So, I’m going to be that person. The person who bemoans the lack of originality in fan-fiction, an entire genre of writing dedicated to expounding upon previously-created worlds and characters.
I am aware of the potential irony in the situation, and also the sheer amount of fan-fiction I have sifted through in my nine years of readership. I am as a great baleen whale, adrift on the open oceans of the internet, filtering through fan-works as if they were life-sustaining krill. I am as a man standing knee-deep in a riverbed, panning for quality fan-fiction as if it were gold and I had a hope of fame, fortune, and wealth. I am as a sad college student, sitting on her laptop at three in the morning on a weekday hoping for some entertainment on An Archive of Our Own.
Wait, no. That last one isn’t a simile. That’s actually what’s up.
In my quite humble (or not so humble?) opinion, one of the greatest potentials of fan-fiction is its ability to facilitate new examinations and interpretations of existing characters. It can provide extra attention to characters we already care about and explore them in ways that does not have to fit in with the continuity or constraints of the source material.
Putting it simply: the sky is truly the limit.
With an attentive eye to detail and nuance in canon and enough writing skill, fan-work can increase the appreciation one has for the original media.
Alternate universes (AU) are really fun tools to work towards this end. From canon divergence to fabricating an entirely new universe for the characters to occupy, there is a seemingly limitless range of possibilities for an author to work with—especially if their understanding of the characters we know and love allows their personalities to survive removal from their original context. More often than not, however, the same plays are run repeatedly when it comes to alternate universes.
Despite the title, I’m not saying all of these ideas are necessarily bad, or that an aspiring fan-fiction writer should avoid them at all costs. I’ve read some truly amazing fanworks that fall into some of these categories, and if one believes it will be fun to go about writing an incredibly clichéd piece, they should by all means go ahead and pursue that course of action. If you’re not writing fan-fiction with your own amusement first and foremost in your mind, I have no idea what you’re doing.
Claiming that the writer’s satisfaction is first and foremost may or may not undermine this list. Perhaps it should be re-named “Fan-fiction AUs That Avid Readers Have Seen a Million Times and Some of Us Don’t Want to Read More of,” but that’s a little long winded.
1. The High School AU
The fact that the summaries and titles of many of these pieces is Just Another High School AU should really tip us off to something. The intent of these titles is to declare a sort of self-awareness (“Yes, I know, I’m writing a high school AU. Don’t you dare look at me like that.”) but instead belie the fact that there really are hundreds upon thousands of fan-fictions set in high schools, often little distinguishing one from the other.
Admittedly, the genre has a lot of appeal, as high school is an instantly relatable stomping ground for our favorite characters. Many of us spent four years pursuing secondary education and know its ins and outs, its triumphs, and terrors all to well. It’s easy to see why someone would want to see how a young Dean Winchester deals with an impending trigonometry midterm or how teenage Tony Stark would go about throwing an unforgettable house party after the homecoming dance. Shippers can see their OTP awkwardly crushing on each other from across the bio classroom or falling in love after being set up on a prom date. Despite high school’s innate grossness, these draws have led there to be over 7000 works tagged as ‘high school AU’ on An Archive of Our Own alone.
While this genre has been relentlessly explored, it doesn’t seem like much new territory has been covered. The same tropes and clichés keep popping over and over again. A transfer student has to sit next to some disagreeable hottie— what will happen next? How will the nerd and the jock deal with their feelings for one another? Will that tutoring session turn into something more? Gee, I do wonder. These fan-fictions can definitely be fun and interesting. No idea is inherently bad or boring in and of itself, or at least I would like to believe so.
It’s just that all the same bases keep being hit in the same stories over and over again. Deviating from the known path in almost literally any way could definitely keep this genre of ‘fic fresh and fun.
2. College AU
College AUs suffer from the same thing high school AUs suffer from— plotline myopia. Most college AUs I have seen have contained the “sexy professor catches notice of cute, shy student. Intercourse on a desk ensues” trajectory of events.
