In Defense of Fanfiction

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.

Typically separated into het, slash, and general genres. Often used to play out AU scenarios and/or various romantic pairings not found in the original work.

Distributed via mailing lists, blogs, and zines. Heavily archived online

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.

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26 comments on “In Defense of Fanfiction

  1. very well written and explained. i recently started writing fanfiction before this year i was like what is that why would someone do that ify ou dont get paid. but then i fell in love with a few games and wanted to know what would happened with certain characters and their relationships because even though in a game you get to make choices (like mass effect and dragon age and elder scrolls) you dont get every choice like you do in real life. you cant have certain love intrests in game which uh hello in life where would that apply to? so i stated imagining a waorld in my head with these characters and then i stumbled upon fanfiction.net and fell in love so many people had the same ideas as me about the lack of realism a game can offer and thus my first fanfic was written.

    so as one of the fangeeks fiction writers i know i will never get paid for this and i’m okay with that i have other original works that will sink or swim on their own this… this i do for my love of the game and my love of writing and i share it with others who have that same love.

    as to that person who plagerized the story she submitted to david gaider about the dragon age world… shame on her. bioware worked hard to create a world we all love and enjoy to steal something from a place we all love and call it her own makes her a disgrace as a writer.

    • Yeah, you do it because you love it 🙂 I really love and enjoy my original work, but the fandoms I write for are so heavily based in story, lore, and characters that it’s actually a LOT OF FUN to write fanfiction for them. Sometimes when I say I’ve been working on a large Dragon Age project my mom will subtly ask how I’ve been doing on my novel… and if it comes up with my friends who’ve read my novel, they get on my case about me working on the sequel. Yes, I should probably be doing those things, but when it comes to publishing it all the things I have to do to try and get it done feel like such a chore. Ironically there’s freedom in fanfiction, even though there are parameters. It’s kind of like the quests in Dragon Age vs. the quests in Skyrim. In one there’s a linear path to follow, in the other it becomes daunting because there aren’t any boundaries. Boundaries can make us feel safer and make the experience more enjoyable. Maybe that’s why I do it. But no matter what it shouldn’t be looked down upon, because there are some good stories and talented writers in the fanfiction realm!

  2. People need to remember Cassandra Claire also, with her Harry Potter fanfiction, with its many copywrite violations. She turned to writing regular fiction, and was sued (not sure if it actually came to that) by the author Sherrilyn Kenyon for using Dark Hunters in her fiction (SK writes the “Dark Hunters” series, since the 90’s, not a small series, either), and she had to do a rewrite/rename of the name Dark Hunter.

    • Oh yes, I remember that. I didn’t follow it closely, but I did read up on it and look into it out of curiosity. What a sordid mess that was. When one of my students recommended I read her first book I flat out refused because I’d read her secret diaries and read about “Pottergate” and the issues she had with that. Good on her for getting published and all, but in fandom people remember the bad along with the good, and usually remember the bad much longer. Luckily most of her target audience was still in the single digits for ages when all that happened, but we remember.

      • I remember CC as well. To be honest, I liked her writing style. Very much. But the story was somehow without depth so I stopped reading her Triology. When I heard about the accusation I was, I don’t know… 16? And still so many years later I still remember her as the plagarizing author and peremptory refuse everything that has to do with her work. I will never support someone like that. It would leave a bad taste in my mouth.

        Poeple consider me strict when I voice my radical opinion, but I don’t care.

        As a write myself who was once plagirized (with a bad story as well…) I feel very much offended.

        But I do write for fun as well. I earn nothing but I hope, one day, I will be able to publish my original works.

      • I found her secret diaries to be hilarious, and like many aspiring authors who begin with fanfic, I thought it’d be nice for her to realize her dreams. And then everything happened, and I was just disgusted. It’s nice that she’s been able to move beyond it, but the fact remains that she did what she did and a lot of people remember that. She’s fortunate her target audience was too young to be involved, and if they found out now it’d be irrelevant to them.

