Today is Day Three of the 100k/100 Days Author Challenge and no, writing this blog does not count toward my 1000 word quota. I’ve got to admit, I was tempted to call it a completed series and just hope no one remembered I promised eight posts, but on the other hand, last week’s lesson on Mary Sue was so cathartic that I can’t resist the opportunity to vent again and pass it off as instructional. And if there is one topic about which I could happily rant for hours, it is today’s.
Fans Who Fic
Going Dark: Adult Content in Fanfiction
This is one of the Unforgivable Sins and the reason fanfiction as a whole has such a bad rep. And no, of course I don’t think that’s fair. For me, the difference between liking a thing and being a fan of it is the difference between a story I can appreciate and one to which I can relate. And speaking just for myself, I have a hell of a hard time relating to a world in which no one cusses, dies or has sex.
Not every story needs these elements and honestly, if they’re not needed and shoehorned in just for shock value, an otherwise good story can be ruined. And yes, I’m aware that I’m saying that as someone who’s dropped the F-Bomb over a thousand times (so far!) in my series about animal-shaped robots at a kid’s pizza parlor. On the other side of that same coin, if those elements are appropriate and never delivered, their absence can be just as distracting. We’ve all seen that PG-rated movie that should have been an R, and vice versa. The threshold may be a subjective one, but it’s still very real.
I’ve just spent the last five minutes staring at my keyboard, trying to figure out just where that threshold is for me and damned if I can. It’s not simply a matter of the source material’s general audience. I’ve read (and written) R-rated fanfiction based on kid’s cartoons that I thought was awesome and I’ve read (and written) R-rated fanfiction based on much more adult works where the extra adult content made the story almost physically painful to read. To me, there’s nothing inherently taboo about having A cartoon character swear or strip, just not EVERY cartoon character. I can only speak for myself, of course, but it’s my opinion that even though a show (or book or game or whatever) doesn’t depict or even hint at sex or violence, the world it exists in still might.
Then again, I guess the argument could be made that since the characters in, for example, My Little Pony have genders, there must be pony sex happening somewhere, but there’s not a lick of violence, so by my own rules, sexytimes is technically okay but Cupcakes is not.
I’m well aware that my own personal threshold for what’s gratuitous is probably set quite a bit higher than other people’s. And I’ve admitted I cuss up a storm in my FNAF fanfic and there will be sex eventually, so maybe I’m not the person who should be talking about where that line ought to be drawn. After all, I only seem to be able to recognize it in other people’s work. Fortunately, I know a guy who is capable of pointing the finger at himself and he has graciously agreed to share a few thoughts, although he has asked that I don’t use his real name in this post so as not to have his present writing career associated with his former fanfiction. I respect that, so for the remainder of this post, we’ll call him Nebuchadnezzar. That’s an awesome name and doesn’t get used enough.
Okay, Nebuchadnezzar, take the floor!
I was about twelve when I first got into Harry Potter, around the time The Half-Blood Prince (book) came out. I was not big into fantasy or magic. I wasn’t much of a reader at all (I’m dyslexic). To be honest, I only started reading it because it was all my friends were talking about. I was not a popular kid and to feel excluded from the only people who I felt accepted by made me feel devastated to a degree that only kids can feel. So I begged my mother to buy me the books.
I thought it would be a much harder sell than it was. There was some controversy in our small community at the time over the whole magic=Satan thing, but as I say, I wasn’t much of a reader and the fact that these were books I was actually begging for must have tipped her moral scales. I sat down to read that first book, grimly determined to get through it and find something about it that would allow me to reconnect with my friends. I didn’t really expect to like it. Books were homework to me, a chore. To my complete surprise, I was utterly hooked. I read the whole thing in a single weekend, which for me (dyslexic) was a monumental achievement. I talked about it over meals and in the car. The night I finally finished it, my mother asked me what I was going to do next and I told her I was going to read it again. I heard her talking to my father that night and crying. The next day when I came home from school, I found all the (then) available HP books waiting on the kitchen table. I read them all and for the first time understood all those posters of the kid reading while whole worlds are spinning around his head.
I was unaware of fanfiction in those days. The frustration of waiting for the next book was something I had never known, but I had no choice but to wait. Remember that while the books were being written, the movies were also being made, so even after I closed the cover on The Deathly Hallows, I still had several years of HP to look forward to. But no new books, no new stories.
