(This is Part I of “So You Want to Read a Fanfic: A Beginner’s Guide to Finding High Quality Fanfiction”, a four-part post series geared toward anyone interested in reading decent fanfiction. Given the primary audience of this blog, anime fanfiction examples are primarily used.)
What is Good Fanfiction?
We certainly know what bad fan fiction looks like but what does its ever elusive relation look like? While fans have varying ideas on what constitutes good fan fiction (i.e. To AU or not to AU?, is canonicity king of fanfic? Are OTPs morally correct or even reflective of reality?), it’s generally agreed that good fan fiction has most, if not all of these qualities:
Good fan fiction…
- is grammatically correct, with few (if any) typos.
Unless you’re going for an e.e. cummings-esque style for your fic, more likely than not, if your fic is riddled with grammatical errors to the point that it detracts from the reader’s fic-reading experience, chances are not very many readers are going to want to read it.
But wait! you cry. I’m just a budding, first time fanfic writer, my readers can’t expect me to proofread every single damn word. They shouldn’t flame me for a misspelled character name!
Actually, they can. Unlike your friends, family and affectionate strangers who you encounter and are undoubtedly entranced by your charm, readers have no emotional obligation to excuse you for any kawaii mistakes or grammatical faux pas. At best, they can laugh inwardly at your fic, which you’ve presumably poured all of your fan’s heart and soul into, and move on. Or…they can flame you and rip apart your fic in the most horribly crass way that will most certainly involve abuse of the English language (or in whatever language they choose to comment in).
Immaculate grammar can’t carry a bad fic but can definitely elevate it. Taking the chance to proofread and edit your piece before publishing it shows readers that you care and they’re more likely to reciprocate in kind if they see that your fic is a story worth telling. If you don’t care about your fic enough to run spellcheck through it, why should the reader care?
(An aside: Many fanfic writers–especially those who may be writing in a language that’s not their native tongue–use fanfiction as a means of practicing the language. Which is fine but it’s well worth their time to get a beta-reader who’s fluent to look over the fic to make sure that it reads easily.)
- has high quality prose that flows.
You don’t have to write like Shakespeare or Milton or Flaubert (or insert your preferred highly acclaimed literary writer of your choice here) to write decent fanfiction. But good fanfics do follow many of the basic rules of good fiction. Which means that at bare minimum, besides grammar, your sentences should have a natural flow and rhythm to them and should ideally sound good. Lush imagery can work tremendously in your favor, especially if it’s used in a way to breathe life into the canon material you’re working with. Obviously you don’t want to go overboard (there’s a surprisingly large subset of Naruto fans who are into to multi-paragraph long descriptions of Uchiha Sasuke’s luscious locks or pouty disdain but there’s a difference between rich prose and overbearing rambling).
- is respectful of the original source material/canon.
Canonicity is a touchy subject among fans who partake in fanwork production. To what extent are writers allowed to creatively play with the characters? How faithful should a fanfic be to canon? Are alternative-universe fics (AUs) automatic no-nos? Different writers will offer different opinions but there’s a general consensus even among writers who take huge liberties with canon that good fanfiction is respectful of the original source material and pays homage to canon. AU’s may genderbend Tachibana Makoto (Free!) into a girl, or change Akashi Seijuro into a fire-breathing dragon (Kuroko no Basuke), or we might throw Lelouch Lamperouge and co in a phantom opera house (Code Geass) but the characters remain recognizable. An integral element of canonicity is preserved. We put our beloved characters in new settings and scenarios but in the end, they’re still the characters we know from canon.
- has consistent style, tone and pacing.
Whether you’re writing a Naruto crackfic on accounting or a ridiculously epic-length deconstruction Harry Potter satire, I think we can all agree that with very few exceptions, a good fanfic should be consistent in style, tone and pacing. We’ve all been there while watching titles slog through their identity crises (a la Guilty Crown or god forbid, Yatterman Night), so it makes sense that if we don’t like our canon suffering existential crises (and not even compelling ones), we don’t like fanfiction that does the same.
Unless it’s done tongue-in-cheek for humor, such as this Bleach fic which chronicles Shinigami Tenth Captain Hitsugaya Toshiro’s steady decline into madness during his escapades with holy terror Vice Captain Yachiru.
- is engaging and brings something “new” to the canon/avoiding tired plots or regurgitation of canon.
You know that fanfic with an intriguing premise but then when you eagerly click on the link, you end up plodding on what is essentially a transcript of canon material? Naruto time-travel AUs (the poorly written ones) tend to fall into this trap. A lot. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Wave Country arc–the heartbreaking tale of Zabuza and Haku was what suckered me into watching 400+ episodes of ramen-eating, orange clad ninja philosophizing. But man, it is tedious to read a fic that start at the very beginning, giving us a half-hearted play by play of a story that we’re already familiar with, without adding something substantially new. This is one of the advantages fanfiction has over fiction–your audience will be one that is intimately familiar with the canon (no, trust me, that guy who’s going to pick at the inconsistencies of your characters’ wardrobe is not of an esoteric sort). So don’t regurgitate canon word for word for word–you’ll only get annoyed readers.