        I have the training to write for profit, but honestly, I really like writing for fun. My original work is fun, but so is my fanfiction. And it’s a little more fun these days, so I’ve been spending more time and effort on that (much to the chagrin of my family and friends who would really prefer me to pursue publication). When it stops being fun, what’s the point? I’m glad I don’t have to rely on my writing to survive (I have a full-time job), because if I did it’d stop being fun. And that would be awful!

  3. Yeah, people who criticize fanfiction on the merits of the writing are usually forgetting about Sturgeon’s Law. A lot of it is *really* bad, to be sure (WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS), but not much worse than your average “hilarious” raunchy comedy movie. I don’t really write fanfiction myself (*cough* I certainly never turned in a Larry Stu story set in the world of Quest 64 based on the plot of http://rinkworks.com/lights/ to a mutual acquaintance of ours, with her and her Frodo cutout none the wiser.) But I, too, once found myself impatient for OotP, and fortunately had my sister and my dad to filter out the garbage for me. I would argue that actually, a lot more work and creativity went into developing the setting of Ruskbyte’s Order of the Phoenix than, say, Eragon.

    But, while the appeal of having a starting point as far as worldbuilding and major characters go may be an attraction to some, I think popularity is a big part of it. Face it, if you show up on the internet and say “HAY GUYS I WROTE THIS GREAT ORIGINAL STORY YOU SHOULD TOTALLY READ IT”, unless you happen to be named after a famous author, no one will. But if you put up a Pride and Prejudice/Super Smash Brothers crossover on FF.net, on any given day you can probably count on someone searching for just that, and reading your story out of desperation. So that’s in there too – confidence issues, and the reality of how popularity works. And I believe a few FF authors have gone on to write and publish original fiction, which thanks to their existing popularity a few people bought.

    • I think popularity has a lot to do with it. It’s definitely nice to get the feedback on ff.net, and I’ve certainly gotten a lot more feedback on my fanfiction than on my novel (which yes, is my fault, because the people who’ve read my novel like it and I need to get off my arse and do more queries, etc.). And who knows, maybe having a strong presence in the fanfiction world and working on building one through my blog will assist me in marketing and promoting my work, especially if I decide to start going the e-publishing route.

      Also, I think the limitless possibilities are also what make fanfiction so much fun. You can do almsost anything you want; write it well enough, keep a good enough consistency of reality, respect the canon, and you’re good.

  4. I’ve been browsing FF.net since 2005, as well as a few other sites, and while yes, there is a bunch of crap to wade through, I definitely agree that there are some good stories and even some brilliant stories to be found if you just look hard enough. If you find a good author, then they certainly have the power to bring the characters to life just as in the original story. I’ve definitely come across pieces that left me crying at the end. If the original story inspired you so much, or if you feel there’s an untold side or unfinished business, then I feel it’s fine to add your voice to the mix- besides, history has told us that this is fine. Isn’t the Aeneid considered a piece of classic literature as well as Illiad fanfiction? 😉

    • You are TOTALLY right! So much ‘classic’ literature is actually fanfiction, by its most basic definition. Paradise Lost? Bible Fanfic. And don’t get me started on all the Jane Austen books out there. Those authors got lucky because Jane Austen is intellectual free property, so they get paid to write fanfic. And while there are a lot of authors who don’t want fanfic written, because they think it infringes on their creativity and their work (which is fine), a lot are flattered and probably just go with it. I know when I get my books published I can’t wait to write bad fanfic about them under a pseudonym… 😉

  5. I laughed at the bit about fan fic eventually making it into canon. The fourth book of a very popular teen vampire series always read (to me) as poorly written fan fic. I’ve never attempted to explain fan fic to my “real life” friends and my “online” friends are all immersed in various fandoms. Fan Fic is “REAL” writing and a great way to stretch our creative minds and hon our craft without the pressure of trying to create something for the mainstream audience.

