This is a guide for how to read fan fiction (or 'fan fic' as commonly called in the community). But before we do that, bear with me. We’re going to start with the elephant in the room. WHY would you read fanfic?
Fan fic: why you should read it
A bunch of reasons. No matter how many stories/shows/movies/books they make with your favorite character, you may want more. (For popular series, there are tens of thousands of fanfic stories available, all for free, and multiple millions of words.) Particularly if your favorite is a supporting cast member with less visibility.
Or you may have a different interpretation of a character than the official version, or you may want to see them in a different kind of story. The coffee shop AU (alternate universe), for example, is a popular genre. It lets readers see action heroes kick back and relax and focus more on friendship or romance than whom they’re punching next. (It, and the college/university AU, also reflects the advice to ‘write what you know’. Some fans are more comfortable with school settings or coffee shops than government agencies.)
Fan fiction tends to focus less on plot — although there are some excellently plotted pieces — and more on character interaction and emotional reactions. What the characters do may be less important than how they feel. (Although what they do, if we’re talking about sex, may also be described in copious detail. We’ll get to that.) Some people even read fic instead of the official works, as the characterization or story types there are closer to what they enjoy.
In this explainer, I’m going to use examples relating to Sherlock Holmes, for two reasons. First, that’s my jam, and second, most people are at least slightly familiar with the characters.
Isn’t fan fiction badly done?
Given that anyone can write fic, there are some clunkers out there, yes. (Shout out for the many writers who create in English when it’s not their native language! I can overlook some typos or grammar errors when I realize that’s a great achievement.) There are also some beautifully written pieces, where skilled authors have created lengthy stories (120-150,000 words or more, where ‘novel length’ starts at 50,000), that anyone can read for free. Or short scenes that perfectly capture what I love about a character.
Fan Fic is simply something written using characters created by someone else. (Which means most superhero comics these days could be considered fic, albeit an officially recognized variant.) Many authors use beta readers, someone to proofread and provide content feedback, much as an editor does.
Using existing characters means writers can get to the story they want to tell without having to establish who these characters are. It might be practice — a number of fan fic writers have gone on to publish original novels — or an escape — I’ve seen fic where the author’s note mentions how they should be writing a paper or thesis instead — or simply a pleasant hobby to share ideas and visions with a receptive audience. ‘Here’s what I love about this character’ is often the underlying theme, fun to share with others who might agree or have alternate interpretations.
It’s all about finding the right pieces for you. And that’s the point of this article. We’re going to wander through Archive of Our Own (aka AO3), a free, donation-supported site that has very useful search and labeling abilities.
Some Fan fiction terminology
There’s jargon, of course. Any hobby has its specialized language.
Let’s start with couples. A pair, or ship (short for ‘relationship’), is two people you want to see romantically and/or sexually involved. Most ships have cute nicknames. Your OTP is your ‘one true pair’, or favorite couple. (Not everything is couples. You might have an OT3, or favorite threesome.)
A ‘rare pair’ is a ship few people support. For the BBC Sherlock show, for example, the most popular pairing is Johnlock, where people think Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are more than just roommates. (There are over 63,000 stories with them at the time of this writing.) Mystrade (the couple consisting of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother, and Inspector Lestrade) used to be a rare pair, but there’s a lot of fic (almost 12,000 stories) for that now too.
A truly rare pair would be Sherlock and Mrs. Hudson, with only 22 fics. Don’t judge. One of the most important things about fic is the rule ‘Don’t like, don’t read.’ Someone somewhere has written about almost anything you can think of. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it. You are responsible for your own experience, which is why there are so many search options. You are not responsible for adjudicating someone else’s imagination.
For instance, there are divided opinions on RPF (‘Real People Fic’). You can, instead of searching for characters, search for actor names, and there are likely stories about them. Some people like to avoid those. Which is the great thing about tags, or labels — they can help you discover what you like, and they can help you navigate away from what you don’t. More on that later.
There are favorite tropes, or popular plot concepts. These include ‘fake dating’ (the couple has to pretend to be a couple for Reasons, often used to get two people to admit their deeper feelings), ‘mutual pining’ (the couple both like each other a lot but haven’t admitted it), ‘only one bed’ (oh no! they are trapped somewhere and have to share the limited sleeping space), ‘enemies to lovers’ (if they hate each other that much, there must be a reason), and ‘slow burn’ (settle in, it’s going to be a long journey before they admit feelings and/or get to it).
Searching for fan fiction stories
Select Search > Works. Start by picking your fandom (and language, unless you read in more than English). For Sherlock Holmes, there’s ‘Sherlock (TV)’ (the BBC show), or ‘Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle’ (the original story characters), or ‘Sherlock Holmes (Downey films)’, or 'Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone films)’, or many others. Choose your variant.
You can select complete works or works in progress. The latter may update regularly (there’s a subscribe button if you have an account at the site — recommended, as it lets you build a library of links to read at your leisure), or they may be abandoned, never to complete, or they may complete months or years later (in spite of good intentions). Last update date is provided.
