Your first reaction to the word is probably apathy or disgust. Fan fiction has a bit of reputation, and the writing of it isn’t particularly celebrated – for good reason.
I write this, not to convince you that fan fiction is respectable, but to explain what fan fiction is (and can be) and why exactly authors are so wary of it.
A lot of people don’t really look past the surface of what fan fiction is. It’s easily dismissed on the premise that it is based off some other work – and often because of its generally female audience. Fan fiction is when a person decides to displace a character, idea, or overall plot, and make their own story.
Want to see the two protagonists as rivals instead of lovers? Maybe the antagonist wins that climatic fight? Perhaps a medieval setting for our modern-day characters, and vice versa, or even a fluffy crack piece that doesn’t add or take away anything from the original work.
Some fan fiction can become extremely good quality, working in universes that have been proven to work. Some are on the level of the original, or better. Some can be up to 4,000,000 words (that’s 20 times the number of words in J. K. Rowling’s, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows), while others can be short poems or introspective character studies.
Sure, some are really lame, and I won’t deny that some of them are also just written so the writer can see two characters have sex. But it doesn’t just have to be a 4,000-word piece about a relationship.
One of the biggest differences between making your own original work, and writing fan fiction, is that fan fiction already has a ‘hook’. People are already interested in the concept – they are, after all, reading fan fiction for a pre-existing narrative universe. So the writer does not need to introduce or endorse the characters to the reader.
There’re countless different ways to explore a piece. It doesn’t even need to be written. I’ve seen plenty of fan-art and even comics. There are websites including Wattpad, Archive of Our Own and Fanfiction.net, where people can freely upload their works, but fan-art can also be found on Tumblr and DeviantArt. Online, it becomes immensely easy to post work, and potentially undermine the original author’s intentions.
This is where copyright, and issue of legality comes in.
Put short, fan fiction is illegal.
There are only three legal outlets of taking ideas from another work: fair use (educational or critical), parody or with permission. And while some fan fiction is indeed satire, the vast majority treads a dangerous line.
Luckily, most authors will not get very involved in fan fiction hubs. For one, opinions between authors are a bit divided on it. Some, like Kristin Cashore (author of Graceling) and J. K. Rowling find fan fiction flattering. It is a sign that people love their work.
However, others like Raymond Feist (The Riftwar Cycle series) and George R. R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire) highly discourage it. This is mainly to protect their copyright, and some authors can and will resort to a cease-and-desist order to maintain it. Why? Well, here’s a case study.
Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of the Darkover series encouraged fan fiction of her work, reading their work and publishing their stories in an anthology. However, Bradley was dropped by her publisher after a fan threatened to sue her proposed Darkover continuation, Contraband. It was too similar to what the fan had sent her. To this day, it has never made the shelves.
Fan fiction and the original author should never interact, simply just to keep their intellectual property. Most of the time, when an author doesn’t want you writing about their stuff, it’s not personal.
But that’s not to dismiss a general dislike for fan fiction. As some authors have said, it is immoral – theft of their work. They don’t want people controlling the characters and ideas they have developed.
It should be noted that fan fiction writers can all be sued if pursued.
However, it usually is not worth the effort. After all, J. K. Rowling (if she didn’t want people to write fan fiction that is) would have to chase up over 800,000 separate pieces on FanFiction.net alone. In the rare few cases that it has happened, it was mainly due to the published work competing with the original work in the market (or otherwise having any economic value) or affecting the author’s ability to continue creating content.
If you’re a closet fan fiction writer who wants to go professional, then you need to be able to separate your story from its fan fiction roots. For instance, Fifty Shades of Grey writer, E. L. James and writers Christina Lauren and Lauren Billings (under the combined penname of Christina Lauren) all started writing fan fiction within the Twilight fandom but changed names and ideas and then branched out.
Your work needs to be transformative enough that it still has a story when you knock down the original content it was based off. So overall, if you want to write fan fiction, most of the time, go right ahead! But always remember to respect the author and their decisions. If you want to publish, revise, revise, revise! Make it your own work in its entirety.
And keep writing!
Adelle Xue – publishing intern