    • Oh there’s so much ‘real’ writing out there that is written far worse than a lot of fanfiction, and vice versa. We happened to be talking about it during my lunch one day last semseter. They were actually pretty open to the explanation, which was nice. I’ve been lucky to find “real life” friends who generally get fanfiction… and those that don’t just sort of nod and smile and back away slowly 😉 And I like what you say at the end that we can hone our craft without pressure. One of the greatest pressures for me was the world building. It was enjoyable, but I wanted to play, dammit! With fanfic, I can play immediately 😀

  6. Hey, you quoted me! But also… yes. Just… a whole lot of yes! For me, fanfic IS practice writing, as in: I practice writing and I get better at it. Like, crazily so. I’m amazed at how much better/more comfortable with writing I’ve gotten just since diving into Dragon Age, and that’s built off the years I spent writing Star Wars, and writing fanfiction is, I promise, the reason I can write with any kind of skill at all for school assignments (in 9th grade I FAILED a descriptive writing assignment, in 10th grade my best friend wrote fanfiction and got me into it, in 11th grade, I was comfortable writing creative for school with no issue). And it works not only in creative writing and screenwriting but ALSO for straight-up non-fiction assignments, like research papers, which you wouldn’t think would translate, but somehow it does, because writing is writing.

    I think one of the best descriptions of “why would people want to write fanfic?” comes from that article that was in TIME magazine last summer, which I think I quoted over at ff.net, but anyway: “Fanfic writing isn’t work, it’s joyful play. For most people, any kind of writing looks like work to them, so they get confused why anyone would want to write fanfic instead of original professional material, even though they don’t have any problem understanding why someone would want to mess around on a guitar playing Simon and Garfunkel.”

    Read more: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2081784,00.html#ixzz1ki0qlY2v

  7. *facepalm* I can’t believe I forgot to link that article. I remember reading it and thinking “Wow, that’s a great article and really sums everything up!” That quote from it is really true; I think there is joy in it. For me, there was the joy in giving Cailan a life and a voice before his ill-fated DA:O appearance. It was joyful to have him find time to be with his father and his brother. There was joy in making him more than a pretty boy. And there was joy in redeeming Loghain through a visit from three ghosts as well 😉

    Joy is what you make of it and you can find it anywhere. In our case? WE find a lot of it in writing fanfiction. And that is awesome.

  8. How the heck am I supposed to leave a comment now, after that awesome conclusion to your last reply? Seriously? Jeez.

    I always enjoyed writing when I was younger, but character development was constantly a weak point for me. It was strange for me to admit to my husband that I started writing fanfics, but to me, it gave me an already decently developed character, and allowed me to start learning how to run with that. Now, I’m starting to develop some ideas of my own, and thinking that maybe I can utilize some of what I’ve honed in fanficdom and translate that to “real” writing.

    But, to quote someone on the Dragon Age Writers Forum on ff.net, “When I write, it feels like I’m adventuring too.” What better reason than that is there to write fanfiction?

    • I think what I love about fanfiction is that if you’re working with canon characters so much of them is already set in stone. Or so it seems. It’s actually clay. Which is soft stone, but I digress–look, a squirrel! Anyway, we have the ability to manipulate them: make them go places, have them talk to other characters, etc. But I think because the character’s already developed it gives more opportunity to explore the character and play around to see what works and what doesn’t, rather than have to create a whole new character. I’m in the D&D campaign, and also doing an email-based DA RPG; I had to create new characters for both of those, and to be honest, it kind of freaked me out. I’m still figuring out who these characters are and what makes them tic. When we had that fiasco on the pirate ship and the DM said we’d have to create new characters if we died? That was a huge factor in deciding to abandon ship. I was having enough issues learning who Dorian is that I didn’t want to have to ‘meet’ a new character!

      I saw that post (and was relieved because the error messages seem to be gone!), and I love that you quoted it. So true. We’ve been brought along on the journey… and we have a chance to shape it in a unique way.

