Fandom is not a monolith. But whatever it may or may not be, it’s a term that has gone mainstream in the past few years, and like anything entering the mainstream, it has become subject to ever-increasing commentary. From the ending of Game of Thrones to the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame and the upcoming conclusion to the Star Wars sequel trilogy with The Rise of Skywalker, 2019 has, and will continue to be, a banner year for the biggest and most fervent fandoms out there, and consequentially, a banner year for fandom-related discourse.
However, while fandom is not a monolith, the fandom-related discussions that 2019 has inspired has overwhelmingly fallen into a particular pattern. Namely, a subset of a fanbase does something inflammatory — fanboy outcries over Captain Marvel with blatantly misogynistic overtones or the Reddit-spawned petition (with over 1.6 million signatures) to remake the final season of Game of Thrones “with competent writers” — which sparks a flurry of reports and subsequent think-pieces from various media outlets.
As such, it’s hardly surprising that the results of a Google News search of “fandom” are overrun with terms like “toxic fandom” and more than one person thinking themselves very clever for coming up with the phrase “fandom menace” for use in a Star Wars context, and features plenty of articles with titles like “Fans are Ruining Game of Thrones — And Everything Else” and “The Year Star Wars Fans Finally Ruined Star Wars.”
All in all, it paints a pretty destructive picture of what has become one of the go-to terms in pop culture coverage — an image quite dissonant with a concept that, at its heart, seems fundamentally creative. After all, the element that distinguishes “fandom” from other conceptions of “being a fan” is the idea that it’s communal, interactive. That it’s an engagement that goes beyond just watching a show or reading a book and enjoying it, but constructing a distinct subculture built on the foundation of a shared enjoyment of a particular narrative and its universe.
Much of the commentary surrounding fandom as of late is dismal enough to beg the question of why anyone would want to get involved in it at all. But, notably, the vast majority of this debate has been shaped by observers rather than participants. While there can be definite advantages to looking at a situation from a distance, it begs the question of how the story might be different from an insider’s point of view — and, specifically, the perspective of fans involved in those fundamentally creative fandom pursuits (art, writing, and so on) that seemed to be largely absent from the discourse.
With all this in mind, I thought to put together a glimpse of (creative) fandom as seen from the inside, and spoke with 10 fanfiction writers and fan artists active within the Game of Thrones fandom about their interest in the series, the appeal of fandom, and what happens now that the show has come to an end.
Who gets involved in fandom? It actually tends to be a pretty diverse community by basically every marker one can imagine, and even the small sample group I interviewed reflects that. It’s an international bunch, scattered not just across the country but the world, reflective of the fandom itself. They work in fields ranging from education to finance to the arts.
While fanart is pretty self-explanatory, fanfiction is a bit more of a specialized, vernacular-laden territory — at least, enough to warrant a quick run-down for the uninitiated. As the term itself suggests, fanfiction refers to stories that take beloved characters and either expand or diverge from canon (i.e., the official version of events). Defining the term and its limits is actually a more difficult prospect than it might seem at first, as a generous and open-minded approach would categorize a huge portion of the most popular and acclaimed stories of both our current time and bygone eras as fanfiction; every retelling of a myth or fairytale, every re-working of Shakespeare, every Jane Austen continuation. Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You, for instance, to use fanfic vernacular, could be considered Modern AUs (alternate universes) of Emma and The Taming of the Shrew, respectively, while Death Comes to Pemberley fits the definition of a post-canon Pride & Prejudice fic.
However, for the purposes of this article, fanfic refers specifically to “by fans, for fans” stories posted online in archives like archiveofourown.org (the most popular repository for Game of Thrones stories; commonly known as AO3) and fanfiction.net (FF.net), written by authors who receive no compensation save reader feedback. While this variety of fanfiction does predate the internet, first coming about in the bygone era of fanzines, it is undeniably with the internet age that fanfiction truly took off, creating platforms for fanfic writers to share their stories with wider audiences, and making it far easier and accessible for said audiences to find fan-created content. Popular fanfics within a robust fandom like Game of Thrones reach an audience in the hundreds of thousands, although for the most popular fanfics of all time the number is quite likely in the millions. It’s not unusual to see the most admired fics within a fandom translated into several languages by other fans, adapted into audio formats (podfics), or inspire fanworks of their own.
As of June 13, 2019, the “A Song of Ice and Fire & Related Fandoms” tag — the most inclusive listing of the Westeros-related content posted on the site –encompasses over 42,400 fanworks. Looking at FF.net reveals 17,000 more between the A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones categories—though admittedly, a sizable percentage of these are duplicates, cross-posted by their authors on both sites. And while these two sites definitely represent the bulk of the Game of Thrones fanfiction available online, careful internet scouting could definitely scrounge up at least a few thousand more from sites like Tumblr and even Livejournal, which was just going out of fashion as Game of Thrones got its start. The numbers regarding fanart are a lot harder to estimate, as there’s no real centralized, sortable archive as there is for fanfiction. Suffice it to say there is every indication that there is just as much, if not more, fanart circling the interwebs than its written counterpart, it’s just scattered far more widely across various social media platforms, message boards, and personal websites.
When it comes to the creative side of fandom, there is no endeavor more stereotyped than fanfiction. No one I spoke to fit the teenage girl stereotype so often applied dismissively to the pursuit — exploring why so many speak dismissively of the writing of teenage girls when the teenage Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein would demand another article entirely — although multiple writers I spoke with did write fanfiction throughout their teenage years. Allison, who goes by notquitegucci on AO3, started reading and writing fanfiction for various fandoms around the age of 11 or 12. Meg, who goes by vixleonard on AO3, started reading fanfiction around the same age but didn’t get involved in writing it until she was in college and got hooked on Veronica Mars. Another writer who goes by FrostbitePanda (Frost for short) similarly dates her fanfiction involvement back to her early teenage years.