Five Tropes Fanfic Readers Love (And One They Hate)
More than 7,500 fanfiction readers filled out the Fansplaining Fic Preferences Survey. What can we learn from the results?
by Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel
People say a lot of things about fanfiction readers. Three common ideas: they’re just interested in happily ever afters; they’re just interested in gay porn; they’re just interested in radical queer reinterpretation of the Western canon and won’t take no for an answer. All of these things probably have some kernel of truth to them. And naturally, we can see what individual stories people like most: which ones have the most views, the most comments, and the most kudos. But that doesn’t tell us what elements of those stories they like. Not every story engages with fandom’s popular tropes, but many do: tropes can serve as shorthands for themes and plot points across fandom at large. So what do fanfic readers get excited about? Conversely, what makes them click the back button?
Over the past month or so, Fansplaining has run a survey of fanfiction readers, asking them what tropes and themes they particularly like and dislike. We received 7,610 responses—a pretty good turnout, we think. Our most recent episode covered the top line results, and our next one will delve more deeply into the survey itself, including its limitations and ways to think critically about what we’ll do if we ever run another one. In the meantime, let’s take a look both the questions we asked and our results…
Where do our respondents find their fanfic?
Respondents could select as many options as they wanted from checkboxes.
Almost all our respondents read fanfiction on the Archive Of Our Own (or “AO3”), a non-profit, fan-run, open-source archive with a commitment to free speech. There were notably few respondents who read stories on Wattpad, a site that is thought to have a younger userbase than the Archive Of Our Own. (Conclusive stats aren’t publicly accessible.) Wattpad is commercially run and focuses on mobile reading. Its viewership data isn’t calculated in the same way as the AO3’s, so it’s hard to compare their popularity, but it’s certainly a very well-trafficked site, and its community isn’t fully represented here.
Like romance novels, most fanfic archives organize stories based on the genders of characters that are romantically involved. Fandom takes this further by organizing along ship lines—and if you don’t know what a ship is, go read this explainer and then come back!—but it was way too much to track the myriad of ships fans enjoy in this survey! So…
What types of ships do our respondents read?
Respondents could select as many options as they wanted from checkboxes.
Most respondents checked more than one box: they don’t just read slash (male/male), femslash (female/female) or het (male/female) stories; they read across types. Surprisingly, 35% of our respondents didn’t check off “gen”—meaning that 35% of the respondents never read stories that don’t feature ships!
After they responded to these questions, survey-takers told us how they felt about different elements of fanfic: whether loved, hated, didn’t care about, or didn’t know about each of 144 tropes and themes. The questions were about everything from tone (how do you feel about angst, fluff, parody?) to format (epistolary fic, multi-media fic, imagines?) to relationship to canon (missing scenes, point of view shift, crossovers or fusions?) to situations (temporary animal transformation, telepathy,road trips?) to relationships(secret siblings, orgies, male pregnancy?). For their surveys to be counted, respondents had to give an opinion on every single question.
So what did we find out?
What tropes & themes are most widely beloved?
It’s no surprise that many fans love friends-to-lovers, a trope so common it can hardly even be called a trope. (By contrast, enemies-to-lovers was #20 on the most-loved list.) Slow burn and mutual pining are complementary: stories where characters long for each other without consummating their love are uniquely delicious, and echo the will-they-or-won’t-they thrill of many popular TV shows (looking at you, X-Files).
In most fanfics, though, this unresolved sexual tension (#16 most loved trope/theme) has to eventually be resolved. And what better way to do it than through bed sharing—a trope also known as “one hotel room left,” because that’s so often the reason why two characters are forced to share a bed? Or perhaps characters are trapped in a snowstorm. The only logical thing to do is get naked and hop in a sleeping bag to ward off hypothermia: huddling for warmth. (If you’re really ambitious, you might make them isolated/trapped[#13 most loved], for instance, in a Canadian shack.)
In a less shipping-focused mode, canon-divergent AUs are stories where one small change alters the course of events. Sometimes these changes alter things from before the start of the source material’s action; sometimes the what-if twist alters canon directly. What if Harry Potter was sorted into Slytherin? What if Luke was raised as a prince of Alderaan and Leia as a lowly farmgirl?
