In (Sorta) Support of Fan Fiction, pt. 3

(Continued from Part 1 and Part 2 – The Good)

The Bad

We all know that feeling (and, no, the Enterprise smells just fine).

I began this examination of fan fiction in response to two online articles I stumbled across on the subject on the same day: one from Time and the other found here at Flavorwire.com.  I felt inclined to throw in a bit of support for fan fiction given that I started out in my youth as a fanfic writer – something I believe has helped me develop into the writer of original fiction that I am today.

In my first two posts, I reminisced about fun times spent writing in fandoms with friends, and also looked more closely at why writing fanfic can be educational for developing writers, yet why one shouldn’t assume that all fanfic writers are developing writers.

My goal for this series of posts, however, in the same vein as both of the aforementioned online articles, is to be balanced.  So, having already covered the good of fan fiction, we now come to the bad.

In the Flavorwire.com article, someone called Fortytwo posted the following remarks in opposition to fan fiction:

I stopped writing fan-fiction because I started to believe it was an infringement of something very personal. A character-author relationship can be very personal and important to the author, and, in some cases, I’d say it’s roughly equivalent to someone taking your childhood imaginary friend and putting them in their own situations. Seeing that can actually be hurtful. [I]t requires a great deal of emotional investment in a world and characters to finish something like a novel. [T]the original canon is still something that’s often fiercely personal to the author. It’s art, an expression of its writer[.]

This is perhaps the most cogent argument against fanfic I’ve ever encountered – much more so than talk of plagiarism and copyright infringement, which would technically only be occurring if a fanfic writer a) tried to pass the copyrighted characters/settings/situations off as his/her own, and/or b) tried to make money off of his/her use of the copyrighted elements.

While theoretically possible, such an occurrence seems extremely unlikely.  This is due to both the extreme ease in which money changing hands (not to mention advertised goods for sale) can be tracked in the modern computer age, and to the code of honour that seems to underlie fanfic communities in which writing is only for fun and never for profit.

But people’s feelings are not so easy to dismiss, particularly those of a work’s originating author.

Bestselling fantasy author Jacqueline Carey, when asked how much of her own self can be found in her often rather unconventional characters, typically replies, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Just enough”.

It seems to be a fairly accepted notion within the artistic world, though, that all forms of creative expression arise from personal experience.  And whether these experiences are hurtful ones (emotional pain does tend to favour creative expression, and vice versa) or joyful ones, the key word here is that they are personal experiences.  Fans of a copyrighted creative work generally never know the full extent to which the past has fed into an artist’s output, or how the artist feels about that past in the present.

For some authors, the act of bring forth their work may have involved a lot of soul-searching and reliving and struggling to make sense of it all even still that fans never see.  For other authors, their work just involved a lot of manual labour – months and years spend slogging away on a project and making sacrifices for it – and they don’t want that effort trivialized.

In the Flavorwire.com article, Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin states, “My characters are my children[.]”  For some authors, bringing forth something so personal may indeed be as profound and life-changing as giving birth, and to see their creations so readily employed to someone else’s means and ends with so little care for how they came to be, extremely painful.

The existence of the internet certainly doesn’t help those authors who’d rather keep the proliferation of fan fiction based on their source material to a minimum.  There was no internet back when I was writing fanfic, so my stories were shared by way of either notes passed in school hallways or passing over my sole handwritten draft, and were shared only with close friends.

Today, with the internet, it’s possible to share one’s fan fiction with the world.

Two popular fan fiction sites, FanFiction.net and Archive of Our Own, together contain more than 2.3 million stories.  The Harry Potter section of FanFiction.net now contains 591,254 stories (compared to 526,085 at the time of the Time article’s publishing in July of 2011), and as of April 22, 2012, according to Wikipedia, FanFiction.net’s top 20 fandoms contained nearly 1.4 million stories (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FanFiction.Net#Most_Popular_Sections).

That equates to a whole lot of sharing of stories about someone else’s characters/settings/situations.  And while our mothers probably taught us all how important it is to learn to share, that’s not to say what’s being shared is necessarily a good thing.

Because, quite frankly, fan fiction is notorious for being badly-written.

Mine certainly was, but thankfully, through study of writing craft and determination to improve, I became a better writer.

But for those who aren’t writing fan fiction as a form of writing practice – those for whom it’s simply a hobby done for its own sake – there may never be any improvement in their storytelling abilities, for there’s no incentive for them to put in the effort to do so.  Even those who are writing fanfic to develop their skills may be bad writers at first.

