New year, new you, right? Maybe one of your resolutions this year is to pick up a new hobby. Maybe you’ve decided you want to get into fanfiction. Trouble is, you’re not sure where to start. Well, have no fear. This is part one of Fanfiction 101 – this article is for aspiring fanfic readers. Stay tuned for Fanfiction 101 for writers! Now, I literally study fanfiction for my degree, and I have presented on fanfiction at academic conferences, so if there is anything you want to know that I didn’t cover in this article, feel free to ask! I am always ready to talk fic. My Tumblr handle is @csmithman if you ever want to chat about fanfic!
Presumably, if you’re reading this article, you’re already familiar with fanfiction. But in case you’re new to this, here’s a quick overview. Fanfiction is fan-created literary work based on established source material. It’s one of the major activities a fandom undertakes to celebrate whatever it is that they are passionate about. For fanfic readers, it can be a great way to get more out of your fandom.
So the first step is deciding what you want to read. Maybe you’re apart of many different fandoms; maybe you’re just getting into this sort of thing. Big time fandoms like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Marvel have massive fanfiction communities. Not your thing? There are tons of smaller fandoms that still produce great material. No matter your fandom, fanfic readers of all sorts will find something online. Once you’ve decided what it is you want to read, it’s time to go find it.
Where To Read
There are a number of different websites where fanfic readers can find material. Each platform has its ups and downs, of course, and your mileage may vary depending on what you are looking for. The main sites to find material to read are Archive of Our Own, Fanfiction.Net, Wattpad, and Tumblr. Fanfiction.Net is one of the oldest online fanfic archives. It was founded in 1998, astonishingly, and has become a mainstay in the fanfic community.
That long history shows in the amount of content available on FF.Net; there are a whopping 800 thousand fics for the Harry Potter series alone. However, in recent years some fans have left FF.Net due to their ban on explicit material.
Wattpad and Tumblr are a bit like the lawless west of fanfiction. Both sites allow a massive degree of freedom for their users. However, neither has quite the reputation that FF.Net once held or that AO3 is gaining. Both Wattpad and Tumblr have a bit of a reputation, as being places where unskilled writers publish their work. However, amazing writing can be found on either site, if you’re willing to look. Personally, my favorite site for fanfiction is definitely Archive of Our Own. Created by the Organization for Transformative Works, AO3 is user-friendly and has a great breadth of content. Many writers solely publish on AO3.
However, AO3 is a newer site, and you have to be invited to create an account. You can read without an account, but in order to comment, you need to sign up for an invitation.
So now you’ve picked your fandom and picked your site. But when it comes to actually reading fanfics, you might be lost. Sometimes new fanfic readers might wonder if they’re looking at a foreign language. There are a lot of acronyms and jargon to learn to navigate the wide world of fanfiction. Let’s break some of them down!
Most, but not all, sites will require writers to provide a rating for their stories. Think of this like a movie rating — it’s simply to guide you on what to expect in the story. AO3 has four ratings, plus an additional “Not Rated” option, that they define in their FAQ. General Audiences is going to be your G/PG fics. This is suitable for all ages and should not contain any disturbing themes, explicit language, or sexual content. Next comes Teen, which is akin to your PG-13.
This level of fic might contain mild swearing or hints of sexual content, but nothing too dicey, and appropriate for teenaged fanfic readers. Mature and Explicit are where things start getting a little more adult. Mature fics are going to be your R-rated material. Things get intense in Mature fics. You’re likely to see sexual content, but not explicit. You might also run into graphic violence and intense themes. Explicit is the highest level — think of it as NC-17.
Things get explicit here. These are your porn fics, your torture fics. Mature and Explicit fics are not to be read by anyone underage. Because “Not Rated” is unclear, it is often filtered out for underage fanfic readers. Writers tend to be very clear about their ratings, to prepare readers for what to expect.
One of the major terms you’ll see in fanfiction is “canon.” That might be confusing for new fanfic readers; I promise we’re not talking maritime weaponry. Canon simply refers to the source material. Therefore, for Harry Potter fanfiction, the canon would be the published novels and/or movies. Canon-compliant is a term you might see. This means that the story is set in the actual universe of the source material and does not contradict it in any way.
