In the realm of games, it is widely acknowledged that different people enjoy different aspects of games, and for different reasons. There are several theories that attempt to describe different kinds of fun or different player types. Marc LeBlanc has his theory of 8 kinds of fun: Sensation, Fantasy, Narrative, Challenge, Fellowship, Discovery, Expression, and Submission. Then there’s Bartle’s taxonomy, which classifies players of online multiplayer games into four types: Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, or Killers. In Magic: The Gathering people commonly discuss Johnny, Timmy, and Spike, three archetypes of what people like about the game.
If we can recognize that different people enjoy different aspects of games, then we can also recognize that different people also enjoy different aspects of stories. This may seem like a trivial point, but one that we rarely think about directly.
I think the different ways of enjoying games are more obvious because they often result in different player behaviors, but the different ways of enjoying stories tend to be invisible. Invisible… except in fandom. So, if you wanted to go looking for theories of how different people enjoy fiction for different reasons, I believe the place to look is in fandom. Unfortunately, I don’t actually involve myself in any fandoms, but I’m sure some of my readers do, so I’d be happy to hear from you.
For now, I’ll just toss a few preliminary ideas around.
One idea I’ve heard, is curative vs transformative fandom. Curative fandom is all about curating and organizing the information available in canon, while transformative fandom is about changing canon through transformative works such as fanfics, art, or cosplay. This dichotomy seems straightforward enough, although parochial in perspective. Fanworks and fanwikis are common enough in fandom, but neither is an integral part of how people enjoy stories outside of fandom!
Another idea I had, is that some people might focus on characters, some on world building, or plot, or theme. For example, shipping is a very character-centric activity. Learning about all the different spaceships in Star Wars is a very world-centric activity. Scrutinizing all a story’s details to find clues to a mystery is a plot-centric activity. Thinking about what a show is trying to say about being queer is a theme-centric activity.
I like this classification mostly because it seems explanatory of my own taste in fiction. For example, I recently wrote about how other people like shipping characters together, but I like seeing characters break up. One big reason for shipping is that people emotionally relate to the characters, and want to see that emotional resolution. I very rarely “relate” to characters, so I tend to think unhappy resolutions are just as valid as happy ones. And I like breakup stories because I like anti-relationship themes.
Here’s another example: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR), a popular fanfic in which Harry Potter is absurdly hyperrational. I think HPMOR is instructive because it delivers on some story dimensions much better than others, and this results in divided opinions. I recently saw a friend talking about how much she didn’t like HPMOR, because the characters were obnoxious and unrealistic. She described it as practically a different genre of fanfic, because most people enjoy fanfic for emotional continuity and characterization.
I read HPMOR several years back, and I liked parts of it. At its best, it was a hilarious dialectic on critical thinking, with Harry Potter delivering didactic lessons while also behaving so absurdly that one had to question how good the lessons really were. What left me cold, was how the author spends chapters and chapters making each obstacle seem impossible to overcome, and each solution arise from established facts about the world. And at some point I just don’t care what weird plot shit Harry Potter uses to solve each problem!
So you might say that HPMOR was interested in plot, and to a lesser extent theme. Since I’m interested in theme I partially enjoyed it, and since my friend was interested in characters she didn’t like it at all.