Fan fiction. It’s been on my mind a lot lately. It’s been on a lot of people’s minds. I just got the October issue of Writer’s Digest and there’s an entire article in there about fan fiction, what it is, who writes it, and if it’s worth anything. I have a lot of opinions on that last one there. Apparently my good friend and fellow writer Samantha Warren does too since she posted about originality in writing just yesterday as I was writing this post. As Sam states, there are no original ideas.
Enter fan fiction.
Of course “fanfic” has been in the news and in people’s thoughts so much this summer because of Fifty Shades of Grey. Fifty Shades is self-confessed Twlight fanfic, recycled and cleaned up into something that has nothing to do with vampires. I’ve heard a lot of criticism about E.L. James writing this way. A lot of writers have balked at the idea that someone is making millions off of something that blatantly has its origins in someone else’s work.
Let me be honest right from the start. I don’t really have room to talk when it comes to criticizing E.L. James. An Amazon reviewer scathingly accused my debut novel, The Loyal Heart, of being Robin Hood fan fic. I would be lying if I denied it wholesale. The Robin Hood legend was a strong inspiration for my novel. I take issue with that reviewer saying I ripped off a specific BBC tv version of the legend in its entirety, because I didn’t. But I did glean inspiration from a lot of other things, movies, stories, actors, and history. Because like Samantha Warren says, there are no original ideas.
So when I read the Writer’s Digest article about fanfic I had to smile a lot. Why? Because the author of that article, in a respectable writing publication, I might add, supports the entire concept of fan fiction. And so do I. I also thought it was incredibly interesting that she pointed out that the very first fan fiction piece ever was Virgil’s Aeneid, which took a minor character from Homer’s work and made him into the hero of his own story. Awesome! Those of us who have been known to dabble in fan fiction are in the presence of greatness.
I actually posted about this sometime last year. I think I mentioned then that the concept of fan fiction has been around for a while. In the early 20th century there were thriving fan fiction communities, some of which contained writers who were famous in their own right, like L.M. Montgomery, who wrote Sherlock Holmes fanfic and Oz fanfic. The Writer’s Digest article also points out that a lot of Shakespeare’s work could be considered fan fiction as he more or less rewrote the work of writers who pre-dated him.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 19th century that originality in art of any kind was championed at all. Up until then the greatest writers were those who could rewrite old stories the most eloquently while staying true to the original work. Think I’m the only one to rework the Robin Hood legend? Have you looked at the bulk of late medieval and early renaissance literature? It’s all Robin Hood and King Arthur recycled in every way imaginable. Because that was what people wanted to read. Originality was seen as hubris.
Okay, but now we’re in the 21st century and originality is where it’s at. Or is it? How many copies have the Fifty Shades books sold at this point? How many hits to fanfic sites like fanfiction.net get on a daily basis? People read fan fiction because the like to see the same characters over and over. They don’t like originality as much as we want to think they do. That’s why every successful movie franchise ever has a slew of sequels. I’m still surprised we haven’t seen Titanic 2. But they did re-release it, didn’t they.
Here’s the catch. I don’t have a problem with fan fiction. I agree with the Writer’s Digest article that describes it as a fantastic way to practice working with pre-defined characters and worlds to learn consistency and plotting in a way that stays true to the original material. Fan fiction is training wheels, it’s like practicing scales on the piano. But should it be published? Actually, I don’t think it should. Shared, yes. Published, not so much.
Okay, is that hypocritical of me to say considering accusations about The Loyal Heart? I really don’t think so. Because my intent was not to copy but to riff on an ancient legend. Well, that and to tell the story with the true history of the time period, which most people don’t know and wouldn’t believe if you told them (King Richard was a murderous jerk who hated England and didn’t speak English and Prince John was legally responsible for administrating half of the country and did a good job of it too). And in spite of criticism I adamantly believe that my characters are my own.
What about E.L. James? Does she believe that her characters are her own? Was she trying to create something new using familiar themes or was she attempting to exploit prefabricated characters to placate the public’s thirst for more of the familiar and to make a profit? I honestly don’t know. And I’m not interested in making that judgment. I’m also not interested in reading her books because frankly, BDSM skeeves me out a bit (says the Romance writer).
I will stand behind fan fiction though. In my days of writing I have written fan fiction of Indiana Jones, Wuthering Heights, Star Trek, Labyrinth, Days of Our Lives, Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman, The Wheel of Time, and most recently Harry Potter. I’ve got two different Harry Potter fanfics, actually, one that follows George Weasley after the fact and one that follows Draco Malfoy (as he leaves the wizarding world in shame and tries to live life as a Muggle). Would I ever think of publishing any of it? Not on your life! Would I let you read it if you asked? Maybe if you asked nicely. None of it is finished anyhow. Do I have fun with it? You bet I do! Has it helped the rest of my writing? Yes it has.
So wherever you fall in the fanfic debate, just remember that it’s been going on almost as long as there has been writing. In fact, I would venture to say that the first people to ever write down a story were not writing their own creation but their version of someone else’s story. Yes, fan fiction is our heritage. Embrace it. But profit from it? Exploit it? Never.
That being said, where do we draw the line? What falls on the side of “there are no original ideas” and what is copyright infringement? What do you think?