Over the past few years that I’ve been logging on to the Internet, one thing that seems to keep on growing is the fan fiction community. While I don’t see fan fic as something new (I think every person has had an urge to write their own take on a particular story at one point in time or another), its dominance its perhaps rooted with the popularity of the Internet. Perhaps the greatest asset of the Internet is that anyone can use it (and even remain anonymous), and best of all, publishing is free (more or less, although perhaps a century from now, there will be no “free web space” and web hosts will start charging for virtual rent). A writer a hundred years ago could perhaps write their own take on Sherlock Holmes, for example, but the manuscript would be lying in a desk somewhere, never to be read by anyone else. Nowadays though, once the idea pops into your head, you can easily jot down your ideas, upload it to a website somewhere, and immediately have millions of potential readers (and of course, immediate feedback is also a boon to some people).
Some people might be asking what went wrong there. Zealous fan fic writers, on the other hand, might get excited at that very question and immediately claim that there’s nothing wrong, that fan fiction is literary, and that it’s a valid art form. So what’s the real issue here?
Several teachers of my writing class (themselves accomplished writers) claim that there’s no real true story to tell, that everything is merely revamping or dressing up old stories. To a certain extent, that’s true (and it certainly is harder to come up with an “original” story nowadays than it was a thousand years ago not because our minds are less imaginative or refined, but perhaps due to the fact that modern publishing has disseminated more information [and that means more works and stories] than was previously available). But that’s not to say that every thing you read, every piece of work you see, is merely a copy of another. There is some skill, there is some creativity, and there is some talent involved in creating a good story (irregardless if it’s an original work or fan fiction). I mean I just need to look at the bookstore’s fantasy section and certainly not all the novels there are derivatives or clones of Tolkien (author of Lord of the Rings).
I think the real issue is in defining the borders. I mean if I write a story based on Greek mythology, for example, does it automatically mean it’s a fan fic? Or perhaps I write a vampire story, what line do I cross that determines what I’m writing is a homage to Bram Stoker and not just a fan’s take on the existing story? My take on it is that the two (Greek myth and Dracula) are first and foremost public domain, which is why writers have more or less a free hand in incorporating the characters present in those texts into their story. But even then, if your story is more or less parallel to the original, it’ll be classified as a fan fic (if it’s not published), or just a badly written derivative (if it gets published in print [but we may have to change our standards considering the rise of Internet “publishing”]). Perhaps a good example I can give are the Arthurian fantasies. I mean the King Arthur story, for the most part, is based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (which in turn is based on Celtic myth and Christianity). But what separates novels like Mists of Avalon and Once and Future King from the original Malory story is its take on it; I mean both books can easily be classified as a fan fic considering it has the same set of characters and perhaps follows the same timeline. But there is certainly something in their writing that makes them “cross the border”, to move from fan drabble to something original. I think the same goes for Neil Gaiman, who bases a lot of his stories from existing myths. There’s a line that he crosses that makes his work similar yet different from the original. In a certain sense, a writer might begin with fan fic, but end up with something different in the end.
Okay, that may be the case for public domains, but what about works with licenses? A number of writers do make it into the canon by asking permission from the holders of the copyright. I mean many writers in comics have immortalized themselves in giving their own take to Batman, for example. And while fans certainly have their own ideas for this iconic superhero, what differentiates the official writers from the fans is that the official writers have the right (as decreed by law) to do so. And it’s an accepted part of the canon from that point on (sometimes to the chagrin of future writers). Falling short of that, it’s going to be a messy, legal issue. My take on it though is that it’s okay to write a fan fic for personal use (as it is a good way to exercise your writing talents). I think the real problem arises in conjunction with the Internet, where free publishing is available, and uploading a fan fic isn’t personal use anymore (since the public gains access to it). I’m not saying it’s evil to do so, but sometimes, the original author loses something in the deal (but on the other hand, it can also boost the author’s popularity or sales by feeding the flames of fandom) because his or her work is being used without permission. I think everyone agrees that fan fic for profit is unethical (since you’re earning from pirating someone else’s work), but some fans might claim, to their defense, that they’re not earning anything from writing fan fics. But as Terry Pratchett (author of the Discworld series) put it in an interview, copyrights and trademarks are there for a reason. Whether it’s because the fan fic is not faithful to the author’s vision or depriving him or her of a potential source of income, in the end you’re depriving something from the original author (Pratchett in the same interview even told an anecdote of a fan telling Prachett “I wrote some fan fiction and you must have seen it because the plot [of one of Pratchett’s books] uses one of my ideas. I think we should have a conversation about this” despite the fact that Pratchett’s original manuscript was made months before the fan published it on the Internet). That may be an extreme example but it is a possibility (and has actually happened in Pratchett’s case).
As for the act of writing fan fic itself, a good fan fic (since there are bad fan fics, and is perhaps the trade-off of having access to free publishing) does entail some creativity, skill, and talent. No one denies that and some great writers do start out with fan fics (just as some artists begin with mimicking another artist’s style and eventually developing their own). But for the long haul, if one wants to take their writing seriously, they must venture out and write something original, or at least something not based on someone else’s work. I mean in business, purchasing a franchise is perhaps the safest thing to do because they provide you with all the things you need in order to have a successful business (assuming the franchise is itself successful). In a way, that’s like the art of fan fic writing, since a lot of the essential elements are already present and you just need to revamp and rehash it. Starting up a successful business on your own from scratch, on the other hand, is perhaps infinitely more difficult: one has to experiment, one has to take risks, one has discover a winning formula. The same goes with writing something original.
Not that writing fan fic doesn’t have its own challenges. I mean I’ve had experience in editing and sometimes, a work is too convoluted that it’s better to start over rather than fix an existing document. While that’s potentially true for fan fic, where a writer breathes in new life to a failing title, that’s seldom the case (since a good number of fan fics are based on successful and popular works rather than unpopular ones). But honestly, if a fan fic writer tells me that writing a fan fic is on par (or superior) to writing an original piece, the only reply I can give that person is for them to write a good original piece of fiction. Because honestly, if writing pieces of good fiction was that easy, people would do it (although there aren’t any shortages of people who do try to come up with good fiction). Perhaps the charm of writing a fan fic is that it already has structure, it already has form; one merely needs to tweak the details to suit one’s writing style or desire. Creating a wholly original piece of work, on the other hand, is more difficult.
When I was still studying, one of the easiest times I could write was when I was given a topic: I knew what to write about and I knew what the limits were. I found writing more difficult when I was given free reign, when there wasn’t an assigned topic or theme. One could write about anything, and the options seemed endless. I think the former is more akin to fan fic writing: it requires skill as well, but one knows the limits or the direction one needs to go. With the latter, it’s perhaps more difficult because you start with nothing and expect to come out with something mind-blowing. Now this might not be the same experience for everyone, but this is the way I see it. In the end, everyone is entitled to their own opinion after all.