By: Kaitie Kwiatkowski
I’m going to come out and say it now: I write fanfiction.
That three word confession is a death sentence to some people, their dirty little secrets that they want to keep in the darkest corners of the internet. They use half a dozen obscure pennames and hide all traces of it on their computer because heaven forbid someone find out they love a book or a show or a film so much that they’re actually inspired to write in response to it because they didn’t want the story to end.
But I’ll say it. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m proud. I fall head over heels for the worlds I see in print and the big screen and I never want to leave. I want to know the characters intimately and understand why they do what they do so I write about them for the same reason I write about my own characters: so that I have the chance to know them better.
The stories we love become a part of us. We imagine the adventures and hijinks the characters must get up to between chapters because their lives are more than just what’s on the page presented to us. They have to be. They don’t just start and stop and existing between the covers of a book, they have histories that brought them to the first page and futures that their stories have prepared them for. Why should we have to close the book on them just because their original authors did?
Yet there are dozens of authors and countless internet nobodies who would look down on me for that choice and dare to say that I’m “not a real writer” because of it.
“Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds and settings,” claims George R. R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series. “Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out.”
Lazy. I want to respond to that one word in particular there. There are fanfics with word counts over that of the original stories’ from hundreds of web authors. Game of Thrones has one work in progress fic with over 396,000 words by AO3 writer Hellholden. That’s longer than some of Martin’s own work and this author isn’t expecting anything from her efforts but a few page views (93,300 in this particular case). She isn’t looking to make a profit, she is writing for the purest sake of writing.
I can’t say anything about that fic in particular and I know nothing of the author of it since Game of Thrones isn’t really my thing, but I travel within circles of fan-authors who spend hours and weeks researching conditions and environments so that their stories can be accurate to canon and real life. Supernatural fan-author castielsvein has spent hours researching angelic and demonic lore for her stories featuring the archangel Michael. Sherlock fan-author BeautifulFiction has called physicians around the London area and beyond to get insight on severe migraines and autism for her story Electric Pink Hand Grenade.
The only lazy part of being a fan-author is coming up with an idea and never giving it life or, worse, giving it life and never finishing it (the fan-reader’s worst nightmare). This happens more often than not, however, and I know I’ve been guilty of it in the past. Because this kind of writing has no pay off, no deadline, a lot of fan-authors get preoccupied with other issues like classes or work and don’t actually finish what they began. For every finished and beloved piece of fanfiction there are probably a dozen more unfinished.
Even the writers who don’t research, who don’t get betas (the equivalent of volunteer editors and copy editors), who just write because they want to regardless of public approval don’t deserve to be called lazy. They’re doing something they love. They’re writing.
Most fan-authors write because it’s a hobby of theirs. They write to unwind, to get lost in worlds and characters they’ve already formed bonds with, to have fun. They don’t ever intend to step beyond the realms of the internet. If people look down on them for it, it doesn’t matter in their day to day lives and as long as they never try to make a profit off of the work, they’re unaffected by public damning of fanfiction.
But what about the authors who do intend to delve into the professional world of writing?
I started writing fanfiction in middle school on some crummy Naruto fanfiction archive site. I was an awkward kid and I was obsessed with the show and since I couldn’t draw pretty pictures like the fan-artists I did what came easiest to me: I wrote.
Did I know I was going to go into writing professionally at the time? Of course not. I was thirteen. I had no idea what the future held for me. I was still convinced I was going to major in history and be the female Indiana Jones. I just liked to write and so I did just that. I worked on stories of my own with my own original characters like my little ice demon, Cecil, and my proud gryphon, Sei’ku, and whenever inspiration struck I would write a little piece about the Winchester brothers or the great Sherlock Holmes struggling against their biggest foes (my favorite characters, typically).
And for a while, when I got to college mainly, I was absolutely petrified to admit I did this. I thought my friends would judge me. The internet savvy ones laughed about fanfiction regularly without my input on the matter and I feared to think what my fellow writing majors would have to say about my hobbies.
I all too clearly remembered the Cassandra Clare fiasco. Clare’s a popular young adult writer. She made her debut with her series The Mortal Instruments, which just saw its first movie in August 2013. Not long after her books really took off, the internet started to dig into her life and her history. Suddenly the childish things that happened in comments and internet flame wars on her past work became public knowledge; mind you these things happened long before she even started gearing herself to be a published author. By time Clare published her first book, she had become a massive influence in the Harry Potter community with her fics, specifically the Draco Trilogy, a story that followed a body swapping incident between Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter. While writing the trilogy however, she was accused frequently of plagiarism from various sources in one chapter in particular. Rather than deny it, she owned up to it. She admitted that the chapter was homage to her favorite authors, like J.K. Rowling and Joss Whedon, and stories, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, but the internet continued to give her shit for it as the internet does best. When it came to writing her first book she recycled from the Draco Trilogy, altering things here and there to fit her original characters. Needless to say, people saw the similarities then of her original characters Jace, Simon, and Clary to Draco, Harry, and Hermione and once again called plagiarism on her, saying that her story was nothing but glorified Harry Potter fanfiction.
The idea that this could happen to any fan turned pro writer terrified me. What if people found out I read and wrote about certain characters in the past and immediately only saw them in my own characters? There would of course be similarities if you looked long enough. My favorite characters are my favorites because they fit the molds for the archetypes I like to write and explore. I stopped fan-writing all together for several years until one day I had enough. I had been obsessing over BBC Sherlock for weeks, re-watching the six episodes and reading any fancomics or fanfiction I could find that fit my tastes. Sherlock is basically fanfiction itself. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss took Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and set him in modern day London. What made that any different from someone taking Doctor Who’s characters and setting them down in an alternate universe high school setting? Do writers have to wait for something to go to the public domain, like the original Sherlock Holmes, before they’re allowed to play with the ideas they have? Even if they’re not looking to profit off of it? After watching ‘The Great Game’ half a dozen times this summer, I had so many ideas spinning in my head about the BBC version of Jim Moriarty and how he must function behind the scenes and the twisted way his genius mind must work. Until finally I just said fuck it. I’m writing fanfiction again, goddamn it.
