F is for Fanfiction

F is for fan fiction (or fanfic, if you feel like abbreviating.)



Fan fiction is fiction written about characters (or, sometimes, settings) that were created by another author in a work that was previously published. In one very famous example, the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James began as fan fiction written about the characters in the young adult novel Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. As an alternative to having roots in novels, fan fiction can be based on television shows, movies, or other creative works.

By definition, fan fiction is a derivative work under the copyright laws of the United States. The legality of fanfic is hotly debated (sometimes in court, in multi-million dollar lawsuits. Some fan authors argue their work is “fair use” and therefore not a copyright infringement. “Fair use” is a tricky area of copyright law; each case must be examined based on its individual facts, weighing a number of factors including whether the alleged infringement destroys the market for the original work and whether the alleged infringer receives money for his/her work.

Many authors start their careers writing fanfic, either as a matter of childhood storytelling or by intentionally joining a fan fiction community. Others enjoy forays into fan fiction throughout their writing careers, long after they’ve published independent works. (Full disclosure: My first attempt at a full-length novel was fan fiction based on The Lord of the Rings, written with my then-best friend when I was in seventh grade. My friend and I never finished our sequel to Tolkien’s trilogy, and we never published our work for free or for profit. I have not written fanfic since that juvenilia withered on the writing vine.)

Authors’ motivations for writing fan fiction vary greatly. Some write solely as a tribute to authors whose work they enjoy. Others write to continue stories abandoned by authors who have moved on to other work. Some fanfic authors want to explore character motivations beyond “canon”, beyond the parameters of the original work. That exploration often includes sexual encounters between characters who do not have a sexual relationship in canon.

Many authors write fanfic because they enjoy the community built around that writing. Many active Internet forums allow authors to exchange and critique fanfic. Some exchanges are structured to allow people to request stories written about specific characters, often providing precise “prompts” to fanfic writers about plot points, other fandoms, specific actions to include in the fanfic, and levels of sex or violence such as those defined by movie ratings (e.g., “I’d like to see Harry Potter encounter the Agents of Shield in a Christmas Story set in Bali, with at least an R level of violence and at least PG level of sex; please include at least one scene involving sex between Hermione and Daisy.”)

Authors’ reactions to fanfic vary widely.

At one extreme, some authors embrace their communities of fan writers, encouraging alternative fictions written in their universes. In fact, some authors have created entire worlds specifically for fan writers to play in.  Stephanie Draven ran the Firan MUX (Multi-User Experience) for over fifteen years, inviting writers to create characters within the parameters of her Greco-Roman-inspired world. Orson Scott Card ran a similar forum in Hatrack River, an online role-playing game where users created characters in a frontier community based on Card’s Alvin Maker series.

At the other extreme, some authors flatly forbid any fan fiction. They consider all use of their characters or settings to be violations of copyright law, and they sue in federal court to protect their rights. These authors often explain that they are required by US law to police their copyrights rigorously; if they choose to overlook one fan fiction as “good, clean fun”, they might be precluded from prosecuting other fan fiction that is sold for profit or that portrays their characters in unsavory fashion.

Authors who forbid fanfic sometimes state their fear that they might be precluded from writing a specific story in their own universe if a fan has already written a story involving similar themes, characters, or plot points.  (Marion Zimmer Bradley is most frequently cited as an author kept from writing her own work after fanfic exploited a specific story, but the facts of that situation are hotly debated.)

Most authors fall somewhere between the two polls, regarding their acceptance of fanfic. Authors might state that they don’t mind fan fiction based on their work, but they won’t read it (thereby avoiding the problem that allegedly ensnared Bradley.) Other authors say fanfic is fine, so long as the fan authors do not charge for their work. Some authors turn a blind eye to most fanfic but take exception to the sexualization of certain characters (or to specific sexual acts performed by specific characters with other specific characters.)

Bottom line?

Fan fiction might be a great way for an author to exercise writing skills, learning to recreate an established author’s tone and/or using known characters expected to act in specific ways.
But if you intend to publish your work, you’ll need to move beyond fanfic. That “moving beyond” should include at least “filing off the serial numbers”, erasing the specific references to character names, locations, and other details.  Thus, Bella Swan from Twilight became Anastasia Steele, and Edward Cullen became Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey. The special world of sparkling vampires became the elite life of a billionaire.

