Disclaimer: the following document makes an attempt at objectivity.
Like everyone, I have my own preference of fanfiction types. In the following document, I shall explain why I like certain types of fanfiction, and what I find lacking in those I do not like. It is, I stress, my personal opinion; everyone can feel free to disagree.
Please note that I am trying to only discuss the merits or drawbacks of a particular form of story. Whether or not a writer adequately writers characterization, dialogue, events or plot depends on the writer, and any writer can elevate— or butcher— any kind of story.
Also note that I mostly discuss game fanfiction, which is the type I read most in the past.
Here is what I like in fanfiction: a fair attempt at characterization and prose; an interpretation of the events of the game that flesh out a (usually) scant narrative; a recount of a character’s past episode that explains present actions; a good plot, if possible; and an opportunity at humor or a different take at a story. All these are provided by one or more of the fanfiction forms below.
Short stories are rather ubiquitous, since they may occur within the game’s events, or can be sometimes sequels, or even prequels. Thus, it’s a little hard to define a “short story” except by the undisputable fact that it is short in length. For me, a “short story” is one that is notable for its attention to prose and characterization of one character, or the relationship between two or more characters. It is usually a sketch that attempts to flesh out some element of the game’s story or character in an isolated incident.
The good: Here are some of the advantages of short stories. One, they are more likely to pay attention to characterization. Two, they allow the writer to actually concentrate on prose. This is not to say that longer stories cannot be strong on characterization or prose; those written by capable writers certainly are. But short stories allow writers to experiment with imagery, setting, and a depiction of relationships between characters. They allow a space for a writer to be more “artistic”.
Last but not least, short stories are short. This sounds kind of moot and meaningless, but it’s actually an advantage for both writers and readers. The writer does not have to make a long-term commitment to anything; she just write what she likes. The reader does not feel the burden of having to go through pages and pages of prose (online it’s even worse). He tastes a little of what is offered, and if he wishes for more, he may read more by the same writer.
The bad: There is, of course, no guarantee that the writer will take advantage of what a short story may offer them (an opportunity to develop their writing skills). Also, the short story may leave the readers with a sense of a lack of closure, and possibly even a craving for further exposition. But this is not necessarily a bad thing.
The ugly: Short stories that become like a dry little narrative of what happens, without anything added on. Here the writer really misses the point of what a short story is about. The worst? Unfinished short stories. How hard can they be to finish?
Narratives are a straight re-write of the game’s events with minimal changes to the original text and the incidents. At their worst, they add nothing to the game’s text; at their best, they flesh out the hint of characterization and events into something more. They may be very long, as in attempts to “novelize” a game; but they may be shorter, only concentrating on a section of the game. Narratives are particularly desirable for older games (mainly Super Nintendo ones) which leave most people craving for something more, a richer interaction, and so forth. But even more modern and complex games can be successfully turned into narratives.
The good: I only heard ONE objection in my entire fanfiction-reading/writing era to narratives. A reader is likely to enjoy a narrative, unless you are adamant in the belief that a game’s text is a sacred truth which nothing can eclipse and from which no one should deviate— a completely false view in my opinion, and a questionable one given that most old translations take liberty with the “true” original (Japanese) game script anyway. The most glaring example I can think of is insisting on keeping Cyan’s faux-Shakespearean speech although he is not likely to have spoken this way in FFVI-Japanese. Bur readers are likely to like narratives because narratives provide what short stories do, and more: they re-write the game events and flesh out characterization and relationship. Narratives can be a great exercise for writers who wish to concentrate on characterization, dialogue and setting without having to concentrate on plot invention.
The bad: It really depends on what the writers do with the material. Some narratives simply add nothing to the game, and thus have little point, at least from the readers’ point of view.
The ugly: Nothing, really, unless the narrative turns into something else (such as inserting too many alternate reality elements or deviating from the characters and plot without warning the reader). I haven’t seen it happen, however, or if I had, I forgot.
Alternate reality stories deliberately change events and characters’ story functions and relationships in (usually) a narrative-type story. It is a rather controversial form of writing, but it can produce fascinating stories if done right. This really depends on one’s tastes.
The good: Alternate reality stories can extremely liberating for the writer’s imagination, because the writer has a plot before him that he can take and use in whichever way he wishes. Unlike narratives, the writer is not obliged to stick to the dry facts of the game, and may skimp or skip events which he disfavored. Instead, the writer can modify or alter altogether the story events in an interesting and surprising way, to keep the readers guessing and on their toes.
