Reviews, Writing

Fan Fiction that Transcends Fandom

I’ve written about fan fiction before, so you all know how I feel about it (what? you mean you haven’t read the entire backlog of this blog? What, do you have a life or something? How rude), but to sum up: fan fiction is great. It’s an excellent way to interact with a story that you love in a more tangible and personal way, and to build relationships with other fans, and also to hone your writing skills if that’s your goal. There’s a built-in audience that’s usually happy to offer friendly critique, and most fan fiction communities are pretty welcoming.

However, I think it’s fair to say that many fan fiction stories don’t stand on their own. Certainly, my personal favorites don’t–they tend to be the stories that fill gaps in the existing narratives. Most fan fiction doesn’t reach the level of quality expected from professional work, and it’s best enjoyed with a grain of salt. But, as with most things, there are exceptions. And occasionally–very occasionally–you will come across a work of fan fiction that not only stands on its own, but deserves to be published on its own merits. Here are some of my favorites.

Before I begin, I have to talk about the two things that these stories have in common: 1) they all heavily feature romance, and 2) the featured couple is gay. There is plenty of fan fiction that doesn’t focus on a gay couple, but the ratios are disproportionate at best. You could speculate about why this is for ages (I touched on some other ideas when I wrote about ships in fandom), but my own personal theory is simple. Fan fiction, by nature, is designed to plug holes (get your mind out of the gutter) that traditional media doesn’t. Even in Alternate Universe (AU) fan fictions, which feature a totally different world from the original, a well-written story will still focus on an internal aspect of the characters that isn’t explored in the source material. And what’s the biggest unexplored “what if” in most of these stories, and the most glaring missing romantic demographic? Homosexuality. That’s the missing piece in popular media, and so it is only natural that fan fiction would seek to fix that.

Also a lot of fan fiction is pretty smutty. That also just kind of goes with the territory. I’ll include ratings for your benefit, even though I think the fact that ratings systems consider sexual content inappropriate while letting violent content slide is absolutely absurd.

And now, without further ado, some shit you should read:

1. How I Survived My Summer Vacation, by Tamika Flynn, Age 12 3/4 by thingswithwings – Welcome to Night Vale (Podcast)

G rated. This is the shortest story on the list, which is why I have put it first–it’s a good place to start if you aren’t a person who reads fan fiction. It’s also a good place to start if you aren’t familiar with any of the source materials listed here, because its relationship to Welcome to Night Vale is peripheral at best. The story takes place inside a sub-plot from one episode, featuring a character who was mentioned only a couple times on the podcast itself. Tamika Flynn is a middle school student in Night Vale, and she is selected for the summer reading program at Night Vale Public Library. She must read avidly and critically in order to protect herself from the eldritch horrors called “librarians” who run the place, and along the way she builds an astoundingly cute and believable relationship with another student, Beatrice.

Summer Vacation has some wonderfully fleshed out original characters and a darkly entertaining world, but the real victory of it comes in the carefully selected thematic relevance of the books on Tamika’s reading list. The first book is Lord of the Flies–a novel about children who must band together to survive, but end up turning on one another instead; Summer Vacation stays quite close to this idea thematically, while subverting it in intelligent and hopeful ways, ultimately turning it on its head. There’s one mistake where a book gets repeated, but for the most part, the stories all speak heavily to Tamika and Beatrice’s emotional arcs, which makes this story an absolute delight to read if you’ve read at least half of the books in question. It’s a story that rewards you for thinking about stories as deeply as Tamika must do to survive.

2. The Seventeenth Step by Katie Forsythe – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (novels)

Mostly X-rated. Yes, these can get pretty smutty, but believe me–by fan fiction standards, it’s super tame, and the sex is always justified. This one isn’t a single fiction so much as a collection, but the sheer quality of the writing merits it a place on the list. Forsythe’s writing seriously ought to be in print, but lucky for you it’s free on the Internet. Some of the stories are one-shots, while others stretch over multiple chapters, but they are all carefully crafted and meticulously paced. Unsurprisingly, considering the sheer volume of academic study on the subject, the stories all feature Doyle-era Holmes and Watson as the central couple. They’ve been slash-shipped since the first time Doyle set pen to paper.

What sets The Seventeenth Step apart is the careful attention to detail with regards to the time period and the sensibilities of the era. At no point do Holmes and Watson forget the sheer peril of being homosexual, and the risks they are taking, and what might happen to them if they were outed. Most of the stories center on this theme, approaching it from different angles and with different versions of the characters. Similarly, the stories are intensely respectful of the original canon, often including footnotes to indicate where in the stories the fan fiction fits. Some of them even have Watson admitting that he lied in his public portrayal of the events, in order to conceal their relationship, which is particularly entertaining if you’re familiar enough with canon to see the holes in the original stories.

