There's an absolutely fascinating discussion about fan-fiction going on at Diana Gabaldon's blog, with flow-on discussions in several other places. It was all sparked by a post Diana did a couple of days ago talking about her objections to other people using her characters and her world to write their own fiction. The viewpoints run the gamut from completely supportive of Diana's position, to very logical rebuttals of her argument, to furious raging against the very idea that a writer could want to retain that kind of control over their characters, to flat-out petulance. To be honest, I read about a hundred of the comments, and then my eyes crossed and I just couldn't force myself to go further.
I have my own perspectives on fan fiction, and I thought I'd share them here.
I can't say I've enjoyed a lot of the fan fiction I've read in recent years. By and large, no matter how good the actual writing, it never matches up to the original- which is no surprise, because it's being written by a different person with a different writing genesis. The things that shape a particular writer's voice are manifold: their education; the books they've read and loved; the hours and hours of practice they've put into imagining and writing; even classes they may have taken. I'd go so far as to say that a writer's voice is as unique as a fingerprint- and of course, when you think about it like that, there's no way one writer can mimic another unless they're flat out plagiarising the work. Therefore if you take characters that someone else has created, you're never going to get them just right, and as a result what you write is not going to match up to the original standard.
BUT. Perfect imitation is not what a lot of fan-fiction writers are aiming for, I know. Fan fiction is, for many, about exploring much-loved characters and places, and pondering what might have been or what might be in future installments of a particular work. How do I know this? Because, confession time- I used to write fan fiction myself.
I was a teenaged X-Files fan, completely in love with Mulder and Scully, swept away by the atmosphere and awesomeness of the show. I watched religiously, and immersed myself in every aspect of that world. At 14, I became the vice-president of an Internet fan club and compiled the trivia for every episode, which involved noting down such minutiae as licence plate numbers, the times on people's wrist watches, that kind of thing. When I tell you I understand fandom, I really mean it. For a while there, The X-Files was my life.
Being a budding writer, this intense love of The X-Files fired my imagination in a major way. I already had my own original stories underway when I discovered the show- a couple of screenplays, including the one which would eventually become the story I'm writing now, and another featuring a pair of feisty CIA agents. I was very focussed on writing for the screen, and my burning ambition at the time became a pretty obvious one- I wanted to write for The X-Files, officially.
So, what's a girl to do? You can't just sit back nervously waiting for the producers of the show to have a psychic moment, pick up the phone and call a teenager in Western Australia to see if she'd like to get involved. If you want a job, you've got to apply- and you've got to show them what you can do. And because you're not involved in the show, you've got no idea what direction the producers have planned. You have your own ideas on what you'd like to see happen, sure- that's based on the fact that you enjoy the characters so much, you can't help but wonder what's going to happen next. And you have original ideas, too, about what might fit on a show like that. And so you pick up your pen and paper, or you fire up your computer, and you have a shot at it. You write a script for the X-Files.
This is where the contentious point seems to arise- you've written your X-Files script; now what do you do with it?
If the answer is a) send it off to the producers of the show and wait nervously for your plane ticket to Vancouver to arrive, then you're doing the right thing. Or perhaps you b) show it to your friends to see what they think, and to get critical feedback on how to improve your skills- after all, you're all big fans, so you're all well-placed to decide if the writing meets the standard. Nothing wrong with this, right? I know my little hand-written scriptbook used to get handed from friend to friend, filled with comments in red, and we all had a great time with it. People would suggest plot elements and characters; we'd stick ourselves in the script as Mary Sues, which amused us no end; and every week when we turned on The X-Files we loved it that little bit extra because we were part of it now.
The problem with this is, today when people want to share their fan-fiction for comment, they do it online. It's not just available to their friends; it's available to everyone. It enters the public domain, and it's no longer a private hobby- it's now a form of publication.
[I don't want to get into an argument about what constitutes publication, by the way- the whole intellectual property/ copyright area is Jen's bag, not mine. But I have heard anecdotally that a number of places that publish short stories, for example, consider a story to have been previously published if it's available on the Internet.]
Regardless- what you do with someone else's fictional property in the privacy of your own laptop or notebook is your own business. Once you put it on the Internet, you're entering different territory. Diana's personal belief is that any kind of fan-fiction that appropriates her characters is wrong- but let's face it, whether you agree with that or not, it's the act of sharing it that is particularly contentious.
Let me step down the path a little bit, because I don't want to get into the specific argument about Diana's books. I agree with much of what she said in her blog post; I agree with many of the counter-arguments, too. I've loved the Outlander series since I was 15, though just for reference I've never for a moment contemplated writing fan-fiction based on those books.
