My stance on fanfictionPosted: September 17, 2012
I was inspired today by Cecelia Tan’s statement on fanfiction. I’ve added a fanfiction statement to my own About page.
Fanfiction has been in the news lately, what with the hot trend of modifying fanfiction into original novels. Fifty Shades of Grey used to be a Twilight fanfic with a non-vampire version of Edward. Now, it’s got publishers looking for more fanfiction to tweak and put covers on.
And now more than ever, people are discussing fanfiction and its ethics. Some feel that fanfic writers are shameless plagiarists who steal characters, defile works of art, and kick the metaphorical puppies of Real Authors’ hard work. They say that writers should just write an original novel of their own, because that’s the only way to write respectably. Boy, do I struggle to bite my tongue when I see stuff like that.
When someone fiddles with a boxed cake mix, adding extra ingredients just to see how the cake turns out, do we sneer that they should go to culinary school and become a real pastry chef? How about when a housewife has the audacity to bake a birthday cake using a celebrity chef’s cake recipe? She’s a cake recipe thief, isn’t she? Of course we don’t judge it that way. There are many reasons to use a cake mix or a recipe formula that someone else made. Those people aren’t trying to steal or debase anything. And although fiction is different from food, I think it’s just as ridiculous to jealously guard a fictional world and forbid fanworks of it.
Saying that I have a “stance” on fanfiction feels weird. I started writing fanfiction when I was 13 years old. It was Pokemon fanfiction, showing serious or silly scenes that might have happened in between the animated series episodes. And I had discovered the Internet subculture surrounding fanfiction — it felt like a secret club full of cool, creative people. We wrote just because we loved Pokemon’s characters and ideas, and we wanted to explore that world. I found other fandoms, and I worked at writing better, more skillful stories for them. Having a “stance” on that? Huh. The club has been found out.
There is such a thing as plagiarising fiction. I’ve heard stories of unscrupulous people taking the exact text of a novel, changing the author credit, and putting it up for sale as though they actually wrote the piece. That’s wrong. It takes credit for a specific quantity of work the plagiarist never did. Whereas a fanfiction author doesn’t claim to own the recognizable characters or settings. I doubt the average person is confused into thinking that the teenage author of My Awesome Adventures With Harry Potter is actually the rights holder of the Harry Potter novel series. It’s the same legal basis that allows a published novel to mention a character drinking a can of Coke, because no reasonable person will take that to mean that the author is an official spokesperson of The Coca-Cola Company.
Fanfic writers add “what if?”s to the ones we already think when we take in a book, game or TV show. They’re spinning ideas in different directions and posting the results for free. Just sticking their work up for the general public’s enjoyment. They’re trying to expand the experience of the source material, and trying to grow its influence. Fanfic writers are usually the ones so passionate about a book/game/show/whatever, they tell everyone they meet about it. Why should their efforts be treated as a travesty?
Personally, despite all the work and craft I put into my original works, I’m not claiming they’re perfect masterpieces to be put on pedestals and never touched. Stories are meant to engage the mind. All of human history is based on our existing surroundings, and the ideas of other humans. Heck, I adapted some ideas of elemental magic from the Pokemon games and TV show, the same ones I wrote fanfic about. I’ve strived to make the Aligare series distinctly mine, but if I didn’t want anyone else to get their grubby fingerprints on it, I wouldn’t have shared it. And if anyone finds enjoyment in the Aligare world, and wants to write a story set there? I say go ahead. Play in my sandbox as much as you’d like. Hang out with the characters for yourself. (Just don’t claim you invented the three peoplekinds and then charge money for your work.)
This is a pretty complicated issue, I have to admit. Not many clear-cut lines. But the way I see it, intent counts for a lot. Since most fanfic writers aren’t trying to knock off an existing franchise and make a quick buck, I’ll keep vouching for the entire subculture. I’ve been there, it was fun, it helped me develop my skills and I really doubt I hurt anyone. Quite simply, I wouldn’t be the original writer I am without it.