Fan Fiction: Where to Draw the Line?

Fan fiction.  It’s been on my mind a lot lately.  It’s been on a lot of people’s minds.  I just got the October issue of Writer’s Digest and there’s an entire article in there about fan fiction, what it is, who writes it, and if it’s worth anything.  I have a lot of opinions on that last one there.  Apparently my good friend and fellow writer Samantha Warren does too since she posted about originality in writing just yesterday as I was writing this post.  As Sam states, there are no original ideas.

Enter fan fiction.

Of course “fanfic” has been in the news and in people’s thoughts so much this summer because of Fifty Shades of GreyFifty Shades is self-confessed Twlight fanfic, recycled and cleaned up into something that has nothing to do with vampires.  I’ve heard a lot of criticism about E.L. James writing this way.  A lot of writers have balked at the idea that someone is making millions off of something that blatantly has its origins in someone else’s work.

Let me be honest right from the start.  I don’t really have room to talk when it comes to criticizing E.L. James.  An Amazon reviewer scathingly accused my debut novel, The Loyal Heart, of being Robin Hood fan fic.  I would be lying if I denied it wholesale.  The Robin Hood legend was a strong inspiration for my novel.  I take issue with that reviewer saying I ripped off a specific BBC tv version of the legend in its entirety, because I didn’t.  But I did glean inspiration from a lot of other things, movies, stories, actors, and history.  Because like Samantha Warren says, there are no original ideas.

So when I read the Writer’s Digest article about fanfic I had to smile a lot.  Why?  Because the author of that article, in a respectable writing publication, I might add, supports the entire concept of fan fiction.  And so do I.  I also thought it was incredibly interesting that she pointed out that the very first fan fiction piece ever was Virgil’s Aeneid, which took a minor character from Homer’s work and made him into the hero of his own story.  Awesome!  Those of us who have been known to dabble in fan fiction are in the presence of greatness.

I actually posted about this sometime last year.  I think I mentioned then that the concept of fan fiction has been around for a while.  In the early 20th century there were thriving fan fiction communities, some of which contained writers who were famous in their own right, like L.M. Montgomery, who wrote Sherlock Holmes fanfic and Oz fanfic.  The Writer’s Digest article also points out that a lot of Shakespeare’s work could be considered fan fiction as he more or less rewrote the work of writers who pre-dated him.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 19th century that originality in art of any kind was championed at all.  Up until then the greatest writers were those who could rewrite old stories the most eloquently while staying true to the original work.  Think I’m the only one to rework the Robin Hood legend?  Have you looked at the bulk of late medieval and early renaissance literature?  It’s all Robin Hood and King Arthur recycled in every way imaginable.  Because that was what people wanted to read.  Originality was seen as hubris.

Okay, but now we’re in the 21st century and originality is where it’s at.  Or is it?  How many copies have the Fifty Shades books sold at this point?  How many hits to fanfic sites like get on a daily basis?  People read fan fiction because the like to see the same characters over and over.  They don’t like originality as much as we want to think they do.  That’s why every successful movie franchise ever has a slew of sequels.  I’m still surprised we haven’t seen Titanic 2.  But they did re-release it, didn’t they.

Here’s the catch.  I don’t have a problem with fan fiction.  I agree with the Writer’s Digest article that describes it as a fantastic way to practice working with pre-defined characters and worlds to learn consistency and plotting in a way that stays true to the original material.  Fan fiction is training wheels, it’s like practicing scales on the piano.  But should it be published?  Actually, I don’t think it should.  Shared, yes.  Published, not so much.

Okay, is that hypocritical of me to say considering accusations about The Loyal Heart?  I really don’t think so.  Because my intent was not to copy but to riff on an ancient legend.  Well, that and to tell the story with the true history of the time period, which most people don’t know and wouldn’t believe if you told them (King Richard was a murderous jerk who hated England and didn’t speak English and Prince John was legally responsible for administrating half of the country and did a good job of it too).  And in spite of criticism I adamantly believe that my characters are my own.

What about E.L. James?  Does she believe that her characters are her own?  Was she trying to create something new using familiar themes or was she attempting to exploit prefabricated characters to placate the public’s thirst for more of the familiar and to make a profit?  I honestly don’t know.  And I’m not interested in making that judgment.  I’m also not interested in reading her books because frankly, BDSM skeeves me out a bit (says the Romance writer).

I will stand behind fan fiction though.  In my days of writing I have written fan fiction of Indiana Jones, Wuthering Heights, Star Trek, Labyrinth, Days of Our Lives, Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman, The Wheel of Time, and most recently Harry Potter.  I’ve got two different Harry Potter fanfics, actually, one that follows George Weasley after the fact and one that follows Draco Malfoy (as he leaves the wizarding world in shame and tries to live life as a Muggle).  Would I ever think of publishing any of it?  Not on your life!  Would I let you read it if you asked?  Maybe if you asked nicely.  None of it is finished anyhow.  Do I have fun with it?  You bet I do!  Has it helped the rest of my writing?  Yes it has.