3. Performance in a Leading Role by Mad_Lori – Sherlock (TV)

X-rated. Yeah, I know, same characters as above–at least kind of. If you think about it, this is really a fan fiction of a fan fiction, since it’s based on the Sherlock TV show, but personally I like to think of it as an adaptation of the original series. It’s an AU fiction, in which Sherlock-style Sherlock and John are both big-time Hollywood actors who fall in love after starring together in an Ang Lee film. It’s super long, so reading it is no small task, but I think it’s well worth the time. The characterizations are spot on across the boards, and the fiction also includes quite a lot of well-researched and surprisingly accurate Hollywood-insider type information. Most of the chapters are accompanied by footnotes about the real-people characters and technical terms used in the chapter.

While it is essentially a love story, Performance in a Leading Role also offers some really intelligent commentary on the hypocrisy of the treatment of homosexuals in Hollywood, and insight into the sheer amount of politics involved in producing a movie. You can’t completely divorce the story from the TV show because the characterizations are so clearly drawn from the show, so if you simply changed the name it would still be obvious who they were based on (unlike that other fan fiction-turned-regular-novel which shall not be named but you know what I’m talking about). Even so, you don’t have to have watched the show to appreciate it. It has its own back story that only occasionally references the source material, and then only in really vague ways.

It’s also worth mentioning that this fic often gets criticized for being “real people” fic, which is where fans of a show write fiction about the actors who play the characters instead of the characters themselves. I don’t think that’s really a fair criticism, though, because the characters are clearly based on their show counterparts, right down to the mannerisms. They just happen to be actors who look like the actors. Sad that the fic missed the opportunity for the actors to meet their look-alikes, though.

4. The Johns Green by Certainly Uncertain – Swindontown Swoodlipoopers video series, by John Green, via hankgames (it’s complicated)

PG-rated (swearing/sexual references, but no actual sex happens). Also quite long. I saved this one for last because it has the weirdest source material of the bunch. So weird, in fact, that it is probably going to make you judge me, but HEAR ME OUT.

First, some background: The Johns Green is a fan fiction based on a popular segment on the youtube channel hankgames (created by Hank Green of the vlogbrothers). The segment features John Green playing the video game FIFA World Cup (soccer/football); he named his team “the Swindontown Swoodlipoopers,” then named his two star players after himself, so that no matter who scored it would be John Green who was credited with the point. Over the course of the videos, John talks about a variety of topics, and develops a mythos around the players on his team, giving them all individual personalities. Eventually, it comes out that John Green and John Green (nicknamed “Bald John Green” and “Other John Green” for clarification purposes) are married. The Johns Green is the story of how they met, their early courtship, their wedding, and their coming out, and it is so well written you guys.

Okay, yes, the source material is probably the most absurd thing in the history of ever, but it has very little to do with the story. The fic itself draws inspiration from the videos, but you do not have to see any of them to understand it. Honestly, this is probably the story that stands the most chance of being publishable, because there is very little in the way of copyright violation. For the most part, it’s just stuff the author made up with zero precedence from the source. I don’t even watch the videos that often, but I was hooked on this fic until the very end.

The Johns Green finds its strength in the slow-burn of the relationship between the two leads, and its careful use of perspective. Most of the story is told by Other John Green, but key moments are handed off to other characters to flesh the world out and make it all feel very real. Too often, “multiple perspectives” in stories all end up sounding like the same person is talking, but not so in this one. Additionally, like Performance in a Leading Role, this story is also well-researched. Footnotes regarding language differences between American and British English are common, as well as explanations of football-related terms. Plus, it also manages to be quite funny while also touching on intense emotional topics. It’s really fan fiction in name only, like the rest of the stories on this list.

Derivatively yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“Fanfiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker.” -Lev Grossman

5 thoughts on “Fan Fiction that Transcends Fandom”

  1. I love fan-fiction and am so happy to see other people defending it and critically analyzing it. I think it’s a phenomenal way to continue and to probe a story, to dig ever deeper into a character’s mind by placing them in new situations and testing their reactions. I’ve written very little fan-fiction, but I’ve read a lot, and always feel faintly sad when I find a story that is legitimately publishable, but would be held back in the traditional market for one reason or another (often because of the slash elements).

    Thanks for this– eager to read your other blog posts about fan-fic!

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