Romance & Fan Fiction

Zones of Production

In 2008, most of the fan fiction read by survey participants was romantic (77%). However, this interest in romantic stories did not seem to cross over into commercial/print romances. Only 31% of the survey participants said that they also read romance novels. When asked what they tended to read more (fan fiction or commercial romance novels), survey participants also overwhelmingly identified themselves as readers of fan fiction more than readers of romance novels (86%).

infographic: reading romantic or nonromantic fic
2008: Reading romantic or non-romantic fic?
infographic: also reading romance novels
2008: Also reading romance novels?
infographic: balance between commercical and fan reading
2008: Balance between commercial romance and fan fiction?

In 2008, when I was working on my MA thesis, I tended to see more differences than similarities between fan fiction and commercial romance. Over the course of the project, however, my views began to change. The fan fiction stories survey participants loved focused more often on same-sex relationships, but there were also many heterosexual romances represented among the fan favorites. Just like commercial romances, sometimes the fan fiction stories were pretty explicit, sometimes they were more sweet. While I noticed some different storytelling tropes appearing more in one mode than the other (more on this below), given the breadth of fan fiction and commercial romance available to readers it wasn't easy to draw firm lines between either modes of writing. Rather than clear differences appearing at the narrative level, the most significant distinctions between commercial romance and fan fiction seemed to be related to the cost of production and mode of distribution. Traditionally, publisher investment has served as a barrier between authors and readers, strongly shaping the kinds of stories and writers that are able to get their work published in the commercial market.

Today, as digital publishing increases in popularity, the production/distribution divide between fan and commercial romances seems to be breaking down. Today, fan fiction is increasingly reworked, published as commercial literature, and has even appeared on the New York Times best-seller list. Similarly, commercial romance is increasingly self-published and distributed online, a process that often entirely circumvents major publishing houses. Today, many popular fan authors are publicly crossing over to the commercial market and writing in both areas. (Not that this is new, there have always been writers producing both fan and commercial writing, but it's certainly much more openly acknowledged than it used to be.) Digital publishing and digital markets are having a profound impact on commercial romance. However, I'm wondering what kind of impact digital publishing is having on fans and fan fiction. How are these shifts affecting fan networks and fan writing?

There's been a lot of discussion (and concern raised) by fans regarding Amazon's new Kindle Worlds project, but I'm particularly interested in hearing what fans are noticing within their own reading and writing networks. As e-publishing grows, do you notice any changes to fan fiction? Are more fan authors pulling their writing and taking steps to "go pro?" Or, do you think these larger changes in commercial publishing still feel separated from fan networks? Share your thoughts about this in the comments section below.

Fan fiction? Romance? Both?

Over the years, there has been significant discussion (and debate) among fans and researchers regarding the connections and disconnections between commercial romance novels and fan fiction. Given the historical predominance of heterosexual romances within commercial romance publishing and the popularity of m/m stories within fan fiction, at times fan fiction and commercial romance have been positioned as opposing forces. Personally, I'm uncomfortable pitting these two reading communities in opposition to each other. It seems a dubious move to make, particularly given that this places two areas of reading heavily associated with women, each facing similar stigmas associated with women's reading and writing, in competition with each other. (If you're interested in this issue, you might want to check out my article "Fifty Shades of Remix: The Intersecting Pleasures of Commercial and Fan Romances.")

I believe that fan fiction and commercial romance networks constitute two different production networks, each with a strong interest in romantic and erotic story elements. Each production network has, over its respective history, developed their own reading/writing communities and traditions. Like all genres, each network continues to push their work further and adapt to shifting tastes and social norms. Many writers and readers also cross these zones of production, writing and reading both commercial romance and fan romances interchangeably.

While an interest in the romantic and erotic can be seen in both fan and commercial romance writing, these two storytelling forms are generated though different production and distribution networks. This means that differences can still be seen between fan and commercial romances. Each network has developed its own traditions for writing about romance and desire. However, each of these storytelling networks are incredibly large and diverse. The breadth of sub-genres, storytelling techniques, and reading/writing interests represented within fan fiction and commercial romance writing makes it impossible to make general and all-encompassing claims about either storytelling form. Indeed, this is where previous claims about the similarity or differences between romance and fan fiction have often run into trouble. While its possible to talk about some tendencies within each mode of writing, making broad claims about all commercial romance or all fan fiction is not feasible.

My 2008 survey was designed to help me identify popular works of fan fiction. At the time, I wanted to think about similarities and differences between fan fiction stories and popular romance novels. However, the more I read the more I realized that this was nearly impossible to do. Romance is the most popular genre of literature on the commercial market. Many thousands of romance novels are produced each year. Fan fiction stories are produced with a similar frequency and a similar abundance of sub-types. With both fan fiction and commercial romance, for every trend there is an exception. None the less, as I read popular fan fiction and commercial romance stories, I did begin to notice different tendencies in their writing styles. The main three elements that stood out to me were: narrative elements, the way a narrative progressed, and trends in character development.

