By Gary Oswald
Amateur online Alternate History fiction and fanfiction have a lot in common. They’re both the products of communities of amateur fiction writers, they both have a ready made audience that original fiction doesn't, they both have their own subculture and bad habits and they have both produced writers to emerge from that culture to break into the mainstream and be published. Though fanfiction has a much better record in doing so than AH fiction, being as it is a much larger community.
Moreover, they come from a similar viewpoint and there is often overlap with the same writers being in both communities. Fanfiction emerges from discussion of the fictional work and then finding bits that can be added to it or changed about it. Alternate History emerges from discussion of history and how it can be tweaked. In both, the more you know about the work you’re tweaking, the more authentic your work. But the fun is what you change.
People who don’t read fanfiction often assume it’s all pastiche. You liked Sherlock Holmes so you write more Sherlock Holmes. But fanfic is often explicitly fans making what they do not get in the main series. It’s watching an action movie and writing out the character beats that the actual movie doesn’t have, it’s writing the gay romance that the author will never have the balls to write, it’s adding the porn to a story that is pg-13. And as a result it’s often written in a completely different tone and genre to what makes the original work. So people read a dark piece of fiction like 1984, admire it for its realistically brutal exploration of totalitarian rule and then have the urge to write a happy story where 'the heroes escape and the villains fail and everyone eats ice cream and gets a happy ending'. Or the opposite, dark My Little Pony fiction or what if the Nazis won AH, come from that same impulse of taking a happy victory and flipping it.
Because of that writing good fanfiction and writing a good continuation of the original material are different skills. What people love in fanfiction, they would hate in the original work. I think the mistake people sometimes make is the assumption that because fans read and write Game of Thrones fanfic where the Starks live and get a happy ending, they would therefore like the original tv show to be that. When actually what they like about that show is that it is dark and heroes do die. The requirements for published fiction are very different because the point of fanfiction is nothing you write counts. You get to break the constraints under which the original work relies because you can break the characters and bend the story and you don't need to put them back and have them ready to use, nobody is going to have to continue from where you left off. In that way it’s basically Alternate History. You are writing with the awareness that you’re going off into a parallel universe. So it seems natural for that fanfiction community of very productive writers, to also produce Alternate History as their viewpoints are so similar. So do they?
Well, the term you see most often in fanfiction sites isn’t AH, it’s AU. Alternate Universe. What Alternate Universe means is this is a story about these fictional characters but not using the storyline of the original fiction. So classic AU fanfiction would take those characters but put them in different scenarios. So it’s the same characters with the same dynamics that the writer likes but instead of piloting space ships, they’re working in a coffee shop or vice versa. This isn't really AH as we could consider it. The equivalent would be if an AH fiction about Napoleon involved him being born in 1960s UK and running for parliament.
More interesting to us is that sometimes the AU would come under the subcategory 'canon divergence AU', i.e. fanfiction written in the style of the Marvel Comics ‘what if’s’. So what if Harry Potter had been put into Slytherin? What if Buffy hadn’t come to Sunnydale? Many stories were written using this format. A classic fanfiction challenge, that went around the communities ten years ago, was ‘the five things that never happened to a character’ stories. Because it was fanfiction a lot of that was the character in question shagging people they didn’t in the original story but, with these stories, you’ve basically got AH but for fiction. On Alternate History sites, you often find fanfiction of this ilk also being written. But it's not really AH, it's still about the fictional world, it's no different to the various parallel universes using that principle you see regularly on sci-fi shows, which is probably where the concept came from.
However, not all fanfiction is about fictional characters. You also had RPF. Or real person fiction. Now this is deeply controversial in most fanfiction communities for ethical reasons and what existed was mostly stories about various attractive male popstars and actors shagging each other. Fanfiction communities are primarily made up of women after all and to a large extent became places where their ids and libidos could be let loose without judgement, which is not often the case in the outside world. Still, there’s always some limits to freedom, if only the limits of taste, and a lot of people were and are uncomfortable with the sexualisation of real living people like that for the same reasons they're uncomfortable with reddit subs captioning photos of female celebrities with erotic dialogue or photoshopping their heads onto nude pictures.
But some RPF, the less controversial type, was about historical figures. George Washington RPF for instance or Henry VIII RPF, and some of that would be based on Hamilton or Wolf Hall but some would be based on the original historical figures instead. It isn't rare for people deeply fond of the characters of something like Black Sails to chase down the diaries and biographies of the main characters and maybe find something even more interesting. This is after all the power of historical fiction in introducing audiences to history. The kind of nerds who watched the Lord of the Rings movies and then five years later are writing about characters from Tolkien's unpublished notes about the first age, would quickly go from watching The Borgias TV Show to writing about the actual Borgias. Most of what emerged is straight historical fiction, history happens as it did in our timeline but we get glimpses of things unrecorded in terms of emotions, contemplation and often sex expressed in the stories.
But if you combine the two last topics, you find a subsection of both of these subsections. Canon divergence AU with RPF about historical figures. And that is basically just Alternate History fiction.
So if you go to fanfiction sites like fanfiction.net or archiveofourown.org do you find canon divergence AU historical figure RPF or what we would call AH?
Yes, yes you do.
On Archive of Our Own or AO3 I found about 200 pure AH works by my searches. These are primarily romantic stories. Sometimes these are gay romances or slash wherein Frederick the Great of Prussia gets to have a happy ending with his lover, Hans Hermann von Katte, who in our timeline was executed by Frederick’s father or Napoleon shags Alexander I of Russia and so the two don’t fall out, avoiding the collapse of the continental system. Sometimes they are heterosexual or het romances where in various queens and ladies married different people. And sometimes they are entirely non-romantic stories or gen such as a story about Elizabeth I's relationship with her mother in a timeline where Anne Boleyn gives birth to a son and so isn’t executed, though the emphasis still tends to be on character relationships.
The fanfiction with the most Kudos, or likes, of these stories, is a story by Olivia Longueville wherein Anne Boleyn gets together with King Francois of France. This was later self-published as ‘Between Two Kings’ on Amazon where it’s had 74 audience ratings, most of which are positive.
The one I probably liked the most, of the ones I read, is ‘Five Ways in which Frederick the Great and Maria Theresia did not meet’ by ‘Selena’ which is the pen-name for a published author who I’ve been a long time reader of. There is little or no romance in it, a rarity for fanfiction, but it works as good solid Alternate History, showing good understanding of the historical period and yet remaining focused primarily on the emotions and personality of the characters. That focus on personalities and relationships rather than larger political trends is perhaps the most notable feature of this community of AH writers.
But, by the looks of it, there are plenty more to try if those two examples don't meet your tastes, it's a thriving sub genre on a thriving site for amateur fiction.
So why am I talking about this? Well I think, to some extent, because when we talk about online amateur writing Alternate History communities, we don’t think about the Olivia Longuevilles and Selenas of the world. We think primarily of the very male dominated forum writing communities and it’s worth noting that we are not alone in writing stories like that, but other people, emerging from other online communities, are doing the same, with maybe different focuses.