Historical trends in fanfiction?

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Title: Historical trends in fanfiction?
Creator: Exostrike
Date(s): 2019
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Historical trends in fanfiction? is a 2019 post by Exostrike on Reddit.

"With how long fan fiction has been a thing has anyone noticed historical trends that go beyond specific fandoms? Things like particular genres, AUs or formats."

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It's hard to put a pin in specific traits, but when you read fanfic over the course of years, there are definitely trends in writing styles and tropes that seem "of an era".

The earliest fic I've come across - the rare stuff preserved from the pre-internet days - was usually 3rd person past tense, used ellipses (...) the way we use em dash these days, and mostly there wasn't smutfic as much. (I should say that this point, I've always read slash fic so I can't say if these trends are true in the het stuff too.)

Fic from the late 90's and early 00's often tends to demonize or reject female characters, and there are a lot of tropes that you don't see as much anymore, like characters getting trapped together in a remote cabin as a get-together device, or clubbing scenes where one of the characters wears a mesh top and leather pants. (I was so disappointed when I actually started going to clubs and no one dressed like that. Pretty sure 90% of the prevalence on that came from people watching Queer as Folk.) Also a lot of fic tropes around characters having to go undercover in "bondage clubs" and such.

In the early 2000's, first person POV was pretty common and popular, but around 2008-10 I started seeing people deriding it, and that started to die off, which also brought about the rise of 3rd person present POV, and you started seeing more of that taking over for past-tense fic.

That's the biggest stuff I can think of right now. Just like with anything else, there are style trends and variation over time, I guess. I still re-read some of my favorite fics that were written in 1998, but they definitely feel Of The Time when you read them now.

Songfics were a thing for a while but I personally haven't seen any in a long time.

There are changes when the canon itself changes. I remember back in Star Trek Voyager's early days almost all the Tom Paris fics were dark, full of tales of abuse from his being in prison and on the ship. Then the writers reworked the character into light comic relief and the stories shifted to reflect that. If I don't look at the date I can use usually place where it falls in the history of the show just by its tone and subject matter.
Oh, man, the Tom Paris fics! You’re right, he’s a good indicator as a character. Still a fave of mine. And oh boy, the ST:VOY fandom was ripe with songfics. I was guilty of at least one myself. I still love the premise of that story, but I find the writing embarrassing at this point.

Songfic thankfully took a hit when ff.net banned them in... 2005? It was really noticeable how much that ban also influenced works posted to other archives. I for one am not sad that that's a trend that's mostly over.

Omgggg song fics. I'll never forget the disappointment when I hit the arrow for a new chapter and 80% of the fic was linkin park lyrics. I like LP just dont tease me like that.
The feeling of betrayal as you open a fic with a cool premise and you realize the italicized paragraph is song lyrics and not some kind of pretentious poetic interlude.
Omg not the italicized lyrics! 🤣 always italicized
Song fics was the first thing that came to my mind. I'm not too sad that they are gone to be honest
I once wrote a song fic. To this day, it is my greatest shame. And I include in that count my Twilight fics from 2010.

I was an angsty teen when I was reading fic in the mid aughts, but I can't help be feel like fic has generally become more positive and uplifting. I'd even go as far to say edginess was quite the trend in the mid 2000s.

Yeah, every time I enter a new fandom I'm almost shocked to see how few angst fics there are. Like, I see a character and something that happened to them in canon, and I almost expect to see a ton of fics about it, laying on the pain and suffering. If BNHA, for example, had fanfics writers from the 2000s writing for it, Todoroki's father would have also been a pedophile, Midoriya would have PTSD and multiple suicide attempts from the bullying, and Bakugou would have been horrifically tortured and severely mentally unstable after being kidnapped. And all of them would overcome their pain through the power of romance and sex.
Yup, nailed it. Now that you mention BNHA, with the anime fandoms in particular it was always particularly bad.
I think that's why I was so surprised with BNHA. Its like I've come to expect the awfulness. I actually really like dark stories. My original stuff is pretty dark. I just feel like those fics were often poorly handled. You can handle dark subjects and not disrespect them by handling them as if psychological trauma goes away with the power of gay dick. Maybe it's because the majority of them were so bad that people don't write them anymore.
Believe me, I cover dark material myself. The issue always was that the dark themes were always explored at such a superficial level and, as you mentioned, were just waved away with a little love and support instead of the actual lifelong battles dealing with trauma or mental health issues are.

I remember there wasnt as much well written smutfics. It was all horrible in the early 2000s and prior. I think writers have really perfected the skill of an actually hot and meaningful sex scene in fic.

Harry Potter trends alone are interesting. There was a single cabal of authors who created everything you know about Draco Malfoy being a love interest instead of a creep. Cassandra Claire was one of them. All fic prior to that had him firmly as a nasty bully. The veela stuff and him being smart and good at potions is all fanon. It was called "draco in leather pants" back then in like 2005. Now its just dracos default fanon personality.

You can also see a period of fics published between HBP and DH with a TON of puppetmaster!dumbledore speculation fics.