This is definitely a way to fast-track a PWP scenario. If that’s what you want to write and want to read, there it is…ready to go like a steam engine in the nineteenth century. A steamy steam engine. A steamy steam engine that has no academic professionalism and is more than a tad ethically suspect. Of course, I have read work that exists outside of this paradigm, usually involving roommate scenarios, sometimes something entirely outside of the box.
As usual, there’s nothing at all saying these fan-fictions can’t be good. However, I feel like this is a little like “X has a bad dream about a canon trauma event and Y is there to comfort them” fanfics. A lot of them are solid and enjoyable in their own right and all, but often you’re left wondering if you just read a repost of something that you already looked at before.
(As a note, I myself have the beginnings of a draft of a Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire college AU sitting around somewhere in my computer. It probably won’t ever see the light of day, but it does exist.)
3. Baby! Fic
Ah, yes. The fan-fiction where literally everyone is suddenly a child, battling for playground dominance. While cuteness and kindergarten crushes may kick start a writer’s imagination, there’s not much of a chance for an interesting plot.
To make a fic about characters as kids feel like it’s actually about, well, kids. And you have to really boil down a character’s personality to one or two traits.
This may be adorable for a while, but distilled characters and limited scenario choices usually cause pieces like this to fall flat.
4. The Coffee Shop AU
This is an extremely popular alternate universe, and I have no idea why. Perhaps fueled by real-life encounters with above-average-looking Starbucks workers, thousands of coffee shop AUs have been written (Usually about One Direction, which makes me feel a bit weird because real person fic doesn’t sit well with me. Once I found a fan-fiction about Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Kerry falling in love. I’m still upset about that— they’re like at the weird borderline of public and private figures and that makes it even stranger. Where was I? Oh, coffee shop AUs).
If the problem with high school and college alternate universes is that the same handful of scenarios are written about repeatedly, the problem with the Coffee Shop AU is that the exact. same. scenario. is written about repeatedly. It’s not even predominate, like in the case of the college AU— it’s almost universal. Search the tag on AO3 and see for yourself:
“Character 1 is a barista. Character 2 is a frequent customer they have a crush on.”
Having read a good majority of them, it runs in the same direction. Maybe the barista misspells the customer’s name. There’s a little banter at the counter. Inevitably, a number is exchanged. Sex probably happens, depending on how far the author wants to go with it.
If you have a burning desire to write such a scene, go ahead, but a lot of readers are going to avoid that work like a lukewarm cup of over-steeped tea.
5. The Flower Shop AU
See the above section, only replace coffee with “flowers.”
6. The AU That’s An Excuse To Not Write In Character
This one needs to be expounded upon. It’s not necessarily bad to have an AU that changes a character, especially not if it’s a canonical divergence that explores what might happen if pivotal events happened in different ways. These are generally great…and not the fan-fictions I’m talking about.
Especially in my early days of fan-fic reading, I would occasionally come across author’s notes saying things like, “this is an alternate universe; so they’re different.”
Which, you know, was always an immediate red flag for me.
Here’s an example:
Say you’re writing a Naruto fan-fiction that’s a corporate AU. In writing Sasuke Uchiha, you write him “different” because the formative traumatic event of his childhood that shapes his personality just seems ridiculous in the context. Maybe you’re right— but why not attempt to change the scenario and give him a universe-relevant reason to loathe his brother? He could start your story suspecting Itachi of the unsolved murder of his parents, whose deaths seemingly greatly benefitted him because of money or other inheritance issues. This could also start a really interesting plotline translating aspects of canon conflict to the AU if one wanted to write a multi-chapter story, and would definitely keep characters truer to the characterizations people have become interested in.
I think the issue with this sort of fan-fiction for me is that once you remove the character from their context and change their personality, it’s like we’re no longer reading fan-fiction about characters we’re already emotionally invested in anymore. You might as well be writing original fiction at this point (which is a testament to your presumed laziness is if this is in fact the case), especially if the scenario is set in a completely different universe with little semblance to the one of the canon.
