In the final week of our annual Grown-Up Guide to Romance Novels, we are taking a look at the romantic, kinky, wild world that is FAN FICTION. Whether you’re a dabbler, a newb, or a seasoned pro, let’s discuss this fascinating community of writers and readers that often feels like the interweb’s dirty little secret.

When Rosemary brought this topic up, instantly I said, “YES” and got to outlining, which soon turned into, YIKES, I have a lot of thoughts on this topic. I can trace my love affair with fanfic all the way back to the tender age of 10, when, as an already savvy internet user (bet my dad didn’t think teaching me how to computer was going to lead to THIS), I was seeking out fan-sites for my favorite boy band at the time: Backstreet Boys. And, oh, lookie there, a free fantasy story starring the man of my dreams, Nick Carter! (Yes…I know. Don’t judge. I was 10.)

Reader, I was definitely way too young to be reading that story (there are things they did with an ice cube I STILL RECALL) but, ah, explicitness aside, I was hooked. I even dabbled on the writing side and posted (but never finished, to my shame) a Roswell Michael/Maria pairing way back when.

So What IS Fan Fiction?

Per Wikipedia: “Fan fiction or fanfiction (also abbreviated to fan fic, fanfic, fic or ff) is fictional writing written in an amateur capacity by fans, unauthorized by, but based on an existing work of fiction.” It’s been around since the 1930s, but I think we can thank the Star Trek fandom for getting it to where it is today.

Why You Should Try It:

Wish Fulfillment. Was your favorite character killed off or your OTP (one true pairing) never got together?? *cough*Bellarke*cough* Is there a character’s journey you can’t stop obsessing over, or a plot point that the canon storyline never got to but you always wanted to see? You can have it all in fanfic! No one ever dies in fanfic! (Okay, that last one was a lie, BUT there are more resurrections in fanfic than 2000+ years of Easter Sundays combined.)

Variety of Stories. “But, ugh, Stephanie,” you may be saying. “Isn’t fanfic just all porn and weird kinky stuff?” And the smut is there, friends, oh, yes, it is. But it’s not ONLY smut. You can read plenty of G-R rated content and leave the Explicit stuff alone. (Or you may even not want romance, but rather a deep-dive character introspective!) 

Want to see your favorites fall in love over and over in different settings or ways? A crossover with characters from another piece of media? See characters who never even spoke in the movie have the kind of epic love (or epic sex) people only dream about? Feel the catharsis of reading about those brothers who never say what they actually mean finally have a meaningful conversation about the death of their father? The stories you read can be as fluffy, angsty, or as dirty as you want them to be. 

Explore Judgment Free. Look, sometimes you may find some out-there, really dark, or taboo stuff (I genuinely do not get the “wincest” trend, but there ya go.). Avoid the stuff that you don’t find interesting, simple as that. There literally is something for everyone.

Okay, But There ARE Downsides, Right?

Some original content creators dislike fanfic, citing copyright infringement or squicky feels that someone else is manipulating their characters. I can sympathize to an extent, but a) fanfic writers aren’t getting paid; this is a labor of love, and b) I think you put content out there in the world and can’t be mad when people interact with it. YMMV. 

Some fanfic, like my aforementioned Nick Carter read, is centered on real celebrities instead of characters. While I read my lion’s share of NSYNC fanfic as a teen, nowadays I definitely find real-person fics creepy. Sure, many fanfics are written because someone finds the actor playing a character hot, and we all fancast in our heads in published stories, but it just hits differently when a story uses a celeb’s real name or, like, their family members. 

It sucks when you’re reading a fantastic story that’s still in-progress and realize it hasn’t been updated in two years. Or having to wait for a sporadic new chapter because, as I said, this ISN’T anyone’s day job. 

Just like any reading, it can be work to find a story that suits your tastes, current mood, or your standard of writing (I’m picky, okay?).

I’m Ready To Read! Where Do I Begin?

