The Age of Transformative Works Has Changed The Rules of Compelling Narratives

Here’s the thing: you know someone who either creates or consumes fanfiction — if you’re not creating or consuming fanfiction yourself, that is. I can say this with some authority, considering that over the past decade not only has the word “fanfiction” become ubiquitous in pop culture at large, the social media revolution has allowed for the mass organization and instant communication between and within fan communities.

Still doubtful? Fanfiction publishing platforms like ArchiveOfOurOwn and Fanfiction.net tabulate their libraries to number in the multiple millions with active user bases to match.

In short: there is a lot of fanfiction available, and a lot of people producing it.

The point is, if you exist in any sort of pop culture “sphere” on the internet (and you do, you’re reading this on the internet, after all) or even in real life (comic conventions, local stores, book clubs, all of the above), whether you know it or not, you’re interacting with people who regularly participate in the wonderful world of transformative works. The “myth” that fans actively engaging in fanfiction are in the minority, or sequestered out into an easily dismissed niche of pop culture no longer holds any water. The writing, reading, or otherwise consuming of fanfiction is as pervasive as it is unavoidable.

Like the age of social media ushering in the rapid evolution of people’s perspective and monumental shifts in the expectations of things like humor, syntax, and language, the age of transformative works has heralded shifts in fan’s perspective and expectations of narrative, genre, and story structure.

As the consumption and production of fanfiction broaches further and further into normalcy, the conventions that are created and evolve within it sublimate deeper into consumer markets, whether those markets are popularly understood to be fanfiction consumers or not.

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Culture, pop or otherwise, has never been stagnant and the chief industries behind its production are constantly evolving, from comics to film to video games to fine art. The barometers we use to assign value to the entertainment we take in have never been anything but moving targets. So it only goes to follow that when something gains the critical mass that fanfiction has gained over the years, it’s bound to cause some earthquakes in the status quo.

Yet, unlike the naked readiness industries have expressed in the adoption the absurdist humor, syntax, and memetic visuals brought about by the forward momentum of social media, the entertainment industry is reluctant, even hostile, at the idea of granting any level of credence to the changes brewing in the narrative landscape, care of the mass consumption of transformative works.

If you’re familiar with the baggage fanfiction commonly denotes, this probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise, either. For one, fanfiction is still largely stigmatized both in and out of professional situations for a laundry list of reasons interchangeably revolving around it’s dubious legality, a perceived link to fetishized or extreme sexuality, or misconstrued status as an outlet purely for amateur writers and fans.

For another, fanfiction is irrevocably linked to the communities who produce the bulk of it, all of which are traditionally marginalized by mainstream pop culture — women, non-binary individuals, and LGBTQAI+ communities, specifically. The reluctance to invite these groups to the proverbial table obviously extended to a reluctance to allow for the legitimization of the work they produce. Until very recently, fanfiction has been kept the “dirty secret” of these communities — something to only be whispered about behind closed doors, passed between one another in relative secrecy, confessed to with stuttering embarrassment and no short supply of caveats. This is no longer the case, thanks to the tireless work of these communities as they continue to fight for representation across the mainstream, but the reluctance to accept their fan-related work is still a looming issue.

Now, some of these connotations are fair and some aren’t. The legitimacy of professional and personal fanfiction-related hang ups is actually not a very interesting argument to make. There are a million and one reductive, half-understood excuses ready to be called upon to justify the dismissal of fanfiction as trite, trashy, amateurish,naive, infringing, or all of the above. None of them are new.

They’re also missing the point, which is this: fanfiction is here, it’s crawled out from the shadowy corners of the darkest and most hidden niches of fan communities and it’s aimed a spotlight on itself. Simply put? It’s not going away, and no amount of casual dismissal is going to make it go away.

The question then isn’t “is fanfiction valid?” but “what does fanfiction say about fans?”

With its new and exponentially increasing mainstream awareness, fanfiction has wormed its way into the proverbial zeitgeist of the narrative landscape. It’s accessibility — from the ease at which it can be found to its zero dollar price point to its roots in marginalized communities that are consistently sought out by young people in feeling themselves to be outsiders — not only make it a viable competitor for modern commercial pop culture, it makes it a viable replacement.

