Fan Fiction: intrusion or flattery?

I belong to a number of writers’ networks, and the topic of fan fiction arises on all of them from time to time.  Fan fiction, for the non-writers out there, is when a fan writes his or her own stories in your world, sometimes using your established characters.

Attitudes among authors vary from, isn’t it great that readers care so much about my work? to, those jerks are violating my copyright, but often hover somewhere in the middle, with the author feeling somewhat flattered, but also a bit disturbed.  Some authors ask, if the fan is that excited about writing, and inspired by this kind of work, why doesn’t the fan simply go out and write her own original creations?

From a copyright standpoint, the fan stories would appear to be “derivative works” a right specifically held by the creator of the work.  We now have Amazon stepping into the fray by making arrangements with rights holders to allow fan fiction to not only be written and appear online, but also for the fan-writer to earn money from the work.

Some authors are forbidden from reading the fanfic generated in their worlds because of concerns that, if the fan story is similar to something the author had in mind, then the author now appears to be stealing from the fan (who was already on shaky ground copyright wise).  Yikes!

I have a confession to make here.  My first complete fantasy story was written for a summer workshop when I was about eleven years old, and featured a young boy who gets bonded with a dragon, and learns to ride the dragon to defend his planet from dangerous threads. . .yep. It was “Dragonriders of Pern” fanfic.  I submitted it to the workshop instructor, who praised its creativity. . . but I felt sorta guilty the whole time because, though my character and scenes were original, I had based the whole thing on Anne McCaffrey’s work. ( I actually had the chance to tell her about this at her induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame–she seemed amused more than anything.)

This was one of two works of fanfic I have ever produced, but certainly not the only ones I have thought of.  Why?  Because, as a writer, I play in the world of “what if?”  Nowadays, I write historical fantasy, and the worlds I write my what-if’s into are particular times and places I read about and get excited by.  Sometimes I even borrow historical characters and employ them in my fictional plot.  Sound familiar?

Using an existing framework of ideas that excited you as a place to create new stories allows the writer to experiment with the constraints of that framework, whether it is the world of Pern, or of 14th century London.  It establishes a certain realm of expectation for the readership, and also allows them to feel comfortable and engaged because they are entering a place they already enjoy.

Writing fanfic, like writing historical fiction, can be a way to understand the world more deeply, to study the relationships between its elements by digging in with them–seeing how flexible they are, what can be changed or added, and what cannot without the world disintegrating or becoming something completely other.

The difference, of course, is that, when you write fanfic, the framework you are borrowing was created from the imagination of another writer, who owns all the parts of it, and feels a justifiable pride in its creation, and it its association with his or her own name and reputation.

Fanfic can be a fun way to explore the writing process, and to play out the ideas that come to the reader as he or she enjoys a great book, the way you might daydream about participating in the plot yourself.  There are authors who condone fanfic, and those who don’t.  An internet search will usually reveal the difference.  If your intent is to honor your enjoyment of the author’s world, and to be able to share it with others who share that enjoyment, then it’s polite to make sure the author you wish to honor will receive your work in that spirit.

But if you are not invited in by the creator, it’s more like a home invasion where you eat the food they planned to have for dinner, then rearrange the furniture and leave your fingerprints all over the glassware.  Whether it actually harms the author or not, it is an intrusion into a place the author holds dear.

My second work of fanfic was the Dark Crystal novel, “The Darkseeing Stars,” written as my entry into the Dark Crystal Author Quest last year.  While I had friends who expressed concern about writing a work for hire, or one in which I could not control its destiny, to me, it was a chance to celebrate the delight that Jim Henson and Brian Froud had given me with that film.  Unlike my earlier intrusion onto Pern, I was invited to their house to play with all of those amazing toys–guilt-free.


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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