The most common places I find fanfic content are: 

Archive of Our Own (AO3) – This is THE place to go. Clean design, so much content, customizable search filters, ability to bookmark, resize text, comment system, etc. – The UI is so OLD. I honestly rarely go here anymore, but it was THE place in the early 2000s and some classic stuff is probably still posted here. It’s still active but less popular. 

Tumblr – Enter at your own risk, lol. Tumblr’s search function suuuucks, and it’s basically stumbling around with a flashlight in a warehouse. TBH, I also feel you’re going to find more…”tweeny” style reads here.

Web Searches – There are other fanfic places on the interwebs: smaller hosting sites, fan-pages, etc., so sometimes you’ll find luck just typing in your search parameters in Google. I don’t because I’m lazy and AO3 has been good to me. 

I would also recommend you browse the super extensive Wikipedia link under Section 4: Categories and terms, because fanfic does have its own lingo!

So I Clicked A Link But, OMG, Overwhelming Much?

Alright, let’s discuss basics! (Psst: If you want to taste test a few options to see if you even want to try fanfic, skip to the bottom of the post for some of our recommendations! Then come back to learn how to search for yourself!)

You’re on AO3; what’s your poison? Let’s say I want to find a Bellamy/Clarke romance since I was cheated out of a canonical happy ending. Go to “Fandoms” and pick “TV Shows”.

Screenshot of Archive of our Own

Then jump to the show in question. Obvi we are discussing The 100 so it’s right at the top. It’s got a respectable 37K fics to choose from, whereas less popular media only has a handful. See there’s a 10 Things I Hate About You (TV) with only 13 fics? If you searched under Fandom → Movies → 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) you’d find 116. So remember: media type matters. 

Screenshot of Archive of our Own

Now we are in the thick of it. The initial view will list every fic within the fandom sorted by most recently updated/added. Before we look at search filters, the two below are great examples of all the helpful info you’ll learn about a fic before clicking:

Example A:

Screenshot of Archive of our Own

Example B:

Screenshot of Archive of our Own

Squares in the top left, clockwise, tell us: the fic’s rating, the primary relationship types (F/F, M/F, etc.), any content warnings, and if the story is in progress or finished. 

Character Tags tell you who the story focuses on, in order of importance. Some writers only provide the main relationships, some include every character mentioned. Names paired with a slash like “Bellamy/Clarke” denote a romantic relationship (so a Clarke/Bellamy/Lexa would denote a threesome or thruple), whereas an ampersand like “Bellamy & Clarke” indicates a platonic relationship within the fic’s universe.

Other Tags give you info about setting and content. It may give episode or season context so you don’t accidentally spoil yourself or to center you where in the canon this story takes place. Tags are at the author’s discretion, so detail level will vary. Many “mature” ones will even tag out their sexually explicit acts, especially as the content gets kinkier. 

The Bottom Info provides the detail. The examples above have “Part X of XYZ” because Example A is part of the author’s own “series” and B is part of a collection of short stories or vignettes. Check Words for story length, how many Chapters there are or have left before completion. Sometimes the more Comments, Kudos (a click of the “heart/like” button by a reader–can only be done once per fic), Bookmarks, or Hits (how many people have interacted with/read the fic), the more popular or potentially “good” the story is.

There are a ton of customizable search filters, though be warned: what you see initially sometimes isn’t ALL there is (there can be more relationships or characters included that aren’t in the initial drop-downs but will appear as you do other searches). 

What’s cool is you can start your search and then continue to refine by “excluding” the ratings/tags/whatever you don’t want (I actually dislike a lot of crossover settings, so don’t even bother showing them to me, kthanx!). 

Screenshot of Archive of our Own

Personal Tips & Tricks: I love that I can search by Word Count (you can set a min or max; I often like to do a 5K-10K minimum to weed out really short stories) or Completion Status (I may avoid in-progress especially when it hasn’t been updated in a while). 

