The Fandom Spectrum

Fandoms major and minor are composed of a myriad of different ways in which fans enjoy, interact with, and express their liking for their favorite stories.  User LordByronic on Reddit broke down fandom expression into a dichotomy that they described as the curative and the transformative.  (https://np.reddit.com/r/gallifrey/comments/2u73cg/tumblrbashing_why_or_why_not/co5ucsk/).  LordByronic saw the “Curative”, or what I will be referring to as the Curatorial, side of the fandom as being about knowledge.  Such fans would pride themselves on their knowledge of canon. On the other hand, LordByronic saw the Transformative side of the fandom as being about change.  Such fans would alter aspects of canon to better suit their preferences or to make it more relatable to them.  

With due respect to LordByronic, I think that fandoms would be better represented if we thought of Transformative and Curatorial fandom as two ends of a spectrum rather than as a dichotomy.  I also think that this particular spectrum alone doesn’t fully describe the different forms that fandom can take.  I think there is a second axis of the spectrum that we should consider.  That second axis spans from those that are Character fans to those that are Setting fans.  We’ll place the Character to Setting spectrum as the X-Axis of our spectrum and the Curatorial to Transformative axis as the Y-Axis of the spectrum. 

Please note that most fans won’t exist as a point on this spectrum.  Their fandom experience might cover a region, multiple separate regions, or even the entire spectrum in one way or another.  I’ll be discussing the different regions as distinct for simplicity. 

I’ve divided the Character to Setting spectrum into several categories:  

Character fans tend to be fans of a particular story or franchise because they really like one or more characters in that story.  Ideally for them, the franchise would allow them to explore the entire life story or stories of their favorite character(s).  Character fans tend to see the setting as an interesting place to watch the character go through their lives. This isn’t to say that Character fans dislike the setting of the story, they just see it as secondary. 

Relationship fans are fans of a dynamic that exists, or that they see as existing, between two or more characters.  This includes shipping, but is by no means limited to it.  Someone whose favorite thing about the Mandalorian is the single dad and son dynamic between Din Djarin and Grogu would fall in this category.  So would someone whose favorite thing about Guardians of the Galaxy is the dynamic that exists when they are all together. Ideally for people in this category the franchise will explore their preferred dynamic(s) to their fullest extent. 

The middle of the spectrum is for Story fans.  Story fans see the characters and the setting as all being necessary to tell their favorite story.  In this area you’ll find two different types of fans: Plot fans and Theme fans.  Plot fans are interested in the ramifications of events and how story lines evolve and interweave.   Theme fans are fascinated by one or more central themes of the story and would ideally see their favorite franchise explore those themes and variations on them to their fullest.

What I will refer to as Lore fans are people that want to know how a particular fictional universe works.  For example: if it’s a science fiction story they want to know all about how the advanced technology in the story is supposed to work.  If the story contains a magical element these fans want to know what the rules are for the system of magic. They also sometimes tend to care about things like the political landscape, family trees, languages, and the world’s history. These fans don’t expect the entire story to be an exposition dump but they love it when exposition that fleshes out the world’s lore is given.  They tend to also love supplemental materials that go into greater detail about how things work. 

Setting fans, as the name implies, care first and foremost about the setting and its various trappings.  They care about world building and the general aesthetic of the story.  For Setting fans the story would ideally explore the setting of the story to its fullest extent. While a lore fan might be content with exposition about the past, a setting fan might want to explore the setting throughout its timeline as well.  At the extreme, setting fans see the story as an excuse to explore the setting and see the characters as audience surrogates who allow us to see their world through their eyes. As such setting fans aren’t particularly tied to the main characters or the main plot.  They will happily cast both aside if it means going to new places that those characters and that story don’t visit. 

This Character to Setting axis of the spectrum tends to appear most clearly in fandoms with particularly extensive world building.  The reason for that is because in stories set in our world the most interesting aspects of the setting are the aspects that the main characters are exploring.  No one cares about hearing the life story of a random passerby in the X-Files because their life probably isn’t that different than that of the average American in the 90s.  Conversely a random passerby in Star Wars or Star Trek likely leads a very different life to what we currently know and their story and the places they’ve visited could be particularly fascinating and not something we would ever learn about if we only chose to follow the main plot and the main characters.      