- has minimal use of author insertion/OOC/OC’s/wish-fulfillment.
As someone who has read a sickeningly large amount of fanfiction, I can say with good authority that in 99.9% of cases, most fanfiction does not benefit from the use of author insertion/wish-fulfillment characters. No matter how much you love your Mary Sue/Gary Stu, OC’s–especially OC protagonists–are a tough sell in the fanfiction world.* And with good reason. Not that OC’s are inherently bad–it’s just that most of them are either written poorly or are written for the wrong reasons (or the double whammy, where they’re written poorly AND for the wrong reasons).
When it comes down to it, the reason why people want to read fanfiction is because they want to interact with canon. Whether it’s the setting, the philosophical premise, or the characters themselves, fans want to see their canon in fan material. By shoving a brand new cast of OC’s that overshadow canon characters, you run the risk of alienating fans, who are already very opinionated about what they want to see in fanfiction. If you must use OC’s make sure that they serve a specific narrative purpose other than to satisfy your fantasies and that they follow the basic rules for good character development. No Sword Art Online fan wants to read a fic where Kirito falls madly in love with a Mary Sue OC…not when the fan has a huge canonical harem to choose from.
*Note: Except maybe in erotica. (Then again well-written erotica breaks most rules in good fanfiction) The only common exception to this rule is for “self-insert characters” in PWP/erotic titles. Since these fics are often written in 2nd POV and pair up the reader with the character, they are specifically designed for the reading pleasure of the reader…which makes them quite popular for reasons quite obvious.
The believability factor also relies on the canonical character staying IC, or in character. OOC, or out-of-character behavior is perhaps even more off putting than OC’s, because your audience knows those characters better than anyone else. And God help those writers who unwittingly stoke the rage of those rabid fans who can’t tolerate anything less than a pitch perfect representation of their canonical character. Want to write a convincing Slaine redemption fic (Aldnoah.Zero)? It better have some serious psychologist angst to make it an somewhat convincing one for Slaine skeptics.
- has a believability factor should be appropriate to what you set out to do.
Fiction, by its very nature, requires suspension of disbelief. After all, you’re being asked to take something fictional and assume that it resembles reality. Similarly, fanfiction requires a similar suspension of disbelief, particularly for fics that do not follow the well-trod path of canon. AUs, crack-fics, humor fics and other fics of a similar ilk are risky in that they aim to merge the familiar and unfamiliar at once–to twist canon to a form that is both new yet recognizable. When done well, the reader is left with a sense of wonder. Why didn’t Attack on Titan take place in 1990s American Deep South? Why the hell not have Free characters be merpeople? (hey, it’s practically canon anyway) Why not have a vignette collection where Natsume Takeshi becomes a god among spirits? All of these ideas sound ridiculous to the fan’s canon attuned ear but a successful writer is able to maintain the believability factor despite writing something that absurdly departs from canon.
- avoids anything that may obfuscate or make it difficult for the reader to follow/understand what you’re doing (i.e. multiple POVs, tenses, etc).
Nothing wrong with experimentation, but just because Baccano! follows a billion different characters and moves along a non-linear timeline doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good idea for your fic, especially if it doesn’t need it. Again, it’s not a hard and fast rule that multiple tense changes will condemn your fic to bad ficdom but multiple tense changes will confuse readers. And confused readers tend to be unhappy readers. Save for the dedicated few who might want to muddle their way through your fic, you risk alienating your audience by overcomplicating your fic. Write clearly, concisely and simply. And use discretion when you try something fancy.
Yes, this also includes limiting the number of extraneous, self-indulgent footnotes per page in your fic.
- has no unnecessary dialogue or no semblance of plot when needed.
Double negative aside, it’s been said that dialogue is the lifeblood of fiction, especially for longer works. Unless you’re writing an atmospheric setting piece or a character drabble, chances are, your characters are going to talk at some point in your fic. And there’s nothing that ticks off a reader than dialogue that goes on and on… without end or direction. Same goes for a fic that promises a juicy plot…that ends up not going anywhere. A fic doesn’t have to have a plot to be good but good fics that endeavor to have plots should follow through.
- Make an exception for aimless dialogue or plotless fluff pieces, like this Kill la Kill fic where Mako gives Gamagoori a special gift.
Tl;dr. Good fanfiction come in all genres, word count lengths, and styles but you can reliably sort out the bad ones by screening for basic grammar, readable prose, recognizable canonical characters, and no Mary Sues.
Now that we have an idea of what good fanfiction looks like, we can now work on actually finding good fanfiction. In the next post, we’ll look at how to navigate the fanfiction behemoth that is Fanfiction.net, including shortcuts on searching for good fics using FF.net’s search filter system, communities, and author profile recommendations. We’ll also go over how to spot certain red flags before we pick a fic (i.e. looking at the title, summary, fic review count).