Characters Unbound

10 Oct

I’ve been thinking about fan fiction (or fanfic) a lot lately. According to Wikipedia, fan fiction is an umbrella term for “stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator.” I’d vaguely known that this was a thriving subculture on the internet, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it until the recent outcry surrounding 50 Shades of Grey, which started its life as a Twilight fanfic set in an alternate universe where Edward Cullen wasn’t a vampire, but was into kinky sex.

Internet publishing kerfuffles fascinate me. Bloggers and book reviewers and authors I don’t know on Twitter are to me what the characters on Days of Our Lives were to my grandmother. This is all a long way of saying that I’d read lots of ranty blog posts and anguished tweets about fan fiction before I’d ever read any myself.

Then an author I follow on Twitter posted a link to an Avengers fic she’d enjoyed. I liked The Avengers when I saw it in the theater, and Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor … I like superhero movies. What can I say? I checked it out. People, I fell down a wormhole. The range of fan fiction out there is astounding. Everything from 100 word drabbles to 200,000+ word epics. I’ve seen fan fiction that is remarkably faithful to the original creator’s world, taking the characters and just continuing their stories beyond where the movie or book or TV show ended. Then there are the so-called “alternate universe” fics where, for example, Iron Man and Captain America are reimagined as students at Hogwarts, or Sherlock Holmes is not just a high-functioning sociopath, but a werewolf as well. Some of the writing is horrible, some good, some fascinating, some basically fetish porn. It’s a weird and wild world is what I’m saying.

But I finally understand the appeal of fan fiction as a reader. I fall in love with fictional characters and when I love a character I’m almost insatiable. Having a seemingly endless supply of stories about characters I love that I can transfer to my Kindle in less than a minute? This is heaven for the fangirl in me.

But I’m not just a reader now, I’m a writer, and so I’ve thought about how I would feel if I were ever successful enough to have non-commercial fan fic based on my own work. There are plenty of published authors who loathe fan fiction and do their best to discourage it. Diana Gabaldon (who writes the Outlander saga) is fiercely protective of her characters and strongly discourages fans of her work from using them in any way. Others are neutral or even encouraging. J.K. Rowling has said she finds fan fiction flattering and doesn’t object to non-commercial (and non X-rated) works using her original characters and settings.

I think I’d be grateful that I’d written characters who inspire so much affection. I like the idea that my creativity could someday spark someone else’s. I could be wrong. I might end up being more protective of my fictional creations than I can imagine being right now.

What about you? Have you ever read fan fiction? Has anybody here written any? How would you feel if someone loved a character you created so much that they took him or her and plopped them in a story that you never would have endorsed? (If you’re curious about what others have to say about the morality and legality of commercial and non-commercial fan fiction, I highly recommend some of the articles at Dear Author under the fan fiction tag.)


Posted by on October 10, 2012 in imagination, inspiration, readers, reading


20 responses to “Characters Unbound

  1. Judith Keim

    October 10, 2012 at 8:27 AM

    I haven’t read fan fiction and while I fall in love with characters in books I would feel it was cheating if I took another’s created characters and wrote about him/her as if it were my own… Yet, I willingly take a recipe and use it as a basis for making it my own. Is it the same? Not quite when I think of the work, the creativity, the work, the persistence, the work, the energy of creating a book full of interesting characters. Just saying…

    • Corina Mallory

      October 10, 2012 at 9:03 AM

      Judith, I can totally see that. Do you feel that modern re-tellings of Pride & Prejudice like Clueless or Bridget Jones’s Diary are cheating? Those are essentially works of commercial alternative universe fan fiction and aren’t nearly as inventive as some of the labors of love that I’ve seen people post for free on the internet as fan fiction. Does the fact that the original author is long dead, so she can’t complain about the 8 million derivative stories that have explicitly played off of her original efforts, make a difference to any discomfort? I think a cookbook author might argue about the amount of creativity and work and persistence that goes into creating a book of recipes. I think the real difference there is that a recipe is designed to be used whereas a book of fiction is designed to be consumed. The first is explicitly meant to inspire action on the part of the purchaser, the latter to be more passively enjoyed? I’m sincerely curious about where people draw the line on this.

  2. Meredith Conner

    October 10, 2012 at 8:37 AM

    I haven’t read any fan fiction myself. I understand the appeal though and as long as the author doesn’t object and the work is clearly labeled as fan fiction that’s fine and dandy. If it were my work? At first thought I think it is flattering, but the control is also gone. These are our babies. We’ve worked hard to create these characters and their moral fiber. Some stories might be fun and interesting, but others could easily be cringe worthy.

    • Corina Mallory

      October 10, 2012 at 9:14 AM

      Oh my god. There are definitely some highly cringe-worthy stories out there. A lot of fan fiction seems to be inspired by a fan’s desire to have their favorite characters engage in highly unlikely sexual scenarios that I sincerely doubt Marvel would ever have endorsed.

  3. Stephanie Berget

    October 10, 2012 at 9:08 AM

    I haven’t read any fan fiction, but you have caught my interest. I might have to check this out. As for someone using my characters, I don’t know. Here’s to all of us finding out how we’d feel by have a wildly successful book.

    • Corina Mallory

      October 10, 2012 at 9:15 AM

      I like the way you think Stephanie!

  4. Janis McCurry

    October 10, 2012 at 9:29 AM

    There’s the one theory that there are no new stories, just different ways of telling them. But, using the same characters and their backstories is a “grey” area. 🙂 I’ve read some fanfic, but (this is embarrassing) I can’t remember which kind. The stories I read were okay, but obviously not memorable because I’ve been trying for an hour to remember which site I found them on or even which characters they were about!