I like to vary my Sort By choices once I’ve filtered down properly depending on mood. Sometimes I want to see the longest fics that exist (anything over 70K words and we’re getting into standard book length, but a well-crafted 30-50K story can be excellent. I get a bit wary at 200K+ fics; they are either epic or rambly), or sort by hits/kudos/comments to see the most popular stories. I’ll sort by “most recent” if I’m jonesing for a fix-it fic for a bad episode or a reaction fic to an emotional scene that just aired. 

I also tend to scroll through a few pages of search results and open a bajillion tabs and then read the first few paragraphs to see if it’s worth reading (I can be ruthless, but I know my tastes).

Taking It To The Next Level:

Intrigued yet? Feeling less overwhelmed? If so, I’d recommend creating an AO3 account so you can see your reading history, give kudos, comment, bookmark (tip: bookmark or “mark for later” and go back to stories you think you’ll like but don’t have time for right then), or subscribe for updates for an in-progress story. Check out what else the writer has done on their author page, sorted by fandom–even subscribe to an author to get notifications on any new content. Pro-level tip: If it’s a long fic and I don’t want to read on my computer or a tablet browser, I’ll download the epub version and upload it to Google Books to read like an e-book.

And if you’re loving a story, please, please leave a quick comment! Leave a kudos! The writers are so appreciative and often write back to say thanks, even for fics that are years old. I am on the fringes of this community, but I love seeing how supportive people are in the comments. It’s usually a very safe and welcoming space.

Look, Just Tell Me What To Read:

Sure! Here are a few we’ve liked or are interested in ourselves, just to get you started:

Fanfic Name: All That Remains
Fandom: The 100
Relationship: Bellamy Blake / Clarke Griffin
Why It’s Good: Honestly I don’t totally remember this one but I gave it a kudos and I can’t find in my AO3 history the Bellarke one I did want to link to. Downside: this isn’t finished. Upside: It’s a fix-it fic for season 7 and one of the tags is “the happy ending we all deserve”. Sometimes I don’t even need something to totally finish, just tip my mind towards what’s possible and I can fill in the HEA myself. -SJ

Fanfic Name: Burning Cities and Napalm Skies
Fandom: The 100
Relationship: John Murphy / Raven Reyes
Why It’s Good: Obviously this pairing never occurred within the show but IT SHOULD HAVE. They’ve got all the drama: he shot her before they really knew each other so there’s reasonable tension, he’s a snarky bastard with a secret heart of gold and she’s a genius badass with can snark back with the best of them. Ahem, anyway, this particular story just has some really great, vivid and detailed world-building alongside the romance. -SJ

Fanfic Name: the feel-good hit of the summer
Fandom: The 100
Relationship: Bellamy Blake / Clarke Griffin
Why It’s Good: By far one of the best-written fics I’ve ever read, this is the one I recommend to pretty much everyone, regardless of if they’re a Bellarke fan (or not). Written as though it’s a Rolling Stone magazine piece, this fic is an AU in which Bellamy and Clarke—rival musicians—are forced to go on tour together by their joint record label. Everyone in this story is so well written; I’ve frequently thought about saving the entire thing in a Pages document so that I can reread it if it ever goes missing from the archive. – mc

Fanfic Name: Heart-Eyes Emoji
Fandom: Dragon Age video game franchise
Relationship: Alistair / Female Cousland (kind of an OC)
Why It’s Good: Dragon Age is one of those video game franchises that lends itself to a lot of outside-the-game world-building. In this semi-AU, Alistair is a bumbling detective for a Thedas police department who accidentally starts a text relationship with new-in-town Olivia Cousland (I said above she’s kind of an OC, which is true given that she’s the authors’s version of the main character of the game). The banter is sweet, the drama and action palpable, and the slow-burn relationship is near perfection. Full disclosure: This fic isn’t complete, but supposedly there’s a plan? I’ll just keep rereading it until we get those final few chapters. – mc

