If you want to start a fight among authors, simply say the words “fan fiction” and most likely you’ll find several strong opinions. Some people love it, some people hate it. Some people will look at you and say, “Huh?” Here are a few words from me on the subject of fan fiction.
People have been telling stories from the first days of humanity. Some of the earliest stories are found in the ancient cave paintings in France and the southwestern United States. Storytellers have been inspiring their listeners or readers for thousands of generations. Every time a story is retold a bit of the teller goes into the story.
The inspiration of fans to produce their own stories based on the characters and settings of another author is not new. Some have even gone so far as to argue that fan fiction dates back 2,000 years to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which were based on the gospel of Mark and the lost Q gospel.
When Chaucer was slow in producing a follow-up to his “Canterbury Tales,” one of his fans took it upon himself to write a sequel. In about 1421 John Lydgate published his “The Siege of Thebes.” I have not read this story but have heard it described as less than stellar. Nonetheless, he was inspired by the original story and wanted more. When more wasn’t coming he produced more himself.
Numerous un-commissioned sequels were created to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And of course one of the best known examples involved the Sherlock Holmes character created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle never liked his Holmes character and tried to kill him off. In November 1891 he wrote to his mother: “I think of slaying Holmes … and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.” His mother responded, “You may do what you deem fit, but the crowds will not take this lightheartedly.” His readers rebelled and within ten years he had revived his best selling characters and they went on to star in more than 50 more stories from the Conan Doyle pen. The number of stories by fans of the characters since the 1893 demise of the characters numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
Anne Kustriz writes that “Fan writing or fan fiction is the practice of using characters from a professionally published text (a source product) in an original story. Fan fiction is written by amateur authors and was originally published only in fanzines (or zines, fan magazines) that were compilations of fan fiction, poems, articles, and fan art whose price was set only high enough to recoup printing costs.”
On Monday, July 11, 2011, The CBS Evening News did its closing story on FanFiction, prompted by the debut of the final Harry Potter movie. Fans of the Harry Potter books and characters have apparently been quite productive, publishing hundreds of thousands of stories that pick up where the books left off, or that take the characters in different directions than their creator had. Also, be sure to read “The Boy Who Lived Forever,” pages 45-50 in the July 15, 2011, issue of Time magazine. The article is sub-titled “Inside the alternative universe of fan fiction, where Harry Potter’s story never ends.” FanFiction hits the big time.
My take on all of this: fan fiction is a BIG deal and is very important to us as writers. Why you might ask? Simple: a lot of people write fan fiction and a lot of people read fan fiction. Those people are potential readers of what we write. If someone absolutely adores a particular show and seeks out one of the many fan fiction sites, finds some stories and starts reading, we are potentially getting someone reading who wouldn’t otherwise read. And to that I say Hallelujah!
The old model of publishing is dead. The idea of an author bringing out one book a year is gone. For decades the world always waited for a “Christie for Christmas”. In other words, Agatha Christie produced one book a year and it was typically released before Christmas. Things move at a faster pace now. If someone likes a show and it has only just started, there are no others for them to read. Fan fiction fills an important role in keeping them interested, keeping them engaged, in exploring story not dealt with in the series. Fan fiction especially fills an important role in exploring character and story line developments that a television series just would never touch, such as a same sex relationship between two main characters.
For example, when I started to watch the new remake of Hawaii: Five-0 with Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan, the show screamed homoeroticism to me. There is just no way on the face of this earth that the writers didn’t know what they were doing when they created the relationship between the Caan character and the O’Loughlin character. But, at the same time, there is no way that they would ever have the balls to write something about that relationship as they had set it up. So I did. I’m not ashamed of it. I’ve actually rather proud of it because the stories I wrote using those characters were downloaded thousands of times.
Often a television series will be cancelled well before the viewers think it should be. In those instances, fan fiction writers step in an fill a gaping void left by the cancellation of the show. There are thriving fan fiction communities dealing with characters and settings from shows that were cancelled years ago. The networks have no interest in them, otherwise they would have kept them in production. I do not see the harm in a fan fiction writer taking those characters out to play a little bit; otherwise they simply sit in a dark closet getting dusty.