December 29, 2022
During a pandemic-haunted summer, I discovered a million-word long fanfiction story
An Occasional Series on Fanfic and its Creators and Controversies
Has finishing a good story ever left you feeling empty? As if nothing could ever come close to the experience of living, however briefly, inside the tale?
Great books have a tendency to do that. You sit there, thinking of all the lost possibilities, the plotlines that were not explored, the what-ifs.
What if this character survived?
What if that character were born into an entirely different world?
Such questions assailed me repeatedly after finishing Kugane Maruyama’s Overlord, currently a 16-volume “light” novel telling the story of Suzuki Satoru, a salaryman-turned-monster who is unwittingly pushed down a path of world conquest.
Reading the series again and again did little to alleviate the sorrow that came with finishing it for the first time – the sense that I would never see any of the characters who had become so dear to me grow and develop further or accomplish anything new. I continued down this spiral for a while, rereading the same books until I had drained every possible ounce of dopamine from them.
As my desperation culminated, I set out to seek any entertainment that could rival the original, and stepped into a foreign and hostile land, the realm of fanfiction. I certainly got my wish granted.
Kugane Maruyama's Overlord, Vol. 1: The Undead King cover
My initial perceptions of fanfiction were not exactly positive. I assumed – with rapidly amassing anecdotal evidence – that much of it was comprised by cringey teenage wish-fulfilment. Much more seemed best avoided at all costs, whether due to unparseable grammar, incoherent plot, or graphic descriptions of sexualized violence. While fanfiction is arguably as old as literature itself – I am looking at you, Virgil – the modern version of it is hardly composed of Homer-hungry Aeneids.
As the internet has widened access to a global readership, fanfiction has flourished. While this has allowed new authors to bring their ideas to the world, the quality new-birthed works varies widely. Brilliant authors appear out of the ether but are often drowned in a tide of mediocrity. Given that humans tend to focus on the negatives first due to the aptly named negativity instinct, abominable stories often arise.
Tales of websites like Wattpad and Archive of Our Own made me reluctant to read anything connected to such dens of sin, but my desire for new content made the risk seem worthwhile, given that I would have to wait more than a year for a translation from the original Japanese.
I expected nothing, mediocre works at best. What I found surpassed all my expectations.
The story I first engaged with was over a million words long, and its author had gone on to publish works professionally. To have something like that simply out there, for free, on an obscure website with less than a thousand followers, astonished me.
That story, Robert Butler’s God Rising: The Cult of Ainz was just the beginning of the rabbit hole. During a pandemic-haunted summer, discovering more Overlord proved to be the perfect distraction.
Page after page, chapter after chapter, I got closer to Neia Baraja, following her through the brutal Slane Theocracy, cheering for her as she led rebellions against the slave owners and mad paladins of the Southern Holy Kingdom. In one moment she was razing Wenmark to the ground, and in the next she was facing trial for her crimes, her tale coming to an end before I could even notice. Once I finished that story, I moved onto the next, and then the next, until I felt like I ran out of good fanfictions. But by that point I was in too deep. I had been swallowed up by the depths of that place, and there was no chance of escape.
By then, I had a decent idea of how this fanfiction community worked. Overlord had some truly outstanding authors, something I have subsequently learned is the case with most fanfic groups. Even more remarkably, I learned that the fanfic community offered significant interaction between creators and readers – I was and am able to talk regularly with writers I admire. Unlike traditionally published authors, shielded from fan interaction by agents or publishers, the creators of fanfictions are most often within easy reach.
As I learned more, I discovered that the Overlord group had developed as an online hub created largely around the work of Butler, the first author I read. From there, the group chat blossomed into a full-fledged community dedicated to writing. When I wanted to talk to any of the authors, I found they were often in the same group as myself, just a message away. I could never dream of playing a game of DND with Kugane Maruyama, but if I wanted to play with one of my favourite fanfiction authors, all I would have to do is send them a direct message.
In our sizable group chat, now numbering in the thousands, we have areas called channels dedicated to any writer who asks for one. There readers may chat with the author, access the latest chapters, or simply hang out. Making friends due to the fact that you both read the same author, or read each other’s work, is quite common.
About the author:
Zachary Maurycy Górka
Born in 2004, in Wejherowo, Poland, Zachary Maurycy Górka is completing his Politics, Sociology, Economics, and Polish A-Levels. At Harbingers’ Magazine, he edits the Fiction Section.
