This is a subject I’ve been thinking about writing a post on for a while now, and a moment ago a twitter-friend told me to do it, so here it goes…
Fan fiction, for those who don’t know, is not-for-profit original stories using various elements from established works. Basically it’s a way to play in someone else’s sandbox, use their toys, and giving them back afterwards. There’s fanfic of books, movies, tv shows, video games, songs, real people…basically anything. There’s cross-over fanfic that combines elements from separate works, alternate universe fic that takes elements (for example: characters) and places them in a completely new setting, slash fic that explores potential relationships between various characters, and on and on. Again, it’s whatever the author can think of. There are really no limits when it comes to fanfic (except maybe legal ones).
There’s a huge stigma about fanfic; basically that it’s a shameful and shallow no-talent thing, often full of porn and/or “Mary-Sues” [the author inserts themselves as a “perfect” original character in order to be loved by their favorite characters]. While some fanfic can indeed have these things, there’s so much more to it than that. Even if there weren’t, I’d argue that fanfic can still be an important expression of creativity.
First, the big picture: as a storyteller/bard and druid-in-study, here’s my take on fanfic in general.
Stories are meant to be alive. They are meant to grow and evolve and change with each new telling, with each teller of the tale. We are suppose to be able to make each telling of a story relevant to ourselves and our audience, adding or changing or taking away as we are moved to. We are suppose to explore and connect with our stories. Taking familiar characters and putting them in new situations is a story-telling tradition as old as stories themselves. Some of our most famous and beloved tales are basically fan fiction: retelling someone else’s story with new elements. From King Arther and his Knights of the Round Table seeking the Grail and having love triangles and bastard kids, to the fairy tales we all grew up listening to and watching, our culture is seeped in retold tales that have evolved beyond recognition of the original versions.
I’ve said before on this blog, it’s only because we humans started writing down stories that we started believing there was “one true version”. Even if having a true version is important to you, fanfic still doesn’t take away from the original; on the contrary, it can often add to it and even draw in a new audience to the original work. There are several examples I could use from my own personal life in which I gained an interest in a new show or found new value in something I was already familiar with, all thanks to concepts from well-written fanfic. It can give someone insight into a character they can’t otherwise relate to, or fill in missing scenes, or point out a subtext you may have overlooked. At the same time, the original work is still there, intact and unharmed by these new ideas surrounding it.
Second: let’s look at fanfic from a writing angle.
Writing something completely original can be huge and overwhelming. You might get lost in the little fiddly details of world-building, or struggle with creating multifaceted complex realistic characters. Original writing is a great skill to have, and it needs a lot of practice to hone it. It’s also a hard sell; there’s a lot of competition out there for getting your original stories into the market. Internet and social networking is opening up new ways to do that, but using those tools is practically a full-time job on its own.
Writing with someone else’s creations is a whole other beast. It takes a lot of attention to detail and tone to create accuracy and authenticity with an established character and/or world. It takes a lot of imagination to create new scenarios and figure out how these well-known and beloved characters would react to them. Playing in someone else’s world means playing by their established rules, or at least knowing them well enough to figure out how to break them. There’s a lot of dedication and passion involved, especially since it’s done out of love rather than hope of profit.
There’s several points I’d like to make about this. One is that writing fanfic is an amazingly powerful exercise as a writer; it trains not only better writing skills, but also an ability to write with someone else’s voice. This is exactly what a lot of markets call for (tv shows and franchises being only two examples). The other point is that both writing and reading fanfic can be hugely therapeutic.
Let me give a personal example here for what I mean. When I was a teenager, I self-injured. I couldn’t deal with the feelings I was experiencing, and I scared myself by not understanding why I felt the need to hurt myself. So I wrote fan fiction, and I placed those feelings and urges into an already-familiar character, giving myself an outlet for exploring and putting into words what I felt and why I did what I did. It was a safe place for me to figure out something that scared and confused me, and I was able to understand myself better after I did. I published the story anonymously, where I was given positive feedback from other fanfic writers. I felt accepted into part of a community, and it gave me more confidence in my own talent. I still self-injured, but I didn’t feel as alone or afraid, and I understood why I did what I did a little better. I was able to start helping myself. I started to heal, and as I did, so did the character in my fanfic.
As an adult, I’ve had a lot of traumatic emotional experiences. I tend to bottle those feelings up rather than process them (a bad habit I’ve had since childhood, that I’m actively working on breaking), and then they burst out in unhealthy ways. If I read fanfic about characters I already feel connected to, and go through similar experiences with them while I read, it helps me draw out those emotions, dwell in them, and express them. Then the overwhelming feelings become something manageable, and I can process and move on. The fact that it’s characters I’m already familiar with makes the whole thing easier and more accessible, especially when I’m feeling run down or mentally fatigued. I don’t have to work as hard to connect to them, and the journey they go through can therefore have more impact quicker. I don’t have to commit to a novel, but I can often get the same effect.
Same goes for fluff, the lighter feel-good pieces of fan fiction. If I need something distracting or that will give me warm-fuzzy feelings, and I don’t have the time or energy to invest in something completely new, and I don’t feel like re-reading something I’ve already read, I can turn to fanfic. You know that feeling when you finish a favorite book and you wish you could just keep reading about those characters who have become your best friends, and you don’t care if they’re having adventures or just hanging out? Fanfic can make that dream a reality.
Alright, for my third point, let’s look at those stereotypes I talked about at the beginning of this post. What value lies in badly-written Mary Sues and porn? Well, for one thing, every aspiring writer has to start somewhere, and a Mary-Sue is often a jumping-off point for someone’s first attempt. There is no reason in the world not to encourage someone’s passion for writing, and eventually they might evolve beyond those Mary-Sue stories. Also, see my above point about therapy; maybe the writer is at a point in their life where they need that kind of escapism to survive whatever it is that’s going on. There’s no call or need to shame them for it. (This doesn’t mean I don’t support clever parodies of the Mary-Sue troupe. Writing those is a valuable practice for hopeful comedians and satirists. Being funny is amazingly difficult to pull off. Being dismissive and/or hurtful, however, is a talentless and useless non-skill.)
As for the porn, well, that’s easily avoided if it’s not your cup of tea, and if it is, a lot of the fanfic is better than the stuff making money. Fanfic means it can be exactly to your tastes, and involving the characters you might really want to see in those positions (as it were). It’s not hurting anyone, and it might even be helping some people figure out what really turns them on — something that can be difficult to safely explore given some of the issues and stigmas our society still has ingrained.
So that’s my take on fan fiction. Let me know if I missed anything, or what your own thoughts are on the subject!