  9. I was link-hopping “Shit People Say” videos out of sheer boredom and found this one… “Shit Fanfiction Writers Say”

    “Wow, I have tons of homework tonight… but I haven’t updated that fic in 3 days!”
    “Yeah, I don’t think I can go out tonight. I post a new chapter every Friday, and…”
    “Get your shit together, fanfiction! It’s been 4 hours!”

  10. I believe BW would require a writer’s permission if they decided to use his/her work in the games somehow. The writer would have to sign (or just agree to) a legal agreement which may or may not include payment.

    About fanfiction: I find fanfiction fascinating because it is the only instance of 100% reader response. I have absolutely no problems with fanfiction and don’t consider it to be of a “lesser” quality than other forms of writing. However, it is certainly the most “ghettoized” form of fiction I can think of. And I say this as a children’s lit scholar and a pop culture scholar (two branches of study that other fields like to sneer at … frequently).

    There will always be those who believe their field or genre is of a higher quality. Just look at the ridiculous literary versus genre fiction debate in MFA programs across the country (USA).

    • I completely agree. When I started my MFA I was nervous to begin with; it was all a new thing, and I wasn’t sure if I belonged. Then when I was talking with prospective mentors for my first semester and they asked about my project, I mentioned I might like to work on my fantasy. One of them said that if I “want to get the most out of this program I’ll write literary fiction.” But I didn’t want to write that! So I found someone who was willing to work with me on my genre piece, stuck with it, and am a much happier MFA now 🙂

      Your point that fanfiction is 100% reader response is really fascinating, and I think spot-on. I’ve always maintained that literature exists to be interacted with, which is why I (gasp) highlight in books, tab pages, etc. But fanfiction really is interaction with the source materieal at its purest level.

      Hm… any chance we could collaborate on an article about that for some journal of something or other? 😉

      • That would be fun 😉 I’m dissertating right now, so any articles I produce are coming from this bad boy. *pats diss Word file … how she does that, you’ve no idea* But maybe in the future 😀

      • It’s all good; the more time I spend on these matters, and the more thought I give to them, the more I realize there is an academic niche for them. I’d love to contribute to that with others who share similar views. Best of luck with your dissertation work!

  11. Yes, it’s totally practice writing…just like playing scales is practicing the piano, etc. One has to practice in order to get better. Starting in a world someone else created enables a writer to focus on other things, like dialogue and pacing.

    And yes, there is some horrible, horrible fanfiction out there, but there is also some horrible fiction out there, and horrible movies, and horrible television. You just have to learn to separate the good from the bad.

    (P.S. I totally snorted at Shit Fanfiction Writers Say”, than, you for that, bearonthecouch)

    • I think all writing is practice writing… because it’s never going to be perfect. All you can do is keep polishing, keep working and keep hoping that it’ll read a point where it feels presentable (hard for perfectionists like us). And I’m with you on the idea that the parameters help more than hinder with writing. You can focus on elements of story and writing without worrying about your world and whatnot.

      The world is full of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. It’s just a matter of learning to discern and choose the good from the pile of muck.

      • Over at my other fanfic hangout, theforce.net, we categorized fanfiction, along with everything else in the world, as part of Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crap.” And the internet has increased the amount of “everything” which means that yes, there is more crap, numerically. But there is also a larger 10%

      • Oh agreed it’s all practice, since you’ll never perfect it (and yes, that drives me insane) but the stuff you share with the world is the “performance”, to continue the ‘playing music’ analogy. Of course, that means the stuff I share on ff.net is a performance too. Perhaps it would be like the difference between a paying gig and jamming in a coffeehouse or something.

        Yep, I can beat a metaphor to death 😉 Anyway, you can learn a lot jamming in a coffeehouse, just like you can learn a lot writing fanfiction. I don’t consider any of the million plus words I’ve put out there on the internet wasted time.

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