About Me

My photo
Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Borderline Stories: The Grey Zone of Fan Fiction

Hello hello! Time for a thinky bit. It seems particularly relevant for fantasy month, since fantasy is rife with this sort of thing, and trust me. This post has been a long time coming.

It's no secret to my followers and friends that I am less than fond of fan fiction. Sometimes I poke my head into other forums and discussions just to talk about it with people. Its defenders have some strong arguments (and some not-so-strong arguments too). For years (literally, years, not figuratively) I despised it. My first exposure was the infamous fanfic.net, known for some of the absolute worst writing to grace the internet.

What is fan fiction, you ask? 

For those who haven't encountered fan fiction, or 'fanfic' for short, it falls under a couple of definitions. Simply put, it's work written by fans of a pre-existing story or universe. It relys on the canon stories of that universe, but is technically outside canon; the vast majority of it is written without permission by the creators of said works. Books, movies, television series, and comics are just a few of the media used for fan fiction. It's extremely controversial, and in the past, I've made it clear that I'm one of the many people who despise it.

Let me revise my opinion on this: Fanfiction is a legitimate form of expression that deserves a place at the literary table, instead of being sent to the kitchen to eat on its own. It's not going away, and given the history of literature, some of it has actually contributed to the world.

"How!" you demand incredulously. "Why!" scream others. Have I betrayed my cause somehow? Changed my morals? Taken up bath salts?

While your heads spin about this 180 degree shift in opinion, I'd be delighted to explain why it's come about.

Source. No, unlike Regan, I'm not possessed. I promise.  

The prosecution makes its case. 

To be fair, the fan world deserves some of the notoriety and spleen vented upon it. A few examples of the worst come to mind: the infamous 'head canon' fans who insist that their version is better than the author's, and the (mostly teenagers) who write improbable gay 'ships' (imposed relationships) on characters and describe 'M-preg' (male pregnancy) story-lines--and worse, more ridiculous things. Fan fiction is also known, by and large, for poor craftsmanship of prose, cliched and recycled ideas, misunderstanding of characters, general sloppiness of creation, and a lack of proper critiquing and dialogue within the community. 

There's also the simpler issues of confusing newcomer fans, who may not realise they're reading fan fiction at first. Some people have been turned off of series by the fan fic they've resulted in--for instance, my partner had a very poor experience with Harry Potter fic. It can clog up search results when one is looking for information about the original story--this has happened to me, when I was trying to find a particularly vile poem from the Dragonlance original trilogy and spent hours wading through fan-made crap, trying to find the original source material. 

There's also the simple fact that fan fiction rarely stands on its own. Where The Stars, My Destination did not require reading The Count of Monte Cristo first, the majority of fan fic is completely unreadable without prior knowledge of the existing canon. Not unlike the TV Tropes website or other meme bases,       the layers of culture and in-jokes are so deep that newcomers can get completely lost very quickly. And god help you if your interpretation of something differs from someone else's; fan fiction flame wars (internet ego battles, in case you're unfamiliar with the practice of flaming or trolling) are legendary in size and scope.

And yet, I have a deep love for retellings of fairy tales and other stories--truth be told, I've even done both, with a retelling of a few fairy tales and a riff somewhat inspired by Crime and Punishment making their way into my most recent book. So, am I allowed to criticize? Sure, but only with the awareness that a broad and liberal definition of fan fiction kind of includes my own work. 

Before the screaming starts (I assume it has already, of course) let me also present some supporting evidence for the defense of fan fiction. It's had a huge impact on literature as we know it, and even defined some of the greatest ideas of our time. 

Let the defense rise!

For instance, there's the damning fact that the King Arthur mythos had Lancelot added to it after the fact. Or the instances of Wicked and The Stars, My Destination, which are, respectively, re-writes of the Oz saga and The Count of Monte Cristo. Both are utterly superb and provided new perspectives on the existing works, making them both more enjoyable and adding complexity. Or the cases where famed authors--H. P. Lovecraft and recently, Hugh Howey--openly welcome fans to write things within their universes. Other authors, long dead and consigned to public use licenses, often have their works rewritten and retold--consider the many rewrites of Pride and Prejudice, for example. Or the cases where fan advice is used by authors to enhance their stories. The examples go on, and they all fall into a sort of moral grey zone as enthusiasts find ways to add to the canon universes, and the canon universes accept their additions.

