This page contains contains some hopefully useful definitions of terms that get used by Fans of SF/TV shows, particularly those who write fanfic.
Another site which has a lot of good fannish definitions is here.
Thanks to Firecattz, Franziska, Susan Williams and Rachel Smith for their help.
All the definitions
- alternative history
- alternative reality
- alternative universe
- fan fiction
- guest character
- insertion fiction
- parallel universe
- self-insertion fiction
- short story
Definitions by category
- General definitions
- Fanfic-related definitions
- General fiction-related definitions
- fan fiction:
- Original fiction written by fans of a particular TV Show/Movie (or sometimes book) set in the universe depicted by that work. It's like historical fiction, but the history in which it is set, happens to be a fictional history invented by someone else. Also called fanfic or fic for short.
- A fandom is the group of fans of something.
Probably by analogy from "kingdom".
"X Fandom" is the collection of all the fans of
X where X is some particular TV Show, movie,
(or book) or if X=SF, then it means fans of Science Fiction
(whether that be Media (TV shows and Movies) or Lit (books)) in its loosest
sense (Speculative Fiction, SF&F).
When "Fandom" is used without a qualifier it means fandom in general, all fandoms altogether, or, quite often, all of SF Fandom. "I first discovered Fandom in 1985."
- See fan fiction.
- Fanzines are amateur magazines produced by fans.
These can be of many kinds, from newsletters, letterzines, fiction zines, perzines (personal newsletters) and so on. When I use the term unqualified, I usually mean one which contains fan fiction. Fan fiction fanzines are either anthologies of many people's work, or single-story "novels" by one person. Also called zine for short.
- See fan fiction.
- Short name for fanzine.
- Adult fan fiction is, as it is elsewhere, fiction which is sexually explicit or violent, with emphasis on the sexually explict. Thus, it is usually rated an adults-only rating. Adult is distinct from slash in that the sexuality of those involved is heterosexual. (contrast with gen, compare with het)
- alternative history:
- An Alternative History story is one kind of
Alternative Universe story.
Imagine a multiplicity of parallel universes branching off, each
branch caused by a different event where history happened differently.
The history in the case of fanfic is the original universe
An alternative history can happen with fanfic either deliberately or
after-the-fact. In the former case, for example, someone might take
an event from the show, and write a story speculating a
"what-if-this-had-happened-instead?" In the latter case, someone might
write a story which is set after the end of the current season of a
show which is still being made, which appears to be a possible
reasonable speculation about what might happen next, and then when the
next season comes out, events happen on the series which invalidate
I don't mean to say here that any story which is set after the end of a finished series is an Alternative History story -- if there is no more history being made, that is, the series is no longer being produced, then there is no history for the story to be Alternative to. There are many branches that history could take after the last episode of a series, but we can never know what the "true" history would have been. Therefore no post-series stories can be called AU.
- alternative reality:
- An Alternative Reality story is one kind of
Alternative Universe story.
This is a story where the emphasis is not the branching points
of the history of the show in question
(as in an Alternative History story),
but the differences lie further afield, such that places, things or
characters are different, without being able to pinpoint a particular
historical event which made them so.
Thus, an alternative-reality story might take Our Heros and plonk them into the far future or the far past, or a different country, or into an alternative future history or even another planet. Or the change could be some other kind of thing, like swapping the roles or positions of Our Heros, in some kind of "mirror" universe. Or something else.
Sometimes it may be hard to decide whether a story is a alternative reality story or an alternative history story, if there is a branching point of history that can be pointed to, but it was so far back in time that the universe which the characters inhabit is very different. (The specific example I am thinking of is a Sentinel story series called "Alternate Reality" by D.L. Witherspoon, in which the main characters had such significant life-history changes long before the time of the start of the series, that they had different professions and completely different expectations of life, even though they were the same people underneath. One could point to the branching points of history, but it was effectively a parallel universe.)
- alternative universe:
- An Alternative Universe story is a story which is incompatible with the original "universe" depicted by canon. Also called AU for short. There are two basic categories of AU, the Alternative History and the Alternative Reality. In either case, it is no longer possible to reconcile the events (in the story) with the original canon universe.
- Common abbreviation of Alternative Universe. Also referred to as A/U.
- The dictionary says that an avatar is, in Hinduism, a
manifestation of a deity in earthly form; or the manifestation or
embodiment of an abstract concept, an archetype. In fannish circles,
in relation to fiction, it refers to a character in a story who is the
recognisable embodiment of a character from some fannish universe.
