The other day, someone expressed surprise that there are over 100,000 works of fan fiction devoted to Harry Potter and Friends over at FanFiction.net ("unleash your imagination and free your soul"). No, what surprised me was that there is more Homeric fan fiction ("Hector's hands wandered for the last time as he met that sacred place with his fingers. He knew that she was nearly drunk with the need to have him within her."), and even more Jane Austen fan fiction (including Darcy/Wickham slash) than there is Dune fan fiction. I always wanted to write about House Harkonnen, myself, especially after I saw the version with Sting as Feyd-Rautha.
Some loathe fan fiction, some love it (to write it anyway, it's hard to find anyone who really reads it much), and there are even those who embrace both reactions. Like an alcoholic who loves to drink, and hates the drink, and hates himself for drinking, and loves the blissful glow of being drunk.
No matter who you are, where your feelings lie, or what your questions might be, in this FAQ I will answer every important question pertaining to fan fiction. Reasonably, authoritatively, and respectfully.
- Fan Fiction for Professional Writers
- Fan Fiction for Fan Fiction Writers
- Fan Fiction for Everyone Else
Fan Fiction for Professional Writers
Is Fan Fiction a New Phenomenon?
In geological time, perhaps, but it's no newer than the human species. Fan Fiction is close kin to the oral traditions of hunter-gatherer societies, or the epic poetry of ancient Greece. Humans have always told stories about common characters, adapting, expanding, remolding the familiar people and places of common myth to their own purposes.
Fan Fiction as we know it today, however, is generally believed to have begun with Star Trek adaptations by fans, many of whom wanted to imagine a little Kirk-on-Spock nookie. (This was called K/S fiction, and the slash between K and S gave rise to the term 'slash' which now refers to any homo-erotic, male-male fan fiction.)
Why do People Write Fan Fiction?
As you might expect, different people have different motives.
An unscientific sampling reveals that about two thirds of writers are genuinely fans who just feel inspired or moved to keep imagining stories about the characters and worlds they have fallen in love with. Many are young adults. Remember: "Imitation is the highest form of flattery."
But there are other writers, and these tend to be the more prolific producers of fan fiction, who are less interested in the source material and are instead exercising their writing addiction. Fan fiction is easier to write than original fiction, and there is no minimum standard, and there is a small but ready-made audience. What could be better? The better fan fiction writers do get some notice and regard from their peers in the sub-culture, which in turn feeds the habit.
Finally, there are people who are basically working through some kink or fetish using the medium of other people's fiction. Slash and other X rated stuff often falls into this category. These are usually the works that makes professional writers queasy.
Help! People are stealing my characters! What do I do?
Quite frankly, you are in a lose-lose situation, unless you are successful enough for it not to matter, in which case you are in a win-win situation. Once again, the deck is stacked against the little gal.
Your options include:
- Prosecute the bastards.
Benefits: You assert your copyright ownership, and let other would-be character thieves know that stealing your stuff could land them in hot water. This may dissuade, say, 5% of potential fan fiction writers.
Drawbacks: Don't forget the 'fan' in 'fan fiction'. If you are at that stage of your career where it makes a difference what people think of you, prosecuting your fans may be a bad idea. Unless your publisher is paying for this, it's also going to be expensive. Furthermore, it's largely ineffective. You aren't going to find most of them, and they can always publish their little storylets under pseudonyms and other hard-to-trace technical obfuscations. Finally, you are not going to get anything out of it. A great percentage of works of fan-fiction begin with the caveat: "Please don't sue me, and I don't have anything worth taking anyway." This is almost certainly true.
- Ignore it. And I do mean ignore it! See What
else can they do to me?
Benefits: The path of least resistance, and it costs you nothing. And there's always the remote possibility that you will develop a cult following based on serendipitous action of word-of-mouth networks.
Drawbacks: Someone, some day, is going to come up to you and say, "My kid loves your work, but I am a little concerned about the bestiality themes."
- Make a public statement, or put guidelines specifying what people can
and cannot do in fan-fiction derived from your work.
Benefits: You actually retain some control over what they do with your characters, and you may also retain the good-will of the fan-fiction community. Besides, this is what J.K. Rowling did, and look where it got her.
Drawbacks: You will be seen as encouraging fan fiction, and in all likelihood, fans will try to send you their efforts. Those who hate fan fiction will think you are pandering (which you are) and fans who want to write stories that would make Dan Savage blush will do so anyway.
Note that while legally, fan fiction steals your creative material, your characters, your ideas, or the world that you have invested so much of your life creating, there is no evidence that fan fiction has any negative impact on your sales. A significant percentage are kids just doing what comes naturally: telling stories about the characters they care about.
(For more about the legal issues, particularly which elements of your fiction are not protected by copyright law, spend some time at Chilling Effects.)
I must mention that there is actually one other possibility. You could actually encourage fan fiction: running contests to reward the best stuff, and co-authoring works by the most competent fans. Read on to learn why this is a Bad Idea.
What Else Can They Do to Me?
They've stolen your beloved characters and put them into revolting (not to mention, biologically impossible) sexual situations. They've littered all over your pristine world. They've written five thousand utterly contemptible variations on your next book. What else can they possibly do?
Well, someone could write a reasonably good variation on your next book, perhaps even anticipating the plot twists you have been thinking up for years. When your book comes out they might conclude you read their version and copied it. They might attempt to sue you for part of the profit.
Sound absurd? Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to Marion Zimmer Bradley. She ran a fanzine for her own work, and in 1992 a fan who had submitted fan fiction demanded part of the profit of Bradley's next book, as well as credit for co-authoring it. There were law suits, and the net result was, Bradley never published the book. All because the fan was able to make the case that Bradley had read (or might have read) the fan fiction.