So wherever you fall in the fanfic debate, just remember that it’s been going on almost as long as there has been writing.  In fact, I would venture to say that the first people to ever write down a story were not writing their own creation but their version of someone else’s story.  Yes, fan fiction is our heritage.  Embrace it.  But profit from it?  Exploit it?  Never.

That being said, where do we draw the line?  What falls on the side of “there are no original ideas” and what is copyright infringement?  What do you think?


8 thoughts on “Fan Fiction: Where to Draw the Line?

  1. I think there is still originality out there, but you cant find it in fan fiction. Though fan fic plots may be original… SOMETIMES… but everything else is still not original. I think fan fic is fine for non profit purposes, and I dont know why Meyer is not pressing charges on James for the fan fic. Or is she?

    I previously read Screwtape letters by CS Lewis, and was thinking of writing a fan fiction, but when I googled Wormwood letters, i found out that someone already published a book. Now this is where is gets confusing. Isn’t that book a fan fic of the original? How on earth did it get published? I think this same concept falls with the Grimm Brother’s fairytales. In copyright, there is a certain number of years, and after that, it is copyright free. Hence, one can draw the fan fiction line of originality based on the end of the copyright for the original.

    • I was wondering whether Meyer would consider pressing charges too for a bit there, but I don’t think she would actually have a case. When I was accused of stealing my work back in July I panicked and did a bunch of research on copyright infringement. The only way Meyer could win a case is if she proved that her own work was completely original. I think James could argue that Meyer’s work isn’t sufficiently original and that her own characters are common archetypes seen in many works. And you’re also right about stories entering the public domain, etc. It’s a sticky area. I can’t think of any successful copyright infringement lawsuits on a grand scale like this ever. Lots of unsuccessful ones though.

  2. The whole Fifty Shades deal did not bode well with me. In my opinion, E.L.James had no right publishing that novel, even if her idea was original. If she had, say, taken down the story, rewritten it and then published it, I wouldn’t have anything to say about her. But she didn’t do that. I’m not against fanfiction, I even used to dabble in it before. I’m only against making profit from something that does not even belong to me in the first place.

    Original ideas may be sparse these days, and some story lines may be similar to one another, but execution plays a big role here.

    • Yeah, the profit issue is where things get sticky. I kind of equate James’s work to the Olympic gold medal winning swimmer from South Africa who admitted that he cheated after the fact but added that everyone in the pool does the same thing. How do you police that sort of thing without opening a can of worms?

  3. In reference to the whole Fifty Shades thing, I’d also like to point out that if you’ve read the early Sookie Stackhouse books, then read Twilight, you would notice some strong similarities in certain places. I haven’t read Fifty Shades and have no intention of doing so, but from everything I hear, I have to wonder if people would realize it was Twilight rewritten if they hadn’t known that in the first place.

    • I think that’s why Meyer can’t sue James. Like I mentioned in another comment above, when the accusation was hurled at me I did a lot of research into copyright infringement laws, and the only way you can have a case is if you prove that the content that was stolen from is completely original in its own right. Which it isn’t. Serious can of worms.

  4. I agree there is a place for fanfiction – it’s a great learning ground. I even understand the desire to base a character on another character you’ve loved, or even a person you think is cool (or not).
    Having not read either Twilight or 50 Shades, I won’t comment on that particular example, other than I guess the biggest issue people seem to have is execution – I’ve heard from various sources (and read a few “out of context lines” that show) that “50 Shades” is not the most well-written piece of work. Before that, “Twilight” was getting ripped to shreds. And I think that is the big issue – the devolution of the craft in these examples. (I’m not commenting on whether the stories themselves are good or not – obviously, they are very popular).
    As far as fanfiction goes, we are surrounded by it. As you mention, so many of the classics are based on the classics before them. And what about the “True Blood” TV series, based on the “Sookie Stackhouse” book series mentioned above – essentially fanfiction itself (I consider it fan-fiction now that the books and TV show have veered off on such different tangents). Or “Justified”, based on the short story “Fire In The Hole”. Or … well, you get the idea…
    I think it really does come down to intention and execution. Start with an idea based on someone else’s work and evolve it into your own? Fine. Copy someone else and then sell that copy (without fair remuneration for the original creator)? Not so fine.

    • I actually like the idea of evolution of ideas. And I had a successful writer teaching a workshop I went to once talk about using “templates” to create characters and situations. I pretty much “cast” either a famous actor or someone I know in every major character I’ve written because it helps me to visualize my stories. Some (I think) are obvious, but others aren’t. But that’s called making something new out of an old pattern, not stealing. It’s an interesting subject to ponder.

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