Now, that’s not to say that one day the completely not-for-profit, largely anonymous fanfiction producing internet machine will some day eclipse the multi-billion dollar pop culture mega industrial complex. It won’t, at least not literally. However, what the looming shadow of fanfiction will do — what it is currently in the process of doing — is sublimating the narrative expectations instilled by its own built-in, communally understood conventions of genre, pacing, and emotional pay off into the mainstream world. And in doing so, progressively cultivating an increasingly frustrated dialogue between industry producer and fan consumer.

Essentially, pop culture and pop culture’s largest growing fanbases are undergoing a sort of narrative aphasia. Their ability to understand one another is deteriorating.

The continued stigmatization of transformative works in mainstream pop culture industries is only stoking those fires. Accessibility and price are one factor in the fanfiction boom of the last decade, but another is pervasive dissatisfaction. People write stories for themselves and their peers because they are not being offered the stories they want to hear in any commercial way — and more often than not, the dissonance between the stories they’re given and the stories they want come from a complete misunderstanding of expectation.

Informally, fanfiction often gets defined as a “bandaid” for imperfect canon; a way for fans to right wrongs, adjust frustrating missteps, and even insert themselves or re-craft characters to be like them into worlds they love but find themselves conspicuously uninvited to. The need for fanfiction isn’t born of lack of love for mainstream franchises, but instead comes from a place of deeply driven passion to craft a more perfect version of a story that is very, very well loved.

The more visible and open the producers and consumers of fanfiction, and the fanfiction itself, become, the more starkly noticeable the flaws that necessitate those “bandaids” become both in critical and causal capacities. Similarly, as that noticeability increases, so does the viability of fans openly examining the content they consume with genuine regard to the fanfiction it exists in the shadow of. That viability also legitimizes the notion of openly proclaiming the official, canon content to be wanting by virtue of it not measuring up to the expectations set about by its free, fan-created cousin.

This sort of criticism often comes coupled with misconception that critique relating media back to transformative works inherently denote things like a bold faced desire for erotica, the 180-degree turn of a plot to include a romance otherwise not supported by the story, or a retraction of a plot point that causes conflict for fan favorite characters. While these are, in point of fact, some of the many roles and forms fanfiction stories can take on, they’re rarely — if ever — the actual focus of legitimate fanfiction based comparison or critique. They’re not the backbone of the issue.

Instead, the real focus of these comparisons should be presented and considered in the form of those shifted expectations. Through the lense of fanfiction, genre conventions are pulled apart and reconstructed in ways that are more closely resemble the actual desire of the communities consuming them. Romances are distilled down or sped up, made explicit or written away. Adventure and action is given emotional exposition that paves the way for grand moments of catharsis and connection between characters that shy away from — or lean into — violent, explosive outbursts. Special attention is paid to the interpersonal connections made between characters, platonic or otherwise, and that attention forms the cadence that the beats of exposition and plot will fall in step with.

All of these expectations are assigned words and names to denote what shape they’ll take, what the end goal of the story is, the strategy the story will follow to unfold. Regardless of how inexperienced or unpolished the writer or reader may be, this system of rules and signals informs the way fans are able to relate to the content they consume. The world of fanfiction is rife with shorthand, linguistic constructs, signals, and rules of etiquette to be observed by all parties involved — all of which, over time, have given fans a new language with which to talk about the stories they want to see, but formulate and conceptualize the problems and pitfalls of the stories they don’t want to see.

Obviously, not all of these organically established conventions and expectations can translate into a world outside of fanfiction oriented culture, the same way certain memetic conventions are entirely specific to the platforms they originate from. But curating of culture has never been a zero sum game.

The shape these new expectations take when realistically applied to mainstream content is, unsurprisingly, frustration and dissonance. Officially produced, formulaic stories that once flew to critical acclaim and success are now falling short, not because they’re missing the mark in a technical sense, but because more and more fans are able to readily articulate — consciously or otherwise — the idea that these stories do not meet their current expectations.

The superhero genre of entertainment is a prime example of both this evolution and this dissonance in missed expectations. Take the explosive popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a case study. On the back of the MCU, a subculture of fanfiction has taken the superhero world by storm, spiraling out of not only the films, but all corners of multiple superhero franchises. Just this year, a Kickstarter campaign for an unofficial anthology of fanart and fanfiction for “Stucky”, or the romantic relationship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, shattered it’s funding goal to eventually reached nearly $90,000. A quick search through craft marketplaces like Etsy or StoreEnvy will yield no shortage of ready-to-purchase jewelry, charms, art, and accessories for any number of iconic comic book heroes. Transformative works are in vogue for superheroes in a massive way.

