What Fanfic Can Teach Us About Writing Fantasy

Our Flag Means Death has a devoted fanfic community. - Photo: Nicola Dove/Max
Our Flag Means Death has a devoted fanfic community. - Photo: Nicola Dove/Max

Everyone who reads both books and fanfiction knows there’s a clear difference in reading speed. While a 500 page book might take a week to get through, reading at “fanfiction speed” can allow a reader to devour a similarly sized fic over the course of one night. How is fanfic routinely able to defy the bounds of eye strain and the need for sleep?

It’s possible because fanfiction is some of the best writing out there, excelling at hooking readers and keeping them enthralled. Given that this is the goal for any writer who wants to gather and grow an audience, studying fanfiction and how it pulls off this particular magic trick can help unlock the secrets to telling a story that captivates fans. Over the years, I’ve consumed a massive amount of fanfiction, which I think differs from many traditionally published stories in three ways—all of which are lessons that SFF authors can take to deepen their connection with their audience.

First, fanfiction isn’t afraid to unabashedly give readers what they crave. In fact, I’d argue that the primary reason that most fanfic is created is because the writer has an idea they can’t let go of that they would have loved to see in a property. Sometimes these are relationships—especially queer ones—which never appeared on-screen or on the pages. Other times, it’s an exploration of marginalized identities and the ways in which marginalized individuals might fit into the world. But most of all, fanfic writers delight in playing in the trope sandbox. Whereas many authors may be afraid of being labeled “tropey” or “predictable,” fanfic writers and readers actively create and search out fics that feature popular tropes.

Readers can easily scratch particular itches on Ao3 (Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works), one of the most popular fanfic hosting sites, using the tag filtering feature. There are nearly 150,000 stories on the site tagged “family of choice,” 133,000 tagged “enemies to lovers,” 195,000 tagged “mutual pining,” and 133,000 tagged “idiots in love.” There are a staggering 310,000 fics on Ao3 tagged “emotional hurt/comfort,” a style of fic in which characters help each other salve emotional wounds. With this kind of demand, I would argue that when SFF writers embrace tropes, they’re liable to attract a large audience who happily consumes anything that can easily be made into a trope map.

Second, different elements of craft are emphasized in fanfiction—there’s a heavy focus on dialogue, character development as opposed to plot, and deep worldbuilding and atmospherics. For example, there are currently over 51,000 works on Ao3 under the tag “banter,” and readers of fanfiction routinely rave over writers who can craft the kind of bouncy, jaunty repartee that fanfiction is known for. Crafting compelling dialogue is tough—which is why authors should study just how good fanfic writers are at it. Part of this comes from knowing the characters fully, which gels with fanfiction’s emphasis on character development and interaction over an insistence on plot driving the narrative. Some of the most gut-wrenching fics I’ve read have had little to no plot—taking place in a single night or entirely in dialogue, for example. The best fanfics leave readers feeling like they know and love the characters featured even more, which generates an emotional connection. It’s often aided by a special focus on worldbuilding and atmospherics, explaining and building out minutiae of an existing world so that readers can more fully imagine it and immerse in the all-important vibes.

Third, as a result of craft techniques mentioned above, fanfiction is driven by the emotional resonance that both the writer and the reader have with the work in question. For writers, fanfiction has allowed a generation to cut their teeth as authors, completing stories over the course of weeks or months or years. It taught a generation of writers not just how to craft good stories, but also that their stories were both important and valued by readers, and that there was a market for content that subverted the overwhelmingly white, cis, heteronormative paradigm of books, movies, and TV shows in the early 2000s. Not all of us were fanfic writers—I wasn’t, merely an avid consumer—but seeing the kudos and bookmarks and comments pile up on stories that were quiet, or queer, or any number of other things, had an undeniable impact. They proved that there was an audience for the kinds of stories we wanted to write and share with the world. And now some of those fanfic writers and readers, me included, have taken these insights and gone on to publish—my debut adult fantasy, The Sins on Their Bones, comes out on May 7, 2024, and features banter, pining, hurt/comfort, and each and every one of my favorite tropes (lovers to enemies/friends to lovers, anyone?).

For readers, fanfic delivered the kind of connection that everyone hopes to have with a favored book—a deep and lasting resonance that can lead to rereads upon rereads. Fanfic readers want to sob their hearts out, scream over the romance of imagined pairings, and feel when they consume stories. The best fanfic writers know this, and they angle their works to evoke precisely those emotions as a driving goal. It makes for great stories that readers don’t want to put down—and what author wouldn’t want to know that real human tears were produced over something they wrote?

My hope is that the writing community can take the lessons of fanfiction—craft, content, and otherwise—and use them to continue to transform the publishing industry. In the best sense of transformative works, and giving readers what they want to read, fanfiction’s inspiration can lead to even more traditionally published books that speak to readers. And then maybe things will come full circle, and those books will inspire fanfictions of their own from a new generation of creators.

Laura R. Samotin’s The Sins on Their Bones releasesMay 7; you can pre-order a signed, personalized copy from Brooklyn’s Ripped Bodice bookstore here.

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