If you’re already an established author, you should develop a policy about fan fiction. You might publish this policy on your website, or otherwise let potential fan writers know your stance. In any case, having a specific policy will allow you to police your work in a uniform, thoughtful manner.

So? If you’re an author, what is your opinion about fan fiction? Do you write it? Do you allow it to be written about your works? And if you’re a reader, do you regularly read fanfic? What do you find appealing—or not appealing—about fan fiction?




F is for Fanfiction — 8 Comments

  1. I don’t think it’s necessary to move beyond fanfic.

    Transformative fiction is just as much literature as “original fiction”. Just because you get paid for something doesn’t make it “better” or more “real” or more “valid”. A writer is someone who writes and shares stories. It doesn’t matter if that’s fanfic or o-fic or publisher-approved tie-ins. That’s just a minor matter of technical and legal details and differences.

    As a reader I often prefer fanfic to o-fic. I have found fanfic frequently more daring and more “original” — in the sense of more experimentative, more stylistically rewarding — than professionally published genre fiction. Fanfic also isn’t as riddled with clichés and stereotypes and offers much better representation than many mainstream genre novels. (Sadly, mainstream media latches onto rather poor examples of transformative fiction as a rule, so even well-meaning outsiders usually end up with a rather skewed impression of transformative literature.)

    As a professional translator and editor I’m often shocked at the internalized misogyny that is still common and completely normalized in mainstream romance. I can’t remember encountering something like that in fanfiction, for example.

    As a writer and artist myself, I support transformative art and fiction and the framework of the Creative Commons movement wholeheartedly. Copyright is neither physical nor divine nor moral law. It was merely an economic solution for the problem of protecting the livelihood of artists and writers. It was never meant to be extended ad infinitum or to curb the creativity of other generations. More important, our obsession with “originality” is a comparatively new (and culturally unrealistic) phenomenon. In previous centuries that was not even an ideal to aspire to! Therefore I see absolutely no reason for an author not to support non-commercial fanworks.

    But beyond literary aspects, fandom and fanfiction form a socially and culturally vital safe space for women and minorities to find their voices and to explore their passions. (Latest fandom demographics show percentages of 29% heterosexual participantes, and 80% female, 4% male, and 16% gender non-conforming participants; source: centrumlumina survey 2013, http://fanlore.org/wiki/Fandom_Statistics )

    This safe space of fandom and fanfiction is especially important in the context of erotic fiction. In society and the media, women’s sexual fantasies are at best ridiculed as “mommy porn” or fobbed off with mediocre, unhealthy narratives such as 50SoG, but more often simply censured and oppressed, and at worst abused and exploited. The expression of queer sexuality is frequently treated worse. It gets ignored, fetishized, pathologized, violated. Literary representation is already hard to find. Sexy stories even more so.

    The technical details concerning fanfiction (fanfiction vs. copyright or “real” authors vs. fanfic writers) are really the least interesting aspects of transformative fiction. What is fascinating is how within just a few decades fanfiction could evolve into such a subversive, diverse, culturally rich literary landscape in its own right.

  2. I’m with Stephanie. I don’t think original fiction “moves beyond” fan fiction anymore than say Ariosto moved beyond the Arthurian, or Spenser moved beyond Ariosto. Fiction is a literary conversation reflecting our ever-changing culture, whatever side of the copyright laws it falls on.

    • As (almost) every Italian with a high-school education, I spent four years of my life reading fan fiction at school. One year on the Aeneid (Vergil’s fanfic of the Iliad – hardcore kids read it directly in Latin) and three years reading the Divine Comedy, a Real Person fantasy fanfic with Self-insert.

      Speaking of fandom, Plato’s debate among Athens’ top thinkers on the precise nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus (who’s the “lover” and who the “beloved” – that it was a sexual relationship was taken as self-evident) could be transferred more or less verbatim into tumblr with an appropriate selection of images.

      If you think that’s all old stuff, I suggest you try “Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys and “Kassandra” by Christa Wolf. Fanfiction has been with us as long as fiction has been – and that’s a very, very good thing.

      • I’ve known about “Wide Sargasso Sea” for a very long time, but not the second one! Must check that out. Thank you.

        And yes and amen about Homer, etc. And think of a thousand years of Arthuriana!

