Thursday, May 6, 2010

Confessions of an X-Phile

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?


  1. Shucks, Claire, I was trying to stay out of this discussion, but I can't help commenting on an X-Files reference :-) Man, I used to love that show; I wish we'd met online back then!
    The only fanfiction I've ever written was around the same age as you, at 14-15, when I wrote two romance novels based on what would happen if Per and Marie of Roxette ever got together, and how it would come about. Like you, it was mostly written in a notebook, or typed out and printed, for me and a few classmates to share. I never once thought of doing anything else with it cos I realised I was writing about real people and of course that’s libel.
    I think the reason I think of fan fiction as a teenager’s activity is precisely because I did it as a teenager, as writing practice, and wrote my own original stories before, during and after that. I can see loving a story enough to want to speculate, and one’s very involvement leading to ideas that one wants to explore in writing. But I’m afraid I have to agree with Diana that most ff writing is badly written and pornographic (and therefore, to me, boring). I just can’t see why anyone would want to waste time with it. But of course, that’s my opinion and that’s why so many commenters are duelling it out on so many forums at the moment – because it’s not a clear cut legal issue, and clearly, many people don’t find it boring or a waste of time at all! And I myself enjoy our house parties, but I suppose I could argue that that’s a limited time frame collaboration, and not really ff.
    I’m afraid I don’t understand the argument that if other people started ff-ing my characters it would mean I’d made it. If I’m ever published and find that people are ff-ing my stuff, I think I’d feel as Diana does – violated. But I will wait and see on that one, and try to deal with it case by case, since I’m not published yet and don’t want to make categorical statements beforehand.
    I also object to everyone dragging Tolkien’s name into this. Someone mentioned on Eddie Louise’s blog that Tolkien would be fine with people playing in Middle Earth – the commenter didn’t provide a reference, of course, and I’m going to write back and ask where the heck he got that idea from. Also, someone commented on Diana’s blog that Born of Hope is fan fiction. I might be wrong, but I don’t think it is – I think they got permission to make a movie based on *stuff Tolkien wrote* (Appendix F, if I recall correctly), in the same way Peter Jackson got permission to make his.
    Finally, I’m very glad there’s a logical, well-written, even-handed discussion sans ad hominem attacks going on on the Forum, because the tone, grammatical errors and logical fallacies of many of those comments on the blog just makes me want to gag.
    But that’s just me :-)

  2. Hmm...I don't really agree with you Claire. I've been following the thread over at the forum (I read the blog posts, but I'm not touching the comments with a 10-foot bargepole *g*) and I have to say, my immediate reaction was, "If/when I get published and therefore have an author website, I am _so_ putting up a no-fan fiction policy."

    I don't want people using my characters. I wrote them _my_ way, and I don't want someone deciding that hey, it would be really cool to have my MC fall in love with the bad guy who's not bad after all, just misunderstood (as happened in every Harry Potter fanfic I read, which wasn't many. I got sick of "Good Draco". What a load of garbage).

    I can kind of see that having someone writing fanfic of your works does mean you've made it (I don't know of any fanfics of unpublished works, myself *g*) but I still don't want anyone to write fanfics of my work. Even if I don't read them, knowing that they're out there would make me wonder what people are writing (e.g. MC and bad guy relationship) which would make me feel icky.

