Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Could you be any meaner?

So I finally read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, which it’s taken me far too long to get around to, and I really enjoyed it. 

As an introduction to fanfiction, Fangirl is excellent. The main character is shy bookworm Cath who, along with dealing with love, family and going off to college with a twin who wants them to start living separate lives, also writes a fan fiction series based on the bestselling Simon Snow books (which is basically Harry Potter with different names).

The mad thing is, fans of Fangirl got so hooked on the extracts of Cath’s ‘fan fiction’ Rowell ended up turning them into a trilogy of novels, which I’m also now enjoying. 

I’ve always been aware of fanfiction, and the teens in my writing group LOVE it, but I hadn’t really read much so, intrigued, I went online to Archive Of Our Own to have a look.

It was a revelation.

I thought fanfic was all written by teens but apparently not. There are writers of all ages on there. And, OK, there’s some very adult content (you can filter it out), but there’s also absolutely everything else you can think of, and the thing that amazed me is the number of ‘hits’ and ‘likes’ some of the stories have. Some of the Harry Potter fanfics have tens of thousands of hits. And they’re not short stories, some of them are twice the length of the average novel and more. I found one Harry Potter that had 350 chapters and over a million words. Another had over 2 million hits and 45,000 ‘Likes’ (or ‘Kudos’ as they’re called on Archive).The numbers are actually staggering. And we thought kids didn't read.

Imagine having tens of thousands of readers! Most kidslit authors (or adult authors) would be ecstatic to think ten thousand people had read their work. I don’t think sales figures often approach that unless you’re quite well known. If you want to reach readers maybe fanfic is the way to go! As long as you don’t mind not making any money obvs. 

The other thing I noticed is that, obviously there’s a huge range in quality in fanfic. I read some that was very good and I enjoyed it so I wouldn’t be sniffy about it. But there’s also a lot that isn’t great and one common problem I noticed (beyond basic writing craft problems) was this:

I think people write fan fiction because they read or watch something and fall in love with the characters. Like deeply, obsessively in love. And they don’t want to let them go. So they write their own spin off stories and alternative versions. But the trouble with being that in love with your characters is that you can’t bear to let anything bad happen to them. 

Too many fanfics are just cosy wish-fulfilment scenes where everyone gets a happy ending and nothing too traumatic happens. It’s understandable; the writers just want to hang out with those characters again, they don’t want to make them suffer. But it doesn’t make for good fiction. 


So what I took away from that is: Be mean! Be horrible! Be downright cruel to your characters. And when you think you’re being cruel, be a bit worse. Whatever you’re writing right now, ask yourself this. Could you be a bit meaner?

So what do you reckon? Would you/have you ever written/read Fanfic? How would you feel if someone wrote Fanfic of your book? (I’d be freaking thrilled.)

Also, go read some Rainbow Rowell if you’re looking for a good page-turner!

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,
Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page



Nick Garlick said...

I'd probably be rather pleased if someone wrote fanfic based on a book of mine. But at the same time, I've always thought of it as one of those endless Netflix serials that winds itself in knots trying to keep the story alive. I wonder if one reason fans reacted so badly to the ending of 'Dexter' was because he didn't end up happy.

Stroppy Author said...

On the other hand... maybe the sage publishing advice about making characters suffer is not what readers want to see if they are flocking to annodyne fan fic? To see high readership for soppy-plot and low readership for challenging-plot and assume the way to get more readers is to make your plot more challenging is a bit of gymnastic logic, no? I mean, I'm with you in terms of what makes a good book, but those readers obviously aren't

Kelly McCaughrain said...

I see your point, Stroppy Author, but I think actually the reason they fall in love with those characters in the first place is BECAUSE they've gone through those challenging plots with them. If they hadn't, they would never have cared about them at all. But once they're in love with them they just want to hang out with them and make nice things happen to them. This is exactly why I couldn't write a sequel to my book! By the time I got to the end I cared too much to make anything bad happen to them ever again!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

I didn't watch Dexter, Nick but you might have a point. I couldn't handle a million-word epic either!

Anna Bowles said...

That is a standard response from someone just discovering AO3! I know some people who only read fanfiction, not published books. They actually say this is because 'it's better'. What this usually means is that fanfic can go all sorts of places that publishers won't. When a really skilled writer covers a topic that is important to you, that features characters you love, and that you can't find in on the bookshelves... bingo.

By a weird coincidence my YA novel about fic, and some other things, just came out yesterday(!) Fangirl is a nice read but it is that... nice. Rapids will tell you what you really want to know.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Anna, this sounds great! It seems like a massive world that I bet most writers don't know the first thing about. But some kids obviously love it so maybe we should check it out!

Becca McCallum said...

I don't write fanfic, but I have friends who do (LOTR and Harry Potter, Brave, also a Tintin one, and a fancomic of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts) and their stories are well researched and written with care and attention to detail. I used to be a little sniffy about fanfic and I still ache at the thought of all that effort being put into writing something that isn't fully 'your own', but I enjoy reading my friends' stories and seeing where they take the characters. If kids love it then all to the good - anything that gets kids reading and interested in writing should be welcomed.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Absolutely Becca, I read a few that were brilliant. In fact, afterwards I couldn't distinguish in my head what was the original and what was the Fanfic, they felt so authentic!