Fanfiction: hardly a hobby for losers

Fanfiction is a hobby that tends to be met with derision and scorn, viewed by many as being the domain of lonely, obsessive losers – an image that is both insulting and completely misses the point. Fanfiction at its core is about passion, imagination and creative expression, the same qualities which can be found in almost any artistic pursuit.

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.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Fanfiction: hardly a hobby for losers

  1. Love this article… Might bring out some of my Torchwood and Doctor Who fanfic…

    Nah. I’m still a little bit embarrassed about it…

  2. If people enjoy writing it, and other people enjoy reading it, and it does no one any harm, where’s the problem? Personally, I don’t mind people writing fan faction in any of my worlds, as long as it’s not used for any commercial purpose. Good luck to them.

    • Meg

      Thanks for your response Ian! It’s nice to know there are writers out there who aren’t opposed to it. I often think that if someone feels compelled to write fanfiction based on one your work, that must demonstrate that you’ve achieved at least one of the objectives of writing: to make people think and feel. Surely that’s a good thing? As you said, so long as no one’s trying to make money out of someone else’s hard work, I can see no harm in fanfiction – but numerous positives!

  3. Effie

    Perfect post is perfect. It’s an escape for many, a change to right wrongs in a world that doesn’t exist because we can’t do it in the one that does. Lovely insights, Meg.

    • Meg

      Effie! How did you even find this before I had a chance to link it to you?! (I was seriously going to beg you to come and comment to boost our comment count hee.) Anyone would think we share a brain or something ;D I appreciate the response immensely. It’s a funny thing with fic, because I tend to assume that it’s still a largely unknown subculture but really it’s not; people know what fanfiction is, it’s just that the majority (outside of those actively involved in fandom) just don’t ~get it. Of course, it doesn’t help I guess that most people discover fic via The Pit. But what can you do?

  4. Geoff

    I’d have thought “fanfiction” as you describe it is a breach of copyright. That authors and their intellectual property is protected from it and they can take legal action against it if they see fit to do so.

    • I think most authors would take it as a compliment and would be happy to see their writing encouraging others to participate in a creative activity. I’m sure it would be different if fan fic authors attempted to make commerical profit from the use of their ideas and characters.

    • Meg

      My understanding of the legalities is that it’s actually a fairly grey area with few legal precedences set. Where the fanfiction is produced with no intent of profit (which is the vast majority) it can be argued that it falls under the umbrella of fair use as it can be seen as a transformative work. Where fanfiction is distributed widely on a public platform, like on a site such as fanfiction.net, authors can request that fanfiction based on their work not be permitted. Fanfiction.net adheres to this strictly. For example they don’t allow works based on any of George RR Martin’s works or Anne Rice’s as they have both been vocal about not condoning fanworks. But it becomes a much more difficult area when fanfiction is being produced and distributed in more personal ways, say via email groups or locked blog communities.

  5. Geoff

    Don’t you think a writer should have control over the characters they create. Wouldn’t you feel it an abuse of your intellectual property and talents having someone else hijack them? Perhaps even demean them.

    • Meg

      I don’t think it’s a simple question. I do believe that writers should be protected against someone profiting off their work, absolutely. I don’t support any fanfiction writer making money off someone else’s creations. As to fanfiction that doesn’t generate a profit and is written purely for interest and creative expression, I think that’s a harder issue to discuss. Personally, no I don’t think I would feel it an abuse if someone wrote fanfiction based on my creations. I know how much passion and interest and creativity goes into many fanworks. Personally I think I would feel I’d achieved my purpose as a writer if someone were that affected by my work that they felt the urge to explore that world or characters further. To your argument that fanfiction writers may ‘demean’ characters, how does one go about judging that? Who decides what is or isn’t demeaning?

      Finally, I do respect an author’s right to say that they don’t condone and would prefer not to have fanworks written about their characters. But you might be surprised to know how many authors are actually quite comfortable with fanfiction and have expressed positive opinions about.

  6. Geoff

    Personally I’d like my work, to remain my work and my characters to remain my characters.
    Also since they were my creations, I’d be the judge of them being demeaned or not.
    Just as many writers in the past have not allowed Hollywood permission to recreate their work or change it.

    • Meg

      And you would certainly have the right to feel that way and take whatever action you saw fit. Just as I would have the right to encourage and give permission to fans if they wanted to create fanworks about my writing. Ultimately it does come down to personal feelings. Yes many creators have not allowed Hollywood recreate their work or change it, and many others have. Many authors don’t approve of fanfiction and many have no problem with it. Those who wish to sue or issue cease and desist letters have the power to do so. I think that it’s important to respect the wishes of authors in regards to their creations but I also see what a positive tool writing fanfiction can be for some people and I think creative expression is something to be encouraged not suppressed. I don’t believe that fanfiction really hurts anyone 99% of the time. It is created purely with the intent to entertain and provoke thought.

      • Geoff

        Well it’s obviously a very subjective topic.

        I think true creativity is creating from scratch. I think doing so is far more fulfilling than hitching a ride shall we say.

        I completely understand those who would not like to see their work used.

        Why not encourage others to take that one step further and become truly creative and truly original.

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