  3. Hi Claire, the mighty fanfic debate. I was going to stay out of it over on the forum, mainly because suddenly I was feeling dirty about something I've been doing for a long time. I too wrote Xfiles fic,in fact I still have 2 pieces up on Fanfic net that people are reading. I loved XFiles, and I was an adult when I was writing that.
    I've mentioned somewhere that discovering fanfic was amazing! I had been doing it all my life and had no idea that other people did it too. It was so liberating to be able to write like that, for like minded people. We weren't stealing anything, we were simply playing in a huge communal pool!
    I have also, all my life been writing original fic, the two are not mutually exclusive.
    I am currently writing original fiction (as you know) and am looking forward to the houseparty. But I'm feeling stalled in my original story and so I go and write fanfiction.
    I write for the Torchwood fandom, which I fell in love with a couple of years ago. I hadn't written fanfic since the Xfiles days, but this started it for me again. I love writing it. I love sharing it, I adore feedback, and I also enjoy reading (some but definitely not all of)it.
    Interestingly I know two of the actors from the show read fanfic. I know (through round about routes) that one of them has read MY work and enjoyed it. That was hugely exciting. However that couldn't be publically acknowleged (and you'll note I'm not naming names -please don't ask) because they are not able to be seen to endorse fanfiction.
    Writing fanfic kick started my other writing and when I'm stalled like now, I can go and play elsewhere, still practising the craft and learning to write better, but with less pressure on me to perform well.
    I agree with you about how exciting it would be to hear of fanfic about my story! Wow, that would be just amazing. I'm not sure if I'd want to read it or not. Nothing however can take away my insight and knowlege of my characters. You know how hard I've worked to "find" them. If I had to work so hard, no one else is going to be able to come close to writing them with out all that unpublished background that I know about that they don't.
    My two cents - I don't really want to get involved either on Diana's blog or the forum.
    Actually - a last minute thought when I was wondering if I should add a link to my XFiles fics. I write fanfic under a pseudonum. I'm not ashamed of it, but it is different to what I write "seriously" and so far I have kept the two different. I don't think I have a moral problem with what I write, but right now, I still want to keep these two things seperate.
    I really am not sure what my problem is with this but for the moment that's the way it is. If however anyone would really like to read some of my work - please pm me on the forum and I'll give you a link.

  4. Thanks for being brave enough to wade in and discuss, guys :)

    Deniz- to my mind, fan-fiction is usually not an "individual" effort. That is, one person writes it, but it's part of something bigger, that being the so-called fandom. So for someone to write fan-fic based on my characters, in theory that would mean I had not just fans but a fandom, ergo the feeling that I'd "made it". Just my personal opinion, though :)

    Helen- there's no need to agree with me (g). That's why I totally support the right of every author to have their own firm stance on fan-fiction- because everybody feels differently about their characters and their work. I noticed that in Diana's original post she mentioned a couple of other authors who don't mind fan-fiction (Neil Gaiman was one), and I guess it just happens that I fall on that side of the equation. I'm sure a lot more authors fall on Diana's side. Funnily enough, we both agree on how it would make us feel to have our characters written into different situations by different authors- squicky- but the difference for me is, it wouldn't bother me to have people doing that as long as I didn't have to read it.

    Jill- I thought of you when I first read Diana's post. I think writing fan-fiction had the same effect for both of us- it was very liberating. I guess there's a big difference between writing fan-fic about TV shows (which already have multiple writers and myriad directions they could take in the future; they also come to an end eventually leaving lots of room for speculation) and novels, which are static works by one individual author. Personally I've never been tempted to write fan-fiction based on a novel I've read- it just doesn't seem like the same thing to me, because there's a limit to how much speculation can go on.

    PS- David Duchovny once answered a question I posed to him on a live online chat (the actors and producers did a couple of them while the X-Files was in it's prime). I can't even remember what I asked now, but it took me about three months to come down off the ceiling :)

  5. Hi Claire, I've never even thought of fanfiction for books until I read Diana's blog. It never occurred to me that people did that. Isn't that odd? TV shows yes, and for some reason SciFi based TV shows predominantly, but not books. That said I did read a hailarious TW cross over with The Stainless Steel Rat (which is a series of classic sci fi space opera style books).

    This whole thing/debate at the moment has me quite horrified. I can't believe the number of posts it's thrown up on Diana's blog and on the forum. I just checked in now on the forum and there is something like 80 new posts on that thread. I notice the lovely lady Del who waded in to try and explain fanfiction has left in disgust and who can blame her. But what disgusted me was a post from a forum regular who I usually respect, crowing that Del had shown her true colours at last! My god.

    Yes I write fanfiction. No I'm not ashamed of that. But by cripes I won't be mentioning anything like that on the forum ever again.

    And I'm actually a bit jaded with the forum anyway. I'm not sure why. I've got a lot out of exercises lately but I don't think I'll join in this month. It seems to take me further and further from my own story, my own voice and feel. Then I feel obligated to spend a lot of time trying to explain to other people what I did or didn't like about their exercises and suddenly I haven't written anything of my own for ages.

    I will join in with the houseparty though. Houseparties are awesome and inspiring and I found half my plot and all of one of my characters in the last one.

    Sorry for the blurt. This whole fanfic thing has got me uptight.
    Thanks for your writing support.

  6. oh and ps, David Duchoveney answered your question. SQUEEEEE!!!!

  7. I'll say, squee!!
    I keep thinking of fan fiction as related to books only. But it seems it might be something different in relation to tv shows or manga or movies - fields that already start off as being more collaborative.

