Let me start by saying this might be the unlikeliest blog topic I’ve ever written on. List the most outrageous writerly topics, and I would have thought, before today, I would tackle any one of them before this one. But J and I had a two hour drive Sunday, and our most fruitful conversations often happen on the road. And on this trip we were discussing what I’ve learned from reading dirty fanfiction.
Fanfiction is not something I’ve read much of before. There is a rather excellent Harry Potter fanfic featuring Neville Longbottom during the events of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I like, but that’s pretty much it for the fanfic I’ve read. And it isn’t at all erotic. So what compelled me to read some rather mature fanfic sent to me by some friends I met on Twitter?
Actually, let’s skip those details.
The significant point is that fanfic has a certain appeal. And I’m always interested in what makes a story appealing. As a writer, and a curious reader, for that matter, I want to know why a narrative works or doesn’t, and then I want to steal the good parts.
So, what have I learned reading dirty fanfiction? Let’s take a look. (Needless to say, frank sexual discussion ahead.)
If fanfic is famous for anything it might be how some authors literally insert him/herself into the story. It’s a problem I’ve seen even in the half dozen short story fanfics I’ve read recently, which I should add have all been set in The Musketeers universe. (Interesting aside: They could all technically be riffs on Dumas’s novels, but I suspect most writers and readers have been drawn to these characters at this moment, as I have, by the BBC show The Musketeers.) In some stories I’ve read, even when the only two characters in the story are those created by Dumas 170 years ago, the fanfic author is actually one of them. In other words, some authors so radically change an existing character, Aramis for example, that I suspect he is really a stand-in for said author.
I suspect this impulse doubles for a desire to have a reader surrogate in the story, which is often a useful tool. It’s why Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and a host of other fish out of water walk the fictional landscape. But I’m beginning to suspect that a reader surrogate might hinder some readers’ enjoyment of naughty fanfic, and having a strong outside presence is more about the author’s own pleasure. (Which, hey, that’s fine, if that’s what the author wants.)
But sometimes there’s a lack of a surrogate and the author is less present, and I think the old saying about porn movies helps explain it: men and women are both watching the women. Men for titillation, women to compare themselves unfavorably. I suspect this is one part of why a fair amount of homoerotic fanfiction is written by heterosexual women for other heterosexual women. Even when one of the men is portrayed as having traditionally female characteristics (read: submissive and nurturing), no woman is finding herself wanting in comparison. Also, some women no doubt find it attractive for a man to show a softer side.
So, what does this teach me as an author who tries not to insert herself too strongly in her work and isn’t necessarily planning on writing any homoerotic scenes in the near future? (Actually, that latter might not be true. One of the novels I’m contemplating revising for next month’s Camp NaNoWriMo has a homoerotic scene. Not terribly explicit, however. Anyhow, back to what I’ve learned.) An author needs to carefully consider adding a reader surrogate or other obviously outside force. As J points out, you need Luke Skywalker running around asking the questions the viewer has early in A New Hope, but that sort of behavior later on would be distracting in the extreme. In other words, he has to ask about lightsabers (not a euphemism) when the viewer doesn’t know what one is, not during the climactic battle (also not a euphemism, but I’ll own the double entendre).
In Late, Out Early
(That’s What She Said)
Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard on writing is “in late, out early.” This simply means that scenes should start as late as possible and end before things become tedious. Now, I’m new to dirty fanfic, so my small sample may not be representative, but so far I’ve been happy with the amount of set up in the stories leading to the sex. Some, perhaps, lean a little too near the porno trope of “Pizza Boy Special Delivery.” As an example, they may have only a sentence or two to explain why Aramis has decided to stop by Athos’s room or some such. But I’m not sure I mind terribly. Let me be blunt—if I wanted a strong story and character development, I would watch the show again or read the books. Although a little more development can work, as it does in one story I read, which has a nice little adventure for Porthos and Aramis prior to their evening with a prostitute.
