A Beginners Guide to Reading Fan Fiction

Dana Lee

Staff Writer

Dana lives in East Haven, CT. She works for that Ivy League institution down the street and tries to read as many books as possible in her free time. Audiobooks and print books get equal love. Also, she unapologetically judges books by their covers and makes way too many playlists (c'mon, books need a soundtrack too!). Follow her on Twitter @lucyhenley115 .

Sometimes you might find it difficult to enter a new fictional world or to go back to the real world because your head and heart are so attached to the world of the book, TV show, or movie that you just finished. That’s where fan works come in. I love all the different kinds of fan created content out there: fan mixes, fan videos, fanart, and fan fiction. Reading fan fiction is a really fun and fulfilling part of fandom. There are so many talented and dedicated folks out there creating art within and adjacent to our favorites. Here’s a helpful beginner’s guide to help you get started reading fan fiction.

Getting Started

So, why fan fiction? Maybe you want to see characters in different situations, time periods, relationships, or even different fandoms. Sometimes shows get cancelled too soon, endings don’t satisfy what you were expecting from the story, maybe you didn’t see yourself represented. Or you felt a deep connection to someone that only turned out to be a side character and you wish they could have main character level adventures.

There are so many reasons we seek out fan fiction, but mainly it’s because we love the original works and we just want to spend more time with them.

Where Can I Find Fan Fiction?

Archive of Our Own or AO3 is my go-to site for fan fiction, for the sheer volume of works and the comprehensive tagging system. The tags let you easily sort through fandoms, ships, content warnings, ratings, relationship categories, characters, and so much more. You can truly just drill down to your preferred level of weirdo, which is just kind of a beautiful thing. The card catalogue could never.

Other popular sites for reading fan fiction include Wattpad, a story sharing platform for all types of stories, not just fan fiction. Their site is set-up like a bestsellers list, showing trending stories. is an older site with a simple interface and a really good collection if you’re looking for a fic for an older show, movie, or work.

Tumblr is also a good source for fan fiction. I love running across a short fic on Tumblr, because I usually come across it when I’m not actively looking for it and lots of them include pictures or gifs that add to the story. Beyond fics posted directly on Tumblr, it’s also a good source for fandom content and you can often find other folks recommending fics or posting master lists for a particular fandom or ship.

If you’re just getting started with fan fiction or you’re feeling intimidated about where to start because you’re not attached to any particular fandom at the moment, there’s a great newsletter called “The Rec Center.” It’s a weekly digest of fandom articles, fanart, and fan fiction recs.

Fan Fiction terms: The Basics

I’m going to be your personal Julie Andrews, sitting on a mountaintop with a guitar teaching you the basics so you can go off and understand and enjoy the world of fanfiction to your own tune.

The most basic and helpful fan fiction term to know at the start is canon. Canon is the source material, the original story.

So, now you can understand terms like canon-divergent, which is a story that starts in canon but diverges from the events of the original at a certain point. You might also see the term headcanon, which usually refers to an individual fans idea of why something happened in canon that is not necessarily supported by the source material. My personal favorite headcanons are those that explain a character’s motivations. So, inner monologue fics or fics that could have happened off-screen like during a time jump or a car ride. When a headcanon becomes widely accepted within the fandom, that’s known as fanon.

Another basic term to know at the start is ship. Ship is short for relationship, and in fan fiction it’s the term used to describe a particular romantic relationship between characters. In the tags it’s usually separated by an “x” or a “/” like “Darkling x Alina” or “Crowley/Aziraphale.” OTP is another term that’s usually associated with ship. It stands for “one true pairing” and essentially refers to a ship that is endgame for you.

Reading Fan Fiction: Types of fic

Now that you know where to find fan fiction, understand some of the basic terms, and you’re ready to get reading, here are some terms that will help explain the basic types of fics out there.

First off, there’s the fix-it fic, where the fic writer seeks to fix something that happened in canon. This is the kind of fic you look for if the canon ending didn’t quite work for you or if a couple you were shipping didn’t get together or a favorite character dies. They will usually be canon-divergent, taking the original set-up and changing things to get your preferred ending.

And sometimes you look up a fix-it fic so your faves JUST KISS ALREADY!