Some people intensely dislike this form of writing, because the writer can take their favorite characters, plots and relationships and do whatever he wants with them. So, liking alternate reality depends on what the writer did, for the most part, and the reader’s preference. Most persons, however, find alternate reality stories a great deal of fun, which they are truly meant to be. Surprisingly, they have less tendency to become bizarre or unreadable than either cross-overs or sequels. This is likely because once the writer decides to turn a story into alternate reality, they are actually likely to stick to the characterization (unless it is deliberately perverted) and concentrate instead on surprising events or relationships, or character bias (baddies become goodies, and vice versa, etc). Thus, many alternate reality stories are often less alienating than some other forms of stories that pretend to stick to the real characterization of the game and fail to do so (as often happens in sequels), or carry their characters on bizarre adventures (as often happens on sequels and cross-overs).
The bad: Again, it depends on the reader’s preference and the writer’s success. Some writers just write alternate reality, for example, to pair off their favorite characters, or place them in positions they wish them to occupy (notoriously— turning favorite villains into heroes). However, this goes to the heart of this particular story-form, and so it really depends on whether the writer wrote the story solely for the purpose of indulging themselves for the sake of a favorite character. I personally find that stories tend to be more enjoyable when writers dedicate at least some amount of attention to all characters, whether or not they liked them. Of course, a story that concentrates on one beloved characters will always find readers in people of similar tastes, so this is besides the point.
The ugly: In direct relation to the above, stories written solely for the sake of glorifying a beloved character or skewering a hated character. Whether or not the latter is legitimate depends on whether the story is meant to be an intelligent parody, or just a hate-fest of sorts. As for the former… well, you know.
Prequels are stories that occur before the game’s events take place, during the characters’ “history”. This is not a particularly popular form of story, and understandably so; we already know the characters’ history after we finish the game, and for the most part, people are not particularly interested in reading more about these events. Prequels may be either invented or semi-invented by the writer, or may be a form of narrative for events that occurred before the game.
The good: This really is a short story that allow you a glimpse into interesting parts of a character’s past life. It may, however, be invented— I once wrote a story that related a fictional encounter between two characters. The strength of prequels is, surprisingly, that invention has to be kept to a minimum. Thus, they usually do not allow too much fancifulness on the writer’s part, unlike sequels, and therefore rarely get out-of-hand. I like prequels, especially ones that narrate events vaguely referred to in the game, but which seem interesting. (A popular one is Vincent’s past, or Locke and Rachel.)
The bad: The conscientious writer has to be very careful, and limit herself to the story material. This is problematic, because unless the game’s inside story provided you with an interesting background or background encounter between two characters, there is little else you can do within the limits of the characters’ past. And unlike narratives, where you are narrating an already interesting story, the characters of the game are not likely to interact in a prequel. Thus, the amount of freedom you can take with the material is limited.
The ugly: As I said, prequels rarely get out of hand— unless, of course, the writer simply HAD to mess with the material. For example— pairing two characters that are clearly paired in a different way in the game. I’ve seen a Celes+Leo, for instance.
Parodies are a humorous recounting of, usually, characters interacting in pretty much any setting. They are meant for satire, commentary, or just plain fun.
The good: I love parodies! And who doesn’t? They are generally short, they are often funny, and if done right they provide commentary on the characters of the game in a non-committed way. Parodies can be a vehicle for simple fun, they can be satiric, they can be ironic— they can be anything and everything. As you can see, parodies can be very liberating. They don’t even have to be written in full prose; “conversation” or script-like parodies are very frequent, and often well-written and funny. Parodies don’t have a setting limitation— they can take place anywhere at any time. They can be a narrative, a prequel, a sequel, a cross-over, an alternate reality, and so on. They can even take place in modern context— for example, parodies that place characters in a TV show setting. Parodies are also a good opportunity to sharpen your skill in writing humor— which can be just as important in “real” (i.e. prose-based) stories as is the skill of writing “drama”. Every story, no matter how dramatic, can use a bit of a light side to it. Thus, parodies are in fact an important exercise for a writer.
The bad: Some parodies can go wild, or simply go nowhere, or fall flat on their faces. Fortunately, people are usually read to hear a joke, even a bland one.
The ugly: Quite a few parodies are simply tasteless. Some are just vicious vehicles to stab at hated characters. This is not always bad, at least if the parody is funny, but can obviously offend certain readers.
