Fan fiction. Yes or no?
First, a brief history and discussion of the definition of fan fiction.
When you hear the term “fanfic” you are most likely thinking of something that seems to have dawned and gained steam in the internet age. The term probably conjures up images of online forums, blogs, or amazon self-published ebooks.
But if we stick to the basic definition of fan fiction then fan fiction has been around for decades, even centuries.
Here are some of the basic definitions:
Google: “fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from, a particular TV series, movie, etc.”
Merrium-Webster: “stories involving popular fictional characters that are written by fans and often posted on the Internet”
All of these definitions imply that this is a very modern notion and associate it more with television or internet posts than with literature. But if you focus on the common thread and a general understanding of what these stories look like, I think the best definition would be this:
fiction using existing characters or situations to develop new plots, usually written by a fan of the original work
Under this definition, works of parody or retellings might fall into the category of fanfic. Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is a retelling of The Odyssey told from Penelope’s perspective. Paradise Lost is a retelling of the Biblical fall narrative. Pride Prejudice and Zombies spurred a whole genre of literature parodies based on everything from Shakespeare to Star Wars. Similarly there seems to be a never ending supply of fairy tale retellings. Recent examples include Wicked, Cinder, Dorthy Must Die or Splintered who use the worlds or characters of others often very loosely, but sometimes directly. Splintered, for instance, takes place in the world created by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with mostly new characters while Wicked takes place in Oz (of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) developing back stories for most of the main characters in the original work.
Perhaps we can excuse retellings and parodies since they seem to function as separate genres, but for stories that take place in another authors world using another authors characters, I think not.
Popular books like P.D. Jame’s Death Comes to Pemberley or Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett come to mind. Both of these works are unauthorized sequels to very famous works (Pride and Prejudice and Gone With the Wind) and both have been criticized and acclaimed.
Are these published books different enough to stand on their own? Maybe. But I think technically speaking they are works of fan fiction. Much of the critique comes from fans of the original works who do not like these writers “messing with” their beloved stories and characters. Would the original author approve? What if the story doesn’t feel true to the authors intent? Can you simply ignore these wildly popular books and pretend the stories never happened since they aren’t written by the original author? Is it ever okay to use another authors characters without consent?
So many works are inspired by other works that this line can feel extremely blurry. After all, some authors give other authors permission to write stories in their world or with their characters for anthologies. Sometimes ghost writers or authors are asked to finish the work of another author using their notes/directions.
What appears to be pure fanfic is using a setting or characters without permission of the author to write a new story or explore different themes that those put forth by the author.
Is that wrong?
To answer that, one must answer this question: What motivates someone to write fan fiction?
Often the desire of a fan to know more about a story or character that the author isn’t giving is a motivation. You want more from the universe or a character and you are simply imagining the possibilities. This almost always happens naturally after reading a story you enjoyed, but do you take a step further and write out your own version of that story? Do you then maybe go a step further and share it with others who you think might also enjoy your story?
Fan fiction can also be reactionary. You write to change something about the story that you did not like or that you think the author got wrong. You write what you wish had happened to your favorite character. I believe this is why a very popular sub-category of fan fiction is erotica. The love story was intense but the characters are chaste? Well, you can fix that by writing a steamier version where your fantasies are satisfied.
Edit: As I’ve read more from writers and readers of fanfic I have noticed that there also seems to be quite a bit of motivation for writing fan fiction as a method of coping with depression, exploring personal identity, or discussing issues important to the writer. Slash, for instance, is fan fiction that swaps the sexual preference of the protagonist (or other characters). Changing the gender, race, or sexual preference of the characters can be a way of making them more relatable, exploring a “what if” or even critiquing an author whose work seems too simplistic or lacks diverse voices. ngm 1/20/16
But the next question that follows is inevitably: How does the original author feel about what you are doing to his/her characters? And the answer to that question seems to depend on the specific author.
Until a couple of years ago, I basically felt that fan fiction was garbage. Despite all my anti-elitism views on literature, fan fiction felt like a lazy way to write. You have no ideas of your own so you steal another writer’s characters?
However, since the advent of the internet, several prominent voices have come to fan fiction’s defense.
Younger authors like Meg Cabot and Cassandra Clare have come out in favor of fan fiction because they themselves stretched their legs in fan fiction before becoming published writers with original stories.
The most infamous fan fiction writer turned author is probably E.L. James whose wildly successful 50 Shades of Grey series started out as Twilight fan fiction.
Other famous authors who have written fan fiction include John Scalzi, Neil Gaiman, and Orson Scott Card. Even some writers who have never written fan fiction such as J.K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett have come out and said they they do not take issue with fans using their characters in fictional works as long as they are not profiting, but a number of authors do mind. These authors are known to ask fan fiction sites to take down stories based on their work and these websites generally must comply to avoid any sort of trademark or intellectual property charges.
So…is it okay to write fan fiction or not?
While more literary traditionalists still consider it one of the lowest forms of fiction writing, others see it as more of an educational exercise that helps writers hone their craft before writing more original works.
Fan fiction as an exercise seems, at worst, harmless and at best, beneficial for young writers. For instance, if you’ve got a 13 year old who adores Star Wars and wants to write stories in that universe or about those characters—why not? It will get them excited about writing and help them practice crafting a story.
For personal enrichment or enjoyment, fan fiction is never really a problem. The issues begin to arise only when you start to publishing that writing.
Unless you are writing a story based on a work that is in the public domain, fan fiction cannot be published and sold for a profit. It can be posted on websites designated for this type of story, but even posting on a personal site can get sketchy if you gain popularity from those stories or the author takes issue with you using their characters.
The bottom line is that the characters are the intellectual property of the creator. If you are just writing for fun there’s really no harm, but if you publish (and yes posting on your blog or on Facebook is a form of publishing) your stories online—you may run into some problems which you should be prepared to face.
A point that I didn’t really get into is that some believe fan fiction could hold you back from becoming a good writer. If you’re afraid to write a story of your own and to come up with your own ideas, then perhaps this critique holds some weight.
I’ve never personally written fanfic. Until recently I didn’t see the appeal. Then, out of nowhere, an amazing story occurred to me. Unfortunately, the story requires an existing literary universe in order to work. Will I write that story? I don’t know. Maybe I will just for fun. Or maybe I’ll write the author and beg them to write it. But either way, I now “get it.”
I just wanted to add that there is A LOT of interesting discussion going on about fanfic these days and one of the most prominent voices is Rainbow Rowell who not only broke down fanfic stereotypes with her novel Fangirl but also seems to have written fan fiction herself and arguably turned it into an original novel (Carry On). I’ve read some really interesting articles discussing Carry On, but here is an interview with Rainbow about fanfic that appeared in Time. ngm 1/19/15