Its my personal opinion that people take fic more seriously now. A lot more editing and work goes into it than ever before. Quality overall has increased dramatically since like 2005.

The fanzine era doesnt count though. Those had actual editors slaving over the limited, curated content and were fantastic. But their smut was still bad

edit:

also imo people are less accidentally problematic now. when people write twisted underage torture stuff its usually intentionally fucked up. i got scarred for life multiple times in middle school finding untagged underage rape fics that glorified it and clearly the author didnt see anything wrong with it. They would have severe stockholmes and be unaware that is what they are writing into the characters when called on it, etc. that is p rare now. people will even tag stuff like that "dead dove do not eat", stockholmes, and state multiple times that they know how screwy it is and such but like exploring dark stories. I havnt accidentally read a rape scene in years. Used to be super common smack in the middle of the fluffy fics for "drama".

I actually really like this evolution because while I'm cool with reading all kinds of problematic and fucked up content, even the somewhat glorified kind, I don't want to be surprised by it, nor do I want to read a rape fic written by an author who obviously doesn't know what rape is.
I really like the "dead dove do not eat" tag too, even if it's rarely used.

Eh, I remember there being some decent porn in the bigger slash fandoms in the 90s (I've never read much het). Particularly Highlander, for some reason. The main difference is that there weren't as many PWPs.

And come the early 00s, Buffy, Smallville, and early HP had a lot of decent porn. If anything, communities like pornish_pixies in Harry Potter really started pushing the porn envelope and writing kinks that would be more maligned today.

There were also huge guides on how to write decent smut on Yahoo groups in the late 90s because OP is right, the vast majority was terrible.
I must not have ever found the good stuff then hah. But I didnt read slash that early. Het smut all was terrible at least!
I think slash fandom might've... owned its porn more early on? I'm not sure how to put it. Even completely innocent fic that we'd barely rate above a G these days got kind of quarantined to "adult" parts of fandom if they contained m/m or f/f in the 90s and earlier. So a lot more people said fuck it, you think I'm writing porn? I'll write you some fucking porn.
There was also Minotaur, a gay man who made a whole massive guide on writing m/m porn aimed at slash writers in the mid-90s, which might've helped.
I was coming into this thread to mention Minotaur as well! I still link his guides to younger writers now, and it's fun to watch their reactions to it, though it seems that fandom will never get away from certain things Minotaur was already calling out in the 90's (ex: one finger, two finger, three finger, buttsex)
I have always found fandom tropes interesting. They get accepted and expanded upon so much that sometimes fans mistake fanon for canon. I remember an MCU Civil War debate that was going hot and heavy and someone brought up a fannon thing as part of their argument. There was a lot of second-hand cringe when someone pointed out 'You know, that never actually happened except in fanfics?'
Harry Potter fandom's awful (or awesome) for it. I've read the books a lot and still fall for fanon as being canon sometimes.

I remember marysue witch hunts and the laundry list of ways to not write a sue (back the ALL SIs were sues). Frankly I'm glad that's less a thing.

The shift from staunchly anti-SI to SIs being one of the most popular tropes in anime fandoms is one of the most interesting to me. I can't say when it happened. I wanna say before Dreaming of Sunshine in the Naruto fandom but it definitely made a huge come back after its publication.

I haven't read for that long but I remember the Supernatural rps ship that brought about the rise of A/B/O.

It wasn't rps, it was an anonymous kink meme. Watching it grow and catch on was kind of astonishing.

I've been in and out of fandom since... 2002? 2004? Some old favorite tropes of mine that make me cringe now:

Character(s) trapped in our world: And of course, the author avatar is the one to lead them around/find a way to send them back home, while also falling in love. Some noteable subtropes: no family, absent parents, neglectful parents, middle-to-upper class homes and lifestyles. I haven't seen much of this since, like, a decade ago.

Self-Inserts: This has always been a thing, even though the Dragon Age fandom seems to treat it as a new thing, branding it "Modern Girl in Thedas". Writing these types of fics seems to come in and out of fashion on a regular basis.

Meta Fanfic: Anyone else remember Fan Fiction Universities, or Bishounen and Bishoujo? Those were fun.

Mental Wards: This one was super cringe, and I was never a fan. For some reason, young writers back in the '00s had an obsession with stripping characters of their memories (or, worse, canon was 'all in their head') and trapping them in asylums, with a foil character or love interest in the role of psychiatrist.

There's more, but these were off the top of my head.

Edit: The fic I'm thinking of was Bishonen and Bishoujo! by Songwind. It is old. Reading it makes me feel old. I remember that it inspired a slew of copycat fics, but I can't be bothered to track them down right now.

Oh my god, the meta fanfic and the mental wards. I probably blocked them from my memory after they became something I instantly skipped.

I remember when Real People fics were forbidden. No real 'rule' against them, it was something that just wasn't done. It was considered creepy. I don't know when it changed, with the One Direction fandom maybe?

Now they're all over the place.