    In theater, Shakespeare’s plays are re-imagined in the 1960’s era, complete with Beatles tunes or set in the Samurai era in Japan. Of course, these are still Shakespearean plays, so it’s not the same as fanfic but I wonder how Will would feel if he knew one of his plays was set in Nazi Germany?

    • Corina Mallory

      October 10, 2012 at 11:02 AM

      Janis, I happen to believe that there are no new stories, and probably no truly new characters either. That doesn’t invalidate the hard work or creativity that people put into their work. It is the voice in which we tell a story, the choices we make in combining familiar elements, that makes it “ours.”

      Once it’s out in the wild, once we let other people read or see it, we lose a fundamental level of control, just as we would over our babies once they are out in the world. Other people can interact with them and influence them in ways that have nothing to do with the people who birthed them. Obviously, there are legal limits on this, but within those legal limits, should it matter whether Shakespeare would be bothered by having his play staged in a manner he would hate? Should it stop someone whose own creative vision requires Romeo to be from a Jewish family, and Juliet the daughter of a prominent Nazi? My gut feeling is no. But this is definitely a grey area and I respect people who would disagree.

  5. maryvine

    October 10, 2012 at 12:54 PM

    I believe I’ve heard the term fan fiction, but did not know what it’s all about. Thanks for helping me get up to date, Corina.There is just everything out there, isn’t there? II don’t think I would mind having my characters become part of fan fiction as long as they didn’t make money on it.

    • Corina Mallory

      October 10, 2012 at 2:04 PM

      There really is something for everyone 🙂

  6. Peggy Staggs

    October 10, 2012 at 1:16 PM

    I’ve never read any fanfic. There are too many good books to read. Besides, it seems sort of like cheating to use someone else’s character development and story line.

    • Corina Mallory

      October 10, 2012 at 2:03 PM

      Peggy, you’re the second person to mention cheating which I find really interesting. Is that a reason you wouldn’t read it, or wouldn’t write it, or both? What do you think about something like Poodle Springs? The first four chapters were written by Raymond Chandler, and his estate later paid Robert B. Parker, a respected novelist in his own right, to complete the book. Or the writers who have been licensed by Ian Fleming’s estate to continue the James Bond franchise? Is that cheating? Or just not something that would satisfy your own creative drive? I’m getting really far away from the original questions in my post, sorry. I just think everyone’s comments raise really interesting ideas.

  7. Jennifer

    October 10, 2012 at 2:47 PM

    Hi Corina. Great blog! I haven’t read any fanfic (except Fifty Shades which, in my opinion, is nothing like Twilight). However, I can definitely see the appeal as there are many books I’ve read that leave me yearning to spend more time with the characters. But I wonder if the fanfic authors are ever really able to imitate the “voice” of the original author? Overall, I think it’s harmless. As they say, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.

    • Corina Mallory

      October 11, 2012 at 8:00 AM

      You know, I actually haven’t read any fanfic based on a novel yet! Everything I’ve read is fanfic of a television show or comic book and there getting the author’s voice right is less important than getting the character’s voice. A few writers are great at it, some are awful, most fall somewhere in between.

  8. Lynn Mapp

    October 10, 2012 at 6:17 PM

    Corina, this was really thought provoking. No, I haven’t read fanfic (see post about barely being able to read) It is an interesting concept. I don’t see it as stealing. I see it as giving “people” another adventure. I think it might be an interesting experience, minus the porn aspect.

    • Corina Mallory

      October 11, 2012 at 8:03 AM

      Lynn, it’s a lot like romance novels really, there is the full range from sweet to erotic. (Plus plenty that has no romantic element at all, but why on earth would I want to read something without romance?)

  9. Amberly Smith

    October 10, 2012 at 10:07 PM

    I read Spander (Spike/Xander fanfic from Buffy), Sentinel, and Due South mostly. Though it has been a while since I’ve been an active reader. I once wrote a fanfic of a fanfic of an AU of the Sentinel.Ten brownie points if that made since. I remember about five years ago, my friend Andi who is a twilight fanfic reader, recommending 50 Shades, but I couldn’t get past the first page.

    Great post Corina!

    • Corina Mallory

      October 11, 2012 at 8:10 AM

      I love earning brownie points 😉 And I love that you wrote a fanfic based on an AU. That is awesome and feeds all my instincts about why fanfic can be a great playful space for creativity not linked to career goals.

  10. blankenshiplouise

    October 11, 2012 at 5:54 AM

    I used to read fanfic, back in the early online days of X-Files. But most of it is poorly written, IMO, and after a while I stopped paying attention to it. I’ve never written any fanfic.

    I understand the attraction of writing porn with your favorite characters. Short story erotica is very tough because there’s no time to get to know the characters, and erotica without liking the characters is mostly pointless. Less obvious to me are those extensive re-imaginings where they’ve obviously put in so much work… why not just file off the last few serial numbers and make it your own? Like 50 Shades did.

    I’m surprised by how many people here haven’t read it — I thought it was like lolcats.

    • Corina Mallory

      October 11, 2012 at 8:19 AM

      There is definitely a lot out there that is poorly written. I think my entry point, reading a link sent by someone whose taste I know mirrors my own, and then finding an extensive “favorites” list by someone who had done the work of weeding through the dross has greatly contributed to my positive feelings.

      I agree with you that it’s amazing how much work can go into what is essentially free art (whatever the quality of that art might be). I haven’t become involved in the community aspects of fanfic at all, but I have to think that those aspects, the instant feedback of a whole community of readers who are, by definition, already fans of the work you’re writing, might be addictive. Writing for publication, in isolation with just the feedback of a small critique group (if you’re lucky), is lonely and challenging. If your writing goals are completely divorced from the monetary rewards of publishing, I can see the appeal of sticking to elaborate alternate universe fanfic without taking that final step.


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