Playing in Someone Else’s Sandbox

I like fan fiction. I read it – though not as frequently as I used to – and I write it as often as the mood strikes me. When I mention that I write such things, to anyone outside the context of the fan fiction community, the most common response I get is “What is that?” So I explain what it is: derivative fiction, stories written within the universe of someone else’s creation like Star Wars or Harry Potter. And then they tend to say, “Oh, I see,” and show very little interest in questioning further. Understandable, I suppose. For most people, it’s assumed that someone who writes stories about, say, Chewbecca must be a little pathetic and/or unhinged. But I think this perception is a terrible shame. It’s a limited view of the expansive world of derivative works, not just fiction but artwork, costumes, music, or whatever other creations people are inspired to make in tribute to their favorite stories.

Why are derivative works frequently derided? There’s a few reasons. First of all, since the most common books and TV shows and films that attract widespread fandoms are protected by copyright laws, most derivative works can’t be sold for money. Which means, in this day and age, that they’re usually put up for free on the Internet. Which also means that they don’t usually have to get pass the usual gatekeepers – literary agents, editors, publishers and so on. So there’s not a lot of filtering for quality, and a lot of stuff frankly isn’t very good. It does not, however, follow that none of it could ever be high quality. Much of it is. And readers will generally gravitate to the higher quality stuff, which means that more often than not, the great stuff rises to the top.

Another reason people look down on fan fiction is the assumption that the writers must have failed at writing “real” fiction, i.e., original or professional fiction. You can look back at the absence of gatekeepers in publishing fanfic on the Internet and see some basis for that, but again, it’s not universally the case. Many published writers got their start writing fan fiction. And whether those stories led directly to professional fiction or not, there was value in the time and effort they put into it. If nothing else, all writing is good practice, a chance to discover your strengths and weaknesses and refine your skills. It also has the advantage of almost immediate reader response, rather than the enormous lag time in traditional publication between writing a novel and seeing it on the shelves of a bookstore. (Even e-books take time, certainly more than it takes to post something on a fan fiction forum.) That reader response can be very valuable. Sure, it can also be severely biased toward praise, since the readers are generally fans of whatever universe you’re writing in, but as I said before, the truly good stuff usually rises to the top, and you can get a decent sense of when your writing isn’t working the way you intended.

Fan fiction can be very silly, of course. It can be nothing more than a series of in-jokes; it can be plain old wish fulfillment, plotless romantic pairings, excuses to shove in an obvious author-insert as an original character. But original fiction isn’t free of those issues either. The genre is no guarantee of quality, whether you’re talking about science fiction versus realism or derivative works versus original fiction. In all forms of writing, you can do it poorly or you can do it well.

I’d like to also point out that there isn’t actually a thickly delineated barrier between derivative works and traditionally published fiction. Books that are now in the public domain are constantly the source of professional fan fic. Think of all the novels playing off Jane Austen’s work, or Shakespeare’s. Speaking of Shakespeare, one could argue that most of his plays were derivative works. We hear derivative and think “unoriginal, clichéd, banal,” but that’s a false correlation. Derivative merely means it was derived from something – a fable, myth, legend, popular story, whatever. No shame in being inspired by something. Can derivative works be unoriginal, clichéd, banal? Of course. But they certainly don’t have to be. If you do something new, something transforming, with the source material, then there’s nothing banal about it. In fact, a term many fans prefer is transformative works. It has a far more pleasant ring to it, and it’s no less accurate.

To finish, I’ll offer a brief history of my writing experience, which is strongly marked by my excursions into fan fiction territory. I always loved creating stories and writing them down, and by high school I was able to complete a novella based on Rapunzel. Yes, all my fairy tale retellings are by definition transformative works. The novella wasn’t great, but it was a start. I played around with a few other fairy tale-inspired stories, and then I started getting heavily into the Star Wars fandom during my freshman year of college. I discovered fan fiction and realized I’d already been doing this for years – not writing it down, usually, but I was always imagining scenarios involving characters from my favorite stories. Missing scenes, further adventures. Once I realized other people did it as well, and even shared their stories with each other, the fan fic bug bit me and I started churning out story after story.

My prolific pace waned somewhat after a couple of years, when I started to work in earnest on an original epic fantasy series, but now and then I’d write another story about Star Wars and later Harry Potter whenever an idea became too compelling to ignore. I continued to hone my craft, writing a number of original novels and beginning to seriously pursue agents and publication. Nowadays my primary focus is on the potential of getting published and hence writing publishable novels, but this year I started getting really invested in some web series(es?) that adapted classic works into modern-day vlogs (meaning they are, themselves, transformative works!), and suddenly the fan fiction bug started biting again.  It’s been nice to write something without the pressure of wondering whether the powers-that-be will like it enough, to have ready and willing readers who always respond with enthusiasm, as well as the occasional bit of constructive criticism. And if ever my works are published and popular enough to inspire others to create their own transformative works, I would consider it the loveliest form of praise.