What Writers can Learn from Fanfiction(.net)

About once a year I make a point of visiting the website Fanfiction.net, which as the name might suggest is a giant trove of fanfiction, perhaps the largest on the internet with 6.6 million titles as of March 2011. Fanfiction, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a special form of writing where you take existing characters, settings and situations from media and write your own stories with them. So, for example, if you were a fan of Harry Potter (as a few people are), you might choose to write stories about Harry’s other adventures, or even your own adventures at Hogwarts. The field is wide open, and the only limit is that it must be tied to an existing work of media fiction in some way.

It is of course technically illegal, since these writers are using copyrighted materials to produce their own works, but as long as nobody tries to directly make money off it the tradition of the rights holders has been to turn a blind eye to fanfiction. This is actually very smart, since fanfiction itself acts as a form of advertising for the different media properties and there are many fans whose first taste of a story may in fact be a fanfiction written by their friends. Seeing how passionate the story has made their friends, people often look into the original stories, and so new fans are created. (All at no cost to the original rights holders.)

Thus fanfiction.net, a place which is technically a giant repository of intellectual property theft, exists and will continue to exist as long as the bills are paid.

Now, I mentioned I try to visit fanfiction.net at least once a year. Why do I do this?

Well, it’s not because I’m a reader of fanfiction (I haven’t been in some time), nor am I a writer of fanfiction (as I’ve publically stated, I think it’s not good for writers who have any longer-term prospects), but I do think the site is an extremely valuable tool for writers to be aware of, and I’m going to tell you why.

Simply put- fanfiction is what happens when stories make readers so passionate that they want to create more of them. Some aspect of that story has struck a chord with readers/viewers to the point where they not only want more, but must have more, and want to share it with others.

So, based on this, fanfiction.net is a treasure-trove of pure hard data about what stories are actually resonating with readers. This isn’t stories that have been “liked” on some website, reviewed, or “voted most popular”, this is unfiltered data about what has actually struck a primal chord with readers. Not only that, if you were to really examine it, it would show you what elements of stories really worked with readers as well. Who did the readers really connect with? What part of the story did they like the most? What things do they tend to ignore when they remake their own versions?

The possibilities for data-mining are endless, but unfortunately few people have the time to do that much digging, and this is especially true for writers, who have to, you know- write.

The other issue is of course that not everyone writes fanfiction, nor does it apply to both genders equally. Charles Sendlor, on his fascinating blog Fan Fiction Statistics, was able to get actual data from fanfiction.net on users for the year 2010, and discovered (to sum up) that 78% of fanfiction.net users were female, and that the average age of fanfiction writers on the site was 15.8 years of age. (With the very vast majority of users being between 12 and 21 years old.)

So, if you’re trying to find out how middle aged women feel about James Patterson thrillers, then this is not the place for you. However, if you are trying to figure out what sells to young adults, step right up! Because this is where you will learn exactly what appeals to them!

So, how do you find this information?

Well, there are two things you should be looking for: popularity, and titles written.  You can access both of these easily by picking one of the nine major categories on the site and then selecting Sort by Popularity from the options at the top. (Unless you’re looking for specific titles, in which case you have to do it the hard way.) This will then show the different titles in the category by order and alongside each in brackets will be the number of titles (stories, not chapters or parts) which have been written about that particular story.

For example, let’s look under the “Books” Category for today (May 20th, 2012):

  1. Harry Potter (593,840)
  2. Twilight (199,947)
  3. Lord of the Rings (46,365)
  4. Percy Jackson and the Olympians (26,092)
  5. Hunger Games (18,950)
  6. Maximum Ride (15,783)
  7. Warriors (12,746)
  8. Phantom of the Opera (10,278)
  9. Chronicles of Narnia (9,522)
  10. Gossip Girl (9,169)
  11. Song of the Lioness (8,116)
  12. Outsiders (6,974)

I’m sure most of these top 12 surprise very few people, although there are a few curve-balls in there. Phantom of the Opera has over 10 thousand stories written about it? And the Outsiders, a book written in 1965 about teen gang members, is #12? It’s interesting what sticks with young people, even over time, isn’t it?

The “youth” of this list is clearly showing as well. These are almost all “coming of age” stories of some kind, with elements of fantasy or teen angst thrown in for good measure. Definitely a list you can see teenagers reading, especially teenaged girls.

But if you go further afield you will find this isn’t always true, the top twelve for the TV category today isn’t entirely a youth-oriented list:

  1. Glee (72,383)
  2. Supernatural (61,999)
  3. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (44,290)
  4. Doctor Who (37,517)
  5. NCIS (30,811)
  6. CSI (26,248)
  7. Stargate: SG-1 (25,828)
  8. House, M.D. (20,508)
  9. Criminal Minds (20,316)
  10. Bones (18,198)
  11. Stargate: Atlantis (17,785)
  12. Gilmore Girls (16,115)

I’m almost tempted to read GLEE fanfics just to find out how they handle the dancing and singing elements, aren’t you? But, the rest of that list is basically right off the Neilson ratings, with a few little geek twists. (Doctor Who for the win!) Although for all its popularity, it’s interesting that Star Trek didn’t make the top 12. (This may be because there’s other Star Trek specific fanfiction repositories elsewhere on the web, though.)

Similarly, most of the Movies list isn’t likely to surprise anyone:

  1. Star Wars (28,331)
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean (19,553)
  3. High School Musical (18,139)
  4. X-Men: The Movie (14,696)
  5. Star Trek: 2009 (8,285)
  6. Labyrinth (7,455)
  7. Newsies (7,020)
  8. Camp Rock (6,857)
  9. Transformers (5,106)
  10. Batman Begins/Dark Knight (4,950)
  11. Inception (3,477)
  12. Matrix (3,173)

But again, there are anomalies- Newsies? (A 1992 musical about paperboys!) What the heck? 1986’s Labyrinth is also an interesting one to find on the list. I also feel this list is much more male-centered, and I would expect to find many more young male writers in this category as well. (As I would with the Video Games section.)

Also note the lower numbers for the movie list compared with the other two. Nice to know that the print medium is alive, well, and kicking ass in its own ways. Maybe this is because books are a co-operative form of storytelling, and so much of the story is already in the reader’s heads. (Or insert joke here about movies having very little story to begin with…)

In any case, my final thoughts, having looked at the different categories, are these- What teens want (despite the Twilight Vampire romance boom) are stories about group dynamics and finding your place in the world. Seems obvious, I know, but at least it has hard data to back it up now.

At least, that’s what I took from my casual survey. Your mileage may vary!

Happy hunting!

Rob