By request: Fan Fiction

Recently I was asked, “What are your thoughts on fan fiction? If someone wrote fan fiction [based] on your works, would you be pleased or horrified?”

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.

3 Comments on “By request: Fan Fiction”

  1. I wrote a lot of fan fiction in juniour high-that will never ever see the light of day.

    From my perspective it at least got me writing more and considering plots and craft-even if there was no real character or setting devolopment.

  2. Hey, David:

    That's a different issue: what the writer gains from writing fan fiction. Maybe worth its own post.

  3. But isn't the impetus behind fanfic sharing, not stealing? Sharing in the wonder and the fun of the characters? Sharing in the literary universe the author opens up? Ultimately, doesn't fanfic help the author, not hurt the author?

    I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know that when I read Steven Brust's Firefly fanfic (which he wrote because he had to, and then gave it away) I thought it was AWESOME.

    Cory Doctorow has a theory that we all have a sort of 'person simulator' which spins up as an author creates their own universe, and the more excited we are, the more powerful and the more real that person simulator is.

    So it's only natural that readers will haul off and write a story — or even a whole novel — about the characters whose adventures they enjoy. Those "people" have taken up residence in the minds of the audience and will continue to dance and caper without the further intervention of the author.

    And it's likewise natural that authors will get shirty about this from time to time: they have copies of the characters dancing on their own stages, and those copies diverge from the copies in the fanficcers' heads.

    Ultimately, I think that the way Brust handled it was correct. He wrote it out (to get it out of his head) and then he gave it away. When his Firefly novel is canonical or not doesn't matter to me, what matters is that it added to the enthusiasm I have for both Firefly and Brust, and I thought Joss was uber-cool not to get litigious about it.

    On the other hand, there was some great pro vs. con discussion in the comments on Whedonesque about this very issue, and even the Brust fans tempered their enthusiasm with reality:

    As I said, I don't have any answers, however, my sense is that as long as fanfic doesn't try to profit from the author's work, and is clearly not intended to be canonical, I'd probably not try to quash it, having been a fan of many works and characters myself.

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