Inside the World of Fan Fiction

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Fan fiction—that is, fiction that uses an existing universe created by another author and expands (or pirates) it—has literally been around for centuries. Consider the "infancy gospels," later texts that explored the life of the infant Christ and other figures in the original gospels.

But right now, we are living in an unprecedented era of devoted—even rabid—fandom, where the dedication of a few can actually bring a dead series back from the brink (Firefly), can rocket a first-time author to the top of the bestseller lists and keep her there (Twilight, Harry Potter), and can even influence the source story as it unfolds (Babylon 5, Undeclared). The power of the fan is only now being realized—and fan fiction is on the front lines of that power.

It's a subtle revolution, one that's mostly occurring online, which is why we've put together this introduction to the world of fan fiction:

A (very) brief history of fan fiction

For as long as people have been dreaming up characters, fans have been dreaming up ways to create new situations for them to try on, copyright laws be damned.

The various sources for the Epic of Gilgamesh seem to indicate that later generations were adding and adapting the tales on their own, and literary history is littered with other examples: Unauthorized "sequels" to Don Quixote, fan-penned tales set in Alice's Wonderland, even early-20th century stories creating new adventures for Sherlock Holmes and his trusty Watson.

But it's been two 20th century developments that have led to a burgeoning on a grand scale. The first was Star Trek. One of the most beloved of created universes, the original series has given fans enough material to create their own versions of events and stories for decades. In the late 1960s and "˜70s, fans began to share their stories with one another through fanzines, the first of which was called Spockanalia and sent through that thing that came before the Internet, the postal system. The second most important thing was the Internet itself. Without the Internet, its immediacy and its democratic underpinnings, fan fiction would hardly exist in the force that it does today.

If you're interested in a more academic take on fanfic, check out the work of Dr. Henry Jenkins, director of MIT's Comparative Media Studies program and the author of one of the first books written about the phenomenon of fan fiction. Jenkins contextualizes fan fiction, placing it within an evolving "participatory culture," where media interacts with consumers on a much more personal and reciprocal level. But moving on"¦

A practical fanfic primer

There is a vast amount of fan fiction currently circulating around the internet: FanFiction.net and FictionAlley.org both have millions of members and millions of entries, ranging from short poems inspired by Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty series to full, novel-length explorations of Harry's life if he'd never gone to Hogwarts. Then there are the sites for individual universes: Harry Potter, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Stargate, and many more.

But before you go trolling for fanfic, there are a few things to note: First, due to the sometimes violent or sexual nature of some fanfic, many sites come with a rating system. Fanfic sites police themselves, adhering to a standard that is an amalgamation of existing entertainment ratings systems and that can differ between sites. What's G on one site can be K on another, PG-13 can be T, R can be M, NC-17 can be MA—but be sure to check the rating before reading any story, just so you know what you're in for.

And second, like any community, the community of fan fiction comes with its own language. Here are just a few of the terms: "Beta" refers to fellow fanfic readers and writers who will act as editors of a story; "canon" is the universe as created by the original author or authors (note that what is considered "canonical" can actually change as the original story develops over time or should the originator wish); "fanon" generally means facts or conditions that are not explicit in the canon but are accepted by the majority of the fandom. Going a bit deeper, there's "Mary Sue," a critical fanfic term for a character who is the embodiment of the author's wish fulfillment fantasy, for whom everything tends to work out; "shipper" is a fanfic writer who writes a certain romantic pairing, say Hermione and Draco; and then there's "slash," the somewhat controversial fanfic exploration of homoerotic and sometimes outright pornographic pairings of two male characters (more on that here, in the context of Harry Potter).

Famous fan fiction writers

For the record, fanfic isn't just pale teenagers whiling away their waking hours hunched over the computer and tapping out torrid Harry/Draco romance stories or unauthorized future installments of the Twilight saga: Famous authors, too, have dabbled in other writers' universes. In the years after Alice in Wonderland was written, for example, famous authors such as Frances Hodges Burnett (The Little Princess and The Secret Garden), and E. Nesbit (Five Children and It), thought they'd take a hand in re-writing or revising the now classic and classically trippy text.

