With exceptions like scholars Pugh and Jamison, there are very few conversations surrounding what makes "good" fanfiction. Over the last three decades focus has been primarily on who fans are, what their work accomplishes, and why in the world they're so obsessed with men sleeping together. However, rarely does this research broaden to consider the quality of the fic itself and fans, when posed this question, tend to give logistical answers that emphasize readability: your fic should use decent grammar/have few typos, there should be space between paragraphs, tag it appropriately for triggers, and (the more nebulous) keep the characters IN character.
I've encountered numerous other "rules" that are by no means hard and fast:
Fic should be respectful of the canon. Unless the canon is deemed awful, in which case only the parts you like deserve your reverence.
Make sure the in-world flow of your fic isn't interrupted. Unless, of course, you're following a specific format like song-fics.
Find a balance between too much plot (is one million words too much?) and too little (looking at you, PWPs).
Fic must add something unique to the universe; be transformative "enough" for both interest and copyright laws. Novelizations of the canon or scenes retold from a new perspective----the "more of" fics Pugh discusses----obviously don't exist.
There should be consistent tone and pacing throughout the whole series. Never-mind that fic is largely a serialized medium where authors can only achieve true consistency if they go back to edit what was already published months, if not years, before.
Don't make it difficult for the reader to follow. Okay. So experimentation is out?
Don't include overused tropes. Sorry, coffee shops AUs and A/B/O dynamics.
Absolutely NO self-inserts. Oh, except there's been serious pushback against that.
Make sure you write "well" (whatever that means. Any theories, Fifty Shades?)
And above all, as stated, NEVER make your characters OOC...Unless you're criticizing canon, writing an AU with radically different contexts, a crack fic, a fic building off of the thousands of other fics that came before you where the characters have slowly developed fanon interpretations and you're "wrong" if you don't write them "correctly"...
You get the idea.
The point is that the question of "good" fanfiction is ultimately not a very useful one. At least, it's not useful in its demand for a solitary answer. You can no more definitively say what makes for "good" fic than you can any kind of story, and fanfiction has the added difficulty of dealing with issues tied to its specific culture and medium: for example, is a fic "good" if it's never completed----a far more common occurrence online than in print? The answer is entirely subjective, likely to vary from person to person. As Stephen Burt said recently, the concern is in regards to what fanfiction is "especially, or uniquely, good at, or good for." (And let us all just take a moment to appreciate the age we live in, where Harvard professors write accurately and positively about fic for The New Yorker.)
Thus, it's still crucial to identify characteristics of fanfiction. Not to haughtily claim which fics are worth your time because they adhere to this commonality and which are absolute trash, but rather to help explain the function of these features----What do they add to the overall story? What might they detract?---and to trace fic's continuing evolution. What was commonplace during the zine era was not the same in the late 90s, the early 2000s, or today, and despite the saying that "nothing is ever lost online," huge events and trends within fandoms have been lost due to a lack of recognition of their importance or even deliberate erasure.
For these reasons and more I want to explore some of the features of fic, laid out in separate posts, starting with a small but particularly powerful aspect: referential details.
They're found primarily in AUs where, no matter how far the fic's universe strays from the canon's, the author is compelled to make connections between the two that go beyond just using the same set of characters. These details are by no means required to satisfy the reader's expectations----such as keeping familiar relationships, disability and race markers for representational purpose, etc.----yet they nevertheless keep cropping up, suggesting some importance within the community.
Recently I began TigerMoon's Promises of an Unknown Coast, a modern re-imagining of the American animated series RWBY. Canonically, RWBY takes place in a fantasy world populated with monsters called Grimm and the protagonists, teenage girls and boys with phenomenal powers, are charged with helping to keep the world safe. The character of Qrow is one of those protectors: an alcoholic, snarky, literal bad luck charm.
Qrow in the original series
TigerMoon re-imagines Qrow in what they term a, "Small-town romantic drama/comedy with a side of angst" which, in some ways, could be an accurate description of RWBY. The commonalities continue in the fic's summary:
Qrow Branwen has never asked for much in life. Sure, his sister's in prison and his brother-in-law is a bit of a wreck, his best friend is missing a few limbs and Qrow left a few bits of himself back in Afghanistan... but he has a steady job teaching, a small house, his family and his friends. And if he drinks a little more than the average person, or uses a little something to help him sleep, well - life doesn't turn out all sunshine and roses for people like him.