I remember the Supernatural fandom writing tons of Jared Padalecki/Jensen Ackles fics back in the day. But I do think there's a lot more real person fiction. Maybe social media has pulled the barriers between us and celebrities down, people don't feel as weird about infringing on others' privacy, some even feel entitled to it.

Yeah, I always had the feeling SPN made it popular because the only other shipping option at the time was incest (before Castiel was introduced). I think a lot of people just wanted to ship their boys and RPF was the lesser evil.
I got into fanfiction about eight years ago and I remember one of the first I read was an RPF with the band Black Veil Brides on Quizilla. The main character was probably a self-insert and I know I would hate it if I were to read it today. I know I found it creepy back then, too, which is why that was the only one I read, but it makes me wonder how long its been around.

The first big RPF fandom that started breaking down the anti-RPF taboo was long before One Direction. It was Popslash, which was focused mostly on Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. Then came LOTRips, which was focused on the actors from the Lord of the Rings movies. Prior to 2010 there was also Supernatural RPF (the actors from the TV show) and Bandom (Fall Out Boy, Panic at the Disco, and My Chemical Romance). Those were all incredibly huge fandoms.

One Direction was probably bigger than all of them, but it was by no means the first.
I know there's a Blur fanfiction, which uses many real life figures in the Britpop music scene. It was written around 1996 or so during the height of the music scene. It was reuploaded on Ao3 a few years ago. The author stated that they were required by a record company to change the names of all the bands and artists included. So maybe Real People fics go back further than it seems. [1]
Self-harm and Eating Disorders were a huge trope in angst fics during the mid to late 2000s.
There was a bit of a cancer trend too. At least in the Harry Potter fandom

Off the top of my head based on the fandoms I frequented:

  • I see songfics have already been mentioned, lmao. I had a love-hate relationship with those, personally. Some could be pretty great, but damn, that feeling when you found a promising summary and 80% of the fic was just the characters staring at each other across a room set to lyrics.
  • Troll fics skyrocketed after the appearance of My Immortal.
  • This is a recent one, but I don't think florist + tattoo artist AU was a thing until the last couple of years?
  • In the early to mid '00s, it was fairly popular to use parentheses with stream-of-consciousness writing in italics as a separate paragraph (in the middle of a sentence) that seems to have gone out of style now. I still see it sometimes, but not to the same extent.
  • writing the entire fic in lowercase letters. popular during the livejournal era.
  • Wild OC hate. At one point it was almost impossible to write OCs in fandoms like Harry Potter, Naruto, etc. without people automatically calling them Mary-Sues, especially if the OC in question was female.
  • Unless they were next gen fics. I haven't really frequented shounen fanfic in a while outside of my recent obsession with BnHA, but it seems as if the appearance of an actual (not very well-received) next gen in Naruto, Bleach, and Harry Potter have put a damper to the enthusiasm for that trend, from what I've heard.
I have a favorite series with tattoo artists from 2009, but it might be an outlier.
I don't have much to add, and maybe it's just my fandoms changing, but I feel like in the early to mid 00's the smut was a lot more contrived, the good old 'trapped in a blizzard and have to take off our clothes and share a sleeping bag' kind of contrived. Those still exist for sure, but I feel like they used to be more common. Back when they were still called lemons :)
Time travel was almost always the first to appear in new fandoms, I've found. Between that and differing paths for the main character (different choices, twins, different world, different school, etc.), those tend to rule the early fanfiction period and then stay as a powerhouse. As for era-specific trends, for this particular decade, I'll say it's the group text fics or the ones based on social media. I didn't notice those popping up until Yuri on Ice hit the scene, though.
I remember around 2000-2005 there was a lot of "emo and goth" or what counted as emo and goth in high school in fanfictions. The biggest example of that is My Immortal, but those were actually in a lot of fanfiction, not to the extent of My Immortal but the whole everyone is a prep, I listen to goth music that is MCR, I shop at Hot Topic, etc. It was in a lot of fandoms I read back then.

I think crossovers were a bit less common on ff.net in the early 00's.

Makes sense. The way the website is designed discourages crossovers.
The concept of the ISOT (Island in the Sea of Time). It comes from the name of a 1998 book by the alternate history novel S.M. Stirling, where the island of Nantucket gets teleported to the Bronze Age. The term has since been used to describe any fic where a large group of people or a setting have been inexplicably transported (through time/location, into another work's canon, or otherwise) to a different setting. It's only really retained any consistent popularity (that I know of) on Alternatehistory.com's fandom board (no doubt due to the influence of the main board), and I've only found fics with a considerable following to have been written within the past 5 or so years, with a bit of a dip in the last year or so.
Fanfics got longer over the course of time. I remember in the early days of FFN, fics were typically shorter in length (like one-shots and chapter stories under 25k words were much more common) but as time went on, writers became more open to writing longer stories.
It seems like there's lots more politically correct 'eat your vegetables' fic, whereas when I got into it (circa the X-Files) it was a parade of who can write the most shockingly fucked up.

References

  1. ^ See Tris/Alex, see Bird of Paradise.