So how does the fandom spectrum influence how fans express and interact with the fandom.  Let’s take a look at some examples:

Fandom Writings

Fans often choose to express themselves and interact with other fans through their writing.  This can take a variety of forms which include but is not limited to those below.  

Cataloging, Analysis, Speculation, and Fanfiction tend to span the Character – Setting spectrum but fall within their own regions of the Curatorial to Transformative spectrum 

Cataloging – Curatorial fandom stresses keeping track of minutia.  For those that want to be able to refer to  and organize all of the small details of a franchise, cataloging can help when the little details become too numerous to memorize. Cataloging might look different depending on where on the Character to Setting spectrum a fan falls.  A Character fan might diligently track all of the details of their favorite character’s life, a story fan might make a timeline to track various story lines, and a setting fan might make a map or embellish an existing one.   

Analysis – Analysis is more transformative than Cataloging as any conclusions drawn from the analysis will have some degree of subjectivity to them.  However it is still an expression of Curatorial fandom as it deals with the story as it is rather than with adding to or altering the story in any way.  Analysis too takes on many forms: Characterization analysis, analysis of theme and symbolism, analysis of how the systems of the fictional world work, analysis of world building methods, etc.

Speculation – Speculation is always to some degree transformative as it always deals with adding something to the story that isn’t revealed initially. Analysis based speculation leans more curative while “wouldn’t it be cool if…” speculation might lean more transformative.  Character and relationship arcs, plot, new lore, quite literally where the story could go next, and more are all fertile ground for fan speculation.

Fanfiction – Fanfiction covers the entire Transformative half of the vertical axis as it is by its nature always adding to or changing the story.  It overlaps with speculation on the vertical spectrum in part because sometimes speculation is written in the form of fanfiction, but also because some fanfics are written to stick as close to existing canon as possible.  An example of a near canon fanfic would be say a scene that falls between two canon scenes but occurs “off camera” in canon.  Fanfiction can also be extremely transformative such as Alternate Universe fanfiction where the characters are removed from their canon setting and placed in a different one.  Character and relationship fans will likely write about their favorite characters and their dynamics.  Plot fans might write fix-it fics to patch over plot holes.  Lore fans might spin a piece of exposition into a story and Setting fans might write a story about what goes down at their favorite locale when the main characters aren’t there. 

Shipping is a subset of both Speculation and Fanfiction and falls in both the Character and Relationship sections of the horizontal spectrum.  It covers the Character section because some shippers clearly have a favorite character that makes up half of their preferred ship while they use the other character as a self insert to fantasize about their favorite character.   

Fan Art – Fan art, like fanfiction, is primarily an expression of transformative fandom, but it can have a Curatorial side as well.  Curatorial fan art would include creating art that represents scenes from existing canon, such as creating illustrations or comics based on scenes from a favorite novel. On the Transformative side, fan art offers endless potential in both subject and style.  For subject matter there tends to be a considerable overlap between fan art and fan fiction with some fans preferring to represent their story with words while others do so visually.  Art depicting a favorite character would be an expression of Character fandom.  Art that focuses on World building details would be an expression of Setting fandom.  A Lore fan might make art depicting the inner workings of a piece of technology.  A Relationship fan might depict their favorite character dynamic at a particularly dramatic or romantic moment.  A Story fan might depict their favorite scene. 

Cosplay – Cosplay also can be used to express fandom across the spectrum.  A Curatorial fan might place great importance on having their costumes be canon accurate or choose to dress as an obscure character.   An expression of Transformative Setting fandom might be for a fan to dress as a character of their own creation that fits the setting whereas an expression of Curatorial Setting fandom might be for a fan to dress as an obscure character.  Relationship fans might like to do couples or group cosplay. Character fans would likely prefer to dress as their favorite character or potentially their favorite character’s love interest. Transformative Cosplayers might mix fandoms in their cosplay (like a group of young women dressing as Disney Princesses dressing as the characters from Sailor Moon) or they might design an AU cosplay like Darth Vader as Samurai armor. 

It is important to note again that most fans don’t exist or express themselves at single points on this spectrum.  Most will exist over a larger region or possible even disconnected regions.  It’s also important to note that every region of the spectrum is an equally valid form of fandom.  Perhaps a better understanding of how various fans think and why they choose to express themselves the way they do could help to diffuse tensions and disagreements within the fandom. 

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