We’ve all experienced it in some way. Verbally, visually or even in your dreams. You might have actively sought it out or accidentally stumbled across it. However you feel about it, you can’t deny fanfiction plays a huge part in the media we consume in daily life.
Fanfiction is the creation of a story using already established characters, settings, or plot lines and, having been around for thousands of years, can’t be stamped out – believe me, many people and organisations have tried. It’s a natural progression from just debating aspects of stories and/or life and continuing, altering, or expanding upon them. Although in some cases it can be taken too far, it can also be a tool for imagination, creativity, and honing not only the skills of the author, but the reader too through exposure to well-written stories.
There are many types of media derived from other pieces (hence why I said earlier it has a big part in society). That’s not to say that they are somehow lesser or of inferior quality because of their transformative nature. Film adaptations of Shakespeare, Jane Austen “sequels”, even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, all have something in common: they are all, by their very nature, fanfiction. These “acceptable” fanfictions are highly successful. (Largely young) writers are wrongly condemned for something older generations have made millions out of. And these writers do it for free. If you ask anyone connected to fanfiction, they’ll tell you it has had a positive effect on countless people. For many it is a more attractive alternative to fiction, particularly when the characters are already known. It also allows a greater level of representation, which is sadly lacking in modern media.
In addition, friendships are formed daily due to fanfiction as a result of the community of each fandom. Writing becomes a tool to form and maintain friendships started simply through a shared love. One of my friendships is mainly based around screaming at each other about Marvel (not literally), and although I’m sure she’s determined to break my heart with her sad headcanons, we can genuinely talk for hours about hundreds of different worlds, ideas or AUs.
It could be argued that fanfiction has a cathartic quality to it, as someone unhappy with a sad or ambiguous ending to a story can go off and make up their own just to suit them. Fans displeased with queerbaiting or a particularly troublesome and/or problematic part of a piece of media can effectively erase it with fanfiction. Alternatively, it can be used purely for pleasure: to alter the course of a story to satisfy them, e.g. making Hermione the protagonist of the Harry Potter series. No one raises an issue with this when it’s just a verbal “imagine this happened instead….” But as soon as it is written down it is unfairly decried as irredeemably immoral and as theft.
Apart from enabling people to become better at writing, it can be very helpful when it comes to school, college or university. If you choose English as an elective at school you have a head start on skills for your writing folio. This also stands you in good stead for an English degree that lets you do creative questions. Further still, it’s a great aid if you do a college course related to media. The part time one I did during high school involved writing in a variety of different styles to a brief. Since many of the assignments involved fiction -which wasn’t as daunting as it might have been had I not regularly written fanfiction – I did quite well on the course, especially as I already had a firm grasp of the technical aspects. The writing skills learnt through fanfiction don’t necessarily have to stay with fiction writing; they can easily crossover to all kinds of writing styles as you become more practised. With fanfiction, even people who don’t enjoy writing or feel they lack the imagination for a fully fleshed out, original story can feel inspired to write about something they’re truly passionate about. And that’s amazing.
Notable authors’ stance on fanfiction:
Terry Pratchett: “I don’t actually object to fan fiction, which by its very nature uses copyrighted and trademarked material, provided that it’s put somewhere where I don’t trip over it […] isn’t done for money, and isn’t passed off as ‘official’ in any way.”
Anne Rice: “I do not allow fan fiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters.”
Meg Cabot: “I myself used to write Star Wars fan fiction when I was tween. I think writing fan fiction is a good way for new writers to learn to tell a story. The good thing about writing fan fiction is that the characters and basic plot are already set up, so new writers can concentrate on dialogue, or further plot development.”
Words such as “copyright”, “misrepresentation”, “theft” and “inappropriate” are often thrown around, with no clear picture of the far-reaching nature of fanfiction and what it can do not only for individuals but creators too.
Fanfiction can be seen as a form of free promotion, as many fanfiction writers tend to share or recommend stories they have enjoyed (see: rec lists), which in turn encourages the person to seek out the original canon. I’ve even read fanfiction about something I’d never seen, just because the writing or plot was good. This illustrates fanfiction as a way of introducing people to new books or films etc. Fanfiction is a tribute medium, paying homage to original stories and helping fuel imagination and writing ability. How can that be a bad thing?
There is a lack of clear laws surrounding the subject, but essentially it all boils down to this: as long as it is not written for profit and you don’t claim the canon as your own original work, it is not illegal.
As Lev Grossman said in Time: “Writers weren’t the originators of the stories they told; they were just the temporary curators of them. Real creation was something the gods did“. Given that it’s widely held there are only a finite number of stories (8, if you simplify it right down) there’s no point in chasing down fanfiction authors, who know they aren’t the original creators and never claim to be. Surely the time, energy and money wasted on hounding genuine fans would be better spent combatting actual plagiarisers, or better yet, creating new content for fans to enjoy?
Sites to have a look at! (opening in a new window)
***Significantly adapted from one of my essays written for the SQA in high school. Title* shamelessly reused.***
*taken from Robert Burns’ “A Man’s A Man For A’ That”