Thoughts on FanFiction

I don’t write fanfic, and I generally don’t read it, either.  Neither of these statements should be taken as a judgment on fanfiction.  My reading stack is simply too overwhelming already, and as for my writing … well, I’ve got to stick with what helps pay the bills.  But I’m constantly fascinated by the discussion and debates over fanfiction.  If I were back in grad. school, I’m sure I’d be writing long-winded papers on the stuff.

On the side of commercial authors, you’ll find everything from vehement condemnation to intellectual analyses of copyright law to commercial authors actively working to embrace “transformative works.”  Likewise, fanfiction authors and communities devote tremendous energy not only to writing the stories, but to discussing and debating them.

I’ve heard people argue that fanfic is crap.  And of course, a lot of it probably is.  Sturgeon’s law, and all that.  Then again, check out the Nebula Preliminary Ballot, specifically the “Scripts” section, where you’ll see World Enough and Time.  It’s a “new” episode of the Original Star Trek, created by fans.  I.e., fanfiction.  Having watched the episode, I can say that it’s good enough for me to understand why it made the ballot.

What truly fascinates me is the love and passion that goes into some of this work.  Me, I’m a commercial hack who writes for money, and I’m okay with that.  I love my goblins, but I can’t say I’m writing purelyfor that love.  Fanfiction by its very nature is unpaid (with a few obnoxious exceptions).  So where’s the reward?  Why write it at all, if not for love of the story and for the interaction and community.

In some ways, I’m jealous.  There are a lot of very strong, very active fanfic communities.  I would love to see that much activity and discussion surrounding my own books.  In my case, however, my publisher officially frowns on fanfic.  Out of respect for the hand that feeds me, I’ve adopted that position myself.  And I have to admit, the few times I’ve seen goblin fanfiction, it’s been … weird.  There’s a gut-level discomfort at seeing other people writing my characters.  Particularly when they do it wrong.  (Where “wrong” = “not how I imagine them.”)

But then I look at the books I’m currently writing.  My next series is based on public domain fairy tales.  I’m completely reinterpreting the characters, but I’m also writing books based on other people’s stories.

I have no answers or conclusions here.  But I love seeing that kind of passion surrounding stories.  It’s a bit like Harry Potter — whether I love or hate Rowling’s work, the idea of so many people getting so excited about a book is a wonderful thing.

What do you think?  Do you read it?  Write it?  Love it or hate it?  For the authors, what was your reaction the first time your characters showed up in fanfic?

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  1. 1. S.C. Butler

    Never read the stuff, so I have no opinion, love/hate wise. Think I’d be more flattered than otherwise to learn anyone was doing it with my world and characters, as long as they didn’t try to make money off it. Once you start posting a profit, in my opinion, it stops being fanfic and turns into plagiarism.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    So far I haven’t noticed anybody writing fanfic of my work, so I have yet to face that particular hurdle of judgment. I *think* I’d be flattered, but stay away from it, precisely for the cognitive hiccup you have — “they’re doing it wrong!” Because man, those characters are pretty firmly implanted in my brain, and nobody else is likely to do them “right” in my subconscious’s opinion.

    I’ve got more thoughts on this matter, but this will turn into the world’s longest blog comment if I get into them all, so I’ll leave it at that.

  3. 3. Stephen

    I can admit that I read fan fiction. Why? Because I want to see how other people interpret the characters. I want to see how other people make these fragments of stories their own. Fanfic is what Cory Doctorow called active reading in action and carried to its ultimate conclusion. Additionally, I am a voracious reader, and there’s only so many times I can reread the many novels I purchase. Fanfic, for good or ill, gives me more material to read. Then there’s the fact that people are writing. If even one or two of these folks go out and become good genre writers because they honed their craft in fanfic, then to me that’s a good thing (kind of like doujinshi in Japan).

  4. 4. Esther

    I did write some fanfic when I was much younger, but it was more role playing my own (and various friends’) characters in an author’s world. It was fun, not spectacular. I think eventually I got to the point where I wanted all my own stuff in a story. My own themes and my own world instead of just my own characters. At that point I never looked back at fanfic. I used to think fanfic was kind of immature, but I don’t think that anymore. It got me into writing, I had my own ideas before the fanfic. It merely gave me the confidence to start using them. I basically agree that it can be good. I am impressed by those who can write it well. It cannot be easy to use someone else’s creation without ruining that creation.