This may be hugely offensive to the artistic sensibilities of source material authors, this idea that not only are people “making off with their children”, not only is it plastered all over the internet for all the world to see, but the resulting stories are often poorly conceived, poorly structured, and very poorly written.  It may be very embarrassing for the source material authors.  We all know the feeling of being discomfited by something we ourselves didn’t do – that cringe-worthy, stomach-churning sense of mortification on someone else’s behalf.

Now imagine experiencing that feeling half-a-million times.

Now imagine that 91,254 is still too generous a number of well-written Harry Potter fanfics.

You might eventually come to dislike fan fiction too.

To be continued….

——————–

That was a brief look at some of the bad aspects of fan fiction, but those of you who recognize the pattern I’m following to subtitle these posts (i.e. The Good, The Bad…) know that it’s about to get ugly.  Please, stick with me.  But in the meantime, I am curious: can folks out there relate to this idea of character-creation being a highly personal thing that draws from sensitive past experiences?  Or are you more like author Charlie Stross, who in the Flavorwire.com articles, states, “I am not a precious sparkly unicorn who is obsessed with the purity of his characters[.]”  A combination of both perspectives?  Consider leaving a comment.

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4 thoughts on “In (Sorta) Support of Fan Fiction, pt. 3

  1. I admit I’ve never looked at fanfiction the way FortyTwo does. It’s interesting to think about, and now that I’ve started writing my own characters, I can see where they might be coming from. Even though I used to write fanfiction myself, I’m not sure I would feel happy if someone were to use my own characters in stories of their own. But since I did write fanfiction, I feel conflicted because it is an enjoyable experience and it has helped me develop as a writer.

    Does it make me sound vain if I say that I’d be worried someone might actually write them better than I do? xD

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    • Hi Zen, thanks for your comment. The one thing I believe about fan fiction writers above all else is that their works come from a place of great love for the source material and its characters. In that way, I don’t think I’d be unhappy if people used my characters for their own stories, whether they did so for learning or just for fun, for that would mean my work had touched them in some way. That being said, I don’t know that I would necessary read the stories written with my characters, for I too can see where Fortytwo is coming from, and I wouldn’t want to expose myself to the potential to be hurt, especially with stories based on characters/situations that did come from a sensitive place for me.
      I don’t think it’s possible for someone else to write an author’s characters better than the original author. They may be able to create an enjoyable interpretation of them, but no one other than the original author can ever know who the characters really are and what they were meant to be, and so, at best, a fan-written story is but a fiction of a truer fiction. So, not to worry on that point. 🙂

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      • Fair enough. xD I would love a fandom or a character too much and I’d end up writing fanfics as a way to not let them go. And you propose a good solution; allow writers to use your characters but never venture near their stories.
        Perhaps. But wouldn’t you feel upset if someone actually managed to portray your characters in a way better than yours? I’ve come across similar cases when reading fanfiction, and on those occasions I felt that the books might’ve been better written by the fanfic writers.

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      • I definitely agree with you about not wanting to let great characters go. As I mentioned in part 2 of these series of posts, though I haven’t written fanfic since I was a child, I still carry a lot of my favourite characters around in my head and dream up new situations with them fairly regularly.

        I get what you’re saying regarding fanfic writers writing an original author’s characters better, but I still don’t think it’s technically possible. Without knowing what the original author was intending for his/her characters, it’s difficult to quantifiable deem someone else’s interpretation of them “better”. I’m getting philosophical here, I know, but one can’t really blame an author for not doing a particular thing with his/her characters if s/he never envisioned them quite that way to begin with. It may well have been a conscious choice to not have them do those things or be that way, not a lack of inspiration.

        Song remakes are a good example of this: the Pet Shop Boys did a great techno-pop cover of “You Are Always on My Mind”. Some might argue it’s “better” than the original country version, but the song was never envisioned as techno-pop when it was written, so it’s not really a fair comparison. This is, of course, an extreme example using two wildly different styles of music; a better comparison might be made between Elvis’s version and Willie Nelson’s, which are both country. In which case, even if one considered Willie to have a nicer-sounding voice or be a more emotional singer than Elvis (or vice versa), the person doing the remaking (the fanfic writer, in our discussion) nonetheless owes the original artist/author a debt of gratitude for laying the groundwork and giving them something to build upon.

        If that original author were me, rather than be upset, I’d like to think I’d praise the fact that I’d inspired someone else to greatness, and wouldn’t feel the greatness of my own original work had been diminished at all in the process.

        Interesting things to think about. 🙂

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