It was liberating. Writing fanfiction is fun. It gives you an excuse to binge-watch your favorite shows and devote hours into looking up British military weapons that would mostly likely be illegally smuggled by assassins into London. And you get to share what you love with the thousands of other writers and readers with ease. You know somehow at least one person somewhere is going to read your work and that’s countless times better than sitting on a manuscript you know no publisher is going to take because you’re a new, unheard of writer.
And for every author who wants to lead a crusade against the fandoms for creating these works of fiction and art of characters that aren’t theirs there are authors who become champions for the fandoms. Neil Gaiman is popular sci-fi and fantasy writer with some hugely popular fanfics under his belt. “I, Cthulhu” derives from H.P. Lovecraft’s work and “A Study in Emerald” is his Lovecraftian telling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s world famous detective with some shocking twists. His defense? “As long as nobody’s making money from it that should be an author or creator’s, I don’t mind it. And I think it does a lot of good.”
Works for me!
What even qualifies as an original story these days? Save the Cat, a popular introduction to screenwriting book by Blake Snyder, claims that there are only ten kinds of stories in the world and they are simply retold with new characters. Any book or movie can be fit into one of the ten basic plots:
- Monster in the House – One simple rule here: Don’t get eaten.
- Out of the Bottle – Wishes and curses and the lessons they teach.
- Whydunit – Something that makes us look inside ourselves at what we’re capable of.
- Golden Fleece – An adventure story with a grand prize at the end.
- Rites of Passage – The hero undergoes the pain and torment of Life.
- Institutionalized – The tale of a group and the pros and cons of that group.
- Buddylove – “My life changed for having known someone else.”
- Superhero – An extraordinary man finds himself in an ordinary world.
- Dude with a Problem – An ordinary guy finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.
- The Fool Triumphant – An underdog and an institution for that underdog to attack.
Fanfiction, for a lot of inspiring young writers, is a means of practice by way of applying one of these plots to a story that was originally given another. BeautifulFiction’s Electric Pink Hand Grenade applies the Rites of Passage story to Doyle’s Buddylove/Superhero stories in the same way Gaiman’s “I, Cthulu” applies Monster in the House to the same characters.
Fanfiction opens up the realms of possibilities and experiences for familiar characters in an interactive community. As a fanfiction writer I got to write my favorite plots and take advice from other writers in the fan community. I had people willing to help me and even beta for me free of charge because in fandom the writing is all for pleasure, not business.
In the last few years we’ve seen more and more writers with fandom origins join the ranks of professionally published authors and writers, like Cassandra Clare, but this is by no means a recent thing. Paul Cornell wrote Doctor Who fanfiction long before he wrote officially sanctioned Doctor Who novels and television scripts. Jacqueline Litchtenberg was writing Star Trek fiction before she went on to publish her own series in 1974. Both of these authors may have started with fanfiction, but they were able to become successful beyond that. Litchenberg put out her sci-fi series that pulled in its own fanbase and Cornell got to take his love for Doctor Who to the next level by actually writing for them. Fanfiction was how they were able to prove themselves.
With all these authors offering their support, fan-writers are finally being given the courage they’ve lacked for so long.
The Organization for Transformative Works is a fan-based non-profit, geared for fan-writers by fan-writers and founded by bestselling author Naomi Novik, that gives fanworks a sense of legitimacy they’ve lacked in the past. The group offers newsletters, a guide to fanlore (tropes and meta theories or fanmade explanations for canon events), updates about legal disputes regarding the fan culture, and runs a successful archive of fan-works commonly known as AO3. This is a huge step from the scattered archives and blogs of fan-authors in the past.
KindleWorlds is taking things a step further. Amazon has been securing licenses with various companies so that that fan-authors can publish their works on Kindle products and earn royalties from it. It’s a completely untapped side of the fanfiction market and if it succeeds is anyone’s guess, but it has the chance to make or break the fan communities. Most authors I know are wary of KindleWorlds and what it might mean for the authors that who don’t get swept into it. They are concerned that KindleWorlds might earn a reputation worse than that of which fanfiction already has or might someday mean the death of existing archive sites. KindleWorlds is, however, still a sign that things are changing for fan-authors everywhere.
Fanfiction is getting noticed, it’s not just something to read or post and then quickly have to wipe your browser history of anymore.
It’s not a threat to the original authors. It’s a devotion that no decent fan-author is going to shove down the creator’s throat. If they don’t like it, that’s fine, but it’s nothing to crucify. And if they do like it? Then great! Actors from Pacific Rim tweeted throughout the summer about the stories they were reading based on their characters and were even teasing each other about it.
Hell, pretty much every fandom I find myself happily inhabiting I’m a part of because I was exposed to fanfiction or fanart first through sites like Tumblr and even Facebook. That’s free promotion if anything.
Let’s face it. Fanfiction isn’t going anywhere; its roots are so deep in fandom culture that it’s not a fandom until someone has written their own version of the story. If writers like George R. R. Martin want to turn their noses at me and my ilk I’ll gladly point them to a copy of Lord of the Rings and tell them to find zero similarities between their work and Tolkein’s before talking to me.