This might be seen in “deleted scenes” fic, which adds into the canon material, or “post-canon” that continues the story after the canon ends. Many fics are canon-compliant, but probably an even larger degree is not. That would be where you get into your AUs — alternate universes — or canon-divergences. AUs are where the story features the same characters but not in the canon universe.
Think coffeeshop AU (the characters work in a coffeeshop!) or similar. Canon-divergence is set in the canon-universe, but taken in a different direction. This might be a fix-it fic, or simply an interesting idea the canon didn’t address.
If anyone knows anything about me, it’s that I am intense about shipping. Well, shipping comes into play a lot in fanfiction, so it’s best to be prepared. There are a lot of shipping terms you’ll come across, so it’s best to be prepared. You’ll see categories like M/M, M/F, and F/F (male/male, male/female, and female/female, respectively).
But you’ll also see shortened terms. Het shipping is your male/female shipping, short for heterosexual. Slash shipping is a classic fandom term, which refers to same-sex pairings, regardless of gender. Gen is a term you might see that means no shipping; gen fics are purely platonic.
Tagging is an excellent way to figure out what you want to read. It can also, however, be an absolute maze for new fanfic readers. This is where a lot of fandom-specific terms pop up, and new fanfic readers might be completely confused. While some tags are specific to certain fandoms, there are some that you’ll see across the board. Fluff is fic that contains purely happy, sweet content. Whump or Hurt/Comfort are fics that dial up the angst to give readers some catharsis – and also some comfort in the end.
Angst fics don’t give fanfic readers that payoff – these are fics that purely focus on hurting the characters. You might see combinations of these (angst and fluff is surprisingly popular). Then, of course, there is PWP — porn without plot or plot? what plot. These are fics that have no purpose other than sexual content. A lot of writers will tag their fics as PWP and then still contain a plot, but this is so that fanfic readers who don’t want sexual content can more easily filter.
That’s the point of tags, of course. Tags allow you to find what you like to read. For example, you might read a fic you really love that is tagged “angst with a happy ending,” so you click the tag. That will bring you to other examples of these fics. Or you can search for the tags from the start. However, you can also exclude the tags you don’t like to avoid seeing things you find unpleasant.
Tip Your Waitress
The big thing for new fanfic readers to know is the etiquette of fanfiction consumption. A lot of work goes into creating fanfiction. Some fics out there are longer than any book I’ve ever read. I once read a fic that was over 300 thousand words long. For comparison’s sake, that’s over 50 thousand words longer than the longest Harry Potter novel.
So when you’re reading a fic, whether it’s 300 thousand words or 300 words, remember that a lot of work went into it. Writers have to not only come up with and write a fic, but they have to edit it, post it, and often market it if they want it to be seen.
That being said, be kind to your writers. They are not getting paid, they are writing simply for enjoyment. But one way to give validation to fanfic writers is to tell them how much you enjoyed their work. Different sites let you have different avenues. There is always commenting, of course. You can tell the writer directly how much you loved their works.
But some people may feel too shy to speak directly to a writer (I know I was for the longest time). In that case, you can still show your appreciation. Like or give kudos to a story to show you enjoyed it. Share it with friends or on your personal blog. Bookmark it so that other readers can see what stories you’ve enjoyed.
These things are like catnip to fanfic writers. I guarantee you that you are making their day with a kudos, a reblog, or a comment. Note: If you’re reading a work in progress, don’t comment “more” or “when’s the next chapter,” those are seen as rude and dismissive of the work the writer puts in.
Go Forth, Fanfic Readers!
You’re ready to take the first steps into a wider world, aspiring fanfic readers. You have the tools and guidance you need to find amazing literature on your favorite established works. Fanfiction can be an amazing thing to enjoy. You may even find yourself a new community out of it — through fanfiction, I have found friends all over the world.
Be warned: fanfiction can take over your life. You’ll find stories that take your breath away or make you sob. You’ll find new writers to cherish, stories you want to recommend to anyone and everyone, and quotes so amazing you want to get a tattoo. You might even decide to start writing your own fanfiction (in which case, stay tuned for part 2 of this article).
But it’s worth it. Fanfiction is amazing, and fanfic readers are blessed with a wonderful community and astonishingly beautiful literature.