Before I wade into this, let me define my terms. “Fan fiction” is fiction that makes unauthorized use of characters and concepts that belong to someone else. The actual quality of the writing, in this context, is immaterial. Fan fiction is stealing.
Some fan fiction is written strictly for the authors, or physically shown to their friends (i.e., hand a stack of paper to someone and say, “read this”). Some is published for no charge, like the many fan sites on the internet. And then there’s the stuff that’s actually published for profit, such as Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife.*
I have two problems with fan fiction. One is that it’s “unauthorized”: the person who did the initial creating has not approved this use of his creation. That’s a moral issue, independent of quality or monetary gain. When you take something that’s not yours, even insubstantial things like characters and settings, it’s stealing.
The other problem is craft-related. Creating a world, its characters, their history and relationships, even details such as clothing and customs, are the heavy lifting of writing. You do all that so that you can then tell your story. To take all these from someone else is cheating; it’s the same as using steroids to break a sports record.
But as with anything that’s black-and-white in principle, in reality there are many shades of gray. Have I written fan-fiction? Yes. The last time was in junior high, when I wrote a Star Trek story that shamelessly ripped off the original series episode, “The Omega Glory.” I also wrote Batman stories that I dreamed would one day be seen by Denny O’Neill; thankfully this never happened, because they were dire (I did eventually work with Mr. O’Neill when I wrote a parody [a whole different animal, legally and artistically] for the nonfiction collection Batman Unauthorized.).
My fan fiction endeavors had two things in common with the vast majority of fan-fic: 1) They were awful, and 2) they were shown only to friends. While I still consider this morally wrong, in practice it seems pretty harmless. It certainly did no damage to the respective franchises.
This was all pre-internet, of course. Now it’s possible that free online fan-fiction might have more readers than the original source. Worse, the fan fiction may travel into areas that the creator never intended and alter the public’s image of the creation for good (i.e., “slash” and blatant pornography).
So what can the creator do?
Ultimately not much; the nature of modern communications makes it impossible to really eliminate fan fiction. And maybe at some level that’s good. After all, the core drive to create fan-fiction comes from the simple fact that the original touched someone. Your characters and situations motivated a total stranger to want to play in your sandbox. That’s not only flattering, it’s profound. It’s what caused legends as different as Olympus and Billy the Kid to become what they are. All those tales were fan fiction.
So to answer the original question, would I be pleased if someone wrote fan fiction based on my characters? Ultimately, no. Yes, I’d be flattered.** But no matter how you dress it up or justify it, no matter how you smudge the black and white into gray, one fact remains undeniable: it’s stealing.
*Exceptions to this include legendary characters such as King Arthur, Robin Hood or Hercules. The difference? These characters have multiple origins and sources with no canonical “creator.” Wicked comes from a single source: L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books. The same with Ahab’s Wife, taken entirely from Melville’s novel. The fact that the original authors are dead and the material is in public domain does not change the moral issues involved, only the legal ones.
**I certainly wouldn’t share Annie Proulx’s vast contempt for the people she touched with Brokeback Mountain.