Unfortunately, there are also some unsavoury characters that appear from time to time. One example dates to before my time in the community, though it has become something of a legend. An author, quite a popular one that wrote a perfectly average fic, decided to break the rules and trade in racism, bigotry, and excessive gore – overall, warranting a ban.
Given that there are no publishers or editors that could stop such a tirade from flooding the groupchat, the author was swiftly dealt with, their story now only mentioned once every blue moon.
Such instances are thankfully rare, but direct interaction between so many people inevitably brings about such circumstances. The internet is, after all, the internet. Arguments happen, people break the rules, suffer the consequences, and life goes on, the cycle repeating anew.
Some prefer to avoid such interactions altogether, giving up opportunity for community in order to skip the sordid. These are dubbed “lurkers,” those who simply read and observe what is going on. I started off as a lurker, rummaging through the various channels, looking for something to satisfy my growing hunger for good fanfiction.
a character based on the author themselves.
Of course, it was not all Shakespeare. Many of the stories were just average, with little substance or meaningful content to speak of. Some of them had decent ideas but were poorly executed, and some were simple self-inserts made tolerable due to decent grammar – the standard for which was quite low.
Finally, there were the abominations against the written word that undoubtedly contributed to the negative perceptions of fanfiction I had heard of prior to becoming a reader of it.
Eventually, inevitably, I got through them all. The void from before reappeared. Had I merely postponed – on the order of several million words – the ineluctable separation from the characters and stories I loved?
Then a brilliant idea hit me: what if I continued those stories myself? And bolstered by months of immersion in Overlord’s New World, I could at least be fairly confident I would not fall into the traps I had seen other authors mire themselves in.
a story featuring elements (characters, settings, items, abilities, etc.) from two or more settings.
My first work was dead on arrival. Niche audience, poor execution, the whole nine yards. Still, the feeling of breathing new life into characters I loved was highly enjoyable, and a precious few seemed to find my interpretation enjoyable, enough for me to get a channel on the group chat. There I began talking with a few other authors who actually enjoyed my first piece, marking the beginning of several new friendships.
My first story was read by only a handful of people, countable on my fingers, but this modest success still motivated me to write more.
And once as I sat there, chatting with one of the other authors I got to know, we discussed an idea for a possible fanfiction. With the benefit of the hindsight it seems obvious: simply replace the main character of another story with the main one of Overlord.
In contrast to Overlord, where Ainz Ooal Gown is blessed with abundant might and divine luck, the world of Re:Zero greets its powerless protagonist with pain and terror. Similarly filled with magic and – to my dismay as an author – also called the New World, this world’s doors swung open and revealed thugs, assassins, and beasts that Natsuki Subaru had no way of dealing with.
Yet what would happen if those doors swung open and it was the New World that found itself outmatched?
Despite how fun the idea sounded and how much we all enjoyed riffing on it, no one seemed ready to write the story. What the hell, I thought. Why not write it myself? So I did. Probably due to its premise with wide appeal, the first instalment surpassed my several-month-old work in only a few hours.
Reviews and comments flowed into my channel, first in a trickle, then in a flood. People aside from my regulars began appearing in my channel, asking questions, trying to squeeze the next chapter out of me – and of course, threatening me with bodily harm or death should I ever harm their favourite character. Classic fanfiction stuff.
At first, I was delighted (I still am) to have people enjoy my work, but very soon, I learned that readers could be volatile and bloodthirsty creatures. If I had to take my chances against a dragon in battle or against some of my readers in a battle of wits, I would choose the dragon.
Each reader is unique, both a blessing and a curse. Staying true to my own creative vision while accommodating (enough of) the diverse expectations of my readers is like tiptoeing a tightrope over a boiling vat of ink while juggling my own offspring. One major concern is the degree to which a writer sticks to canon. If the fanfic strays too close, readers will complain that there is no difference from the source material, but if it strays too far, the same readers will howl that characters are out-of-character, or OOC for short.
Early on, I had a moment where many readers accused me of OOC. As reluctant as I am to admit it, my readers were probably right. Trust me that my admitting such a thing is vanishingly rare, for my readers are only right when the stars align once every few millennia – and then only when they are not busy asking the same question for the twelfth time or debating levels of power between characters.