Note that fic writers are not vending machines. This material is provided for free; you don’t get to demand more when you want it. The best way to drive away an author is to be mean. Instead, if you like something, leave Kudos on a fic (simply click the button) or write a comment saying how much you enjoyed it and why. Writers love knowing they have an audience who likes their work.
Fan fiction: a guide to field usage
There are many other fields you can use, but we’re going to focus on the few that might get you in trouble. Let’s start with Relationships.
There is a big difference between / and &. The slash means romance and/or sex. The ampersand means friendship or family. So if you want a story about how Sherlock and Mycroft relate to each other as brothers, try ‘Sherlock Holmes & Mycroft Holmes’ in the Relationships field. ‘Sherlock Holmes/Mycroft Holmes’ is going to give you something much more graphic. If you’re interested in poly or multiples, you can search for more names together: ‘Sherlock Holmes/John Watson/Mary Morstan’, for example, will show you stories about John and his wife being very open about their marriage.
Which leads to Ratings. There are five, one being ‘Not Rated’. The others are in ascending scale, from ‘General’ (anyone can read) to ‘Teen and Up’ (maybe there’s some profanity, or some violence, or mention of sex) to ‘Mature’ and ‘Explicit’. The line between those latter two is tricky to define, but both might involve graphic sex and/or violence, with ‘Explicit’ going into much more detail about exactly which body part ended up where.
That brings us to Warnings. These are very helpful in making sure you avoid stories you don’t want to see. For instance, during the pandemic, I wanted soft, fluffy, escapist tales, so I made sure not to read something with ‘Major Character Death’.
‘Graphic Depictions Of Violence’, ‘Underage’, and ‘Rape/Non-Con’ are pretty self-explanatory. ‘Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings’ means read at your own risk — you might find something you don’t like, and the creator isn’t going to tell you, either to maintain some kind of story twist surprise or because they’re grumpy.
You can also specify Characters you’d like to see appear beyond the core relationships.
Tags are the best thing in fan fiction
So, you’ve plugged in your fandom, and maybe a relationship or a character, and you’ve gotten a long list of stories. How do you decide what to try? Check the Tags.
Tags are where people specify what’s in their story. They might include tropes, as mentioned above. They might include specific sex acts, if it’s that kind of story. (‘PWP’ means ‘porn without plot’, by the way, where the entire point of the story is to see characters, erm, enjoy each other.) They might include plot elements (such as ‘Valentine’s Day’ or ‘Alternate Universe - Vampire') or characteristics (such as ‘Sherlock Being Sherlock’ or ‘Greg Lestrade Is a Good Friend’) or promises (such as ‘Eventual Happy Ending’). When you find a kind of story you like, searching for others with the same tag may give you more to enjoy. Or you can follow the author, to see what else they’ve written.
Alternately, you may wish to avoid specific tags if there are types of stories you don’t enjoy. I don’t care much for ‘Angst’, for example. The tags are there to inform you about what you’re going to see, so you aren’t unpleasantly surprised. (Please don’t read anything labeled ‘Alpha/Omega’, ‘Omegaverse’, or ‘Mpreg’ unless you know what those are. And that is beyond the scope of this article.) Read the tags before you read.
Cool things About fan fiction
You will learn a LOT reading fic. People love to combine favorite characters and their own interests.
It might be how to make elaborate pastries. Or the details of a sport you never thought about before (I found out how the Tour de France worked when someone made a bunch of the Sherlock cast competitive cyclists). Or medical jargon (hurt/comfort is a popular genre where someone gets injured or a disease and their partner takes care of them). Or even what it might be like to be asexual or trans or poly or some other characteristic. People like to imagine their favorite characters are like them, and reading internal monologues gives a lot of insight into different ways of being.
There are ideas someone comes up with and other people run with. A very minor supporting character in Sherlock is Mycroft’s pretty assistant Anthea. She appears twice in the whole series. Yet ficcers have come up with an entire backstory for her, in which she’s incredibly well-trained in fighting and much smarter than anyone thinks. She also has a tag ‘Anthea Ships It (With Force If Necessary)’ used for stories where she helps other characters admit their feelings for each other. Characters who are mostly blank slates give writers the most creativity and build out a fuller universe.
My favorite example is Sebastian Moran. In the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, he was "the second most dangerous man in London” and worked for Professor Moriarty. In the Sherlock show, he didn’t appear. (There was another Lord Moran shown in passing.) In fanfic, he and Moriarty are treated as mirrors of John and Sherlock. For that reason, the two villains have a relationship — where Moriarty calls him tiger, because in the original stories, he was a noted tiger hunter — and he’s been fancast to be played by Michael Fassbender. This is widely understood and accepted even though it has nothing to do with the show.
That’s the biggest reason to read fan fiction. It’s a world of creativity and another way to enjoy a fandom.
Or, the three-word answer to 'How to Read fan fiction?': Carefully, then voraciously.