I'll talk about these trends more in the next section, but first I'm interested to hear what you've noticed when you read different types of romance stories. What differences do you see between fan fiction and commercial romance? Share what you think about this in the comments section below.

Generic Tendencies

After compiling my survey results in 2008, the next step of my research involved reading popular romance novels and works of fan fiction. At the time, my aim was to get a clearer sense of the similarities and differences between commercial romance and fan fiction. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, there's a catch here. With fan and commercial romance authors producing so many stories each month, it is not possible to definitively map out either writing space. Instead, I decided to think about these things as tendencies within each zone of production, rather than story elements that "define" either commercial romance or fan fiction. These tendencies indicate some of the kinds of writing readers were responding to and feeling engaged by in these different storytelling communities in 2008. These patterns help us better understand the role that production environment can play in the construction of erotic and romantic stories, as well as how production environments organize different communities of readers.

Here are a few core tendencies I noticed as I read:

  1. Narrative Arcs & World Building
  2. Character & Relationship Development
  3. Seriality & Instability

1. Narrative Arcs & World Building

By its very nature, fan fiction is part of a larger story-world. It is explicitly intertextual. Fan fiction builds on a source-text which has already done its own world-building and character development. In this source-text, narrative events are already unfolding and characters typically have some preexisting relationship with each other. Whether they are friends, coworkers, or enemies, the characters are already generally acquainted. Given this, it is common for works of romantic fan fiction to build romance/sexual attraction into a preexisting relationship. Through the course of the narrative, the two protagonists move from an already established relationship (friendship, enmity, professional, etc.) towards a more sexual and/or romantic one.

This pre-existing story-world lends itself to a different narrative starting point than many popular romance novels. In romance novels, the start of the story is often marked by a highly charged first encounter between the two main characters. This moment is incredibly important. In her definition of romance, Pamela Regis identifies this as "the meeting," one of eight narrative elements typically found in romance novels (Regis 2007). In a romance novel, rather than the narrative building on a pre-existing relationship, the protagonists are often encountering each other for the first time. Attraction hits hard. The characters are often instantly drawn to each other physically and feel compelled to protect or be near the other person. However, at this early point in the narrative, the characters may not understand why they feel this way or feel that it is possible to act on their feelings. To come together as a couple, the protagonists often need to work through significant internal or social barriers preventing their relationship (Regis 2007). Slowly, over the course of the story, the reality that they have found a life-partner begins to reveal itself and, importantly, the social and/or emotional obstacles keeping them from each other are overcome.

What I've just described is a very traditional romantic narrative arc. It's a story that particularly lends itself to a single stand-alone novel-- characters are introduced, they struggle to overcome conflict and (usually) emerge with a happy ending. However, this narrative arc can certainly be changed in various ways, and romance authors often enjoy playing with these traditional story elements. Also, different types of stories experience increases and decreases in popularity. For example, the romantic serial is experiencing a rise in popularity right now. A serial narrative is going to start to play with, stretch out, and change a classic stand-alone romance narrative in a variety of ways. (More on seriality below.)

What do you think about these different tendencies towards world building and character development?. Do you notice anything like this when you read commercial or fan romances today? Do you notice anything different? Share what you think about this in the comments section below.

2. Character & Relationship Development

The popular works of fan fiction I read in 2008 typically focused on characters that were already well-acquainted with each other. The character's knowledge of each other, and often their preexisting partnership, provided the foundation for their romantic attraction. Building attraction into these preexisting relationships, where characters already know each other, work together, or interact in some way on a regular basis, means that these types of stories can offer a different relationship dynamic than a romance narrative beginning with a charged first encounter.

In this approach to character and relationship development, attraction emerges out of an existing partnership rather than hitting like a bolt of lightning at the first meeting. This, in turn, opens up the possibility of shifting some of the emotional intensity of the story from one aspect of the narrative (the meeting) onto other kinds of interactions. Preexisting characters and story-worlds may also impact the ways that romantic or sexual tension is established. By shifting away from that charged first meeting and with the characters already acquainted, the author potentially needs to spend less time introducing the characters to each other and rapidly escalating their relationship.

I hesitate to go so far as to call one approach more realistic than the other. It's hard to think of Hogwarts, Atlantis or Mordor as particularly realistic settings. However, this shift away from a charged meeting may lend itself to different narrative foundations for relationships. It may also allow authors to experiment with different and potentially more mundane relationship conflicts. (For example, 'You didn't pay the electric bill!' versus 'You were kidnapped by werewolves!'.) This leads me to suspect that the preexisting relationships/storyworlds fan fiction is typically built on and the prevalence of stand-alone stories within commercial romances are leading to some variation between these two storytelling forms.