Despite the massive universe change, much actually stays the same: Qrow is still a fairly simple man, he's "never asked for much in life." His sister is absent due to prison rather than the 'survival of the fittest' mentality that distances them in canon. Tai is indeed a "bit of a wreck" in the show, considering that he's lost two lovers, and, as stated previously, Irownwood remains an amputee since that is considered a formative part of his characterization. Qrow's war against the Grimm has been translated into a war on terror, he still teaches kids like he does at Signal Academy, he's still an alcoholic, and he's still remarkably pessimistic. TigerMoon succeeds in fitting these characters into an entirely different world while still insuring that they remain recognizable.
Ozpin, Oscar, and Qrow in the PoaUC universe, by Rachael
However, these parallels continue past what's strictly necessary to assure readers they're actually reading a RWBY fanfic. In the latest chapter, titled "Lucky," TigerMoon explores the concept of names in their verse:
Qrow had been gifted with two nicknames throughout his life. Scareqrow – his callsign – had been gifted by an old squadron of friends, back in the days when he’d lived in the skies...
His other nickname had been with him, it seemed, since birth. Something of a cruel joke, a thing his mother used to tease him with when she was drunk and lazy and feeling affectionate – or when coming off a high and mean in her bitterness. Raven had picked it up, parroted it, called him that with what she considered fondness.
Bad luck charm.
Considering his fortunes, they weren’t too far off the mark.
There was a reason Schnee Design & Construction was called the Schnee Dust Company behind the man’s back, and it wasn’t out of fondness.
“I take it you’re Alejandro Branwen?” he asked, holding out a hand.
Qrow’s jaw twitched. “I prefer Qrow,” he replied, taking the handshake.
Many might look at these details and consider them to be lazy writing. Why come up with something new when you can just copy over from the canon? However, these parallels actually demonstrate a great deal of creativity. When moving from a fantasy universe, where people are named things like Qrow and Raven without comment, to a modern universe where such things are considered strange or at least noteworthy, the author has the option to either ignore the detail or try to explain it. Most fic writers choose the latter route, the more challenging option. Here, TigerMoon assures readers that Qrow does have a conventional name, Alejandro, but his preference for "Qrow" validates what the reader considers to be his true name. What was once a literal power of inducing bad luck becomes a sadistic nickname, used as a way of introducing Qrow's (non-canonical) abusive mother and re-emphasizing the rift with his sister. The "Dust" in Schnee Dust Company describes a magical element in the RWBY universe, but here becomes a way of signaling the owner's greedy, destructive ways. The full term "Scarqrow" is even more complex, considering that each RWBY character is based off of a well known fictional or historical figure, with Qrow representing the supposedly brainless Scarecrow of The Wizard of Oz. TigerMoon is drawing from fan knowledge rather than overt canon, yet the fact that they write the term as "scare + qrow" as opposed to "crow" suggests that the nickname of "Qrow" came first. How that developed out of "Alejandro" has yet to be explained.
A PoaUC reviewer expressing interest in AUs that have "a lot of thought" put into them. Here that level of detail can even draw in readers who would normally avoid this genre of fic
Thus, these details act sort of like Easter eggs for the readers. "Can you spot what I've taken from canon? Or from the fanon?" It feels good to catch those references and they help keep some small part of the reader's headspace in the original storyline, no matter how far the fic actually deviates from it. After all, readers seek out fic because there's something in the canon that they already adore. Significantly----and also like Easter eggs----these details are not crucial to the reader's understanding of the text. If they miss the reference there's no confusion, a lot like Seymour Chatman's concept of "kernels" and "satellites" in television narrative. You can exclude the minor satellites "without impacting narrative comprehension; however, satellites provide texture, tone, and character richness" (24). Even if there is confusion, authors will correct any assumptions that they came up with these details on their own. Should someone exclaim, "I love that you named your character Qrow! That's so great since he was a fighter pilot," any decent author would explain that "Qrow" is canonical and the job is their twist on the name, so as to avoid becoming another Cassandra Claire. Fics have their own complex suspension of disbelief, in which the reader must not only accept the fic itself, but also how the fic develops out of the original story. The author capable of both adding referential details that provide readers with a sense of inclusion and giving those details credibility within the new universe is often the one who succeeds in writing a popular piece of fanfiction.
Or, one might even call it a "good" fic.
"The Promise and Potential of Fan Fiction" by Stephen Burt
Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling by Jason Mittell