Finally, if you aren’t a fanfic reader, you might not be familiar with the “tone” designations. Both fluff and hurt/comfort made the top 10. The former is a story that’s focused on cheerful, happy topics; the latter involves one of the characters in your favorite ship being hurt, and the other comforting them. This situation sometimes, but not always, leads to sex.
What tropes and themes are most widely reviled?
Obviously some of these tropes and themes—underage sexual pairings, noncon (fandom’s term for non-consensual sex, i.e. rape), and incest—are both immoral and illegal. Some, like eating disorders and bullying, are unfortunate aspects of life that many people work through by writing fiction, but not so many people enjoy reading about them. But some of these are more complex: slavery in fanfic can often refer to sexual slavery of a BDSM persuasion rather than chattel slavery in a historical sense. It might be wrong—but is it wrong as a sexual fantasy? And no one can deny that some fanfic is about sexual fantasies. Respondents reported that they had a hard time deciding what to say about these:
The tendency to want to self-edit even on an anonymous survey w/r/t tropes that are on the outs for being problematic or viewed as inherently “kinky” was surprising—I didn’t expect that reluctance to “disclose.” (I mean, I was honest, but I was surprised by how much community/other people’s value judgements were in my head).
Other widely-disliked themes seem to fit into the fact that readers’ likes tended towards fluffy happiness: major character death isn’t what many people come to fanfic for. (In fact, fix-it fic, where writers explore possibilities like bringing major characters back from the dead, ended up #12 on the Yay list!) But there are some that aren’t as explicable. What’s wrong with self/self—stories in which a character has sex with another consenting version of themselves (from a different timeline, via time travel, the result of a magical duplication, or a science experiment gone wrong)? Is mpreg (male pregnancy, through any means) really worse than slavery? And what’s wrong with centaurification—stories where a character gets, well, turned into a centaur? Mysteries.
What tropes and themes are most controversial?
That is, which have a Yay:Nay ratio that’s closest to 1?
Some of these results were expected: for example, fans who know what omegaverse is (and if you don’t, go read—we’ll wait) either love it or hate it in about equal measure. Dubcon—dubious consent in a sexual situation—we also get, and love potions pose some of the same problems in the murky realm of consent in the fanfiction world. Since we didn’t specify whether interspecies relationships meant bestiality or pairing up two sentient and intelligent species (think Amanda and Sarek, Mr. Spock’s Human and Vulcan parents, respectively), it makes sense that people would be split on the issue—some people assumed one meaning, some the other. And some people might not want to see the corruption of their favorite character into an awful person (unless they’re into the TV show Hannibal, where at least 90% of the fanfic seems to be about Will Graham being seduced into serial killing).
But why are band AUs (stories where all the characters are in a band, just like it says on the tin) and sports AUs (same concept, but with sports) so controversial? What’s objectionable about the two halves of your ship bodysharing (through whatever mystical or scientific means) as a way of bringing them, well, as close as possible? And aren’t Cinderella moments, or unexpected makeovers, standard set-pieces in any romantic story? Who knew that so many people didn’t like them?
What tropes and themes do readers care about least?
Interestingly, some of these tropes—like Cinderella moments—are also nearly equally liked and disliked by others: Cinderella moments also appear on the top ten “controversial” list. And while mpreg is widely disliked, pregnancy in general is met with a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯—a highly suggestive difference. We’ve got a lot of theories on why, but they’ll need to wait; it deserves a lot more space than we can give it here.
What types of tropes and themes are respondents unfamiliar with?
Alright, let’s just explain these right here and now, since so many people are unfamiliar with them:
Rigid format refers to stories with strict formatting rules, something found often in poetry (eg a sonnet, 14 lines and written in iambic pentameter). We gave an example of 221Bs in the BBC Sherlock fandom, where each story must be 221 words and end with a word beginning with “B.” Some fandoms use these tight formats as games or writing prompts.
Hard gen is where characters’ friendships are treated as central, and as important as a romantic relationship. The term originates, we think, from Supernatural fandom.
Virtual seasons are fanfic series written to mimic a season of a show, perhaps a show that’s gone off the air. (You might think of Buffy Season 8, a comic book series, as the non-fanfic version of a virtual season.)
Whump is fic where a character is, well, whomped on: tormented for no reason other than it’s fun for an author to write them being tormented. In some fandoms, certain characters get beat up more than others (and this often goes hand-in-hand with hurt/comfort).