The fact their evening is spent with a professional is actually a nice example of “in late.” If these two gentlemen, for instance, went knocking on Constance’s door, the author would have a lot of explaining to do as to why they were there, and why Constance was suddenly acting in a way that she never would on the show. But in this story, Porthos and Aramis visit a prostitute who helped them earlier in the story, and the author has a low hurdle to clear explaining how their threesome occurs. And frankly, that’s fine by me.
But when do you need to spend a little more time explaining how events unfold? I suspect genre expectations play a roll. Two soldiers going to a prostitute needs less explanation in fanfiction than it would in literary fiction, where perhaps the reader would expect some inner monologue about guilt, homosexual overtones, excitement, or memories of his mother. This also makes me think about the place of secondary characters. Yes, characters should, whenever possible, have lives and personalities, but sometimes you just need the stable boy to be a stable boy, or a prostitute an experienced sexual practitioner who can realistically orchestrate a very sexy evening for two men.
Again, let me just directly say something. Sure, you can have great stories and characters and all of that writerly stuff in your smutty fanfic. But above all, there needs to be smut. Good smut. In one story I read, I had a terrible time following precisely what was happening, and when you fail to make clear the defining attribute of your genre, you’re failing, full stop. (Aside: No, the smut wasn’t so gloriously complex I couldn’t understand. The writing made it impossible to follow the sex from Point A to Point B, as it were.)
Fanfic should fulfill a need, and I don’t necessarily mean just scratching a particular kinky itch. Even though I’m new to fanfic, I’ve been an obsessive consumer of fanvids since my days as a Battlestar Galactica fangirl a decade ago. One reason why I fell so hard for fanvids is that I shipped a non-canonical couple. (Laura/Lee forever!!!) Now, President Laura Roslin and Lee “Apollo” Adama were never going to have a romantic or sexual relationship on Ronald D. Moore’s gritty reimagining. But thanks to some talented fanvid makers, I could pretend. (A favorite example.)
Likewise, I doubt the makers of The Musketeers intend to have a canonical sexual relationship between any of the four male leads. Which is fine. To be honest, I don’t need any coupling between any of the Musketeers on the show, because I have to admit it would feel forced. On the other hand, fanfic comes with a higher suspension of disbelief, so with a little work, an author can convince an already willing reader to accept that D’Artagnan has a lot to learn from Athos in addition to sword play. (Okay, that was entirely intentional. I couldn’t help myself.)
As an aside, I should admit this wish fulfillment can also apply to canonical or near-canonical couples. For instance, Athos and Milady de Winter are married. They have shared some very steamy kisses on the show. But their relationship is equal parts lust, love, and loathing, and we have yet to see them have sex on the show in the present timeline. One of the blessings the downtime between seasons affords (and fanfic authors help fill) is what a friend of mine calls “imaginative space.” This means that between now and January 2016 when The Musketeers returns, I get the pleasure of imagining the scene in which Athos and Milady finally have angry, angry hate sex. And other people get to imagine, and possibly write, it, too. As I like to joke on Twitter (and this is how people started sending me links) #iwouldreadthatfanfic.
As a writer, I think spending too much thought for which characters may be shipped by readers is a mistake. That way lies awkward fanservice or overcompensating to discourage it. Writing the characters an author wants and creating meaningful relationship between them seems to be the best goal. And that can include writing compelling will they/won’t they storylines for the relationships that are planned. For instance, when writing the My Private War series, J kept me invested in who his heroine would end up with. And I spent a fair amount of time between installments thinking about how the heroine might live happily ever after with the person I wanted her to be with. How did J do that?
One, he says that he knew how he intended to resolve his heroine’s love life. Knowing that, he could, two, invent new obstacles to keep them apart until ready. In my Oleg Omdahl series, I’m planning to have him consummate a relationship in book 3 I’ve been setting up since book 1. Hopefully in those first two books I’ll provide my readers with enough tension they feel inspired to pen some fanfic while waiting on me to reach the third book.
And that’s what I’ve learned so far. Having read very little, I’m sure I’ll pick up more writerly tips as I go along. As I do, I’ll share all the observations I feel comfortable sharing, old, married, Midwestern lady that I am. 😉