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What FanFiction Reveals About the Nature of “Story.”


Authors understandably have mixed feelings about fan fiction. For example, in How authors feel about fan fiction, George R.R. Martin is quoted as saying, “Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out.” Martin is joined by others like Anne Rice, Orson Scott Card, and Ursula K. LeGuin as opposing fan fiction involving their characters and stories. On the other hand are novelists like J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, and Charlie Stross who are a bit more tolerant.

Meanwhile, the popularity of fan fiction has exploded, with some even calling it the future of publishing. And with this explosion comes increased debate about the stories one creates and the degree to which an author actually owns them.

Stephen King famously described writing in terms of archaeological excavation. In his memoir on the craft King writes,

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

It’s a unique way to look at it. The suggestion is that stories somehow exist independent of their authors. Or perhaps they exist uniquely “inside” their authors, part of our “collective unconscious,” like some weird offspring seeking to be birthed into the world. But IF stories exist independent of their authors, then shouldn’t they be held loosely? And really that’s what I find most interesting about this debate — what fanfic tells us about the nature of story.

In The Power of Fanworks In Sci Fi, Fantasy Is Now Undeniable Inverse estimates that “There are over 22,000 fandoms represented with fan fiction.” Quoting Tea Fougner, a fanwork creator and co-editor of RAW: A Hannibal/Will Fanthology,

“When you deeply identify with a character or a narrative, exploring it is second nature I think we often forget this today in the world of corporate IP, but for millennia, stories were a collaboration across generations: oral tradition and the scarcity of literacy or written texts meant that sharing stories by necessity meant retelling them to a degree, and building on top of the creative work of those who came before, whether it was embellishing their stories, or creating more stories about the same characters, or commenting critically on the original work by creating new stories, were all extremely common activities. It’s how we get things like the Argonautica, or Paradise Lost, or many of Shakespeare’s plays.”

Sadly, the article veers into to the popularity of fanfiction as an ability to insert “queer characters” and minority characters into existing story worlds.

“I think that fandom often points to gaps in what popular media is presenting,” says Fougner. “So much fanwork is created by people and for people who aren’t seeing the kinds of stories they want to read being produced on a larger scale. There’s a great deal of fanwork that is specifically about queer identities, or about characters of color, for example, because fans who want to read about characters like that are feeling let down by pop media.”

This is, frankly, one of the reasons many authors hedge at sharing their characters with other creatives. According to an official statement from her agent, Rowlings desires that Harry Potter fanfic remain PG-rated.

“…she is very flattered by the fact there is such great interest in her Harry Potter series and that people take the time to write their own stories. Her concern would be to make sure that it remains a non-commercial activity to ensure fans are not exploited and it is not being published in the strict sense of traditional print publishing… The books may be getting older, but they are still aimed at young children. If young children were to stumble on Harry Potter in a an X-rated story, that would be a problem.”

An X-rated Harry Potter strikes me more as artistic hijacking than “collaboration.” Nevertheless, this is one of the motivations behind the fanfic craze — to synthesize characters we love with agendas and lifestyles we value. But even more than that, it is the ability to insert ourselves into fictional storyworlds that is so compelling. According to Fougner, this is a reaction to the sting of isolation that mainstream media can create in viewers.

“…fandom is something of a salve for the sting of a mainstream media that doesn’t include us. To see yourself in work you love is to see yourself as a part of the world, and even when mainstream media won’t give us that luxury, fan creators and fanworks do.”

We read and view epic adventures only to return to our mundane lives. Fanfiction empowers us to “collaborate” with the adventurers, to see ourselves in the works we love, to continue the journey in whatever direction we choose. Now, the fanfic writer need never leave Pottermore.

Even if it means damning authorial intent and stripping the characters of autonomy.

Undoubtedly, legalities and copyright issues remain the big issue. On her website, Anne Rice puts it bluntly: “I do not allow fan-fiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan-fiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own characters. It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.” While I totally respect (and probably agree with), Ms. Rice’s sentiments, it’s readers desires to even consider tinkering with an author’s characters that fascinates me.

Shelley may have excavated the Monster, but is it right to think the creature is only hers’? Or Dr. Frankenstein’s?

What we often lose sight of in the debate about fanfiction is what it tells us about the nature of “story.” If King is correct, that stories are “part of an undiscovered pre-existing world,” then how much credit can one author really take for “excavating” it? Of course, you could argue that Lestat did not exist until Rice dredged him up. Then again, maybe Lestat, Potter, and Frankenstein’s Monster were always there, existing in some type of Platonic Form, just waiting for some eager, imaginative author to start digging where no one else had broken ground. In that case, even though Harry Potter may have been around long before than J.K. Rowling, at the least we must give her credit for excavating a character that others had left buried.

And that alone should cause fandom to respect both her — and Harry’s — wishes.