Nowadays, it's kind of cool to admit you write fan fiction—Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries, came clean recently and admitted she wrote fan fiction based on Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern world. Naomi Novik, author of the acclaimed Temeraire series, said that she started out writing fan fiction. She's also the head of the Organization of Transformative Works, which seeks to promote the legality of fan fiction and other fan works.

Fan fiction damns the man

Because fan fiction takes its bones, so to speak, from an existing work owned and copyrighted by another creator, it can legally be considered a "derivative work"—and under copyright and intellectual property laws, that's a bit of a no-no. (Parody, by the way, is an entirely different issue and is protected from prosecution under copyright laws.) Most fan fiction writers believe that if they write fan fiction without the intent to profit from it, then they and their work are protected; to that end, many stories come with a disclaimer indicating that the characters in it belong to the original author and that the story was written with no intent to profit.

Not exactly. While damages sought from copyright infringement rest on whether or not the fiction seeks to profit from the work and how much, the originator of the copyright protected work can still sue, or at least, fire off cease and desist letters.

britney-fanficWhether or not they do so often sits with the original creator's feelings toward fan fiction. Some creators encourage fanfic: J.K. Rowling, for one, has given her blessing to fanfic writers, saying that she was "flattered" people would want to write stories based on the world she's created. Last year, Britney Spears even launched a fan fiction contest, calling on fans to write stories based on songs chosen from her latest album, The Circus. The winner of the contest would see their story turned into a digitally animated film.

Other authors and creators, however, have taken a dim view of fanfic: Anne Rice, author of the Interview With a Vampire series, famously frowned on stories based on her universe, requesting that online fanfic archives remove any works based on her worlds. (This is somewhat hypocritical, given that you could argue Rice is herself a fan fiction writer: Her most recent books are fictional expansions of the Gospels, exploring the life of Jesus Christ.)

Most situations that reach the lawsuit stage arise when a fanfic author has sought to publish his or her work and therefore, to make a profit from it. Last year, for example, lawyers for J.D. Salinger, the Catcher in the Rye author who passed away last month, filed suit against an author writing a sequel to Salinger's most famous book. The alleged sequel, called 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, featured a character named "Mr. C," an elderly escapee from a retirement home bearing a striking resemblance to Rye's Holden Caulfield.

Because of fan fiction's questionable legal status, fanfic sites have to be somewhat careful how they go about things. For example, FictionAlley.org is one of the major fanfic sites and as such, costs money to run. In order to keep it going for the hundreds of thousands of users, it is now a registered 501©3 tax-exempt charitable organization and subsists on donations from its users.

There's been some commotion in the fan fiction community after one author, who goes by the name of LadySybilla, insisted that it was her right as a fan to publish her work of fan fiction. LadySybilla sought to publish and sell Russet Noon, a "tribute sequel" to the fourth book of the Twilight saga, Breaking Dawn. She and her publisher, AV Paranormal, even went so far as to offer copies of the book on eBay. But after realizing that fighting the forces of publisher Little, Brown would be a losing battle, she gave refunds to everyone who tried to by the book and instead, is putting the book out a chapter at a time online. AV Paranormal has also said that the book will be released for free in a physical copy.

The publisher argued Russet Noon was taking a stand for the little guy, releasing a statement practically quivering with righteous indignation: "Every universe or, to put it in more commercial terms, franchise, feeds off our fantasies, dreams and hard earned dollars. When we give life to a universe, when we become its fans and financial supporters, we become the human batteries that keep its matrix alive"¦ Authors write fan fiction and sell it all the time. They just change the identities of the characters to protect themselves from lawsuits. Unfortunately, when an author is honest about their unconventional views about fanfiction, they get called a 'thief' and their ethical values come under attack. The only problem with this self-righteous, judgmental thinking is: How can you steal something that's already yours?"

If fanfic's murky legal status is worrying to its writers, it's not enough to keep them from writing it or from championing it. Supporters of fan fiction, such as the Organization for Transformative Works, claim that not for profit fan fiction should be considered "transformative" and come under fair use exemptions from copyright prosecution.