How does this differ from insertion? (a) The story in
question is in an original or real-world historical universe, and (b)
everything has been changed except for the personality (and usually
the physical description), so as to make the character really belong
to that universe. I suppose you could call it "past-life" fiction (or
future-life, or parallel-life), since it is more like reincarnation
Avatars have turned up in both fan and professional fiction. The fanzines "The Pattern of Infinity" and "Renaissance" consist of stories which place Blake's 7 characters into different periods of history. Tanith Lee, in her novel "Kill The Dead", has avatars of Avon and Vila. And they aren't the only authors, characters or universes which this has been done with.
- A beta-reader (beta) is like a beta-tester for software.
They go through a piece of fan fiction
to find the "bugs" in it, and see if it works. For some people, it's just a
proofreader, but it's often more (or different) than that. Different
beta readers tend to look for different things.
For more information on what a beta-reader is and does, look here.
- BOTW stands for Babe Of The Week. You know, how Our Hunky Hero always seems to meet, each episode, a beautiful (feisty) woman, who ends up going out with him, and/or exchanging kisses with him, and/or going to bed with him, before the end of the episode -- and is then never seen or heard from again? She's the Babe of the Week. Commonly used in Sentinel fandom, I haven't seen it elsewhere.
- fan fiction is usually based on the universe depicted by some TV show. Canon is that which defines the universe, and is usually taken to be the episodes of that show as aired, not unaired pilots, or original scripts, or information from interviews, or novelizations or novel spinoffs, and definitely not fan fiction.
- A Canon-Sue character is a portrayal of a canon character in such a way that, if they hadn't been a canon character, they would be a Mary-Sue character. One can indicate that a given character is being portrayed in a Mary-Sue-like manner by tacking "-Sue" onto the end of their name, such as "Willow-Sue" or "Mulder-Sue". Some characters get this done to them so often that their -Sue name often gets used as the name of this phenomenon (such as "Willow-Sue").
- A story in which the characters and/or settings of two or more different (shows) universes are combined in the same story. Thus, if Doctor Who turns up in his Tardis on the bridge of the Enterprise, then that's a Doctor Who/Star Trek crossover.
- Usually used to describe a Parallel Universe story or sometimes an Alternative History story where the "history" change is pretty radical. I've only seen it used in Lois & Clark fandom, but I thought it was such a cool term I'd put it here anyway.
- Those conventions and extrapolations from canon which become so popular and widespread in a fannish community, that they turn up in much fanfic, and often people cannot remember where the idea originally came from, and sometimes they can't remember that the idea isn't canon.
- Gen fan fiction is considered to be "GENeral" -- for differing versions of "general". It is usually rated somewhere between G and "suitable for young adults". The content can vary: many consider it to be anything which is not slash or adult. In Stargate SG-1 fandom, "gen" is used to refer to stories which explicitly exclude romantic stories (see noromo and het). As a contrast, some sections of Sentinel fandom consider gen to be everything that isn't slash -- that is, that gen includes adult fiction as well. So this term may need to be clarified depending on context.
- guest character:
- A guest-character is a character in a story who, if this were a screened episode, would be played by a guest-star -- in other words, a character who gets a reasonable amount of focus for that story, since the plot is highly connected to that character, but once the plot is resolved, you usually aren't going to see them again. (If you do see them again, they become a recurring character).
- Abbreviation of hurt/comfort.
- Fiction which is sexually explicit, containing heterosexual sex. (see adult) In Stargate SG-1 fandom this term is also used to describe all romantic fiction, regardless of rating -- thus, a PG-rated story which mentions that Jack and Sam are in love, would be called "het" in that fandom, and other fandoms which learned that usage from Stargate fandom.
- A story in which one of the characters is physically or emotionally hurt (injured, sick or tortured) and the other character (before or after rescuing them) has to comfort the first one. This form of story goes across many fandoms, and certain characters are favourites for making the victim of the author's sadistic whims. Blair from Sentinel, Daniel from Stargate SG-1 and Avon from Blake's 7 to name a few. Also called h/c for short.
- insertion fiction:
- This is a specific kind of crossover Parallel Universe fiction where you take characters from one show, and insert them into the roles of characters from another show. It never works, but people still do it. (compare Self Insertion and avatar).
- A Mary-Sue story is wish-fulfilment fantasy on the part of the
author, where an OC, who is suspiciously similar to
the author, waltzes in and saves the day, said character being too
perfect to be true. The term comes from an original Star Trek story
in which the name of the character in question was "Mary-Sue". To
call a story a Mary-Sue is an insult. It is also speculation, because
unlike self-insertion fiction, in which the author's
presence is explicit, a Mary-Sue character can only be speculated to
Another difference between self-insertion and Mary-Sue is that a self-insertion character is likely to be more realistic and full of flaws, whereas a Mary-Sue is characterised by the unbelievable perfection of their character. (Of course, a self-insertion could also be a Mary-Sue, if it seems clear that the character is unbelievably perfect.) Thus, a story could be accused of being a Mary-Sue story simply because it contains an original female character (OFC) who manages to make the hero fall in love with her. Or an original character who has three Ph.D's and is a perfect hostess into the bargain.