  5. 5. Jim C. Hines

    S: There definitely seems to be a boundary when it comes to making a profit. I don’t know that I’d call that line plagiarism. (I used to regularly bust my students for plagiarizing, and they weren’t making any money on those papers.) But at that point, you’re trying to cash in on someone else’s work, and it becomes a very different beast.

    M: I’ve only seen it a few times with mine, but one thing I noticed was that in each case, these were people who were very enthusiastic fans of my work. In other words, they were precisely the kind of people I wanted to hold on to. Obviously you can’t draw any conclusions from such a tiny sample size, but it was still an interesting observation. And yeah, there was definitely a sense of, “But you’re not doing it right!”

  6. 6. Kelly McCullough

    I find the idea of someone fanficing me to be flattering, and flattered is how I’ve felt when I’ve seen it. For reasons of copyright and intellectual honesty*, I don’t seek it out and I try not to read it when I find it, but I really have no personal objection to it and see it as a tribute. Of course, that’s all fanfic for love. Fanfic for money is an entirely different kettle of fish and one I’d rather not have to come to any decisions on.

    *I don’t want to incorporate what others have written about my worlds and characters into my work either accidentally or on purpose and its very hard to erase something from your brain.

  7. 7. SMD

    Weird, I’m about to read a short story by you in Andromeda Spaceways.

    I used to write fan fiction when I was younger. I don’t anymore. I think on the one hand I really dislike it and on the other it’s great. There’s something flattering when someone interprets your work or comes up with their own stories using your characters. I met a guy on the net who liked something I wrote and started drawing cute little pictures and comic stuff of the characters. That was really cool.
    But I also really hate fan fiction. There’s an overabundance of garbage out there. People write these things in the same fashion as people who can’t sing show up for American Idol, and nobody tells them it’s garbage, when it really is. A lot of times they ruin the characters or write dirty junk about gay relationships that wouldn’t exist in the original source material in the first place (I understand the nature of fantasizing, but I just think it’s ridiculous with literary characters). I think some fanfic people even get this delusion of self-importance from writing work that can’t be published because it’s not commissioned (like a Star Wars book) or it is simply illegal. I don’t know, I can understand the desire to write fan fiction, but I don’t get the whole making it all up bit. If you’re going to write your own story…then create your own characters for it.
    I guess if the writer of a fanfic stays within the ‘rules’ of the world that someone else created it doesn’t bother me…but there’s too much “Harry Potter and Dumbledore are Gay” stories out there…

    To each his own I guess.

  8. 8. Anne Harris

    Fanfic is where I first discovered male/male romance. Believe it or not, Jay and Silent Bob was my gateway fandom. I adore fanfic, particularly slash, though sadly, I don’t have much time for reading it these days. I live for the day my characters get slashed.

    As a professional author, I don’t dare start writing something that I can’t get paid for. It would be a disaster and an indulgence I simply can’t afford, but I too see the communities and the (to borrow a term) wuffie that the good authors get from their readers and find it very appealing indeed.

    Yes, without a doubt there is a lot of bad fanfic out there. There’s always a lot of bad anything. There are also fanfic writers who are just as good as (sometimes better than) published authors. Fanfic is an overwhelmingly female enterprise, and since so much of it deals with squishy girl-stuff (even if it’s guys doing it), I think that makes it even easier to dismiss. I’m thrilled with the advent of the Organization for Transformative Works and applaud Naomi Novik and the others who are spearheading this watershed effort toward the protection and legitimization of fan fiction.

    Cheers,

    Anne

  9. 9. Eliza

    From the ages of fifteen to eighteen, I was writing fanfiction for Harry Potter and, in the interests of weeding out stories that I particularly liked, I started a Harry Potter fanfiction site that only accepted selective works. For over a year, I was the most widely read author on fanfiction.net. I had the most watchers, the most story hits, my website had over a thousand hits every day. Each chapter I wrote had several hundred comments. I wrote three full-length novels in as many years. There were people who wrote fanfiction based on my fanfiction, and people who used my original characters as internet pseudonyms.

    I think the reaction I had to seeing those characters written by someone else was between thrilled at being imitated and slightly ill at what had done to them. However, they credited me, and obviously loved what I had done. What right did I have to complain (me, a fanfiction writer myself)?