Alas, here I agreed: the chapter did not come in at the right point of the story and felt out of place, forcing me to rewrite it.
This exemplifies the odd and wonderful relationship between fanfic readers and writers. You have to keep one another in check. On one hand, I have to temper my readers’ expectations and nudge them in the direction I want the story to go, and in turn, they have to exert a steady pressure on my direction-finding, so that the azimuth does not lead us too far afield.
Whatever they say publicly, the vast majority of the authors I know read all the reviews. That orange button is there every time we wonder how our story is performing, taunting us and whispering in our ears, ‘Come on, don’t you want to know what they think?’
The answer is always the same: I do want to know! Even if it will cause me immense pain to watch as they miss every piece of intentionally obvious foreshadowing again!
There can also be a darker aspect to writer-reader interactions within fanfic, beyond the typical small joys and minor frustrations. In some cases, the relationship between reader and writer serves to fuel the latter’s creation of filth.
Typically, when I do not like someone’s work in the community, I distance myself from it with vague words and flowery phrases. Some creations, though, should never have left their Google Docs. I make my disgust for these clear.
Several tropes are consistently present in the worst offenders. There are three I would like to particularly focus on.
Firstly, in the most lurid tales, the character is often a self-insert (SI). An SI mirrors the author themselves, as if they were in the story. SIs tend to go one of two ways, either pillaging and raping their way through the world, or becoming martyrs and dying as a form of critique (of whatever the author wishes). SIs are typically powerful beyond belief and graced with every skill and advantage under the sun. Of course, SIs do not always mean a bad story; they can be done in fun and interesting ways. However, in most cases, overpowered SIs exist only for the author to indulge themselves.
The second point, one which often ties itself in with the former, is the incorporation of a harem of some sort for the main character. Again, a trope like this does not have to ruin a story, but it often serves no purpose other than author wish-fulfilment. I imagine the thought process to run something like: “I already inserted myself in the world, so I might as well get all the girls!” – though, in fact, I do not understand the phenomenon or why it appears to be so popular.
Third is the implementation of the isekai (異世界) genre in a story. Popular in Japan, isekai literally means “other world”. One reason for isekai’s popularity, particularly in combination with SIs, is obvious: escapism. Who would not want to be ripped from the mundane world and translated to a fantastical realm as the hero? Again, such a trope does not inherently kill a story.
What does is when any of these tropes – and let’s be honest, often it is all three together – are handled in such a lurid manner that they become near parodies of themselves. Self-insert of the author? They appear as a peerless warrior, tactician, and lover, and nothing they ever do is wrong. They also have a harem consisting of every nubile woman in the world, “acquired” via conquest, magic, manipulation, or simply natural charm! The SI is transported to another world? Luckily they find no threat to match them there – they are just that great!
These tropes contribute to what can seem to be purposefully hyperbolised versions of otherwise decent stories, but the hyperbole is played entirely straight in most cases. I have spent hours upon hours with my fellow authors, arguing about how such stories acquire anything resembling a following, but we still have not reached a consensus on the matter.
Horrid grammar, insipid characters, actions often morally turpitudinous but portrayed as gags – such stories are sometimes sickening to read, yet when we glance at the reviews, there are some genuinely positive ones!
Within fanfiction, and within most fandoms, one can find brilliant stories of love and political intrigue, along with interesting hypotheticals. However, such stories are eclipsed many times over by these monstrosities that litter fanfiction communities, contributing to their infamy in the broader culture.
Perhaps it is because the typical SI is so bland that any reader can read themselves into the SIs place – become the cool knight who gets all the girls – even if the story has no substance and the quality is poor. It may just be that people turn to such stories because they are desperate to escape their mundane lives, though that is just a theory.
This is an eternal mystery of the fanfiction community: How and why do these stories become so popular? How do people even muster up the courage to post such things?
I suppose the phenomenon speaks to the variety of people one finds in the dark corners of the internet. On one hand there are snobby readers who will drop a story at the first hint of any of the tropes I have mentioned; on the other, there are readers who apparently genuinely enjoy stories that I consider to be vile. Authors also exist at both extremes.
The community is a spectrum, a place where it sometimes seems we have only one thing in common: we come to these stories with the same desire, to find more Overlord content and live, if only for a few pages more, in a world we love.