F is for Fan Fiction
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.)
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?