  8. Claire - for me, knowing that it does/might exist would be squicky enough. Quite possibly what I'd imagine would be worse than what did exist...but I wouldn't want to take that chance!

    Jill - <>

    Yeah, I saw that post too. ISTM that forumite is lovely as long as you agree with her, but if you don't... She's quite scathing on home birthers and quite a few other things, I've noticed.

    As for exercises - not that I often do them (or post them if I do, because I tend to be really late completing them!) but I think once you've got a bit of a feel for your story you just pick and choose the ones that actually feel useful to you. For example, the A-Z exercise I've been playing with, because that's useful seeing what things are coming out as really important to my character. This month's exercise doesn't feel useful to me, so I'm not going to worry about it. FWIW *s*

  9. Let me start with saying that I understand the authors who dislike or forbid fanfiction of their work(s), for personal reasons and all that legal stuff. I understand.
    I personally would be thrilled. Of course, if I came across fanfiction of my work, my first reaction would probably be "Huh, what's this?" But then I'd go read.
    Of course stories always rise or fall with the talent of the writer and your personal tastes, and I'd enjoy it more if a person who knows what they're doing worked with my original, but still. I don't see working with another one's material as lack of own ideas but as appreciation (And let's face it, some of those fanfiction writers are incredibly talented. I do read fanfiction myself – yes, I admit, wrote it too – and sometimes I'm just completely blown. Where are those people hiding and why don't they write 'real' stories?). Even if someone rewrote an ending they didn't like, they do care enough about the overall story to work with it.
    Sometimes people don't develop the story further, they 'just' rewrite it, from another POV maybe. And it's interesting to see how that particular reader interpreted the happenings of the original story. Sometimes coming up with things you'd never in a million years thought of, but that are interesting nevertheless. Just recently I had someone rewrite something of mine (it was part of a contest, so I knew this was happening, but I didn't know who would do it and the result was highly dubious). And I really enjoyed it. In that instance, the rewrite felt as a continuation of the story.
    Developing a story further, be it within what exists or expanding beyond that (in the case of Harry Potter for example), is always a journey worth going on (as a reader or writer, doesn't matter) too.
    I remember the discussion for/on that Rowling wanted to forbid and delete all fanfiction on there. Well, it didn't happen. I don't know about her reasons, but I really, really appreciate that (the only thing they took down – in general though after some time too – was stories with a high rating; that people know a way around that is a complete different story).
    As for Diana's stories (which started this discussion) I never enjoyed fanfiction of that. I have no idea why that is. Since I do read a lot of ff I did go on a hunt for them, but I think I read about one chapter of two stories each and then I stopped. I just did not enjoy it. And I cannot explain it either. It cannot be that people cannot incorporate the amount of detail and people Diana puts in them, because (and here I go back to that again) Rowling has a lot of detail too and knows way more about her world than she puts on paper, but I never had a problem with people not really grasping that. It cannot be the characters, because both worlds are equally dear to me and each new author inevitably writes people out of character (because they're not the original author). I have read many fandoms (and in various genres) and Outlander fanfiction is the one I really don't enjoy.

    So, the conclusion for me: I love fanfiction (although I'm perfectly capable of inventing my own stories) but I have sympathy for any author who doesn't.

  10. Claire,

    Very timely post. I have to admit I missed all of the hooplah about Diana's books, etc. I only read the posts very recently and I can see why people are up in arms -- on both sides of the fence.

    That said, I kinda have to agree with just about every one of your points. I've never written fan-fiction, myself, but I did *cough* take on a Scottish time-travel wip after reading Diana's series. It's pretty amusing how up in arms some people got over this fact...and this with me setting out to try to distinguish it from Diana's books in every conceivable fashion. The idea that I would try something so SIMILAR...with totally original characters, mind...was a BIG issue for some people. So I guess I can understand why people might get seriously upset by the idea of someone setting out to use Diana's world and characters. Or whatever the fictional world du jour is.

    Anywho, I agree with you -- I see it as a HUGE form of flattery. I also agree there is No Way In Hell I would want to read what others did with my characters. But knowing there are people out in the world who would care to write about my world/characters would be SO FUCKING COOL. (g)

    Anywho...just my two cents. Obviously, I've never been put in a situation where I have to watch Gabe and Drew have a wild romance with a huge helping of bondage. Yeah, that's total squick. I might be singing a different tune if I were. lol