Over the past couple of months, I’ve fallen down a deep, dark fanfiction hole, and it’s left me considering one big question: why is AU fan fiction a thing??
AU stands for “Alternate Universe” fanfic. Occasionally, it’s used to describe a story where the plot diverges dramatically from that seen in canon, like “what if Harry had been sorted into Slytherin?”, but more commonly, it’s used to describe fanfics where characters in magical worlds are put into our real one. It’s Star Wars without the Force, Game of Thrones without Westeros, Harry Potter without Hogwarts. The characters, place names and relationships are transported from their own fictional world into (usually) our modern-day one and used to tell an almost completely different story from the one they originally told.
I say ‘usually’ modern day, because historical AU is definitely a thing, as are things like Hogwarts AU. But generally speaking, these stories are “what if Rey and Kylo Ren, but at a coffee shop?” or “what Jaime and Brienne, but they’re both cops?” Some stories endeavor to keep the characters as similar to the versions seen in canon as possible. Others don’t. But as I devoured yet another one of these stories in this past month, I really began wondering why? It makes obvious sense why you might read fanfic set in the series’ fictional world. Why it might be fun to read an alternate ending to The Rise of Skywalker or explore what might have happened if Kylo Ren had gone with Han Solo instead of killing him in The Force Awakens. But when Ben Solo is 90s pop star in the band ‘The Knights of Ren’ and Rey is an up-and-coming country star… well, why not just read or write an original novel instead?
I think the reasons why people write them are fairly obvious. Fanfic offers a built-in audience, with chapter-by-chapter feedback and encouragement from your readers. Writing is a very lonely and self-doubt-filled endeavour, and fanfic helps mitigate that, even before we get to the unique creative exercise that is writing familiar characters in a totally unfamiliar setting. But why do people love reading it so much, instead of original fiction?
One reason, I think, is that the barrier of entry is much, much lower for a fanfic, even an AU fanfic, than for an original story. Maybe this is just me, but sometimes, starting a new book is mentally difficult. You have to get invested in an entirely new set of characters and circumstances, and when you’re tired or otherwise not feeling your brightest, it’s easy to read the first couple of pages and then bounce straight off again, or even to make excuses and not get started at all. With a fanfic, it’s full of familiar names and relationship dynamics. Even in a wildly AU setting, things still feel good and familiar, like a pair of well-worn slippers. Reading is meant to be fun. It’s a way to get lost in stories, and also to relax, and AU fanfic offers that chance in droves.
That doesn’t mean that AU fanfiction isn’t creative or compelling. One of the most wonderful things about it is the unique constraints put upon it by the original story. Generally, AU writers can pick and choose the elements they want to incorporate and how they want to incorporate them, but there are certain expectations to work within. In a Star Wars AU, Ben Solo is probably going to have a strained relationship with his parents, and Rey probably does not know her parents at all. These restraints add a certain challenge for the writer, to reimagine the original character traits and relationship dynamics as they would fit into a new setting, and they exercise writer creativity in a very different way than you experience when writing completely original fictional. And I think this is also a great source of fun for the reader, as they get to see how the writer interprets the challenge, and what adaptations and solutions they come up with.
And then there’s simply the fact that fanfics, especially AU fanfics, are fun. Sometimes they go the angst and drama route, but a lot of the time, they’re full of the tried-and-tested romance tropes that are just straight-up delightful to read. Fake dating! Oh no, we are at a work conference and there’s only one bed! We need to get married for the work visa even though we hate each other (for some reason)! And, when you dive in with these stories, you know how it’s going to go. 99 times out of 100, your characters are heading for a happy ending that they may or not be available to them in their canon universe. These aren’t stories built to try and shock the reader or “say something new”. They’re not self-conscious about what they are. They’re purely there to entertain readers who want to see one character kiss another character after 60,000 words of build-up. And that’s great.
Plus, when there are lots of published and not-yet-published authors out there practicing their skills and blowing off steam writing fic for the masses, for free, there is good stuff out there too. And if one story doesn’t click for you, there’s absolutely no cost or harm in clicking away and diving into one of the countless others instead.
I’ll be honest. My brain has been tired for the past few months, and with events in the world this week, things are definitely only going to get worse. Right now, I want to dive straight into a story that I know is going to be rewarding. And AU fanfic has been exactly the thing I needed. It’s all the fun of reading fiction, without some of its challenges.
So thank you to every person who’s posted one of the 150,000 word fluffy AU fanfics I’ve been devouring. You’ve truly saved my brain.