I am not rational on the topic of fan fiction. Well, actually, I can be, and in this essay, I will endeavor to be. But people who know me well also know that this is one topic that can make my eyes spin round like pinwheels and steam come out of my ears. In fact, I would venture to say that knowing this brings them great delight in provoking such a show several times a year when the topic comes up at a convention or in a discussion group.
So, rather than continue to publicly rant, unreeling endlessly my venomous diatribe against fan fiction, I thought I’d gather my bile and spill it all here, in a logical and organized flow. Hereafter, I shall simply refer those who query to the infamous red shoe gripped by the mad woman in the attic.
To start my rant, I will first define exactly what fan fiction is, to me. Others may have a wider or narrower definition, but when I am speaking of the stuff I dislike, this is what I mean. Fan fiction is fiction written by a ‘fan’ or reader, without the consent of the original author, yet using that author’s characters and world.
A few specific notes about this definition.
‘Without the consent of the original author’ This means it doesn’t include someone writing a Darkover story, with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s permission. It does include someone writing a Darkover story without Marion Zimmer Bradley’s permission, even if MZB had allowed others to use her world. It does not include professional authors writing Star Trek or X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer stories. All those stories are written and then published with the consent of the copyright owner. Media tie-in novels are not what I’m talking about here. Those stories are not, by my definition, fan fiction.
Now that I’ve defined it, why do I dislike it so much? What, I am often asked, is the harm in fan fiction? I am told that I should be flattered that readers like my stories enough to want to continue them. Another justification is that writing fan fiction is a good way for people to learn to be writers. A fourth point that is often made is that fan fiction doesn’t attempt to make money off the stories, so it doesn’t really violate anyone’s copyright. And finally, I am usually chastised for trying to suppress people’s creativity, or suppressing free speech.
So let me take each of those points one at a time.
“What is the harm in it?”
I might counter by demanding to know ‘What is the good of it?’ I’ll resist that temptation.
Fan fiction is like any other form of identity theft. It injures the name of the party whose identity is stolen. When it’s financial identity theft, the thief can ruin your credit rating. When it’s creative identity theft, fan fiction can sully your credit with your readers. Anyone who read fan fiction about Harry Potter, for instance, would have an entirely different idea of what those stories are about than if he had simply read J.K. Rowling’s books. In this way, the reader’s impression of the writer’s work and creativity is changed. My name is irrevocably attached to my stories and characters. Writers who post a story at Fanfiction.net or anywhere else and identify it as a Robin Hobb fan fiction or a Farseer fan fiction are claiming my groundwork as their own. That is just not right.
“I should be flattered that readers like my stories enough to want to continue them.”
That’s not flattering. That’s insulting. Every fan fiction I’ve read to date, based on my world or any other writer’s world, had focused on changing the writer’s careful work to suit the foible of the fan writer. Romances are invented, gender identities changed, fetishes indulged and endings are altered. It’s not flattery. To me, it is the fan fiction writer saying, “Look, the original author really screwed up the story, so I’m going to fix it. Here is how it should have gone.” At the extreme low end of the spectrum, fan fiction becomes personal masturbation fantasy in which the fan reader is interacting with the writer’s character. That isn’t healthy for anyone.
At the less extreme end, the fan writer simply changes something in the writer’s world. The tragic ending is re-written, or a dead character is brought back to life, for example. The intent of the author is ignored. A writer puts a great deal of thought into what goes into the story and what doesn’t. If a particular scene doesn’t happen ‘on stage’ before the reader’s eyes, there is probably a reason for it. If something is left nebulous, it is because the author intends for it to be nebulous. To use an analogy, we look at the Mona Lisa and wonder. Each of us draws his own conclusions about her elusive smile. We don’t draw eyebrows on her to make her look surprised, or put a balloon caption over her head. Yet much fan fiction does just that. Fan fiction closes up the space that I have engineered into the story, and the reader is told what he must think rather than being allowed to observe the characters and draw his own conclusions.
When I write, I want to tell my story directly to you. I want you to read it exactly as I wrote it. I labor long and hard to pick the exact words I want to use, and to present my story from the angles I choose. I want it to speak to you as an individual. It’s horribly frustrating to see all that work ignored and undone by someone else ‘fixing’ it. If you don’t like the stories as they stand, I can accept that. But please don’t tinker with them.
The extreme analogy: You send me a photograph of your family reunion, titled ‘The Herkimer’s Get Together’. I think it looks dull. So I Photo-Shop it to put your friends and relations into compromising positions in various stages of undress. Then I post it on the Internet, under the title ‘The Herkimers Get Together’, and add a note that it was sent to me from Pete Herkimer of Missoula, Montana. Suddenly there is your face and name, and the faces of the people you care about, doing things that you would never do. Are you flattered that I thought your photograph was interesting enough to use? Or are you insulted and horrified? Are you alarmed that I so clearly connected work that is not yours to your good name?