Fanfic Name: What is True, But Not Ideal
Fandom: Game of Thrones
Relationship: Brienne of Tarth / Jaime Lannister
Why It’s Good: GOT did Brienne and Jaime SO WRONG. There are some excellent fics of this pairing. This particular AU fic gave me something I never knew I wanted: a BFF bond between Tyrion and Brienne in addition to the romance. -SJ

Fanfic Name: Happy to Be Stuck With You
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Relationship: Bucky Barnes / Darcy Lewis
Why It’s Good: Two characters who’ve probably never even met in the movies but Darcy is one of my FAVE minor MCU characters and she pairs SO WELL with so many people in fanfic: Bucky, Loki, Steve Rodgers, etc. This particular story is about Bucky running into Darcy when she’s accidentally gotten herself stuck to some weird substance in the lab and in an effort to save her, he gets stuck too. It’s short and the banter is adorable. -SJ

Fanfic Name: Maybe Tomorrow
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Relationship: Tony Stark / Steve Rogers
Why It’s Good: The author wrote this in their summary: “Tony Stark may well be the richest man in America. In the depths of the Great Depression, that’s no small claim. When a plot is hatched for him to take in an orphan for a week, everyone knows it’s a publicity stunt. No one knows it better than Officer Steve Rogers, but he’s got a job to do, and he’s going to do it. Doesn’t mean he’s going to approve. … Yes, it’s an Annie AU. … Yes. That Annie.” If that doesn’t persuade you, I don’t know what will. – mc

Fanfic Name: Rearrange the Stars
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Relationship: Jane Foster / Loki
Why It’s Good: I love non-canon pairings, apparently, but, like, sometimes they make a lot of sense! The Loki / Jane pairing with its built-in drama (she liked his brother first! Redeemable bad boy or misunderstood monster?!) and she won’t take his BS is a personal favorite of mine, and there’s a surprisingly good amount of options to pick from. In this one, Jane, still out in New Mexico, is “haunted” by an imprisoned Loki who is astral projecting. If you like this world (where Loki also haunts and becomes BFFs with Tony Stark, lol), then there’s a whole continuing saga, including a parallel fic about Steve Rodgers and Bucky Barnes. -SJ

Fanfic Name: Chagrin My Dazzle
Fandom: Northanger Abbey, Twilight
Relationship: n/a
Why It’s Good: Here’s the summary: “Cathie Morland is a freshman at Bath High School, and she loves Twilight more than anything. If only real life could be like fiction!” I haven’t read this one myself (yet), but it felt supremely on brand. Someone give it a read and let us know how it is? – mc

Fanfic Name: In the Sin Bin
Fandom: Shadowhunters (TV show)
Relationship: Magnus Bane / Alec Lightwood
Why It’s Good: Alec Lightwood is a famous pro hockey player who’s struggling with this sexual identity. Magnus Bane is a sports agent who’s 100% not. If you wanted more from their relationship in the TV show, and perhaps watched their first kiss more than was healthy, this AU fic is for you—even if you’re not a hockey fan. – mc

Fanfic Name: Chivalry Isn’t Dead, It Just Joined the Dark Side
Fandom: Star Wars
Relationship: Kylo Ren (Ben Solo) / Rey
Why It’s Good: In this AU, set at a Renaissnce faire, Chewbacca is a large man who speaks in a very thick accent and BB-8 is a paraplegic Corgi. It’s not my favorite of Reylo fics—in compiling this list, I found out that my fave, which had Rey and Ben being rival e-sports players, was hidden from the archive—but it’s a lot of fun and the secondary characters are absolutely delightful. – mc

Have we inspired you to check something out? Is fanfic just not your bag, baby? Or are you a total aficionado and have some recs of your own to share? Let us know in the comments!

Stephanie (she/her) is an avid reader who moonlights at a college and calls Orlando home. Stephanie loves watching television, reading DIY blogs, planning awesome parties, Halloween decorating, and playing live-action escape games.