Screenshot: Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
In 2001, when the first Lord of the Rings movie came out, no one anticipated how big a hit the cinematic adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien's books would be. These movies exploded. Some people loved the lore. Some were into Peter Jackson's directing. And some simply thought that Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom were pretty damn cute. That last group of fans weren't going to get the fanservice they wanted from the films. They had to make it themselves, and they did.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy already had a huge fandom prior to these movies coming out, but seeing the epic fantasy played out by living, breathing human beings introduced it to a new generation of fans that had different priorities from the people who just read the books.
The relationship between Sam and Frodo was always fond, but played onscreen by Elijah Wood, with his soulful blue eyes, and Sean Astin, who whispers a baleful "Mr. Frodo," about every 10 minutes, it felt tender and heart-wrenching. Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean, who played Aragorn and Boromir, respectively, are both capable actors, filling pregnant pauses between these two characters with seething resentment and jealousy. That tension is catnip to fanfiction writers.
Fanfiction is about fantasies. It's about imagining what characters feel and in some way seeing them act those things out. Fans could fantasize about what Legolas was thinking as he watched Gimli swing an axe, but neither the movies nor the books were going to fill in any more of these characters' inner thoughts.
I got excited about Lord of the Rings through the movies. The books, to my disappointment, were more concerned with the topography of Middle Earth and Tom Bombadill, a tedious man in the woods who speaks in rhyme for an extremely long chapter.
Jackson, in his movies, had developed the characters quite a bit, especially when it came to female characters like Arwen, who in the books shows up in one chapter in Fellowship to be introduced and then one chapter in Return of the King to get married to Aragorn. If I wanted to know more about how the characters felt about things, I would have to turn to derivative works. Enter Cassandra Claire.
Screenshot: Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
Cassandra Claire was the fanfiction pseudonym of now-Young Adult fiction writer Cassandra Clare, author of the Mortal Instruments series, which has been adapted into a movie and television show. Fanfiction was where she got her start.
Although she's best remembered in fandom for her Harry Potter fic, The Draco Trilogy, I'd always preferred her Very Secret Diaries, a Lord of the Rings fanfic. In an entry on her LiveJournal, Claire writes that the idea for this series came to her when looking for Aragorn/Legolas fic to link to a friend. The pairing wasn't very popular. The only one she could find featured Legolas sneaking into Aragorn's room and reading his diary and discovering the man had a thing for elves.
"We were boggled as to what else Aragorn might put in his diary," she wrote, "aside from the fact that it is already tragically out of character for Aragorn, who seems very busy fighting a war against evil and waiting to be King of Middle-Earth, to have a diary in the first place." So, on December 30th, 2001, she wrote his diary. The first entry reads:
Ringwraiths killed: 4. V. good.
Met up with Hobbits. Walked forty miles. Skinned a squirrel and ate it.
Still not King
Although Claire's diaries have diminishing returns, this first fic, which is Aragorn's diary for the span of The Fellowship of the Ring, is still pretty funny. In the books and the films, Aragorn is stoic to the point of being boring. Here, he has an internal life, and a sense of humour.
"Orcs killed: none. Disappointing," one entry reads. "Stubble update: I look rugged and manly. Yes!" Lord of the Rings has a tendency to be self-serious. Cribbing from Bridget Jones's Diary, which also had a film adaptation the same year Fellowship of the Ring, Claire's quippy, direct prose undercuts the angst.
Claire soon began to interweave a metanarrative into them. It turns out that everyone is trying to sleep with Frodo, as reading through each diary would reveal another layer to characters trying to get into his pants and being rebuffed by the oblivious hobbit. The interconnected stuff led to some inferior material.
A riff on The Gap of Rohan, which Claire's version of Arwen thinks is an actual Gap-the-store in Rohan, turned into a tiresome recurring joke. While Aragorn's diary seemed to have a basis in his canon personality as a man who is obsessed with being king, and Legolas' at the very least was based on Bloom's portrayal of the character as a pretty but dim elf, these embellishments weren't as clever, even if fans loved all the references to characters sleeping with each other.
Perhaps Claire herself realised how forced this felt, as she stopped writing the diaries after The Two Towers, only completing diaries for Aragorn, Legolas and Theoden before discontinuing the series. She posted her last diary on March 1st, 2003, writing 18 diaries across two years.
Screenshot: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Even as an incomplete fic, Claire's Very Secret Diaries were a smash hit. Although traffic on LiveJournal posts is hard to measure, Claire's final diary had fifty-one pages of comments, and fans were still asking for more entries up until 2005. After Claire stopped writing them, other fans would take up the mantle, and it became a genre of fanfic in other fandoms as well.
The diaries were dramatized in Ringers, a documentary about Lord of the Rings fans, and were featured in an article about fanfiction for UK newspaper The Telegraph written by British author and academic John Sutherland. In his article, Sutherland noted that Claire has a huge fandom herself, asking, "How much longer will writers with Claire's commercial potential give away their work?"
For Claire, it wasn't actually that long. She began writing fic in 2000, she sold what would become City of Bones, the first book in her Mortal Instruments series, to Simon & Schuster in 2005, it was published in 2007, and she's been writing professionally ever since.
Claire's work in The Very Secret Diaries feels similar to what Overwatch fandom does to that game. Like Lord of the Rings, Overwatch's characters don't have any inner lives to speak of, and fans invent their characterization as they go along.
Rings obviously has more text than Overwatch does, but fans want to learn the same things about Reaper and Mercy as they wanted to learn about Aragorn and Frodo. What are they, you know, like? What are their secret fears and desires? Are they all screwing each other? If those answers are in the text, great, but if not, fandom will just make something up.