by Will Viharo
One of the most lucrative and reviled types of fiction on the market these days is “fan fiction,” now known as a single word, FanFiction, or “fanfic” for short. Why is it both beloved and despised, depending on who you ask?
For the same reason in either case: they sell like hotcakes, or at least attract thousands of free downloads, and sometimes make instant celebrities of their authors. So the real question is: why not jump on this bandwagon?
Back in the day (meaning circa the nineteen-hundred-and-seventies), novelizations of movies were a very popular form of fiction, with book tie-ins to movies both big and small, especially if they weren’t already based on bestselling novels a la The Godfather, Jaws, The Exorcist, etc.
This includes the original Stars Wars trilogy.
Now that the seventh film in the series, The Force Awakens, is dominating our media consciousness and popular culture four decades after the first film (now called A New Hope, as if you didn’t know) revolutionized blockbuster cinema - while creating a rabid fan base spanning generations – Stars Wars-inspired FanFiction has become its own genre. Essentially it's the literary equivalent of cosplay.
But then so has fanfic derived from the epic imaginary universes of Harry Potter, Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Hunger Games, Star Trek, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Twin Peaks, James Bond, and many other famous franchises. Even many modern bands have their own fanfic, most notably (and notoriously) the teenage girl favorite One Direction.
Fanfic has become its own genre, with a thriving subculture supported by numerous websites devoted to networking amongst both readers and authors.
The main hub is FanFic.net, which is divided into multiple categories, from Anime to Books to Comic Books to Movies to TV Shows to Music, and beyond, showcasing just how ubiquitous this movement has become over the past decade or so.
Basically, if any type of entertainment has a massive enough following, it most likely has inspired at least some fictional spinoffs.
What is the main difference between old school novelizations and contemporary fanfic?
Several things, the main distinction being fanfic is typically unauthorized. Plus it has a totally different purpose. Rather than sticking to the script of the source material, fanfic authors devise storylines that depart radically from the source, appeasing fans’ desires to not only keep the story going indefinitely, but in directions that they find satisfying.
YouTube is also full of fan-made films, including a whole subgenre devoted to Batman, many of which seem slicker and truer to the source material than the official big studio adaptations, despite their guerilla aesthetic tactics and shoestring budgets.
Not all creators of work that inspires this phenomenon are happy with the liberties being taken with their original material.
Annie Proulx, author of Brokeback Mountain, which also became an acclaimed motion picture, has openly expressed her displeasure about the illicit - and unduly explicit – pornographic fanfic exploiting her story of a tragic gay love affair.
So how are fans getting away with making money and reputations ripping off other people’s art without being busted by the authorities for copyright infringement – which isn’t even disguised!?
Interestingly, the legal limits for this type of thing are pretty broadly defined.
"Officer, I Can Explain..."
The courts have deemed that fanfic is not overstepping any boundaries as long as it constitutes “fair use” of the copyrighted material.
According to Wikipedia, these are the parameters from a legal standpoint:
This may sound confusing to anyone not fluent in legalese. Plus it sounds almost intentionally ambiguous, like a typical trap for clueless suckers.
In fact, all of these issues are decided on a “case by case” basis, so you’re taking chances each time you delve into this dubious arena.
Satire is one way clever filmmakers like Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs) get away with exploiting pre-existing cultural icons for their own profit – and the audience’s appreciative amusement. Most famous people and franchises are considered fair game when it comes to satire. It’s part of the price they pay for universal success.
And I’m sure most would admit it’s worth it.
Let's Try This Again...
The same Wiki entry offers a much clearer set of guidelines for fanfic authors to abide by:
Basically, I didn’t plagiarize the above list because I disclosed the source beforehand. So since there was no attempt at deception on my part, and I not only acknowledged but also attributed the quotes directly to the source by linking to it, I am in no danger of being sued (or fired!) for simply cutting and pasting words I did not write to support my own objective.
Now, all of this may sound like a much grayer area when applied to creative works of the imagination, as opposed to journalism, and indeed, it is. If you’re not actually making money off your fanfic – and in fact, most of it is free for mass consumption – you’re probably not in danger of stepping on anyone’s touchy toes.
Many creators of famous works accept the unstoppable realm of fanfic as free publicity, perpetuating its popularity even while completely reimagining the courses of the original story lines, characters, etc.
Most fanfic remains basically faithful to the source for one reason: they don’t want to alienate the loyal fan base, who will not only boycott but publicly lambast any fanfic that comes off as disrespectful to the subject.
Spaceballs may be a thinly veiled, playful parody of Star Wars, but it’s not insulting or demeaning in any way. If someone out there wrote fanfic that outright denigrated George Lucas’s hallowed mythos, the backlash would be swift – not only from the fans, but also quite possibly from Disney’s lawyers. Respecting the original is one way to avoid these booby traps.
You Want Quality, Too?
Of course, since there is so little authoritative oversight, much fanfic is poorly written and sloppily edited. But its core audience doesn’t care much about these technical drawbacks, as long as the stories themselves are both reverent and exciting to read. But this amateurishness is also the main reason many industry professionals express such disdain for fanfic.
It’s all a matter of personal tastes in the end. I think it’s pretty cool teenagers are still reading any type of fiction in this day and age.
So if you keep all of these matters in mind, and you have no problems self-publishing stories (almost all fanfic is devoured via eBooks and websites) based on someone else’s ideas and characters, then by all means, go for it. It’s not my thing, either as a writer or a reader, since I prefer to invent my own alternate universes populated by my own characters, but who cares?
Everyone writes for their own reasons, and none are “wrong.” Just do what’s right for you, and ignore the naysayers.
After all, E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Gray began as a piece of Twilight fan fiction. Now there are millions of shades of “Gray” out there, spawning its own movie and subculture.
You have to start somewhere.
Are you a reader or writer of fanfic?
PHOTO: ANDREW EVANS