“Fan fiction is a good way for people to learn to be writers.”
No. It isn’t. If this is true, then karaoke is the path to become a singer, coloring books produce great artists, and all great chefs have a shelf of cake mixes. Fan fiction is a good way to avoid learning how to be a writer. Fan fiction allows the writer to pretend to be creating a story, while using someone else’s world, characters, and plot. Coloring Barbie’s hair green in a coloring book is not a great act of creativity. Neither is putting lipstick on Ken. Fan fiction does exactly those kinds of things.
The first step to becoming a writer is to have your own idea. Not to take someone else’s idea, put a dent in it, and claim it as your own. You will learn more from writing one story of your own, no matter how bad it is, than the most polished Inuyasha fan fiction that you write. Taking that first wavering step out into the unknown territory of your own imagination is what it is all about. When you can write well enough to carry a friend along, then you’ve really got something. But you aren’t going to get anywhere clinging to the comfort of saying, “If I write a Harry Potter story, everyone will like it because they already like Harry Potter. I don’t have to describe Hogwarts because everyone saw the movie, and I don’t have to tell Harry’s back story because that’s all done for me.”
Fan fiction is to writing what a cake mix is to gourmet cooking. Fan fiction is an Elvis impersonator who thinks he is original. Fan fiction is Paint-By-Number art.
Fan fiction doesn’t attempt to make money off the stories, so it doesn’t really violate anyone’s copyright.
I beg your pardon?
Where did you get the idea that copyright is all about money? Copyright is about the right of the author to control his own creation. That includes making money off it. But it also includes refusing to sell movie rights, or deciding that you’re not really proud of your first novel and you don’t wish to see it republished. It’s about choosing how your work is presented. Under copyright, those rights belong to the creator of the work.
I’ve seen all those little disclaimers on stories at fanfiction.net and elsewhere. Legally and morally, they don’t mean a thing to anyone. “I don’t make any claims to these characters.” “I don’t want to make any money off this story.” That isn’t what it is about, and yes, you are still infringing on copyright even if you make those statements. Yes, the author can still sue you, even if you put up those statements.
If you don’t believe me, please go to http://www.chillingeffects.org/fanfic/faq and read what is there. They are pointing out to you that fan fiction can infringe copyright.
“You’re trying to suppress people’s creativity.”
No. I’m doing the opposite. I’m trying to encourage young writers (or writers of any age) to be truly creative. Elvis impersonators are fun for an occasional night out, but surely you don’t want to spend your life being a Rowling or Hobb or Brooks impersonator, do you? What is wrong with telling your own stories? Put in the work, take the chance, and if you do it right, stand in your own spotlight.
“I have a free speech right to put my fan fiction on the Internet.”
Do I have a free speech right to write pornography and post it under your name? Do I have a free speech right to put a very poor quality product in the public eye, and connect it to a work that belongs to you? Please try to think of this in terms of your own life and career. It doesn’t matter if you are a writer or a plumber or an aerospace engineer. You have the right to receive credit for the work you do. No one should take that credit from you. No one should be able to connect your good name to work you did not create yourself.
You certainly have a free speech write to post your own fiction on the Internet or anywhere else, and I heartily encourage you to do so.
If you’re really tempted to write fan fiction, do this instead.
List all the traits of the book or character that you liked.
List all the parts that you didn’t like.
List the changes you would make to improve the story.
List all changes necessary so that the changes you want don’t contradict the world, culture, morality or plot of the original story.
Change the proper nouns involved.
Change the setting to one of your own.
Write your story. Write the paragraphs that describe the world. Write the ones that introduce the characters. Write the dialogue that moves your plot along. Write down every detail that you want your reader to know.
Then publish it however you like.
Know that if it’s a bad story, it would still be a bad story even if you had kept the original names and settings. But at least what you now have is your bad story, not your bad imitation of someone else’s story. And it years to come, you don’t have to be ashamed of it anymore than I’m ashamed of my early efforts.
I will close this rant with a simple admonition.
Fan fiction is unworthy of you.
Don’t do it.
Postscript: I wish to be absolutely clear that the opinion above is entirely my own. Although I use Harry Potter fan fiction as an example, and reference Marion Zimmer Bradley, the X-Files, etc, I do not speak for those writers or copyright owners, or indeed any other writer, nor do I claim that they share my opinions on fan fiction.