January 31st, 2002

A Pocket Full of Murder

What makes a good HP fanfic?

One of my readers, Ana, asked in her comments on a recent post:

"Do you have favorite HP fanfiction?"

Why, yes indeed, I do. And actually, I've been meaning to post a list of my HP fanfic faves, as well as to talk a little about what I look for in fanfic generally and HP fanfic in particular, so I might as well do it now... thanks for asking, Ana.

I realize that tastes and priorities vary with the individual reader (and all the more when that reader is also an author), and that just because I think a story is exceptionally well-written and worthy of reading doesn't mean that everybody else is going to feel the same way. On the other hand, I do think there are some legitimate standards for a well-written story of any kind, which my favorite HP fanfics meet and others (regardless of how popular they might be among fans generally) do not. Here they are, in no particular order:

Originality of thought. By this I mean that the author has striven to avoid cliches (especially the cliches endemic to the particular genre or sub-genre) or else put a new twist on the old ideas that makes them seem fresh again. But even more importantly, I also mean that the author has not succumbed to the temptation to recycle other people's material. When a large part of the plot or characterization or humour in the fic derives from other sources, I lose my respect for a story, and I also lose respect for the author.

Canonicity of spirit. This does not mean that the author sticks slavishly to JKR's writing style and type of content, but it does mean that the author shows knowledge of and respect for what JKR has written and strives to make the story consistent with the world and characters JKR has created. By all means, let's have Year 7 fics, beyond-Hogwarts fics, even alternate-universe fics; but my suspension of disbelief does depend heavily upon being able to find something I recognize in the story as being akin to JKR. If a fanfic is populated with OC's named Alyssa and Brendan, or the canonical characters are all living the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (complete with high-powered careers, glamorous fashions, perfect hair and unlikely romantic entanglements), and/or the story is riddled with references to Muggle pop culture, I find it extremely hard to suspend disbelief or enjoy the story. All those things are so antithetical to the spirit of what JKR has written, it makes me wonder why the author didn't just write some other kind of story entirely.

Consistency of characterization. Not only is it important that the characters should think and behave consistently within the fic itself, but I believe they ought to be consistent with the characters as JKR wrote them. This is certainly not to say that a canonical character, viewed from a perspective other than Harry's, might not turn out to have hidden depths and qualities that JKR hasn't (yet) revealed to us -- in fact, that idea is fundamental to my own Snapefics. But if you're going to write Snape, you need to take into account the character as JKR's already written him, and you need to be prepared to address his unpleasant qualities and attitudes, not just gloss over them. And if you're going to write Hermione five years after Hogwarts, yes, it is true that people do change and grow and mature with the years -- but they don't alter into complete unrecognizability, and even an older Hermione should have some "grace notes" of speech and habit that make her recognizable as the girl we know from canon. Otherwise, how am I going to believe that these are the same people I know and love from JKR's stories? Just assigning the name "Snape" or "Hermione" to a character, or throwing in one stereotypically recognizable trait (Snape is sarcastic, Hermione is intellectual) isn't enough.

Solidity of plot. This is not to confuse "plot" with "action". As Aristotle observed, "Character is plot," and it is possible to write an excellent fic which consists of nothing more than one character sitting around and thinking, or two characters talking. But even so, the story should be about something, and a fic which wanders around all over the place while the author writes scenes that she (or the fans) are begging for but which do nothing to provide significant information to the reader or otherwise advance the action, is a badly written fic. Unfortunately, there are a lot of otherwise promising stories which do exactly this, stretching a five or ten-chapter concept into twenty or thirty chapters, and making it very difficult for the reader to follow the main plot, or even determine what the plot actually is. (I seem to be reading several of these at the moment.)

I have a lot more thoughts on this subject, but I've already gone on at ridiculous length, so I'll have to leave them for another blog. Anyway, next up I'll make a post listing some of what I think are the very best HP fanfics, and providing links to same.
A Pocket Full of Murder

Favorite HP Fics (2002)

OK, here's a short list of my very favorite HP fics -- the ones that have really captured my interest, fired my imagination, and on the whole made me believe that I was in JKR's world, reading a new story about the characters I've come to know and love through her books. They also have a personal appeal to me on a philosophical level, in that many of them invite the reader to seriously consider moral issues in the course of reading the story (which is not to say that any of them are tedious moralizing lectures; far from it).

Having said all that, I know I'm going to leave out at least one really brilliant fic and kick myself over it later, so this list is prone to updates without notice. Here we go, again in no particular order:

Anything and everything by Erica H. Smith. Denizen of the Deep is a thoroughly delightful fairy tale centring around one of my favorite minor HP characters. Paraphrase: Sublunary is an addendum to Chapter 6 of my own fic If We Survive and a superb character study of Snape. Postscript: Like Gold, which takes place a few months after the end of If We Survive, made me cry with happiness the first three times I read it. And then there's Erica's wonderful trilogy crossing the HP universe with the works of SF author Lois McMaster Bujold, which even non-Bujoldians can understand, but which fans of LMB will most enjoy and appreciate: Marks and Scars, Without Enchantment and No Great Magic. Erica's work is lyrical, witty, and at times deeply moving. And I'd better shut up about it or I won't have time to list the rest of my favorites before bedtime.

Harry Potter and the Heir of Slytherin by DrummerGirl. DrummerGirl writes the most authentically JKR-ish style I've ever seen, and this novel-length fic really has the feel of a genuine Year 5 story -- and yet it's full of fascinating original ideas and introduces us to at least one truly likeable and plausible new character. If it runs afoul of the occasional fanfic cliche, at least it's honestly done -- the author hadn't read any other HP fanfics when she wrote the outline for hers.

Imperius Quidditch by Alec Dossetor and Teri Krenek. A superb character study of the young Tom Riddle, and of the challenges and temptations of power. Plus, the whole idea of Imperius Quidditch is the most brilliantly original concept I've seen in a long, long time. Don't be misled by the leisurely, rather old-fashioned tone of the opening paragraphs: this is a fast-paced, gripping story.

Down from the Tree: Actions by Melissa A. A marvellous story, particularly when read in tandem with Arabella's sequel Down from the Tree: Consequences: it provides a very plausible scenario for what happened on the night Sirius pulled the infamous stunt that almost got Snape killed. Smooth storytelling, wonderful characterization, and a very balanced portrayal of a situation that has previously tended to polarize fans.

The More Is My Unrest by Jedi Boadicea and Arabella. This is the one and only truly plausible, canon-consistent Draco/Ginny fic I have ever read. Although it isn't really D/G. Just go read it, you'll see what I mean. The characterization of Draco is wonderful -- not in the least glamorized or white-washed, and yet at the same time it's hard not to feel for him.

Acts of Necessity by Jedi Boadicea. This is the funniest humorous fic I've ever read, and contains absolutely brilliant, bang-on portrayals of both Severus Snape and Gilderoy Lockhart, in a socially awkward situation that results in Lockhart getting a delicious and well-deserved comeuppance. I found it both hilarious and enormously satisfying.

And now I have to go to bed, so any more recommendations will have to wait for another time!