Metatextuality means stories that make reference to other stories. All fanfic is metatextual, but some stories are explicitly playing with intertextuality, embedding references or commenting on themselves or the source material in a deliberate way. BBC Sherlock is a good example of a metatextuality—rather than a simple Holmesian adaptation, much of it comments on the history of Holmesian adaptations.
Woobification happens when one character in a fic is characterized as a “woobie”—a helpless, weak person who everyone else must love and protect. Usually the woobified character isn’t a woobie at all in the source text, which causes frustration amongst some fans.
Imagines are fic-like texts that ask you to imagine a situation—for example, that you’re Harry Styles’ cousin and he introduces you to Liam Payne backstage at One Direction’s final show. It’s arguable whether or not these are fics, but they’re extremely popular, especially on Wattpad and Tumblr.
Epistolary fic takes the form of letters between characters, and isn’t a fandom-specific term (see: your high school English class).
Casefic features the characters solving a mystery or criminal case. It’s especially in use in fandoms like NCIS, CSI, Supernatural, Elementary, Sherlock, and The X-Files, where characters are police, detectives, or FBI agents.
Anthropomorfic anthropomorphizes an inanimate object—for instance, Hagrid’s umbrella—and tells the story from its perspective.
What types of alternate universe are most loved?
Canon-divergent alternate universes, closely based on the original story, are pretty much universally beloved. But lots of other types of AU make out well, too. After all, who doesn’t want to imagine what it would be like if the Supernatural boys went to Hogwarts, or if the crew of the USS Enterprise were in college together? (OK, a lot of people. But a lot of people do!)
Certain critics (ahem, Devin Faraci) believe that coffeeshop AUs are the hallmark of fanfic. The truth is, they come in #10 most loved among alternate universe—and #53 most loved among all the tropes and themes we asked about. That means they’re not even in the top third of fanfic tropes and themes!
What types of alternate universe are most hated?
The omegaverse has its strong proponents (after all, it did make the “most controversial” list), but the only type of AU that readers dislike more is the sort where everyone’s living in a Walking Dead-style zombie wasteland. (To give some context for this bar graph, out of the 144 tropes and themes we asked about, zombie AU is #14 most disliked; omegaverse is #17; apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic AU is #51, escaping the bottom third.)
What do readers think of different fanfic tones?
Fans prefer fluff to other types of fic. But angst (dramatic stories where characters have a wide range of emotions, including…angsty ones) comes in a close second. PWP stands for “plot, what plot?” or “porn without plot,” and only comes in third, belying the idea that fans are only interested in porn. (Note that both fluff and angst often contain sex scenes: fandom prefers the term “smut,” and it’s very popular across fandom. PWP is specifically porn: we don’t spend much time getting to the action.)
There’s a big drop-off between PWP and the final two fic tones. Crack is wilfully silly fanfic, stories that are intentionally ridiculous. (Parody and crack, similar types of story, both received many “Meh” votes.) But the least liked tone by far was darkfic—stories where everyone is miserable and there’s nothing redeeming in the world. Not too surprising when you think about how many fanfiction readers say they enjoy fic as an escape from their everyday lives.
Is there anything broader to learn from this data?
Well, if you want to write a fanfic that will appeal to the broadest possible swath of readers, sure. (To fully maximize readership, it should probably be Destiel—Dean and Castiel from Supernatural—by the way.) But the patterns that emerge are also striking.
Fanfiction readers are enthusiastic.
More than half of the 1,095,188 votes cast were “yay”:
This chart includes all votes cast for every trope.
Respondents figured this out even as they were taking the survey! A lot of people commented about the fact that they voted “yay” very frequently. For example, one respondent wrote:
There were a lot of times where i was like “i don’t usually like this but there was that ONE FIC” so i mostly just assumed they were amazing written…and then put yay for everything.
Many others responded in the same vein—but added that they’d read absolutely any trope or theme if and only if it were about their favorite ship. For these respondents, the familiarity of the beloved pairing makes it easier to try new, unusual, or controversial things.
Even though fandom loves happy endings, that doesn’t make fanfic conflict-free.