So, here I am today, and I'm an author myself, working toward getting my own books published. A lot of things have made me the writer I am now, including the X-Files fan fiction that I wrote as a teenager. It didn't take me long to move away from that (I'd say it was somewhere around the fifth season of The X-Files, when the series started sliding downhill and never recovered) and focus on my own writing, but I feel like fan-fiction sparked an enthusiasm in me for creative fiction that has never been lost. To take something you love so much in your own two hands, and to think that you might be good enough to create something like that yourself one day- to dream, to plot and scheme, to craft words and characters and worlds- it's a powerful genesis.
The question must be asked: how do I feel about the idea of someone taking the characters I've created, and writing an unauthorised fan fiction using those characters?
Well, first of all, for that to happen, I expect I'd need to have been published and well-sold, and the idea that someone might write fan-fiction with my characters is the kind of thing I imagine would have me screaming from the rooftops, "I'VE MADE IT!". Ahem. But that aside, imagining I'm well and truly succeeding in this writing gig, and I come across a whole raft of stories in which my characters are hooking up with each other; taking completely different paths to those I've chosen for them; talking and thinking differently; and perhaps even being portrayed through writing that by no means meets my own lofty personal standards.
How would I really feel about that?
I've got to tell you, I kind of think I'd love it.
The idea that people could care so much about my stories that they'd feel they knew my characters intimately enough to write with them- that's probably amongst the highest flattery I could imagine. I'll reiterate that in the last couple of years, I haven't read a single piece of fan-fiction (Outlander, Twilight and Harry Potter are the ones I usually check out) that I've enjoyed in the least. Reading it by and large gives me a squicky feeling, especially considering a lot of the subject matter. If it was my own characters involved- I wouldn't read it. Not any of it. I wouldn't want to know what they were getting up to in their alternate realities, but I'd be happy enough to let them go play. After all, there's only one definitive authority on their lives and times, and that's me- it's not like something they get up to out in the wide world will influence what happens in the fiction, especially not if I don't read it.
One of the main reasons I'm confident I'd really feel this is because I already do lend my characters to numerous other people at the Compuserve Forum for our house parties. I invented the house party myself in 2007 after realising with a couple of other frequent participants there that we all knew each other's characters amazingly well. We figured it might be fun to throw all those characters in a room together and have them interact with each other, each taking turns to write- which of course required the "borrowing" of other people's characters.
We've since had quite a lot of house parties, and there's another one coming up next week. They are so much fun, it's ridiculous. I've seen my characters do all kinds of insane things- heck, Rachel's main character had a narrow escape from trouble after my bad guy Lionel drugged her at a party a couple of years back. Lionel, for that matter, gets killed at every party- it's become a running joke to see how he's going to meet his maker next time. None of these events have any effect on what happens in the actual story- it's all for fun. But the surprising thing is, I always learn something new and useful about my characters by doing it. Not ever through the parts written by others- but *because* of the situations other people set up for my characters. When I'm writing, I decide what happens next. When someone else throws your character in a situation and you then have to decide how to get them out, it makes you think in different ways.
So. In summary:
I'm completely supportive of author's rights to hold whatever position they choose when it comes to fan-fiction written using their characters, and I think that true fans should be able to understand the objections that individual authors might have. If you're not a true fan, I'm not sure why you'd write fan-fiction about that world.
I've written a fair bit of what constitutes fan fiction myself, but it was strictly for private consumption, which is the other side of the argument- whether fan-fiction is acceptable if you keep it to yourself. For those wondering, I chickened out and never sent my scripts off to the producers of The X-Files. Which is a pity, because they were so awesome I would have immediately been paid a million dollars, made executive producer, and I probably would have married David Duchovny, too. Cough. Actually, I found them when we moved house last year, and my fingers were twitching to BURN THEM. They were flat-out dreadful. I'm lucky I still have any friends. Nonetheless, the two characters that were my own invention (my pair of CIA agents) got inserted into my X-Files scripts, and have since gone on to have totally unrelated fictional lives of their own. Their story is still sitting in the pile of other works-in-progress that are waiting for me to be done with BETWEEN THE LINES.
Regarding my own work, I think I'd be fully supportive of people writing fan-fiction- but I wouldn't want to read it myself. I do believe that fan-fiction is all about love. If that love became commercial, as in people were selling their stories using my characters, the romance would be getting a little shaky- I know I wouldn't support that. Which is, of course, what generated the whole raging argument on Diana's site, because she was responding to someone who was selling Outlander fan-fiction to raise money for a friend (you can see Diana's solution to that here).
Anyway! I know this is a hot topic, because there are little fires raging all over the place over Diana's comments and the replies. So tell me- what do you think about fan-fiction? Do you or have you written it yourself? And how would you feel about people writing fan fiction using your characters?