I found myself making up new adventures for Harry and his friends, in which they often came to America for vague reasons never fully explained, and over time, I visualized the recurring character of a young boy, raised by Muggles, who falls in with them and soon discovers he is also a powerful wizard, perhaps the most powerful wizard ever, although he can’t control his magic and naturally, Voldemort wants to turn him to the dark side so that he can become the most powerful Death Eater of his army and so on and so on.
I began to tell my friends these stories, usually prefaced by, “I had the weirdest dream last night…” so they wouldn’t think I was sitting around, just obsessing over Harry Potter. Encouraged by my friends, I began to write some of these stories down and then to expand on them. One of my friends showed a story to one of his friends, who told my friend about fanfiction.net, who told me. I had no intention of putting my own stories out there initially, but I was curious to read what other people were doing to Harry and his friends, so I did as suggested and checked it out.
In my defense, I would like to remind you that I was fifteen or so at the time and had not come out to anyone (not that I surprised anyone when I did). When it came to sex, I talked myself up around my friends and did some obligatory ogling at the ‘It’ girls in my school, but I knew I was gay and was beginning to be afraid that when I wrote my silly stories about Harry kissing Ginny or Ron kissing Hermione, my friends were going to notice it was always the ‘kissing Harry’ or ‘kissing Ron’ part that I was really focused on. Suddenly here before me was a wealth of unapologetic gayboy HP adventures and other people were reading them and saying things like, “This is great!” instead of homophobic slurs and mockery. I hadn’t exactly fallen out of my HP fixation, but that night, it doubled down hard.
I made a ff.net account that night. I made two, actually. One I could tell my friends about and where I would eventually post all my ‘old’ stories and a handful of new ones, and another secret account where I began to publish what I then considered my ‘real’ stories. I think of them now as my ‘Handjob Harry’ series. No, I will not give you the links.
[pretty sure I’ve read them, Nebs, but you go on–RLee]
For someone without many friends, having even a couple dozen views and a review section full of enthusiastic praise from strangers was a rush. They said they wanted more, so I gave them more. I wrote feverishly. Handjobs turned into blowjobs and eventually turned into my idea of sex.
I quickly became aware of the fanfic writer stereotype as an emo twelve-year-old destined to be a virgin well into his forties, and to prove I was mature enough to be writing mature content, I made sure I wrote like a mature adult. Example: “Fuck, that feels good,” (my OC) moaned as Draco groped his buttocks sensuously. Draco groped harder, grinning, “Fuck yeah you know it does.”
Feel free to cringe.
All in all, I must have written a hundred stories. I took a lot of them down since if anyone ever said anything remotely negative, I took it to mean the story was worthless and deleted it. Since I wrote most of these stories in ff.net and had no other copies, they are now erased from the universe. I’d feel worse about this, but they really were awful. I wish I could bring myself to take the rest down, but as silly as it may sound, they represent me at a time of my life when I sincerely felt as thought I had no representation in the world and no one who understood me as well as my friends in the HP slash-fiction community. In that sense, even though I’ve officially disowned them, there’s still a part of me that loves those silly little stories and hopes somewhere out there, someone read them and saw just a little bit of himself in them.
You asked me to write about adult themes in fanfiction and I realize I’ve put a more positive spin on it than you probably intended.
[I intended you to share your experience and that’s exactly what you did. Thanks, Nebs–RLee]
It may seem hypocritical to say so now, but I think you’re right when you say some stories shouldn’t have the adult themes that are written into them. I’m just not sure it’s a source-issue, as you say. In my opinion, it comes down to the intent of the author. I can’t really regret the sex scenes in my HP fics, as cringey as they are, because they came from a real place. I don’t regret the violence either, because that’s always been very much a part of that universe, even if Rowling chose to tone it out or let it happen off-screen. But the swearing bothers me, because the only purpose it served was to convince the reader that I was an adult and not some teenaged emo edgelord, which of course I was.
There’s your threshold. Sincerity vs. Shock Value. It’s the same as when you talk about the difference between ‘good’ bad movies like Deep Rising and ‘stupid’ bad movies like Human Centipede III. They’re both bad, but one of them is sincerely trying to make a movie and the other one is just trying to get other people to talk about it.
That does put it in perspective for me. When I look at my early works–Heat and Olivia, especially–I see a writer who was trying too hard to create ‘erotica’ as defined by a third-party. I’m not embarrassed by them, but they’re sure not as good as they could be. After my publisher and I parted ways and I stopped thinking about how many sex scenes I needed to hammer into a book of so many pages, I got much better at telling the story. By the time I arrived at this point in my life, my thinking had evolved. In books as in life, sex is better when you let it happen, not make it happen.