Authorized "fan fiction"

But there is fan fiction that does make it out to the for-profit world, like the source-sanctioned novel explorations of popular shows and movies, such as Star Trek (William Shatner even got into that racket), Star Wars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

rhett-butlerBut it's not only the sci-fi and fantasy franchises that have seen authorized fan fiction. Despite the fact she's been dead since 1817, Jane Austen's Regency England universe continues to make it onto the printed page with astonishing regularity. Because Austen's works lie primarily in the public domain and her characters are not trademarked, anyone can access her characters and use them however they wish (Mr. Darcy's Diary, Mr. Darcy Presents His Bride, Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters).

In cases where copyright or trademark restrictions still apply, published stories that use famous characters often have authorization from (or have paid licensing fees to) the estate of the original author. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is a figure who has been adapted and adopted by other authors, with permission: Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Chabon's The Final Solution explores an aging Holmes, while mystery writer Laurie King's Mary Russell series pairs the famous sleuth with a new female partner who later becomes his wife. Margaret Mitchell's opus, Gone With the Wind, was followed up many years later by the much maligned Scarlett, the authorized sequel, and then Rhett Butler's People, also authorized by the Mitchell estate, and also a sequel (the unauthorized The Wind Done Gone, which told the story from the perspective of Scarlett's half-black half-sister, was ruled by the US Court of Appeals to be a parody).

Fan films

While much of fan fiction lives in the world of words, film has proven just as inspirational a medium to fans. And now, ever-improving uploading speeds on the Internet and increased access to filmmaking and special effects equipment means that more fan fiction can and will become fan film.

hidden-frontierStar Trek has inspired several would-be filmmakers to produce new narratives based in the existing universe, including a very polished web-based production that relied on green screen effects to recreate the bridge of The Next Generation Enterprise called Hidden Frontier. That program lasted seven seasons on the Internet and was entirely produced, directed, written and filmed from fan/producer Robert Caves' spare bedroom. The makers of Hidden Frontier have now gone on to produce two other series, Star Trek: Odyssey and Star Trek: The Helena Chronicles. The shows have attracted a significant fan following, which contributes to the shows' production through donations of time, in kind and money.

That there's simply more fan film out there means that some—definitely not all—are of a higher quality. And that's getting the notice of the general public, not just folks in the fandoms. Since 2003, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, a shot-by-shot labor of love that recreates Steven Spielberg's seminal action film and took seven years to make, has enjoyed tons of press and screenings at theatres and film festivals across the world. In 2008, the Sunscreen Film Festival in St. Petersburg, Florida, issued its first-ever call for fan film submissions, and, in a very meta moment, Son of Rambow, the highly acclaimed 2007 film about two boys in the English countryside making their own film inspired by First Blood, may be one of the first films about fan film.

Some creator companies, like Paramount has with the Star Trek iterations, have simply ignored the existence of fan film, as long as the producers and actors don't use it to make money. LucasFilm, on the other hand, encourages fan films and even partners with online AtomFilms to hold the Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge, allowing the use of footage from the original films in mash-ups, the use of the action figures, and the liberal production of parodies (The Eyes of Darth Tater is a notable example of the latter). Winners of that contest have had their films screened at Cannes—and while a number of terrible non-fan films have been shown at Cannes, we may be able to take it as a sign that fan film is growing up.

Where doesn't fanfic go?

Virtually any franchise, any universe is open to fan fiction—so yes, California Dreams, that bland early "˜90s teen sitcom from the Peter Engel school of entertainment, has its own fanfic. If you can watch it, read it, or play it, you can write fanfic about it: Jake and Elwood, aka the Blue Brothers; The Saddle Club; Girl, Interrupted (which is weird primarily because the source work there is a memoir); the histories of Herodotus; The Summer of My German Soldier; The Kite Runner; The Witch of Blackbird Pond; Polar Express; Quills; The Adventures of Lavaboy and Sharkgirl; Daria; Golden Girls; Gomer Pyle, USMC; Hogan's Heroes; I Dream of Jeannie; and even high school marching bands are their own genre in the fanfic universe.
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So let's hear it—have you ever read (or written) any fan fiction? What did we leave out that's worth mentioning?

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February 8, 2010 - 11:04am
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