As a writer and a geek, it goes without saying that I’ve dabbled… okay, more than dabbled in fanfiction. At one point I thought that once I started in on my original work in earnest I’d set aside fanfiction in favor of my loftier goals. Now with my MFA under my belt and armed with the tools to get out there and make that work I find that I’m actually writing more fanfiction. And if I feel like I get strange looks or polite nods when I say I write speculative fiction, I get them even more when I admit to writing fanfiction.
Urbandictionary defines fanfiction thus:
A piece of fiction within a fandom utilizing characters and situations from a pre-existing work including (but not limited to) books, television programs, films, and comic strips.
Fanfiction raises some interesting issues for writers. First and foremost, we can’t make money off of it. For writers who write to pay the bills, it makes sense to eschew fanfiction. Intellectual Property laws forbid us from selling our work; our only payment for fanfiction is self-satisfaction, wish fulfillment, and if we’re lucky, fans of our work reviewing. Second, it’s not our material. To quote bearonthecouch, “[they] built the sandbox; I just play in it.” The world, many of the characters, the settings? They all were created by someone else and someone else gets to make the ultimate calls and ultimately the money off of it. So why would a writer want to write fanfiction? And, does all of this mean that fanfiction is a lesser form of writing?
Looking back at my past and what I was like growing up, I think I was writing fanfiction as early as third and fourth grade. We had young authors’ day back then, where we spent a unit learning how to write stories, and then the culmination was writing it out in our best handwriting, getting it plastic-spiral bound, and displaying it. Fourth grade was the height of my Legend of Zelda love. My best friend and I had storylines and original characters. Well, I did, she always played Zelda or wrote about Zelda. My story was about my original character in the Zeldaverse trying to save the day, while harboring unrequited love for Link. Oh the angst (and I was only 10).
I remember that most of the other kids’ stories were original and because a lot of them didn’t know about Zelda, or weren’t into it the way I was, my story didn’t get a lot of hits. It was disappointing, but a good early lesson for an aspiring fanfiction writer.
I began writing fanfiction in earnest when I finished with my BA in English back in 2002. I’d discovered Lord of the Rings that year, and shortly after started in on Harry Potter. At that time the latter series ended with book 4, with a promised book 5 on the horizon but nowhere in sight. I wanted to know what happened; I wanted to speculate; I wanted to see what other people thought. In short? I discovered fanfiction.net.
Fanfiction.net, or FF.net, is I think what generally gives fanfiction as a genre, and fanfiction authors a bad name. It’s nice because anyone can post there, but it’s not nice because anyone can post there. The site is so huge there’s no real way to enforce quality of work, so visitors to the site often run into stories with poor grammar and spelling and ill-conceived, iller-executed plots. When this is coupled with the general attitude that fanfiction is ‘lesser’ writing because it’s not original, it’s natural that fanfiction gets a bad name for itself. It takes a discerning mind and patient attitude to sift through the chaff in order to find those rare kernels of well-done writing. And when you do, it’s worth the time and effort you took. You learn to be more discerning. But in our society of instant gratification, few are willing to put such time and effort into something like finding a story that will be well-written and appeal to their tastes.
There are those gems on the site that are on par with, if not better than the original work. There are authors who gather a huge following due to their talent and grasp of the material. There’s work that’s silly, work that’s bad but the author really tried and meant well. It runs the gammut. And a lot of authors are willing to be in that gammut because, plain and simple, they’re writing for the love of the fandom and of writing itself.
I tried to explain fanfiction to some coworkers once. Though they were skeptical about the whole thing, especially about why writers would write about someone else’s work while knowing full well they’d never get paid and it’d never go anywhere, they did listen. One asked if fanfiction/fanon ever makes it into canon, and saw that it might be useful for the owners of the original IP. One said, “It’s just practice writing then, right?”
Both arguments have given me pause on a regular basis. Currently on the BioWare Social Network boards (BSN), there ae those of us who entered a Dragon Age short story contest and are nervously awaiting the results. Some have suggested that it would be really cool if the writers took some of the concepts from entries and made them codex entries or side quests in future game installments. The argument arose that perhaps if that occurred BioWare would have to make reparation for using our ideas; however, since we’re writing about their intellectual property in the first place, they don’t really owe us anything.
And somehow that led to the discovery of a very interesting now-scandal. Apparently there was a DA fanfiction that had a large following. The writer of it allegedly even sent it to David Gaider asking for it to be published under the auspices of EA/BioWare, which he naturally refused. Shortly thereafter it appeared on Amazon.com as a downloadable Kindle book, though it was ‘original fiction’. As fans looked into it, it became painfully clear that it was a case of “find/replace” with the names of people, places, and things. That wouldn’t have been too bad, but when called out on it the author insisted she’d never heard of nor played Dragon Age. Even when confronted with evidence that she wrote the fanfiction first, she denied everything. Now David Gaider himself is involved and there’s a huge discussion going on on the BSN boards about it.
It brings up the point about fanfiction being “practice” writing for people who want to be “real” writers. Only I wonder, does it have to be? Even if we’re using others’ IP we still have to craft our own story utilizing those parameters. One of the things Gaider mentioned in a respose to a review was whether or not fanfiction translated to original fiction was a good idea; he gracefully said it was up to the readers of the work to decide, and it was clear his stance was against the denial of plagiarism. The idea brought me to this blog post and brought me to some thoughts about my own history with fan and original fiction writing.
Since I’ve been out of grad school for almost three years now and my thesis passed, I have no problem admitting that Seven of Wands started life as a Harry Potter fanfiction. I’d belonged to an RP that was original characters only, and we had some good storylines going. I crafted my character and her backstory, and we had a lot of fun playing in that sandbox. I decided it’d be interesting to write her story from beginning to where it ended in the RP. I posted it on ff.net where it was largely white noise, but that was fine because I enjoyed writing it, which was the important thing to me. But when I wanted to write a sequel in roughly 2005/2006, I thought that maybe if I was going to spend so much time with these characters I could try fitting them into my own world. The more work I did the more the world built itself, and I had a sequel that was very original and bore little resemblance to the Harry Potter world of the fanfiction-first novel. And when I thought to go back and rewrite the original, I wound up being in grad school.
In my case fanfiction was a means to an end, but even though I have an original novel written and in the process of queries and such I’m by no means done with fanfiction. When I discovered Dragon Age, its emphasis on story and character gripped me so much that I couldn’t help but dive back into fanfiction again after a five year hiatus. I think it was just a matter of finding a fandom that I felt comfortable writing in. But also, I’ve found that just because it’s fanfiction, I don’t slack off. I put as much effort into the writing craft in my fanfiction as I do my original. Why? Because in both cases I’m writing for a public audience, and they deserve my best work. It’s about integrity as a writer.
While fanfiction can help aspiring writers improve, it’s not just practice writing. It can be a means to an end, but it can be an end in and of itself. Just because it’s fanfiction doesn’t mean that the story has to suffer, or tenets of writing can be ignored. Just because we’re not making money off of it, nay we can’t make money off of it, doesn’t mean that as writers we aren’t bound by our integrity and duty to our audiences to give the best we have to offer. And it doesn’t mean that fanfiction as a form of writing should be disparaged. There’s as much good fanfiction out there as there is bad original fiction. It takes talent to tell a good story, and to tell it well, whether that story is original or not.