  3. I got my start in fanfic. I was in a huge fanfic circle set in the Star Trek universe for years and years. It let me play with characters and plot without worrying about world building and setting. After I started making pro sales, I dropped the fanfic for lack of time, but it was still fun when I stopped.

    Writing, to me, is like any art. It can be a hobby or a profession, and either way is fine. Just like cooking. I love cooking and I’m very, very good at it. More than one person has told me I should be a chef. But I don’t wanna be a chef. I cook for my own enjoyment. Some days it’s the most fun I can have to head into the kitchen and try something new and complicated to see what happens. If I had to do it every day? That wouldn’t be fun. That would be work. I cook cool stuff when I want to, and only when I want to. On days when I’m tired or cranky or feeling uncreative, I make a sandwich. No pressure. As a pro writer, I don’t have that luxury.

    I’ve read a lot of fanfic by people who could clearly go pro, and I’ve occasionally lamented the loss to literature that they don’t, but in the end, I’m sure writing to them is like cooking to me–something that’s fun to enjoy when it’s a hobby but a chore to endure when it’s a career. I’m a great hobby chef and would be a terrible professional one. Lots of fanfic writers are great hobby writers and would be terrible professional ones. And that’s splendid.

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  5. I’ve published both as a fan-fiction author and professionally, and I’m currently working to break into the pro markets for genre fiction, so I can see this from several angles. (By some odd coincidence, I just blogged on this subject too, a few days ago.)

    I think the bottom line is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with fan-fiction as a literary form, there’s a lot to recommend it, and it’s certainly not going away any time soon. I find that Mindy’s position is sound. Pro authors need to engage with fan fiction, at least to the extent of deciding what use they will permit of their own work. Those of us who have ambitions as pro authors need to weigh the utility of fan fiction as a creative outlet or an opportunity to practice our craft. This isn’t one of those cases where there’s a single response to be made that’s clearly correct for everyone.

  6. Stephanie has said it better than I ever could. But one thing I would like to point out is that fanfic, in my experience, is only occasionally about homage. When I write and read fanfic it is about disappointment. I am disappointed with the way a premise failed to explore its implications. I am disappointed with the unrelenting male and heterosexual focus of media, and want to foreground the relationships between women. But it is also an act of love. There is something in the original media that speaks to me enough for me to care when it falls short of my expectations.

    A lot of fanfic is not very good, but that’s great, because it’s a place where young writers can participate, practice, get their million words in, with people who support them. I can look back on my own fanfiction and see my development as a writer, and know that there are people who enjoyed and appreciated my work, and encouraged me to write pro-fic.

    I have written work that spoke to people, made them cry, made them think about the world as it is, made them shout at me. It did not have to go through a gatekeeper, and it found its audience. It built an audience. I knew that I had made it as an author–I had influenced enough people, convinced them that what I saw was worth reading, when people wrote fanfiction of my fanfiction.

    So for me the idea of ‘posting a policy on fanfiction’ when you start out as a pro-fic writer is one of unremitting arrogance. It’s saying, I know that my work is so special and so important, that the world is going to cry out in love and intellectual engagement with it. Knowing whether you’re going to read it or not is important. And I think, especially, if you’re writing a series or something else where you need to maintain your understanding of the character, it’s important to limit your contact with other people’s interpretations of the characters. And that can be seen in fanfic, fanart, meta, or even fanmail. It takes strength of character to tell the story that you think should be told, even when fan pressure is trying to move you in another direction. And that’s something I’ve experienced as a fanfic author.

    And here is the other thing I learned by being a fanfic author– Take Chances. Fandom wants their relationships, they want the familiar, they want friendly tropes and happy fluffy stories. But they respond to daring. People love a good fluffy soulmate fic, they love their favorite couples getting together, but taking the work seriously, dealing with questions of society and class and prejudice, making them hurt, that’s what got people to talk about the fic, pass it around, recommend it. And that’s something that pro-fic authors should remember too. The realm of fanfic isn’t any worse or any better than the realm of pro-fic. It’s just open. It has its literary greats and its shlocky romance. It has marketing tricks, and it has its own fandom, which, for better or for worse, is intimately integrated with the work itself. It has fewer editors, and fewer hacks. And it has what all the agents and editors seem to be looking for– it has that new thing. The one you never expected, but once you saw it, it was exactly what you were looking for.