However, vocal dissatisfaction from fans regarding actual superhero comics is also a snowball careening downhill — and the comics industry is struggling for it. There is a palpable disconnect between what fans — fans who are clearly ready to spend a considerable amount of money — are looking for and what they’re being presented. Modern superhero comics, as a genre, have become permeated with an air of confusion — as if editorial teams have begun taking proverbial shots in the dark, no longer able to readily read or interpret (and therefore, profit from) the wants of their fans.

Recently, the world of comics criticism has been ablaze with reactions to the solicits from Marvel’s latest crossover event. Called “Secret Empire”, the event centers around Steve Rogers after having spent nearly a year living with his past altered to make him a life-long agent of HYDRA, a amorphous, proto-Nazi organization that have long stood in as his arch nemesis.

Now, the idea of a superhero being corrupted and turned evil is far from revolutionary, least of all in the superhero genre, however, this particular instance seems to have struck the wrong chords, leaving some industry professionals scratching their heads.

As many of the event’s defenders have pointed out, even the idea of Cap specifically being corrupted, turned evil, or transmuted into something else has happened before and probably will happen again — so the question then becomes why is the story wrong now? Obviously there is a considerable layer of very legitimate moral concern about the value of that sort of story being told in the current political climate — something to which many critics have spoken very eloquently about at length. But that morality and ethical value is only part of the answer. The other part lies within the idea that, while the stories about the corruption of heroes may not have changed over the years, the expectation of readers in that style of narrative certainly has.

Filtering the trope of a hero being lost, mutated, or tainted in some way through the prism of transformative works yields a common theme that’s fairly easy to track. Fanfiction’s occupation with interpersonal development and connection makes for an interest, not in action or political intrigue, but in the emotional outcome. To put it simply, readers who are coming to stories about corrupted heroes are looking for the catharsis of the end; the return to form, and significant time spent on the personal cost that return to form will herald. They are not looking for punches, explosions, and an endlessly ramped up sense of secrecy and tension.

The dramatic tension for fans is no longer found in the actions the corrupt hero performs while they’re corrupted, the tension now lies in the actions the corrupt hero takes to heal themselves. The continued protraction of “Secret Empire” into a mega-event is already in violation of that focus. It’s in that way that, valid concerns in taste, dubious politics, and moral standing notwithstanding, the event is landed in the no man’s land of irreconcilable dissonance before it begins, and also why it can stand next to transformative works of a similar genre — a hero corrupted, bent against their will, becoming that which they most fear — and immediately pale in comparison.

It’s shockingly counterintuitive, that the comics industry should be even subjectively perceived as “floundering” with narrative targets when the superhero renaissance has gripped the world for nearly a decade with no signs of slowing down. It’s even more counterintuitive when the expectations of these fans can be readily distilled by the work they are producing for free — the same emotional catharsis, focus on interpersonal connection, and reworked approaches to genre convention that are indicative of fanfiction across the board.

The superhero genre is rife with “rules” that seem to be observed only by force of habit — the idea that fans are looking for the spectacle of consequence-free punching, kicking, and high-flying action that audiences were wowed by in 1945; the same ray-gun slinging, doom machine stopping sci-fi consumed en masse in 1965; or the same emotionless, remorseless nihilistic ultraviolence that collectors prized in 1986. None of these are abjectly false, but none of them are consistently true. The age of transformative works has ushered about a new list of expectations, and ways to articulate those expectations, for fans.

Pop culture, whether it wants to acknowledge it or not, exists today standing in the shadow of fanfiction, and a continued sense of eye-rolling, blatantly reductive dismissal only invites a greater disparity between industry and consumer. The gap will only continue to grow and expectations will only continue to change.

The effect may not be dramatic enough to be qualified as “devastating” in a literal sense, but as the face of the fan community continues to deviate away from the artificially constructed norms of old, to not take the time to study, understand, and respect the shifting sands of narrative and emotional expectation with regard to readily available fanfiction is not only furthering the isolation of entire demographics, it’s leaving money on the table.

The Rosetta stone for fan culture, a veritable road map to success, is right here, available online, totally for free. The industries producing pop culture products just need to take the time and learn how to read it.