I realize that in disparaging the below fanfiction forms, I am bound to invite disagreements. In fact, they are all very popular— just not really my favorites. This is because I believe that these forms invite more abuse of the game’s events that the other forms, at least, to judge by all the fanfiction I read in the last few years. Whatever your opinion is, this is meant to be a balanced review, because it does have a “good” section. So rest assured that I won’t abuse your favorite fanfiction form without being obliged to say something positive first.
Crossovers are a very popular form of fanfiction, which send characters of two, often incongruent universes, to meet each other and have adventures in the process. They are usually sequels or parodies, but rarely narratives, short stories or prequels.
The good: Cross-overs can be a creative and liberating form of story. Some people simply like to see how people of different universes will react with each other. Cross-overs are a product of people wishing to know how their favorite characters will react when meeting each other. Some cross-overs, at least, can make a little bit of sense, such as making final fantasy characters of the past meet those in the future— if the excuse is plausible enough. And cross-overs for the sake of parody can be fun (though it’s more of the parody than the crossover element that does the trick for me.)
The bad: There are, in my opinion, more than one problem with (non-parodic) crossovers. Sequels (see below) invite abuse of characters and plot, but cross-overs invite it moreso. I am no purist— as you can see above, I said that the game’s text is no sacred truth— but I do like the integrity of the game’s (or anime’s, or whatever form of story) world preserved. Most cross-overs, in short, violate the original world of the game etc. and thus do not appeal to me. I like stories that flesh out the original text of the game/s, that show their characters interacting in a richer way, the setting and world defined in prose. But I have no wish to know whether Ashley of Vagrant Story will fall in love with Marle from Crono Trigger.
The ugly: The last comment above brings me to this point. While cross-overs will not necessarily pervert the characters— this depends on the writer— they do invite abuse of relationships. Sometimes cross-over writers just want to pair up characters of different games. This is really an alternate reality story in an even darker guise; done purely for self-indulgence with less fun— because the characters are not even supposed to dwell in the same universe. And while Edgar + Rydia is actually less repulsive than, say, the more “logical” Yuffie + Reno (because these two dwell in the same place at the same time), it is still somehow even stranger and more unpleasant. Somehow, the believability of the original game’s world as a self-contained integral place had been raped; and this, I think, my biggest problem with the notion of crossovers. (Or why I think that they function best as parodies).
Very simply, sequels are stories occurring after the game that do not fall into a short story category. These are extremely popular— probably THE most popular form of game fanfiction.
The good: Sequels are not as pernicious as cross-overs. They arise from our natural wish to see more of the story, and what happened to the characters afterwards. They can be well-done if the writer is a skilled, careful one, considerate of the narrative events that went on before. They call for a great deal of creativity and skill on the part of the writer, not only writing up good prose and believable characters, but also inventing a brand-new plot and continuing the relationships between the characters in a believable way. They are, in short, challenging.
The bad: And because all I’ve written above, sequels are much prone to go wrong. Here is some of what can go wrong with sequels— and a lot can go wrong, believe me, because it is a story form that freely invites abuse.
The worst of all is, undoubtedly, dead characters resurrected. Yes, we all know that Aerith or that Sephiroth story (or that Aerith AND Sephiroth story). There are plenty more examples. Another one: breaking up paired characters so they could be paired with a character of the writer’s choice. Quite often it would be a resurrected character, for a double violation. A third: made-up villains. No matter how good the writer, chances are that the new villain will not be as impressive as the game’s villain. Oftentime they are very dull. There are exceptions, of course (and I’m sure some writers out there wrote villains better than the game villains— although I’ve yet to see it done.) Another: resurrecting dead villains, or returning magic to a world that’s supposed to have lost it. This simply makes no sense, and has a sense of repetition that can be tedious. And last, but not least: creating original characters just to pair them off with game characters. See Mary Suism in the “ugly” section below for more detail.
The ugly: Pairing up a story character with a resurrected character who killed the living character’s family, or burned their town, or even killed them. See: Aerith and Sephiroth, or Tifa and Sephiroth. But I’ll have to note this: there is a Slayers story pairing up Sylphiel with a resurrected Copy Rezo, and it’s a beautifully-written, believable story. So, as much as I dislike to contradict everything I was saying, such stories can be well-done. But one rare occurrence, depending largely on the writer’s beautiful prose and undeniable skill in stringing her story, does not excuse those that go horribly, horribly wrong.