Obviously however, there is no fixed path here. Commercial and fan romances both play with different types of encounters and different levels of dramatic tension. Many works of fan fiction rewind back to a first meeting and re-develop the protagonists' relationship from the beginning. In particular, alternative universe stories often require more traditional romance elements to introduce the characters to each other, develop the new story-world, build conflict, etc. There are also many commercial romances where two characters simply meet again after years apart or learn to see each other in a new way. Today, as the serial becomes increasingly popular with romance readers, many popular romance serials return again and again to the same set of characters and story world, similarly building on pre-existing worlds and characters.

Ultimately, these exceptions, coupled with the serial's rising popularity, underscore the links between fan fiction and commercial romance as two modes of writing particularly interested in exploring romance, partnership, and sexual attraction. As transformative work, fan writing always, in a sense, begins in the middle of a relationship, a conflict, or a world. Even in fan fiction where the story depicts characters meeting for the first time, those characters have a pre-existing relationship in the source-text and in the minds of readers. Within commercial romance, a similar process occurs. In commercial romance, genre archetypes also serve as pre-existing types of characters and worlds for an individual story to build on. As with all literary genres, each romantic hero or heroine's story leans a little on the ones that came before it. Like fan fiction, commercial romance sub-genres are also organized around common story-worlds and motifs (the regency, the paranormal, the contemporary western, etc.). Both commercial and fan authors rework these archetypes and storytelling traditions, contributing their own ideas about romantic conflict and their individual voices into these larger connected pools of stories. In this way, both styles of writing engage in the practice of remixing and transforming pre-existing work.

What do you think about fan fiction and commercial romance's similarities or differences? What do you notice about the ways fan fiction and commercial romance build characters or develop relationships? Share what you think about this in the comments section below.

3. Seriality & Instability

In 2008, I noticed a heightened feeling of seriality in the popular works of fan fiction I read, particularly when compared to the popular romance novels I was comparing them to. Many of the works of fan fiction I read had sequels or were part of a larger series. Reading these stories, it felt as if the characters were part-way through a larger journey. This felt different from many of the commercial romances I was reading, which often stood alone and had a clear sense of closure at the end. This may be influenced by the medium itself. As I've already discussed, an individual work of fan fiction feeds off of a larger story-world that keeps changing. From season to season, a television show will introduce new plot developments or characters to challenge it's protagonists. These changes continually introduce new obstacles for a fan writer to deal with. This environment may facilitate a greater sense of seriality within fan fiction.

However, as a reader I didn't only experience this feeling of seriality when I read fan fiction from fandoms where the source-text was still being produced. Irregardless of the fandom, many of the fan fiction authors I was introduced to were working on extensive follow-ups to their initial stories. A work of fan fiction contributes to much a larger body of fan work, a network of stories being continually produced by fans. An individual story joins both this broader network of stories, as well as potentially being affected by a source-text that may still be developing its own version of the story. These larger networks of stories work together to reinforce the sense of a continually changing story-world, one always filled with the potential for new conflicts. Essentially, even if one individual work of fan fiction ends with a happy couple, there is always a layer of instability within a fandom's larger story world. This deeply affects the sense of finality fan fiction readers may get from an individual story's happy ending. It may also drive fan authors to keep revisiting characters and working to restore them to a moment of stability and happiness.

Although the serial is seeing a rise in popularity in commercial romance today, this trend wasn't as visible to me when I was reading popular commercial romances in 2008. At that time, the commercial romance stories I read seemed to focus more on creating a series of linked stories set in one story world. For example, at the time J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series was very popular. In this series, the stories focus on one couple at a time, one book at a time. This series more than serial approach seems to convey a stronger sense of stability and permanence to the relationship each book focuses on. Even if the characters appear again in a later story, their reappearance often takes the form of an update, rather than an entire revisiting of the relationship. The more serial works of fan fiction I read provided a significant contrast to this approach. Many of these stories returned again and again to the same set of protagonists, constantly building and rebuilding their relationship based on what challenges the source-text might throw at fan authors.

I wonder about how this plays out in fan fiction and commercial romances today. Even when there's a larger story world with a serial narrative, many of today's popular commercial romance stories still focus on one relationship per-book. (For example, Nalini Singh's Psy/Changeling series strikes a fascinating balance between one couple per book and a much larger serial arc focused on a world on the brink of social collapse.) With the popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy and commercial romance publishers wanting to build on the trend, I suspect there are more serial romances available to readers today than there were in 2008. Fan fiction stories continue to be produced as works-in-progress or works in a series, as they always have. Fan fiction also continues to deal with source-texts that change and complicate the character relationships fans are interested in. However, fans can track these updates much more easily than ever with Archive of Our Own subscriptions or by following specific Tumblr tags. Does this mean that serials are more available to fans as well?

What do you think about this idea that fan fiction often tends to feel more serial? Do you notice anything like this when you read commercial or fan romances today? Does fan fiction feel any more serial to you today than it did in past years? Share what you think about this in the comments section below.


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