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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Kessie September 20, 2016, 2:50 PM

    Fanfic is one of those dodgy topics–because it’s only frowned upon if the author is alive. How many Sherlock Holmes fanfics are there? Naomi Novik wrote Master and Commander fanfic with a dragon air force–but because the Napoleonic time period is history, she turned out to not actually be treading on copyrighted ground with her Temeraire books. On Facebook, somebody mentioned the Jane Austen fanfic writers. And I’ve seen plenty of fanfic writers who revel in Little house on the Prairie and Redwall fanfic.

    My wheelhouse was Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction. Since I was drawing from videogames, I never had that troublesome “author’s voice” to match. Keeping characters in character is a big deal, and Mary Sues are still frowned upon. I just wanted more adventures and conflicts with my favorite characters. The idea of people trying to charge for fanfic horrifies me. The whole fic community knew we were in a legal gray area.

    But yeah, a lot of fanfic is just people acting out their sexual fantasies with their favorite characters. (Stay away from the My Little Pony fanfics.) Like all erotica, it’s cheap, easily-written lowest common denominator stuff. But sometimes people change the names and publish it. Fifty Shades was Twilight fanfic. Mortal Instruments was Harry Potter fanfic with Draco Malfoy as the hero. So yeah.

    • JaredMithrandir September 20, 2016, 7:28 PM

      Jesus is the ultimate Mary Sue, the Author of all Reality inserting Himself into His Story as the Savior who solves everything.

  • Ame September 20, 2016, 5:14 PM

    this is interesting … and honestly, not being an author, i haven’t given it much thought at all.

    … except … that my daughters (ages 16 and 18) LOVE fan fiction. it’s like their fav stories can continue and be explored.

    and … for my 16 year old special needs daughter … she has found something she loves reading … which thrills me to no end b/c reading is not easy for her. (although, i have to admit, i do get tired of hearing her talk about the same characters over and over and over … but as one who loves to read, i’m delighted she has found a way to love reading.)

    anyway … another pov for you authors to perhaps consider 🙂

  • JaredMithrandir September 20, 2016, 7:25 PM

    I am a firm support of Fan Fiction, especially in terms of using it to increase diversity and cross lines the original Author wouldn’t. Fan Fiction is part of how many young women explore their sexuality. I support characters and stories being interpreted outright in conflict with the original author’s intent, that is a natrual part of how mythology developed.

    The Bible does not condemn Homosexuality.

  • Erica September 21, 2016, 2:12 PM

    Hi Mike:

    Great article as always.

    However, I do not think it “sad” to include “minority” characters in any form of media.

    Thank you.

    • Mike Duran September 22, 2016, 5:38 AM

      Erica, you’re right… to an extent. I include minority characters into my stories because it’s reflective of the world I, and my story, lives. I’d also agree that seeing the world through others’ eyes (including different ethnicities, genders, religions, etc.) is intrinsic to being an author. However, I am against the movement which primarily judges stories on the basis of their diversity. That approach inevitably leads to a sort of racial bean-counting where “story” is subsumed by a social agenda. Also, in this article I was more referring to fanfiction swapping the sexuality of someone’s character for one of the author’s choosing. Meaning someone could, theoretically, take one of our characters and make them transexual, homosexual, bisexual, sadomasochistic, polyamorous, etc., etc. I personally dislike that. Lots.

      • JaredMithrandir September 28, 2016, 6:15 AM

        I think Diversity is important, especially Sexual diversity.

    • R.J. Anderson September 22, 2016, 6:23 AM

      Agreed. Part of the joy of fanfic is exploring story from the POV of different (and if necessary, original) characters whose perspectives have been overlooked. I would absolutely read a fic about a wheelchair user trying to navigate Hogwarts, for instance; that would be fascinating and probably say a lot about the things fantasy authors don’t generally consider when building their worlds. (It sounds to me like Hogwarts would be an accessibility nightmare, but Rowling probably assumes that only Muggles would need wheelchairs, or else she didn’t think about it at all.)

      On the whole, it seems to me quite natural that readers who are interested in a certain perspective or approach that’s missing from the original story, whatever that perspective or approach may be, would be interested in writing and reading fanfic that includes that angle. Including queer characters and/or sexual situations is the most blatantly obvious kind of “transformative” writing and the one that tends to get all the press, but it’s far from the only kind. And I’ve read some genuinely brilliant fanfic that was written from a perspective completely different from anything the author would have imagined.

      That being said, I don’t generally read fanfic based on my own books. Not because I’m opposed to the concept or fear that the stories contain morally objectionable content, but because I have such a clear idea of who my characters are and what they would and wouldn’t do/say/think that it’s pretty much impossible for me to suspend my disbelief and enjoy someone else telling me a story about them. But I do think it’s a compliment to the author when people write fanfic based on their worlds and characters — even if it’s not the kind of fanfic the author would prefer.

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