We all know Mary Sue, and many of us hated her. She is, usually, the fan writer’s original creation, and she intrudes into the life of the game (or anime, or TV show etc) crew in a blatant way, quickly taking center stage. She is usually young, extremely beautiful, and skilled at many things. She becomes the main focus of the story, and everyone else are reduced to cardboard support of her (and her relationship with the main handsome young male). She is prone to be extremely skilled at rescuing the characters from whatever problems befall them. She is described in honeyed terms, because she has no equal. All the males in the game— particularly the handsome young ones— cannot resist her charm. She is either paired up with the main handsome male, or she dies, leaving everyone grief-stricken at her passing, and disconsolate. When you meet a story where an original character completely dominates the scene, watch out: she is bound to be a Mary Sue.
Note, however, that Mary Sue does not have to be the writer’s original creation (and also: not all original creations are necessarily Mary Sues). Some Mary Sues are actually grafted onto existing game characters. This is most often done with mute characters, because the writer is free to mold their personality to their liking. Thus, under the disguise of “my version of the mute”, the writer actually grafts on his or her personality into the character. When you meet an idealized, “special” mute female character, or a moody, angsty mute male character, watch out. He or she are almost certainly a Mary Sue.
Mary Sues are usually a product of a young writer’s fantasy world, for which reason they tend to be annoying. No one wants to read about self-centered adolescent fantasies (except, perhaps, a few other adolescents).
The good: Mary Sues gratifies the writer’s fantasies, which is, after all, be a central function of fanfiction itself. She does, therefore, have a role in fanfiction. Some famous literary characters were originally Mary Sues. (For example, I’m sure Jane Eyre is one, even though she is more a self-insertion than the “traditional” fanfiction Mary Sue described above). The writer exercises his or her skills, and good results may follow despite it.
The bad: Despite such praise, Mary Sues are often irritating: they are extremely intrusive, intruding between acknowledged couples, insufferably “perfect”, and are described in saccharine, flowery prose. Their main purpose is to gratify the writer’s fantasy of a beloved alter-ego having a relationship with the original character/s. But the worst thing about Mary Sues is that the entire story revolves around them, and the rest of the characters fade into cardboard. When you read a fanfiction, you want to read about the original characters and how they interact.
The ugly: Wasn’t the above enough?
Hentai, sex stories, yaoi, slash and so on
The good: Many people do like to read sexually graphic scenes. And there is nothing wrong with sex in writing. It’s plenty out there on the bookshelves. It can even express a fulfillment of the characters’ love. The problem is that in fanfiction, sex scenes are often an expression of a writer’s fantasy in an extremely graphic and therefore an embarrassing way (we the readers feel embarrassed for the writer, that is). Graphic, detailed sex scenes, especially ones involving game characters, often feel like peepholes. And when you’re afforded with one, the writer better be skilled enough to divert your readers’ attention from the fact that they ARE at a peephole. Otherwise, the result is embarrassment— both for the reader and the writer.
The bad: Graphic sex scenes between characters who are not supposed to have a relationship. And unless you’ve come for the sex scene or for that coupling in particular, you’d probably rather read something else.
The ugly: Yaoi sex stories. (Hides). Sorry: no fangirl in the world can convince me that half of the male population in games, etc. is gay. I understand that they’re not trying to, but the point stands (to each his/her own). Of course, slash is the fangirl’s answer to the decades-old, socially accepted male lesbian fantasies. So as a woman, I can’t see why it should be scorned more than these fantasies, and as such, I will offer it some support. There. I said it.
Last comments about yaoi and slash stories:
A good reason for slash fanfiction stories (i.e. not completely self-indulgent) is that you are homosexual yourself and want to write a story which validates your sexual tastes. However, even so, I think that it’s more valid to take characters that at least provide some justifiable basis for such theories. For example, if you like Ashley + Sidney from Vagrant Story, keep in mind that Ashley was married and had a kid, and at least acknowledge this. Etc. Not that I would like to read such a story, mind you. Do not, and I repeat, do not see this as an encouragement to write one about said pair. Of course, I can see where the difficulty is— most clearly homosexual characters in games are usually depicted as utter pansies (see Millich and co. in the Suikoden series), and are also relatively minor and often unattractive. It’s natural that people would prefer to pair the hot guys/girls, not the drag queens.
Conclusion: Oh, heck. If you write or read fanfiction you’re probably there for the self-indulgence anyway, so you won’t be listening to a word I’m saying. So here’s my conclusion: read what you like. And enjoy.