Conclusion: Never read fan fiction about your world. If fans send you stories in email, delete them unread. If fans mail you stories, return them unopened. Even if this offends your only living fan, you have to do this. Consider a worst case scenario: you read some fan fiction on the web, and some detail, some image, some plot twist enters your sub-conscious and comes out later in one of your own stories. Not only can this fan make the case that you took their idea--he may even be right.
Fan Fiction for Fan Fiction Writers
Is Fan Fiction Really a Copyright Violation?
If you publish fiction about someone else's characters, you are, in fact, breaking the law. The police are not going to come after you, but if the author or her lawyers do, I'm afraid you don't have a leg to stand on. You should do whatever they tell you to, up to and including burning your last living manuscript in the barbecue at midnight.
However: writing fan fiction is not against any law. If you write it in the privacy of your own room, and never show it to a single soul, you have broken no law. So, what is publishing then, you ask? Read on...
(For more about copyright law for fan fiction writers, spend some time at Whoosh.org.)
Is Putting Something on the Web Really Publishing?
Publishing doesn't mean paper, and it doesn't mean getting paid. Publishing means putting it in a place where other people can read it. If the right lawyer gets involved, leaving your original ball-point scribble version in the coffee shop by accident could be considered publishing.
Is Fan Fiction Unethical?
This depends on what the author has to say about it. The author legally owns his or her characters and creations, and owns the rights to all derivative works, which is what fan fiction is. Additionally, the author has put a huge amount of his or her life into the work. What the author says, goes.
Some authors are stingy with their creations. Anne Rice, Anne McCaffrey, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro are a few writers who don't cotton to fan fiction. And if they say fan fiction is forbidden, it might make them mean, but it also makes it unethical for you to write about their characters.
Otherwise, if an author sets some limits on fan fiction, than you are ethically obliged to respect those limits. If they say no sex, or no slash, or no furry, then that's what they mean. Think of yourself as a guest in someone's house. You don't take your shoes off and plop your smelly feet on their table. You certainly don't rape their children. Whatever the house rules are, that determines what is ethical.
If you read through the section for authors, above, you will also understand that authors can't read your fan fiction. Even though you are well-meaning, they still can't read it. So don't send it to them. Instead, write them letters telling them how much you love their stories.
You Keep Mentioning Characters. What About Worlds?
This is a grey area. Ideas are not subject to copyright. The law doesn't specify exactly what, in fiction, is subject to copyright, but court cases have generally focussed on stories and characters as copyrightable elements. Worlds, such as Tolkien's Middle Earth, do not seem to be copyrightable. You might be able to get away with setting your fan fiction in Pern so long as you don't use any of McCaffrey's characters. On the other hand, she might sue you anyway, and the judge might set some new precedent against you. Using the letter of the law to bypass ethics is not the recommended course, here, because the precise configuration of those letters are so blurry.
People say Fan Fiction isn't creative. Why?
Although some fan fiction writers may do some creative things with their stories, the essence of the idea is derivative. If you are using someone else's characters, or world, or concepts, or magic system, then this is something you have not invented on your own.
One argument against writing fan fiction is that if you have any desire to be a writer, it may be quite bad for you to practice at fan fiction because you are not exercising the full creative faculties. It is like an athlete just strengthening one leg.
Why Do People Think Fan Fiction Is Bad?
Because most of it is bad.
The problem of all self-publishing, fan fiction or not, is that you don't have any standard to reach. You can call it done after just a rough draft, or when you are tired of it. You post it on the web, and maybe a few people will read it. Serious writers, however, must work all the time to improve their skills, to deepen their insight, to court the mysterious subconscious that drives true creativity. They know if the next story isn't better than the last one, they are going to start to lose their audience. Editors won't buy it. No one will see it. If something shoddy ends up in print, the critics will jump all over it. It's a tough life, but it has the result of forcing writers to get better.
Nothing is forcing fan fiction to get better. Occasionally you may stumble over some fan fiction that is really quite good, but even then, you have to wonder why the writer isn't writing his or her own stories, and trying to publish them for real.
In fact, one of the dangers for writers in getting deeply involved with fan fiction is that immersion in that much amateur writing will lower your own standards of what is good. Once your brain starts glossing over awkward constructions, clumsy characterization, and filling in for inconsistencies, you will find all of that gunk creeping into your own writing.
Fan Fiction for Everyone Else
For Readers: Is there any Good Fan Fiction?
Of course. You may have a hard time finding it, but there are some talented people out there playing around with fan fiction.
Although I am personally sympathetic with the desire to write fan fiction, I have no real understanding of why anyone would read it. Do you remember the Oz books? There were whole sets of Oz books written by people other than L. Frank Baum. I always thought of them as the fake books, because only Baum's Oz was the real Oz. I feel the same way about fan fiction.
Even the stuff that is technically good, or inherently entertaining, is still not part of the canon. It's like reading a book in which there's a long dream sequence that doesn't mean anything for the rest of the story. Even if it's kind of interesting, or well written, it still feels like a waste of time.
For Parents: My kid is writing Fan Fiction. Should I be worried?
Most parents are so happy when a child shows any interest in reading or writing that they will do anything to encourage the habit.
If your child (or your friend, or, for that matter, your parent) is writing fan fiction, it is worth checking out what author the writer is aping. If it's one of those litigious ones, you might want to suggest a new direction.
But even if it looks safe enough from a legal perspective, you probably want to encourage original fiction even more. Parents know that kids love to rebel, so laying down a rule against fan fiction is unlikely to be successful, particularly since the whole culture of fan fiction is already pretty defensive about the passion. (Remember: "Unleash your imagination and free your soul?") So, gentle encouragement to write creatively, and positive reinforcement on the work there is the best tactic.