Fandom 101: Terminology

Feb 25, 2013 by

Fandom 101: Terminology

Fandom abounds with terminology that can be confusing and potentially serve as a deterrent to the uninitiated. While most of my critical papers on the site have brief definitional sections to clarify terms being used in that particular essay, I thought it would be helpful to go over some basics in a central location, so it is clear what I mean when I use these terms. If this were a proper definition, this would be alphabetical, but it is more of a critical overview wrapped up in terms, and so moves in a more conceptual pattern (one which makes sense in my head).

Media fans/Fans: Fans come in a lot of shapes and sizes. There are sports fans and literature fans and soap opera fans and political fans. Shakespeare has fans, as do Marlowe, Byron and Joyce. Sometimes this overarching fannish behavior will be something I talk about, but for the most part, being a cultural scholar focused on popular culture, I will be speaking of media fans. It’s probably best to accept that I use the terms interchangeably in casual writing, unless I make a distinction. Media fans, then, are people who are fans of mass media products such as film, television and books, and they generally move fluidly from one text to the other. There is no central text that binds them, but rather a certain method of cultural consumption that often reveals itself in specific behaviors like critical discourse about a media object, creation of fan art, various types of fan performance or the collection of media artifacts.

Fandom/Media Fandom: The greater subcultural group which encompasses fan cultures made up of media fans. It’s a generalization, and can be broken down by text (i.e. Harry Potter Fandom, Star Wars Fandom), but general fan behaviors cross these textual divides, and therefore can be said to make up this larger subculture.

Fan Art: One facet of fandom is the art created by fans which is inspired by a media object. This art can take many forms but the three I study most are fan fiction, visual fan art and fan videos.

  • Fan Fiction/Fanfic: Fan fiction is a textual creation–a story–which can vary in length from a drabble (1oo words) to a novella. Fan fiction uses characters, settings, and other textual elements appropriated from the original (source) text to create original stories. Think about a movie or a book you really love, one you’ve sat around and asked “what if this had happened instead?” or “I wonder what came next.” Fan fiction is what happens when someone takes those questions and others and writes a story to answer them. In the legal world, we would call them derivative works and they can be incredibly faithful to the original text or veer off in a direction that is completely new. Genres and sub-genres of fan fiction are defined below.
  • Visual Fan Art: Artistically inclined fans can create a wide variety of visual art based on their chosen media object. These pieces of art range from pencil and paper sketches to oil paintings to digital photo manipulations, and encompass a wide range of crafty sorts of things (cross stitched images of Harry or Draco, anyone?)
  • Fan Videos/Fanvids: Fan videos are music videos which can either highlight the original narrative of a show or movie or create entirely new narratives using cut and edited clips of their source material set to music. Fan videos can range, then, from simple montages to complex films allowing the lyrics of the song to tell their own story.

Pairing: Two characters in a romantic relationship.

‘Ship: (n.) A romantic relationship between two or more characters.
(v.) To actively support a romantic relationship between two or more characters (i.e. “I totally ship Mulder and Scully.” “Have you seen how the Doctor looks at Rose? Oh, yeah. I ship it.”)

OTP: One True Pairing. The pairing that the fan loves above all others in the show. (i.e. “Damon and Elena are awesome, yes, but Damon and Alaric are my OTP for The Vampire Diaries.”)
Variations: OT3 (one true threesome – “I give up on pairings. The Doctor, Rose and Jack are my OT3.”), OT4, OT5, etc.

Ship Wars: Online flame wars between fans of one pairing and fans of another–usually aimed at who fans want a character to end up with. Generally these are reserved for fans who think they might actually get their pairing on the show. Those whose pairings are alternative (see slash, below) generally are too busy writing stories where true love can prevail for their OTP to care about what the show decides to do.
     Examples: The current Delena (Damon/Elena) vs. Stelena (Stefan/Elena) and Forwood (Caroline/Tyler) vs. Klaroline (Carolin/Klaus) debates within The Vampire Diaries which are destroying my Tumblr dash. [Honestly, Dalaric (Damon/Alaric) and Elejah (Elijah/Elena) forever–can we get back to the pretty pics, please?]

