I read romance novels for a lot of different reasons. Escapism. A chance to live vicariously in dream-like situations. Just plain fun. They introduce me to new characters, new people to invest in and see the whole arc of their love story. But sometimes, instead of picking up a romance novel, I’ll go online and find a favorite fan fiction (fic). Not because I don’t love romances—I most certainly do—but because I want something different.
For those of you less obsessive about your TV, movies, or books, fan fiction is exactly what it sounds like—fiction written by fans about characters or settings already established in another media. It’s usually romance (because isn’t that what we’d prefer to read about our favorite characters?) and often very erotic; on ArchiveOfOurOwn, one of the biggest fan fiction sites, the tag “Porn with Plot” gives 16,094 hits, and “Porn without Plot” only gets 2,000 less. Some of it is as well written as published novels. Most of it, like many things on the Internet, isn’t.
But even between quality fanfiction and a good romance novel, there are essential differences. The most obvious is the prevalence of “slash fiction”—fics focusing on LBGT romance, most often between two men. There are a lot of ideas on why this is so popular; my pet theory is that most media examines the romances between the male and female characters, but leave the same-sex relationships unexplored. There’s also the fact, unfortunate or not, that a lot of the most popular entertainment right now, especially for people who would tend to write fan fiction—Sherlock, Supernatural, the Avengers franchise, and, of course, Star Trek (the progenitor of fan fiction and slash pairings, now repopularized with the new movies)—are male dominated.
Other differences are structural—fics don’t always have to have a plot. They can just be “drabbles,” less than 500 word pieces that show a moment; they can be a retelling of the author’s plot in a new world or from a different point of view; they can be a few thousand words of sex. Many of the most popular fics are plotted and novel-length, but they don’t have to be. One of my favorite fics is 200 words long. Another is a series that is 787,506 words long and still going. Fics aren’t as standardized as novels, which can be refreshing when I want to read a love story but don’t want to commit to a full novel.
So why would I sometimes rather read a fic than a novel?
For one thing, in a number of ways, it’s easier. They’re free, they’re online, there are a lot of them. New ones by authors I like are sent right to my email. I’m a fast reader, and it’s cheaper to read a lot of fan fiction than to read a lot of books. There are free e-books now, admittedly, and it’s getting easier to get novels quickly, but even that can’t compete with the sheer quantity of free fan fiction (though it can with the amount of really good fan fiction). But that’s mainly semantics.
More inherently, there are plots I can only accept in fan fiction, because of their sheer implausibility. I’ll read a high school “AU” (alternate universe), but I’m wary of high school YA, because I can’t believe a high school romance will result in forever. I’ll accept a meet cute between the prince of England and a random doctor in a Merlin fic because Arthur and Merlin are destined to always meet, while I might scoff at it in a romance novel due to the sheer lack of royal princes. The ever-popular roommates AU, in which two roommates fall in love, is something I would never read in a romance because of how utterly ill-advised it is in reality. Romances are wish fulfillment, but they also purport to take place in reality. Fan fiction makes no such claims.
But even more than that, there are some plots fan fiction just does better. I love stories with pining, the more the better, especially between close friends. Romance novels, by virtue of the medium, aren’t great at that. They have to build up each character and their friendship before the pathos of the pining even sets in, and by then it’s about time for them to get together. In fic, though, the author doesn’t have to build up the characters or the relationship between them. We already know Spock and Kirk, and are familiar with their dynamic. We don’t need to be told who Iron Man and Captain America are (though that one’s more complicated, with the comic book-movie differences). We don’t need to be convinced they’re in love. The fic can skip right to the pining, then go from there, and I can spend longer happily wallowing in the angst.
And, as a friend of mine said when I asked her why she reads fan fiction, it’s easier to get a big payoff. You don’t get to follow characters from start to finish, but you do get two characters who you’re enough invested in to read fan fiction about to finally, finally consummate their love. It’s the end of a two hour rom-com versus Ross and Rachel finally getting together after ten seasons. The sense of relief is larger. This has its flip side, though—readers want the release enough that they’re willing to forgive worse writing. Some of my bookmarked fics are there because I love the author’s conception of the characters, or their plot, but the writing is only so-so. A good romance has to earn the payoff because of original characters and great writing, but when they do, it’s more admirable—and more enjoyable—than an equivalent fan fiction.
So when I want to meet new people, when I want to see a romance through from beginning to end, from meet cute all the way to happily ever after, I’ll read a romance novel. When I want irredeemable angst, old friends of characters, and the ultimate dreamscape plot—that’s when I’ll go to fanfiction. And in the end, romance is romance is romance—it’s still got hot men and true love and steamy sex. Which is all one can really ask for.
For more on fandom and romance, check out Heather Waters' article I'll Ship If I Want To: A Romance Fan's Thoughts on Shipping, and look for weekly Shipping Sunday posts featuring couples from various fandoms.
Isabel Farhi is an aspiring editor and amateur fangirl. If she isn't reading romances, she's probably reading fanfics or waiting to go to the bookstore. Follow her on Twitter at @IzzyFarhi.