7. Master/Slave AU
Okay, this one actually viscerally grosses me out. I’m usually not about yucking other people’s yum, but this is one of those areas where I can and will go there.
So, okay, we get it, writer. You’re kinky and like collars and chains; you’re into the whole dominance/submission shebang. But must you really bring actual human rights abuses into your alone time material? Without touching on potentially harmful depictions of kink (as made relevant by a certain AU fan-fiction that’s all the buzz right now— 50 Shades, anyone?), can your OTP just be roleplaying the dom/sub thing or something? Seriously, things that go against the Universal Doctrine of Human Rights (in this case, it’s stated explicitly in Article Four of said document) tend to not be sexy.
I know it’s just fantasy and fictional characters, but for the sake of all things good, I don’t understand what’s so appealing about someone’s humanity and freedom being denied. Even if it’s all in the realm of fiction, it still just doesn’t sit well with me (or many other readers) that the concept of forced servitude rocks some peoples’ jollies. Also, when real person fic falls into this genre, I really just have to take pause and hang my head. Someone I know once shared the link to this Panic at the Disco one that really made me question everything. If I were Brendon Urie, I would want a written apology from everyone who had so much as clicked the link.
Perhaps interesting things could come out of this genre. However, it’s a touchy subject, as it’s based on a very awful thing that actually has happened again and again throughout human history. The destroying and disenfranchising entire populations should not be taken lightly and one might argue that the denizens of the internet shouldn’t touch upon it in the admittedly rather frivolous medium of fan-fiction. I can definitely give that some credo.
However, I have definitely read fan-fiction that (vaguely) falls into this category and delves into some seriously messed-up territory to explore the psychological fallout and power dynamics of such situations—really surprisingly well-handled and well-written for fanwork. This usually doesn’t happen, though. It tends to just be smut where the slave ends up cuddling in their “kind” master’s arms, and then the author makes a statement about love or desire or something else weirdly jarring.
Ugh, no. Gross. Stop.
Typing that made me feel nasty.
Bad. Ick. Nope. Ugh. Stop. Please.
8. Pacific Rim AU
I too enjoyed Pacific Rim, but I really don’t understand why I’ve seen so many of these fan-fictions. The fic field isn’t as oversaturated with these as it is with, say, high school AUs, but I’ve come across at least one, sometimes a handful, in every fandom I read in. Usually they’re centered around the writer’s OTP being drift compatible in Pacific Rim world, and that’s pretty much it.
9. The AU That Exists Solely For Sex
So, every fan-fiction written, basically. Kidding! Sort of. Probably.
I’m not going to really get into this, but one day, a friend provided me with an alternate universe fan-fiction that took like four sentences to fuse the worlds of Transformers and Star Wars (so, it was sort of the middle space between an AU and a crossover, but I’m definitely counting it for this) to provide a situation in which a threesome between Optimus Prime, R2D2 and Princess Leia could occur.
It’s actually far weirder than you can imagine from the description of the aforementioned situation. Also, the fan-fiction came to me not through the usual channel of trawling the depths (or not-so-depths) of the internet, but on physical printer paper containing numerous copy-edits. Yes, someone copy-edited it. The mysterious editor failed to mention the bizarre situation, or the deeply disturbing acts described.
Instead, they focused more intently on tense shifts and clarity issues. Because that’s where the real problem lies. Obviously.
My friend claimed to not know where the copy-edits came from and mentioned that his friend had given him the papers. It’s kind of like the Voynich Manuscript in that I have no idea of its history, what it really means, or why it even exists, and also in that I sent it to Yale for preservation and scrutiny by scholars. You can see it there if you so wish (Not really).
Thus is the danger of the purely-for-sex AU. You only need this example. That’s how it works.
Anyways, reader, I hope you nodded along in agreement of this list! Fan-fiction is a limitless sea of wonder and horror, as is the concept of the alternate universe— it’s just a bit of a bummer that the same things keep being done. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.
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