Having said that, I’m aware that the simple fact that there is sex in my present series is not the whole problem. There is a belief in the FNAF fandom, commonly held to be canonical, that the animatronics are possessed by the spirits of murdered children and therefore shipping them is tantamount to pedophilia. And I would have to agree if I believed that to be the case. I don’t. In the games, it is never expressly stated that the animatronics are ‘possessed’ at all. The closest we get to anything of the sort is a mini-game called Give Life that shows some 8-bit blobs (supposedly the dead children) being ‘crowned’ with the heads of animatronics, and another mini-game wherein a pixelated Purple Guy runs from some pixelated ghosts after chopping up the old animatronics.
Now the mini-games throughout the series are not a reliable source of lore, as far as I’m concerned. I view them more as a portrayal of the ‘urban legend’ that has sprung up around Fazbears, but even if they were canon, what do they canonically show? That kids were stuffed into animatronics and that Purps had a major freakout in which he may have seen actual ghosts or only imagined them on account of, you know, being a psychopath who murders children. There is nothing that definitively states the animatronics are haunted by any actual human spirit, let alone a child, but–and here let me emphasize this point–even if they were, it’s been decades. Let me skip ahead a bit and offer up this snippet from Part IV of the series:
“But you’re not…I mean…” Horror like nothing she’d ever known—and she’d known so much of it here—swelled up in her throat and came out as a broken, “You’re not kids are you? Are you? Please tell me you’re not a child?”
Foxy snorted through his speakers and folded his arms. “I came alive in ’66, lass. I’m older than ye by a yardarm.”
Relief crashed down like a wave and washed out, leaving her with a small, shaky smile that slowly grew into a blush.
“We don’t know who we used to be,” said Freddy. “I can’t swear we weren’t children when we were taken, but it’s been fifty years since then. Age isn’t something you only have in a body. It’s time and experience…and you aren’t even listening,” he concluded, dropping his plastic eyebrows in a stone-faced scowl.
Ana’s hand fluttered up as if it could rub away the blush she knew she was showing. “I love it when you talk like a pirate,” she mumbled, still smiling that idiot smile.
Foxy snapped his eyepatch down at once. “Arr.”
“Well, how do you know, though?” she asked quickly, turning back to the relative safety of Freddy’s face. “How do you know you were anyone at all? If you don’t remember—”
“Because we know how we were built,” Freddy said, speaking gently, but firmly. “We saw him build others. We saw how they were brought to life. And it took other lives.”
In my head-canon, these are not kids. Other fans may not agree with this viewpoint, but I stand by it and moreover, I will continue to stand by it when Bonnie and Ana get around to the hardcore canoodling, if called upon to do so in the comment section. I say this now not because I’m especially sensitive on the subject–I’m not–but simply to show that I have thought about it and it was very much a deliberate part of the writing process.
As for the rest of it, violence was very much a part of the source material, even if it wasn’t graphically portrayed. And believe it or not, as much as my characters swear, they swore a LOT more before I edited. Profanity is like any other word in a novel; it has to earn its place and where it does not set a mood, define a character or advance the plot, I take it out. I’m aware that the darker themes of EIAR, especially those involving the abuse of children, are disturbing to some readers, but I believe they are appropriate to the material and I don’t believe I use them just to get a reaction.
There is a place for adult themes in fanfiction and it’s the same place it occupies in any other genre. Writing is, at its simplest definition, the act of using words to elicit an emotional reaction. Sex, gore, obscenity: writers use these things to provoke a response because they’re easy and effective…kind of like jumpscares in horror movies and games. And just like jumpscares, they can be done right and done wrong. There’s plenty of people out there who don’t think I do it right. That’s fine. The line is deeply personal, especially when it comes to anything that taps into that childhood nostalgia. So I can tell you to approach mature themes judiciously and edit critically, but I can’t promise you won’t still get flamed for it. Does that mean you should stop? No. If you believe in it, you should never stop. Corny, but true. Should you believe that strongly in your 69-chapter Smurfs/Avatar crossover, Big Blue Blood Orgy, guest-starring several pokemon, Sonic the Hedgehog and the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street?
Yes. If that’s your thing and you are sincerely into that thing, then you write that thing. But then get therapy, because damn, no one should be into that thing.