Another piece of possible confusion is that sometimes an established existing main character (rather than an original character) can be called a Mary-Sue (or a twist of the name, like "Mulder-Sue" or Willow-Sue). This doesn't necessarily mean that the author is projecting themself into the character, but that the character is being written in a "too-good-to-be-true" way. One might say that the author has a "Mary-Sue agenda" with respect to this character; that much of the purpose of the story is to push how wonderful this character is.
The masculine version of a "Mary-Sue" is sometimes called a "Marky-Sam" or a "Gary Stu".
A comprehensive classification of the variants of Mary-Sue can be found here. For a more expanded discussion of Mary-Sue look here.
- Noromo is short for "no romance". Term originated in X-Files fandom fairly early on, to refer to those who preferred the idea that there was absolutely no romance going on between Mulder and Scully. This term can also be used to refer to fan fiction in which there is no romance (see gen).
- OC stands for Original Character -- that is, a character
in a fanfic story who is has been created by the
author, rather than being a character from the show. Usually used for a
character who gets a reasonable amount of "screen time", rather than
someone who is basically an "extra". Particularly used for characters
who are recurring characters in a series, but also used for
Some people object to OCs when they get too much focus, and appear to be "taking over the story" instead of staying in a guest-character or supporting-character role. They say, "If you love that character so much, why don't you just go and write some original fiction starring him or her, instead of putting him or her into this fanfic universe? This story is no longer an X story if it doesn't focus on the main characters of X!" On the other hand, with some fannish universes, it's the concept that appeals to people, and so some folks happily write stories which use the concept, without any of the characters from the series appearing at all, or appearing very minimally. For example, I know people have written Highlander stories with OC Immortals, where they use the concept of Immortality and that's it, no characters from the series at all. Some people like that, some people don't.
(See also OFC and OMC).
- OFC stands for Original Female Character -- that is, an OC who is female. Some people think that all OFCs are Mary-Sues, but that is jumping to conclusions. However, when the sole purpose of the OFC is to be a love-interest for Our Hero, you can understand why such a conclusion would be jumped to.
- OMC stands for Original Male Character -- that is, an OC who is male. Not used as often as OFC, probably because there either aren't as many of them, or they aren't as controversial.
- parallel universe:
- A Parallel Universe story is one kind of Alternative Universe story, also known as a Alternative Reality story.
- self-insertion fiction:
- A story where the author is written in as a character.
Some people call this a "Mary-Sue" story, but I don't.
- Slash is fan fiction which portrays characters in a homosexual relationship, and derives its name from the slash '/' character used in describing such stories, such as "a Kirk/Spock story". A slash story can be explicitly sexual, and often may be, but a story does not need to contain sex scenes to be considered slash. (Look here for more on slash) (contrast with adult and gen)
- The dictionary actually defines "smarm" as obsequious flattery, but how that got turned into a term for a story where the characters are expressive and warm and caring for each other is right here. The term is widely used in Sentinel fandom. It is used to refer to the demonstration of strong but platonic affection - up to and including brotherly love. Smarm stories can often be ones where the characters are unrealistically sentimental and overly demonstrative, so my usage of the term varies.
- WHAM stands for Wrenching, Heart-Aching Moment, such as might occur in a particular piece of fanfic. (From Lois & Clark fandom)
General fiction-related definitions
- A vignette which is exactly 100 words long, no more, no less. The term may have originated in Doctor Who fandom, certainly it's the first place I encountered it, and I couldn't find it in my dictionary. From this people also refer to a double-drabble (200 words) and a half-drabble (50 words) (See short-short).
- A form of poetry originating in Japan, which consists of three lines, the first with five syllables, the second with seven, and the third with five. The general idea of haiku is to sum up the essence of something, in as few words as possible. For more than you ever wanted to know about the definition and history of the Haiku, look here.
- Prose fiction which is at least 50,000 words long.
- A story shorter than a novella and longer than a short story, 10,000-20,000 words long.
- A long story shorter than a novel and longer than a novelette, 20,000-50,000 words long.
- short story:
- A story less than 10,000 words long.
- A vignette which is 50 words or less long.
Another definition is that a short-short is simply a short story which is 3,000 words or less.
- A short piece of prose, that somehow lacks the structure of a story, more a scene or a couple of scenes than something complete. Like a vignette but less finished.
- A poem of 14 lines in iambic pentameter (five segments per line, each segment having a rhythm pattern of two syllables with the emphasis on the second syllable) with a fixed rhyming scheme. For more information on the precise nature and history of the Sonnet, look here.
- A short graceful literary essay or sketch. A short stand-alone scene. (See short story).