I was browsing my library book-sale shelves recently and noticed that many of the works offered for sale—at very discounted prices—were works of fan fiction, most notably Star Wars, Star Trek, and the historical fiction types. I thought it rather intriguing, since the books are donated; it suggested that other, more worthy volumes were retained, while fan fiction was read and discarded, but there could be other reasons for such a phenomenon.
The concept of fan fiction, or works in which a great deal of world, character, and plot borrowing occurs, is hardly new. Shakespeare is probably the worst fan fiction author out there, having stolen plot and characters from history, folk-tale, or fiction for many of his plays (Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet were all reworked by his masterful hand). Of course, back in his time, there were no copyrights, so it was perfectly legal, but I noticed that the legality behind this isn’t generally what bothers people.
Fan fiction tends to divide people into distinct camps, and they both have arguments as to why it is or is not acceptable. And of course, there is the question of royalties, and whether writers who create fan fiction should get paid. Once the work becomes public domain, other writers can do whatever they want, so how fair is it when someone can’t be paid for their work because the original author hasn’t been dead long enough? (I explored this line of thought in an earlier post).
Here are the most common reasons used to encourage the creation of fan fiction:
- It helps beginning authors develop. They can play around with plot, creating believable dialogue and interesting scenes without having to complete the very daunting task of creating the characters, since they already exist. Plus, the original work gives them almost a stencil that they can follow, comparing scenes and wording without the variables of different characters.
- It gives fans the chance to revisit a favorite world or group of characters, even after the author is no longer alive or interesting in writing more. For those who are fans, who wouldn’t want one more Jane Austen novel, one more Shakespeare play? It’s why we read fragments, like Sanditon, and why we wish we could read Love Labours Won. It’s why the fan fiction works about Star Wars and Star Trek and Harry Potter have garnered such an audience. We want more of a good thing.
- It doesn’t hurt anyone. The original work is still out there for people to read, and, most of the time, fan fiction is free, so it doesn’t create competition for the original work in the form of royalty monies.
Those who dislike fan fiction generally use the following as reasons why it shouldn’t be made, put on the internet, or published in any form:
- It’s literary stealing. The author put a lot of work into making the characters and world of the story in the first place, and those who write fan fiction get to come along and reap all the benefits.
- It’s cheating or lazy. Fan fiction is a kind of literary shorthand, where a writer gets to avoid much of the hard work of writing. They don’t have to make the world of the story, they don’t have to invent characters, and they don’t have to build a fan-base. Everything is ready-made.
- It never measures up. Fans of an original work often find that fan fiction fails to match the quality of the original author. The word choice, the character motivations, and the plot all tend to come out very different, and fans get outraged by such things.
I think there are valid concerns on both sides. Personally, fan fiction doesn’t bother me, but then, I generally don’t read it. I can see where it could get out of hand, and I think it could confuse some readers, giving them a bad experience that might turn them away from ever reading the original, but the persistent reader will find it, just as movie watchers find the original books that inspire movies.
And I don’t think an author “owns” their characters to the point that no one else can touch them. I think they are too real for that, and I think the ideas behind public domain and creative commons are very valid. Why would we want to keep something beautiful, powerful, and true to ourselves, hoarding it and declaring that we alone can decide how it must be handled? When authors enrich the artistic and literary world by writing good, powerful stories, they should be rewarded and paid so they can keep writing more, but what they wrote is bigger than they are. A piece of fan fiction may help them realize things about their own story and their world that they’d never explored, and a strong character can handle many retellings.
Of course, none of this should diminish the original author, claiming that they didn’t understand their work and that their opinion doesn’t matter, because it does. The expression, the work, belongs to them, and no one should be able to take that away. They were the first to see that such a thing could and should and did exist, and that gives them a powerful voice in any discussion of what something means or what a character is like. I just don’t think they can be the only voice.
Think of how many reincarnations there are of Robin Hood and King Arthur. And, especially with science fiction worlds, an author can only cover so many characters’ stories and so many countries in their lifetime. Spinoffs let us explore the portions of the map they hadn’t touched yet. Otherwise, when the original author dies, the glimpse she gave us into another world and another realm dies, too, crystallized into a single expression with no hope of another tale.
Where would we be if the author of “Amleth” had objected to Shakespeare’s Hamlet? If King Lear’s descendants didn’t like how he was portrayed and banned the play? Shakespeare took stories and characters that were already out there and made them his own, and in doing so, he revealed a side of those characters and stories that we’d never heard before. If another author can do that with the stories I write, why would I have a problem with it?
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren Photo by braindance, Creative Commons