Source. "I'LL TAKE THE CASE!" comes to mind immediately...

What's the big deal?

Naturally, there are also many instances of authors who hate fan fiction deeply. Terry Pratchett and Robin Hobb have both been extremely vocal about their refusal to have fan fiction written about their work--much to the chagrin of many fans. In numerous other instances, fans just write it anyway, and the authors are mostly powerless to stop them. For every reverent fan writing a tribute, there are a pocket of others that scream bloody murder when forbidden to write in the universe without permission.

The issue partly stems from copyright issues and the idea of intellectual ownership. While an author nominally owns their work, fans may disagree with decisions, may want more (or MOAR) in a universe that's closed and finished its story-lines  may have wanted different romantic pairings, or may want to see characters play in entirely different circumstances than they originally existed. Parodies and crossovers are another favorite subject. While the characters are technically the authors' and creators' intellectual property, the fans always acknowledge this, and under parody laws, their work technically is entitled to protection. They can't legally make money from it, but sharing and distributing their works for free? It really is a grey zone. E.L. James merely replaced names in her Twilight fan fiction, Master of the Universe, and...well...I think it's fair to say most of you have heard of 50 Shades of Grey. If you haven't, read my blog post here and here about it and save yourselves the trouble of reading it. (Or don't, if you enjoy books that are so awful you have to laugh through them. That works too.)

Fan fiction has made its way into the wider streams of internet culture. A surprising number of people (mostly female, or at least, they're the only ones I've seen admitting to it) like to read erotic versions of stories or just browse for fun rewrites of things they like. Some of these stories are, I suppose, technically competent enough, and some are alleged to be quite good. For myself, every attempt to read fan fiction online, no matter how renowned and liked, has ended in near-concussions from Head-Desk Syndrome, so I'm a pretty poor judge of likeability. Generally, I can see the fan's writing bleeding through and the marks of imitation on the craftsmanship, and I'd be a liar if I said it didn't bother me.

Source. This was one of mine. 

How do we fix it? 

It wouldn't be a SciFiMagpie post if I didn't offer some potential solutions to the issue. If fan fic can pull its collective britches up and show the rest of the world that it deserves attention because it's capable of good things, it can definitely get somewhere. It even deserves that. However, as in the famous AA line, the first step is admitting that there is a problem. The problem is that lots of it is irredeemable sewage.

It's not that people never write a bad story. My partner Disarcade and my friends will attest that there are times I've literally yelled, "HOW DID YOU WRITE THIS CRAP, PAST ME?" at my computer. Some of this yelling (and giggling) made its way onto Twitter. Not everything we write will be perfect the first time. Some it will just be unpublishable.

To help with this, many authors claim to use fan fic for practice. I haven't done it, but it makes sense----because it gives them a storyline with pre-made characters and the opportunity to develop their own, while they slowly practice descriptions of a known world. Personally, I find it sloppy, but I can't deny the impact of inspiration and the desire to play in a sandbox. At some points, the line between 'inspiration' and 'fan fiction' gets uncomfortably thin. Metro 2033 inspired parts of The Underlighters, to point the gun at my own work, and Neil Gaiman has had a huge impact on my writing. Pretending otherwise, and the idea that 'non fan fiction' stories exist in a magical vacuum, is simply codswallop at best and an outright lie at worst.

However, the self-affirming attitude and reluctance to criticize that plague both the indie writing community and the fan fic community are hurting the market at large. Screaming tantrums and reluctance to be criticized are two of the infamous traits of both markets; add poor technique, and you have the reason that it's just about impossible to simply browse through Amazon's Kindle market these days. People take the lessons learned in the fan fic community and from excessively uncritical supporters and end up plagued with a mix of insecurity and overblown egotism. One can sail a ship on the waves of crap churned into the marketplace. And fan fic, whether its community acknowledges that or not, plays into part of the problem.

"But not everyone who writes fanfic wants to be an author or a professional," protested my friends. "People write for different reasons!"

