At its most basic, fanfiction is simply any piece of writing in which the characters and setting are not original creations of the author but already exist in a text. This may be a book, comic, television series, film, video game or any number of other creative works.
What’s interesting about distilling fanfiction into such simple terms is that it becomes clear that there are many professionally published works created under this umbrella. Both Pollyanna by Eleanor H Porter and Heidi by Johanna Spyri are two much loved children’s classics which later had sequels written by new authors.
In addition, there are also examples of authors borrowing someone else’s characters to create an entirely new work such as Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead which takes two bit players from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and examines their experiences offstage during the main action of the original play.
One could argue these are simply examples of professionally published fanfiction. In both cases, what they have in common with fanfiction is that they are based on the same motive: a desire to explore something that was not seen in the original text. For Pollyanna and Heidi, it’s a simple case of asking: what happened next? While for “Ros and Guil” it’s the question: what happened that we didn’t see?
These kinds of questions are quite often the genesis for fanfiction and they’re borne out of passion for the characters and events of a text. If you’ve ever read a book, or watched a film and found yourself so interested in the characters and the story that you wish there was more then perhaps you can imagine what might spur someone to write fanfiction.
So here we have just a few of many examples in which professional writers have borrowed characters for their own creative works, or continued a story in place of the original author. And yet one of the most common criticisms of fanfiction still seems to be that it’s lazy; why write about someone else’s characters when you could invent your own? If that’s the argument you want to use, then you should ask Frank Beddor why he chose to take the characters of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland and re-imagine them in a fantasy context for his novel The Looking Glass Wars. Was that laziness or was it passion and imagination coming together to create something new and fascinating? If you apply that same logic to another medium, you might as well be asking a musician why they would bother playing a song written by someone else – an obviously stupid question.
Of course it’s necessary to acknowledge that in the case of published works that borrow from other authors, it’s almost always a text for which the initial copyright has expired, meaning it now exists in the public domain. This is how something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is able to exist. It’s also why fanfiction is viewed as problematic by many people, including a number of notable authors.
Both George R. R. Martin, author of fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, and Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire, have both been vocal about their opposition to fanfiction. Both authors have requested that the website fanfiction.net remove any stories based on their works.
There’s no doubt that the legality and ethics of fanfiction is a grey area. On the surface it’s easy to understand why authors may feel uncomfortable with it and yet if you apply a certain thought process it can seem a little absurd.
For the sake of argument, let’s explore a scenario. Imagine you’ve just watched a film with a group of friends. You all loved it. You connected to the characters, were engrossed by their story and now you’re sitting around wondering what happened next or how a character felt about a certain event. So you start telling each other stories, exploring the things you wish you’d gotten to see, or digging deeper into their back story, imagining their childhood or their future. Essentially what you’d be doing is engaging in oral fanfiction. Instead of publishing it on the internet you simply share it with your friend. Even if you take it a step further, and you write it out by hand and pass it around your friends at school. That’s fanfiction. But would an author get up in arms over the copyright infringement? Probably not.
It’s hard to imagine that any author could take objection to this action when it clearly demonstrates passion and engagement with their work, which is surely one of the primary objectives of any form of storytelling.
The truth is fanfiction only becomes an issue when it’s being published, and the platform is primarily the internet. Somehow because it’s being published on the internet and is therefore available to a wide audience, it seems to be seen as undermining the efforts of the original authors, when the intention couldn’t be further from it. Fanfiction is entirely about demonstrating passion for something and creating a space where fans can engage with it endlessly. It is never motivated by a desire to steal or undermine a professional’s work.
As a general rule, the fanfiction community is 100% against anyone attempting to profit from writing fanfiction. For the simple reason that they do in fact admire and respect the authors who’ve created the works they’re so passionate about, and most fanfiction writers would be extremely hard on anyone who attempted to do so.
In fact, the fanfiction community is quite active in using fanfiction as a means of raising money for charities. Early this year when Queensland was hit by floods, the fanfiction community on Livejournal raised $12,462 to aid those effected by hosting fanfiction auctions where people could pledge a donation in exchange for a piece of fanfiction.
In an age where we complain that TV, film, and video games rot the brain and are mindless pastimes, it’s bizarre that we would then turn around and make fun of an activity which demonstrates that engagement with fiction media can in fact be the opposite of mindless; it can inspire deep thought and reflection, spark creativity, and help develop a sense of community.
I’d hardly call that a hobby for losers.