    I began working on my own books again at the age of eighteen. I’d written my first fantasy novel at thirteen, but that was the point I discovered that I’d developed a terrible case of writer’s block. I had gotten lazy. I was used to using a fully developed setting, just adding characters and made-up exposition here and there. Beginning my next original fantasy novel, and starting it right, took years to work up to. Was this because of fanfiction? Was I used to seeing my work too-complete to begin something new (because the background had always been filled in for me)? Or perhaps I’d just been blocked over my time at college, and it would have happened anyway. I still had ideas. I’d get forty pages in and destroy my work over and over again.

    There are good points and bad points to fanfiction. From a selling standpoint, I’d say that if you have fans who are so devoted that they put all the effort into the project for other people to read, it should be considered free advertising for the original book. Word of mouth news, what people take away from it. Don’t underestimate the power of online communities.

    From an author’s standpoint? I think that writing fanfiction is better practice than writing nothing at all. But writing your own work, and seriously studying the craft is better.

  10. 10. Karen Wester Newton

    I once heard Lois McMaster Bujold address a similar question in the Q&A after a reading. Someone asked if she would consider licensing her stories, particularly as she doesn’t want to write nearly as many Vor books as her fans want her to write. She said that she shared her living space and even her name, but that the one thing that was hers and hers alone was her work. It was her universe and she didn’t want to share it. As a Bujold fan fan and a spec fic writer, I could empathize with both sides, but have to come down on the side of the author. No point in creating something if you can’t own it.

  11. 11. Jim C. Hines

    Karen — I think a fun argument can be made that once a story is published, it no longer belongs exclusively to the author. However, I also believe that if an author expresses an opinion one way or another about fanfic, then their wishes should be respected.

    Of course, as an author myself, I’m hardly unbiased ;-)

  12. 12. Julie

    I wrote over sixty Buffy, Angel, and Firefly fanfics, spanning the four years from 2003-2006. It was mostly genfic (plot-based, not relationship-based; can’t write romance to save my life, and just forget about sex scenes). It taught me a lot about writing, from keeping characters in-character, to plot and pacing. I daresay that I wouldn’t have learned what I learned as fast had I been writing original fiction–I probably wouldn’t have written as many words, either. They say the first million is practice, and I got a quarter of that writing fanfic.

    Of course, there are shortcuts you take in fanfic that you can’t get away with in original fic. I still suck at description; in fanfic you don’t have to describe characters and settings, and I have to constantly remind myself that other people don’t know what MY characters look like and I have to throw them a bone. White Room Syndrome is a constant bugaboo–and in fact I had a fanfic character wake up in a white room once as a sort of inside joke.

    Is most fanfic crap? You betcha. But I bet most of the stuff in the slush pile is too.

    The main reason I wrote fanfic for so long is that I had ideas for it bouncing around in my head. What if THIS happened? What if THAT happened? I haven’t actually written fanfic for over a year, and I gotta say that the ideas for original fiction are a lot harder to come by–and they’re harder to complete once I get them. In the last year I wrote fanfic, I completed 19 stories; in my first year of writing original fiction, I wrote ten (two of which still need heavy, heavy editing to turn them from crap to not-crap).

    However, the satisfaction index is correspondingly higher as well. And when you sell that first story? Over the moon. :)

  13. 13. Angelle

    I don’t write fanfic, but when I read it, it’s generally for universes that are no longer producing new stories – past eras of Doctor Who, Firefly, etc.

    That said, I don’t generally read book-based fanfic. Part of the problem for me as a reader is that, having encountered those worlds in text the first time, it becomes distractingly obvious that I am not in the capable hands of the original writer. No knock on fanfic writers, but it’s just too different for me to enjoy it.

    Fic based on movies and television, however, has the benefit of not being seen in text previously. And I have read some really great stories that also allow me to spend a little more time with a character who’s no longer around (Chris Eccleston’s 9th Doctor, I am so looking at you!)

  14. 14. Michael

    Personally, I read fanfic for the stories. I’m entirely addicted to stories, and their ability to create worlds. TV shows end, writers move on to other books and series, the creators leave those worlds behind them. But that doesn’t mean those worlds have to end. There may not be any money in them anymore, or the creators may simply have tired of working in them. But if people care about them still, if they’re still invested, then those worlds can continue through fanfic. There are some worlds that we’ll all grow tired of eventually, and we’ll move on, and perhaps those worlds will die. But they’ll remain a part of us for the enjoyment they gave.

