What Makes Some Fandoms More Successful Than Others?

From an outsider’s perspective, fandom is a fickle beast. It’s sometimes hard to see why the Internet would embrace some movies and TV shows while rejecting others. Why hasNCIS inspired more fanfiction than all the Law & Order and CSI franchises combined? Why isTumblr full of people discussing the tiniest details of Teen Wolf and Supernatural, while True Blood’s presence is practically nonexistent?

Why do some things totally fail to engage a fandom audience?

Two months ago, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the most hotly anticipated geek show of the year. Now, six weeks into the first season, we’re starting to see an influx of articles with titles like “What’s W.R.O.N.G. with ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘?” and “Does the ‘Captain America 2′ Trailer Prove ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Has Failed?” Meanwhile, fan blogs are talking about how boring it is , making unfavorable comparisons with current surprise hitSleepy Hollow, and generally complaining and registering their disappointment.

The obvious assumption would be that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. just isn’t very good TV, but the truth is that quality has very little to do with fandom popularity. There are plenty of objectively terrible TV shows, books and movies that have inspired a ton of fanfiction, and their creators appear at Comic Con every year to rapturous applause from crowds of loyal followers. Let’s face it: Teen Wolf is unlikely to win an Emmy, but you can’t move a metaphorical inch on Tumblr without tripping over a Sterek-related meltdown or a shirtless GIF of Tyler Hoechlin.

To understand why some fandoms fail (like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), we need to know why others succeed. Ultimately, it’s up to the fans, but there is a certain formula for things that turn passive consumers into active culture participants. The appeal usually boils down to at least one of these things:

Interesting Character Relationships

The ideal cast for a fandom-popular media source is either a pair of characters with an intense, dynamic relationship (Supernatural, Doctor WhoSherlock, every buddy cop show ever), or a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style team who all work together to reach a common goal. If your characters have a fun rapport, fans will keep watching (or reading or listening or writing fanfic) more or less indefinitely.

There’s nothing more tempting to a fanfic writer than extrapolating on canonical relationships. That’s why there are so many fanfics about the Avengers team hanging out in Stark Tower together, but comparatively few about lone superheroes like Spider-Man.

Similarly, real person fiction (RPF) fandoms are mostly inspired by relationships rather than single “characters.” Plenty of people in One Direction fandom are obsessed with the way the band members interact, but have little or no interest in the actual music. There’s a whole sub-genre of meta discussion posts where fans collect GIFs of the band hanging out together, and analyze the body language for hidden emotional cues.