AU or Alternate Universe refers to works that take the characters from canon and change their setting and/or circumstances, like taking characters from a fantasy world and placing them in the real world or taking your sweet sci-fi babies and putting them in college. One of the most popular AU’s is the “coffee shop AU”; you can probably find at least one in every fandom, but I would like to put forward for your consideration the burgeoning “food truck AU,” a subset of the classic “Chef AU.” Start mining your fandom for the punniest food truck name, this could be the new “coffee shop.”

Let me tell you, there’s nothing so exhilarating as reading an AU fic and coming across that first line from canon, but in a whole new setting and context. That’s the good stuff.

One shots are basically what they sound like, a short work, usually just one chapter, not to be continued in a longer form. HEA is an abbreviation for “Happily ever after.” Other types of fic include angst, fluff, hurt/comfort, smut, crossovers, etc. Based on how big the fandom you are currently living your life for is, you can use types and tags like these and so many more to cut down your browsing time.

For more fan fiction terms and definitions, see our Guide to Fan Fiction Terminology or check out sites like or this absolutely comprehensive old internet throwback site.

Reading Fan Fiction: Tools, Hacks, and Tips

Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re getting started with reading fan fiction and some tools and tips.

  • Check the status. You can check the tags and author notes to see if something is a work in progress (WIP), if it’s ongoing and how many chapters the author expects to write, and if a work is already complete. You can also subscribe to a work or to a favorite author. So you’ll still get bill pay reminders and “hope this finds you well” emails in your inbox, but you’ll also get that sweet, sweet “posted a new chapter” note, too.
  • Bookmarking. Don’t be messy like me, use those “mark for later,” “bookmark,” and “follow” tools instead of maxing out your Safari tabs (did you know there’s a 500 tab limit!? the audacity!)
  • Screen lock. Listen I’m not saying most people are reading fanfic while laying in bed staring at their glowing phone screen in a dark room, lulling themselves to sleep after a stressful day with their latest OTP’s antics, but in case that’s you, try activating the screen orientation lock on your phone so that pesky landscape mode doesn’t keep interfering with your fandom appreciation.
  • Auto-lock. Same with the auto-lock on your phone screen. I’m a slow reader and I hate when my screen locks in the middle of reading. You can go into your phone settings and change the timing of your screen’s auto-lock or even turn it off altogether.
  • And finally, make sure to leave likes and kudos and kind, encouraging comments on your favorite fics.

Some Recs From Me

I will now very self-indulgently recommend some of my personal favorite fics.

Fandom: Game of Thrones

Ship: Jaime x Brienne

Any time I think about the way Game of Thrones ended, well, you know. Luckily, I’ll always have this early days fic “A Septa’s Advice” by Currawong, written way back at the beginning of the show and relating mostly to book Jaime and Brienne. I feel like you could have read this fic at any point during the show and enjoyed it. And knowing how things turned out, it’s definitely a safe haven fic for my tattered shipper heart. You can also check out this post on Book Riot: 50 Must-Read Game of Thrones Fan Fiction.

Fandom: Ghosts BBC

Ship: Captain x Havers

Ghosts is fucking wholesome, and no I would not like to rephrase that. A couple moves into a dilapidated country home where a bunch of ghosts from throughout the history of the property are stuck. Only one of the new owners can see them. Excellent. Now please watch it and come back here to read “A Bureau Needs a Key” by hbub1201 about how a WWII Captain can get his happy ending even when he’s already dead.

Fandom: Timeless

Ship: Flynn x Lucy

Timeless on NBC ended way too soon and omigod I miss Flynn and Lucy being angsty AF up and down American history. This fic, “Remember, Remember” by SecretNerdPrincess, explores what could have happened if Lucy went looking for a way to save Flynn after the finale.

Fandom: Forever

Ship: Henry x Jo

Forever was a wholesome show about a man who can’t die living in the modern world and trying to hide his secret while he works as a medical examiner for the NYPD. It was cancelled after just one season and technically the ending wasn’t a total cliffhanger, but the fic “Long Story, Cut Short” by Euphrasia really provided me with the season 2, episode 1 vibe that I needed for closure.