading the basic equivalent of romance novels: there was a central relationship, whose establishment and development was central to the story’s progression, and there was always a happy ending. It just so happened that these stories were freely available online, and their characters were based (in my experience) on two central properties: Pride and Prejudice (from Junior Year of high school through my second year of graduate school) and Twilight (for the rest of grad school and into grad school 2.0). Eventually, I would start to explore other properties, from Jane Eyre to James Bond to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And then anything else my heart desired — whether it was the Southern Vampire Mysteries or The Magicians or Crash Landing On You or Check, Please!
There is literally fan fiction for nearly every story in existence, and I regularly seek out the ones that satisfy a particular need. Not just for new versions of a story (as in the case of Pride and Prejudice) or fix-it fics or sequels. But for being able to be in a reading environment where I could watch someone take familiar characters and play with them; allow them growth of character and love stories that their original creators couldn’t or wouldn’t have offered them.
So let’s talk about why I turn to fan fiction when I have a perfectly lovely crop of romance novels and other potential HEAs right at my fingertips:
Fan fiction is easy for so many of us to read because we tend to only enter worlds that are already familiar to us. We know the people; we know their backstory and their history and their motivation. We know what drives them towards goals and towards people. We love to love them and love to hate them, and want to see what certain situations will do to and for them. We love the way our favorite creators meld and mold them to their wishes, so that one small change can alter an entire universe.
And while I don’t read many alternative settings anymore (don’t @ me, but there are only so many coffee shop and college AUs a person can read), sometimes we just like to see what happens when a certain character archetype is placed somewhere completely different.
But it’s not just the characters for characters’ sake. It’s about seeing what a writer will do to make those characters the same, but different. How they will take what is familiar and offer elements of growth and development — for the sake of those both inside and outside of the story. How will they take someone who had done something completely reprehensible and turn it around? How will they make a character who has behaved both childishly and irresponsibly and turn them into a caring, responsible adult? What will they do to someone who needs a trial by fire in order to become the person they were truly meant to be?
Or maybe how do they soften the war-hardened edges of someone who needs that softness, for the sake of their own personal growth and their relationships with others, whether romantic or platonic?
This kind of deep dive into the mind of a character, especially when they are trying not to fall in love with someone they shouldn’t for whatever reason, is what calls me to fan fiction.
What else do I read it for?
I’ve said it enough times, but I’ll say it again: I live for the HEAs. And I like to wander through ship tags like I’m at the Mall of America. How would someone interpret this possible relationship? What if these people fell in love while they were saving the world? Some are wildly popular ships that have dedicated websites and servers going back generations. (RIP, Hawthorn & Vine.) Some are ships that I see potentially playing out when watching a movie or television series or touring play and look to see if anyone else saw what I did. I want to see certain personalities interact, maybe exchange some witty banter. I want to see them being tender and vulnerable with each other, in ways that they can’t always be in their canon situations. I want to see them grow into that tenderness and vulnerability because they have grown up enough to realize they can, with or without the help of their partners. I want to see them nursing each other back to health after a big fight (Marvel), or rescuing someone from a kidnapping (Bond), or challenging the gods to save their lover (Xena).
Sometimes, I want them not to die. (CLOY. The Magicians. MCU. Timeless. Pirates of the Caribbean. Hannibal. I continue to hold many grudges.)
It’s them figuring out how to be happy, healthy, and moderately sane — and good. Usually. There’s some gray area allowed. But I don’t want chaotic evildoers in my HEAs. (Okay, except maybe Murder Husbands.)
Interestingly, Pride and Prejudice in a new setting isn’t the kind of thing I go for anymore. Maybe because, on top of reading a million and one in my school days, they’re being published as actual romances now. I don’t wonder “how is Mr. Darcy going to screw up this time” anymore. I will read the fuck out of a twist, though. You know those Disney Twisted Tales? Love them. Love. Them. So I’d probably still enjoy those “Lizzie and Darcy get stuck in a cabin in the woods the day before he proposes” stories. Or “Mr. Bennet dies and Mr. Collins casts the Bennets out” stories. Or hell, even the “Colonel Darcy and Lizzie are sword-wielding ninjas” stories. (I actually have Pops of those characters, I’m very proud.)
In the end, it all comes back to that one small change. Or, you know, big change. What happens if some magical element sets something in motion to change the entire course of a story? That can be an allegiance change in Sixth Year, or Thor falling from the Bifrost instead of Loki. Cap, Bucky, and Peggy meeting Don, Cosmo, and Kathy at a USO event. That can be factoring in a soulmate mark, or three people getting trapped together in an enclosed location. What key elements of a person’s character, of their character growth, can happen because of that change?
How do we take people that the world is intimately familiar with, twist them inside out, and offer them life beyond what their original creators could possibly dream for them?
That’s what I read fan fiction to find out.
And I love every single minute of it.