Mary Sue/Gary Stu: A character, usually an original character put into the story with canon characters by a fan fic author, who is too perfect, too awesome, has all the powers, is the super-secret daughter/son/brother/sister of the main canon character, who everyone falls in love with. If female, usually has violet eyes, or flowing red curls. If male, can beat up anyone while playing poker with the heroes of the show–and winning. Generally, this character is an authorial self-insert — wish fulfillment as the author puts herself into the story where all her favorite characters adore her.
     Note: Everyone does this when they’re starting out. No one cares. Until you share them and want all the other writers to think your character is the best character EVER.
Second Note: There is such a thing as a canon Mary Sue/Gary Stu. Generally these are heroes/heroines without flaws, who are simply the most powerful, most amazing savior of the people to ever come along, who never make mistakes, or have to answer for them if they do. These are also usually authorial self-inserts. See: Wesley Crusher (S1-S4) from Star Trek: Next Generation and later incarnations of Anita Blake.

Crossover/Xover: When elements of two different canons are combined in a single piece of art. For instance, the Doctor and Donna end up landing the TARDIS on Serenity and interacting with the Firefly crew. These can be completely workable within both canons (i.e. a xover between The Vampire Diaries and The Secret Circle) or completely absurd, but awesome (i.e. Han Solo and Indiana Jones have a drink on the Enterprise).

Canon: Events and relationships which have actually occurred in the source material–the original plot, as it were.

Fanon: Ideas/concepts/relationships which are not explicitly given in the text but which are, nevertheless, widely accepted as “true” by a majority of the fandom.

Backstory: The things that happened in a character’s life before canon began. These can be drawn from references in the text, fully spelled out by the creator of the character, or they may be left blank and then filled in by the fan artist.
Related terms:

  • Headcanon: The personal backstory a fan has created for the character they are writing.
  • Jossed: When a fan spins out a backstory/explanation for a character’s behavior in canon which has not been explained, but then the show’s creator comes back and explains it in a future episode, completely annihilating the fan’s theories. Joss Whedon is especially good at this, which is where the term originated.

Fluff: No angst, often little plot, no real smut, either. Characters are being soft and cuddly like fluffy bunnies. A feel-good fic, generally written to make someone smile.

Squick: Elements in a story–canon or fan made–which turn a person off. These are usually highly individual, and often sexual and can cover pretty much the whole gamut. Also can be used as a verb, i.e. “I’m really squicked by dub-con fics.”

Dub-con/Non-con: Dubious consent and Non-consensual – generally sexual stories where one character’s consent is in question, or explicitly not given.

NSFW: Not safe for work – material is likely R-rated or NC-17.

OOC: Out of character. In fic, this usually means that a character is acting in a way that readers do not think the character would act. It can also apply to messages between players in a RPG (role playing game)–a note added by the writer to the other writer that isn’t meant to be read as part of the story.

PWP: Plot, what plot? or Porn Without Plot. Basically, a story that’s all about the sex for sex’s sake.

UST: Unresolved sexual tension. When characters in the series clearly want each other, but have failed to act upon that want.

Genres of Fan Art

Like conventional art forms, fan art can be created in a wide variety of patterns which fall into genres. Any one piece of fan art can, and usually does, fit itself into several genres–i.e. a particular fic could be an AU hurt/comfort slash fic. These genres were traditionally applied to fan fiction but they have expanded out into the other art forms, as well.

Slash – Slash is a form of fan art which appropriates media characters of the same gender and places them within a same-sex relationship. Generally, these characters are perceived as heterosexual in the dominant decoding of the text.
Femmeslash: Where “slash” used to mean homosexual pairings of either sex, the predominance of m/m (male/male) stories led to the coining of a sub-genre to make it easier for fans to find f/f (female/female) stories.
Note: The term “slash” comes from the first slash pairing that was widely circulated – Kirk/Spock. The / indicated a romantic relationship. Stories without that element were “Kirk & Spock.” The punctuation became the term.
       Second Note: The punctuation is used to denote non-slash pairings, as well, i.e. Mulder/Scully, but those stories are not slash, but:

Het: Stories which involve heterosexual pairings.

Gen: Stories which do not involve any pairings at all, but are driven purely by plot or non-romantic character relationship. (Yeah, I don’t know what that’s about either).

AU: Alternate universe stories. These stories may set up an entirely different scenario to start from (Like Elementary does for Sherlock Holmes) or may pick a canon point to diverge from (like what if they found a way to actually save Alaric on The Vampire Diaries).

Hurt/Comfort (H/C): Pretty much exactly what it sounds like–a device for getting characters together, usually, or for progressing somehow, or just for writing angsty smut. One character gets hurt; the other comforts him or her (usually him).

Angst: Not just the existential kind, but a form of story or art emotional torment or wrangling of characters.

There are a lot of other terms which find their way into fandom, but these are the ones I am most likely to use. For a more comprehensive dictionary, I recommend The Language of Fandom.

[Photo credit: greeblie on Flickr]

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