To that I say: tough cookies. Even if it's free, you published it. That gives the rest of us, your readers and consumers, the right to critique and judge it on its merits, regardless of your feelings. I know people rely on fan fiction and the communities for support and self-gratification--and I really don't care. All creative work and creative communities have those elements. (If they don't, get out!) It doesn't mean that one's work is above criticism. I certainly don't expect everyone to like everything I have written--in fact, I am rather stunned and mildly uncomfortable when I don't see negative opinions. It makes me suspicious and vaguely worried. Much as I do sit there and read through my five star reviews to buoy my ego on a bad day, I rely on criticism to improve myself--as must all writers and artists. Anyone in doubt of the vital need for critique should go examine Deviant Art, another website infamous for the mix of competent and awful art on its thousands of pages.

So, fan fiction has a place, but it needs to work to earn that place.

Your move, fanfic community. Show us what you've really got. Brush off that grammar and spelling checker, maybe pick up a style guide on your way in, and impress us. Don't just rehash things--reinterpret your worlds and share that love with the rest of us.

We--I--will be waiting.

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the good kind of crazy. Find me on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr. Watch out for my fantasy-themed spring: interviews with fantasy authors, content related to fantasy films and reviews, and some political commentary--the phuquerie you've come to expect from me. Keep checking back to see those surprise posts, too. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out! 


  1. Some great thoughts in your blog post. Thanks for mentioning it at my blog. As for Bonelli, you can find his work here: zacharybonelli.com - and his first few stories are free on Smashwords. In the back matter he talks about the origin of the series - on a fantasy fan board.

    So it's not derivative of a particular work, but an original take on various themes found in fiction. Episode 3, for example, takes the Hunger Games motif and puts a different spin on it. Interesting, fairly well written, not my particular style, but not bad and maybe worth a look-see if interested.

    Keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks! I try! I like to entertain and try to provoke some thoughts. I am really glad you liked it! I feel peculiarly strongly about fan fiction and I think it's one of those seldom-mentioned but important points in the whole big-name/indie publishing conundrum.

  2. Even though I agree with much of this (as I usually do with your posts), I've never had a problem with fan fiction. In fact, I think about it so rarely that I often forget fan fiction even exists. Generally I feel that, whatever an author decides to write, that's their business.

    Fanfic is never something I'd want to do myself. With fanfic, you can take someone's story and offer an interesting new twist on it (as long as you do a good job), but you could never truly make it your own. And that's a big part of storytelling, I feel.

    Not sure how I'd feel if anyone ever started writing fanfic based on my work someday. On one hand, I'd probably be quite flattered. But on the other hand, I might feel that my work was being violated without my consent.

  3. Let me first say that I thoroughly enjoyed your oration and has given me a couple of new perspectives on the matter. Your diction and humors has also intrigued me, I am interested in your personal works (I was lead here by a bloghop) and look forward to reading more. :-)

    That said, if you will entertain me I'd like to give you my experience with fanfic. As an aspiring writer of fantasy my first works of fiction were fanfic based on Steven Brust's world of Vladimir Taltos. However, I did in fact ask permission with approval, so long as I did not intend to market the works. For me I had no intentions of ever posting my works anywhere. I feel in love with his world of fantastical creatures and amazingly written characters.

    I wrote the works for a few reasons. One, I wanted to fall into the world he created once again (while awaiting more published books from him). Secondly I wanted to test my skills to write semi-original work and make it consistent within the confines of the characters already made. Finally and most importantly it was a stepping stone for me. I felt I lacked creativity and originality and writing based on an author's works I adored was far less daunting than created everything on my own.

    Many years later I have my own world I write about with my own characters and personalities. I personally have nothing left but a few hand written remnants of my fanfic as it no longer has a use. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I enjoyed reading your blog.

    1. THis just goes to prove that fanfic can be useful and awesome!

      It's a pleasure to meet you. Feel free to email me at shellebrowne@gmail.com so we can talk more!

  4. While we're on the topic, here's a nice little gem from "My Immortal," a Harry Potter fanfic:

    "No." he said meanly. "I don’t give a darn what Voldemort does to Draco. not after how much he misbehaved in school especially with YOU Enoby." he said while he frowned looking at me. "Besides I never liked him that much anyway."

    — "Albert Dumblydore" to "Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way"

    1. This excerpt courtesy of TVtropes. =)


As always, be excellent unto others, and don't be a dick.