THE WORD ON THE .NET

Writer T. James' Exploration of Words, on the Internet.

Fan Fiction: Evil Plagiarism, or Innocent Homage?

Fan fiction (fanfic)—fans writing fiction based on an author’s book—hit the headlines in 2011 when E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey became a best-selling self-published ebook. The publishing rights were purchased by Random House and the (eventual) trilogy went on to become a mainstream best seller, with the first novel becoming the fastest selling book of all time, outstripping (cough) even Harry Potter. (The series was originally inspired by Stephanie Mayer’s Twilight novels, but later morphed into something quite, well, different.) At the time it was vilified  by “proper” writers and shredded by critics, but the books have sold over 65 millions copies. Fan fiction splits opinion, both of authors and readers, but recently I started a new writing project that has forced me to re-examine mine.

Fan fiction has been around for centuries, and became a popular pastime in the 1800s with fans sometimes “filling in” when the sequel wasn’t immediately forthcoming. The response of publishers and authors has varied, with some aggressively slapping cease and desist notices on fanfic writers and even pursuing them through the courts. There can be no doubt that writing fan fiction can potentially place its author in legal hot water. Others have turned a blind eye, so long as the work wasn’t passed off as theirs or sold for profit. Other authors even encourage fans to use their books as a springboard for their own imaginations. The bottom line for anyone considering writing fan fiction is do your homework and find out the attitude of the work’s original creator and publisher before giving it a try.

As a writer I’ve had, up until now, very little experience with fan fiction; I didn’t think about it much. My published work to date is niche, and I doubt anyone will try to recreate what I’ve written or base anything on it. To be honest  (the problem with being honest is you are going to annoy someone), if I did think about it at all, it was along the lines of, “Well, I suppose if you haven’t got the creativity to write your own stories then you will rip-off someone else’s.” Not very charitable, I know. More recently I’ve been forced to have something of a rethink.

Since January, 2013, I’ve been working with Frontier Developments, and I will eventually be writing an officially approved story set in their Elite game universe that will feature an alien race called the Thargoids. A fan of the game, who also enjoyed a series of books indirectly inspired by Elite, left a comment on my other blog requesting that I didn’t mess too much with the Thargoids. His opinion was that the void created by the long wait for another game sequel and the official books that would go with it had been filled by fan game remakes and fan fiction in the meantime. He felt that the fan-made games and fan fiction should be honoured, and their version of the Thargoids should be (more-or-less) incorporated into the official canon and be the one I use in my upcoming book.

I actually know the author of these fan fiction books, he’s another one of the writers working on an official Elite title. He’s open, honest, hard-working, and loves the source material. So, with my preconceptions on one side, and this fan and writer on the other I had to re-examine what I thought of my own writing and fan fiction in general.

Previous to working with Frontier I’ve only self-published, but as Frontier owns the intellectual property I’m basing my story on my story will need their approval prior to publication. Effectively I now have a publisher. (I know I’m stretching the definition, but the gate-keeping aspect is the same.) More than that, I will be using their game setting and source material in my story. So, how does that make me any different from a fan fiction writer? The only difference I can think of is that I will have official sanction, but creatively-speaking, writing official franchise fiction doesn’t seem very different to writing unofficial fan fiction. I think I just tarred myself with my own brush. (The right to humiliate yourself on the internet is enshrined in the American Constitution and the British assumption of Polite Free Expression.) So, I guess not all fan fiction writers are creatively brain-dead or out to sponge off someone else’s creativity. ;-)

So why do they (we?) do it? Like any group involved in anything, there will be a proportion of skuzz-buckets into it for the wrong reasons. But I suspect the majority of fan fiction writers simply love the material they base their stories on: the characters, the settings, and the adventures fire their imaginations. I know that’s true of the original Elite game I played when I was twelve, and why I want to set some of my fiction in that universe now. For others it’s an opportunity to practice aspects of their craft. Basing their work on a successful author’s seems like a sensible way of learning, and allows the published author to do some of the heavy-lifting involved in story creation by providing the background details of the fictional world so the new writer can concentrate on story-telling, scene-setting, and any other of the hundred-and-one things a new writer has to perfect.

What I remain unsure of is re-writing an author’s work, or preempting a sequel the author hasn’t yet completed with the intention of releasing the fan fiction version widely for others to read. Writing for practice and enjoyment, or to entertain friends and family, I have no problem with. Writing spin-off fiction that adds something unique and uses the fan-writer’s own creativity with the permission of the original  author shows love for the source material and respect for the person who first wrote it. But a fan “muscling in” on someone else’s creation because they are impatient, want recognition or money, or think they can do a better job? To me that just seems arrogant, greedy, or lazy. Most author’s have spent years honing their craft and hundreds of hours researching and writing each book—work that some people aren’t willing to do for themselves.

The ‘rights and wrongs’ of writing fan fiction are as complex as the reasons for wanting to write it. For me, whether fan fiction is a good or a bad thing comes down to the heart behind it. A real fan will honour the work and the author that inspires them, a freeloader will use the author and their writing for their own ends.

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Do you write or read fan fiction? If so, what do you think? Authors: Has anyone written any fan fiction based on your work? How did you feel about it? I’d be interested in your thoughts, just leave them in the comments below…

(Note: the spam protection may tell you your comment has been rejected if your attempting it from a mobile device, but they have still been arriving on my blog for me to moderate, so please give it a try!)

Images used with kind permission: “Boy With Scary Costume” by Stuart Miles, and “An Angel Stock Photo” by Michal Marcol, hosted at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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2 Comments

  1. Fan fiction is a pet peeve of mine. I guess if people want to they can, but if you really want to write have fun with it and create your own worlds and characters, create your own conflict. It’s so much more rewarding and helps you to grow so much more as a writer. fan fic is just stealing someone else’s hard work and pissing around with it.

    Sorry LOL Rant over.

    • I always tended towards this viewpoint (although maybe with less of the “rant” element ;-) ), but when I got the chance to write some Elite “franchise fiction” I jumped at it, even though my own creativity would now have to work within boundaries pre-set by someone else. It’s actually a challenge for a writer to take something built by someone else and work with it, adding their own unique twists and flavour. I suppose it’s a form of communal storytelling and it can work well, as with Devin O’Branagan’s work. That’s why I’ve changed from a blanket dismissal of fan fiction, although I fear there are a proportion of writers at whom your rant could be justifiably targeted. When you decide to protest, draw me up a placard and I’ll follow you in our circle of two as we wander around their place of work chanting pithy slogans. :good:

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