In some circles, it’s received wisdom that fanfic is all about happy endings—that fanfic readers and writers don’t want to read about anything too heavy or dramatic, preferring happiness and light. To some extent, that’s true: one of the most-hated themes in fanfic is major character death, which usually prevents a happily-ever-after, and stories about negative events and situations (like rape, incest, eating disorders, and bullying) are also widely noped-out-of. By comparison, fluff is the most-liked tone for fanfic, and everyone loves a good friends-to-lovers story.
Cherry-picking those numbers doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Remember, there’s four basic types of narrative conflict: person against person, person against society, person against nature, or person against self. With that in mind, let’s take another look at the top 10 most liked tropes and themes—because while a few of them don’t require conflict, most of them absolutely do:
You can’t have slow burn or mutual pining without some conflict keeping the lovers apart—usually it’s either the constraints of society and/or circumstances or their own stubbornness that prevents them from readily admitting their love.
Bed sharing and huddling for warmth usually occur in this context, too: characters can’t admit their love for each other, but the physical closeness resulting from the situation creates delicious tension. Even if the characters are in an established relationship, the tropes imply that there’s scarcity—if you’re huddling for warmth, it’s because you’re stuck somewhere really cold in the middle of winter. That sounds like a person vs. nature conflict to me, and indeed that’s how it plays out in many fics, whether Mulder and Scully are stranded in Antarctica or whether Captain America and Bucky Barnes are caught in a Brooklyn blizzard-of-the-decade.
Teamwork can’t happen if the team doesn’t have a goal, whether that’s to defeat a supervillain or to catch a burglar or to raise a barn. The stakes might be different in each of these cases, but they’re all clear conflicts, where character have to struggle together to overcome an obstacle. And of course, hurt/comfort as a trope requires conflict at some stage, even if it happens off screen. While some stories feature innocuous hurts (Yamaguchi breaks his leg falling off a ladder, and it’s nobody’s fault), most of them are much more complex: Zayn loses his voice while One Direction are on tour, and in addition to needing comfort, they have to deal with canceling tour dates and the anger of their label; Remus gets seriously hurt in werewolf form and must be nursed back to health by Sirius, while dealing with his feelings about lycanthropy. Often these conflicts are directly drawn from the original stories, which leads us to the next observation…
Fanfic is interesting because it’s intertextual.
Reading this list of tropes, one might be tempted to think of fanfic as just another form of genre fiction. Romance novels with proportionally more queer people, maybe. In this formulation, works of fanfic are discrete works of art, easy to separate from their context, massage a little, and release into the world as Fifty Shades of Grey or After.
But this idea doesn’t tell the whole story. Canon-divergent alternate universes (#2 most-liked). Fix-it fic (#12). Missing scenes (#14). Minor character focus (#32). Point of view shift (#34). What do these have in common? They all fall in the top quarter of most-liked tropes and themes—and all of them are absolutely intertextual, requiring the reader to understand the original story before they can fully appreciate the fanfic. And even when fanfic doesn’t demand a knowledge of canon to be appreciated, it can be intertextual with other works of fanfic (as pointed out by the Fanlore entry for fix-it fic).
It would be easy to say that “works like this will never break out of the fanfiction community and be seen by larger audiences,” because they can’t easily be subsumed into the for-profit world of professional fiction: they’re too connected to the fanfiction community and to the copyrighted works on which they’re based. But that’s not true, either. These stories can be widely appreciated. Think about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fanfic so famous that it was reviewed in the Washington Post and its author was profiled in VICE magazine. For all its problems (and it has many, and we won’t enumerate them here—that’s another article) it’s a perfect example of a story that lives and dies on its intertextuality, not on its ability to have its serial numbers rubbed off and to be transformed into a middling work of YA romance.
But what about the total dataset? I still have so many questions!
We’ve released all our (anonymous) data! You can see the full question list, and the almost-full results (except written-in answers — we’re still thinking about how to release those). If you want to know about a specific trope or theme, you’re in luck: just sort the spreadsheet of results however you like, and you’ll be able to get your answers. Whatever you find out, please share it with us! We’d like to see what other people are thinking. And look for more on this topic in the next episode of our podcast, and on our Tumblr!
Elizabeth Minkel is one half of Fansplaining. She’s written about fan culture for the New Statesman, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Millions, The Verge, and more. She co-curates “The Rec Center,” a weekly fandom newsletter, with fellow journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw.
Flourish Klink is one half of Fansplaining. They are Chief Research Officer at Chaotic Good Studios.