  15. 15. Catherine

    I personally love fanfiction. Ever since I got into the Cardcaptor Sakura fandom, I’ve read countless stories exploring countless branches of many fandoms from Sailor Moon to Harry Potter to Avatar. I believe it’s a way to explore one’s writing talent before branching out into their own works. Playing with someone else’s characters and keeping them in character so that both yourself and others will enjoy it is a wonderful exercise prior to one creating their own characters and universe.

  16. 16. Damascus

    Most fanfiction is terrible, as is most fiction in general. The difference is that a great deal more of the terrible fanfiction gets published and read and reviewed because of the nature of the internet and fandom.

    My thoughts on fanfiction are pretty much along the lines of the OTW’s policy (fair use, legitimacy as a medium).

    Several people here seem to view it as “practice writing,” but I really don’t think it’s that. It comes from a different impulse than original work. Related, but different…they overlap. It’s a fannish impulse.

    When you write an original story, it’s because you want a way to express all those worlds you have inside you in a unique way. When you write fanfic, it’s because you are so filled up with someone else’s world that you want to reinterpret it, continue it, fill in its gaps. Or because you think that it would be really hot if Faith hooked up with Spike. Or that Holmes and Watson were *so* lovers, and you want to reappropriate them for a gay audience, make their relationship more real. Or maybe you think it would be really funny if Harry Potter had to fight an enraged Giant Squid.

    On second thought, perhaps it’s more of a spectrum. Homages appear often in original works, and the line between original fiction and fanfiction is very blurry. There are plenty of published fanfics, after all: _Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead_ is my favorite example.

    Has anyone here read “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” by Jonathan Lethem? It’s online. There’s also a book out there, called _Textual Poachers_ Henry Jenkins of MIT, a study of fanfiction that I still need to read…

  17. 17. Jed

    If someone writes fanfic about your fictional world, they love it. Simple as. I’m a fanfic writer (I have WAY too much time on my hands) and wouldn’t touch something I hated, and I don’t know anyone who would. I don’t see why anyone should object to us writing it: we don’t make money out of it, we don’t get anything but the praise of our fellow fan fic fans. We do it for love. I honestly don’t understand any of the people vehemently against it, but then, I don’t want to write fan fiction for most of those people’s work so why should I?

  18. 18. Ruin Takada

    In my persoanl opinion, I love fanfic. Having started on fanfiction.net reading fanfics of D.N. Angel a few years ago, I was soon hooked, finding the ‘yaoi’ (or slash) fics particularly addictive. After a year, I was soon onto a different fandom after learning of the manga/anime Death Note, and before I knew it, I was crossing it over with various other fandoms, including (to date) House, M.D, and House of Night (by P.C and Kristen Cast).

    Does it take up my time? Yes. Have I got better at writing? You betcha. And writing original fics? Well… I’ll get there. Hey, writing fanfiction may be considered easy compared to the effort involved is writing original works, but the practice I’ve received to that endevour is amazing. Even now, I’m thinking up new ideas for fanfics, and introducing people to the site. While there are a few bad points to it, it’s nothing compared to the good friends you meet on this site, and the help you gain, and all without spending a dime.

    For those of you who hate it, you honestly haven’t tried it. While there are bad fics in every fandom, you can filter them out quite easily (clue: read the summary provided, which will tell you more or less the need-to-know on the work, including how many grammatical/spelling mistakes you’ll find every five words). With fanfiction.net, you can choose what you want to read, and writing fics for it yourself couldn’t be simpler once you’ve agreed to the terms and waited at least 48 hours after first signing up.

    While I respect the decisions of any author who is against it, of course, you have to admit that they are missing out: With fanfiction comes free advertising for the original work, and the birth of interpretations and ideas that you never thought could have been spawned from that one story, but did. If the only thing these authors are worried about are the slashing of the characters and other filthiness, then leaving instructions for your fans to follow would be fine.

    Those were some of my thoughts on this, and thank you for reading. If you want to read any of my fics, I’m on http://www.fanfiction.net under the penname Ruin Takada. Thank you!

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Author Information

Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines' latest book is THE SNOW QUEEN'S SHADOW, the fourth of his fantasy adventures that retell the old fairy tales with a Charlie's Angels twist. He's also the author of the humorous GOBLIN QUEST trilogy. Jim's short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Turn the Other Chick, and Sword & Sorceress XXI. Jim lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He's currently hard at work on LIBRIOMANCER, the first book in a new fantasy series. Visit site.

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