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July, 2005 : Essay:

The Appeal of Fanfiction

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but what is it about science fiction and fantasy that drives fans to write numerous original stories in fiction's existing universes? Hundreds of sites around the Internet host fanfiction, some of it cringe-worthy, but much of it is, surprisingly, good.

Those who read and write fanfiction love it. Those who don't may not understand it. Fanfiction is creative writing that uses pre-existing characters and worlds from television, books or other media. One of the common criticisms of fanfiction writers by non-fanfiction fans is, "Why don't you write something original?" While the universe and often the characters in fanfiction may belong to someone else, the stories themselves are original in execution, often as good as the aboriginal story that inspired them.

Two popular sites feature a wide variety of fanfiction: Fiction Alley ("Creativity is magic") and ("Unleash your imagination and free your soul"). Within these sites a reader can find fanfiction for many works of contemporary fiction, but when it comes to the number of stories written, ranging from slash stories of just a few hundred words to entire brick-sized novels, the genre of science fiction and fantasy leaves the rest behind. This is testament to the sheer power of imagination found in science fiction and fantasy.

For example, on on 30 April 2005, Star Trek (all incarnations) had 9,004 stories posted, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer had 26,333, Star Wars had 10,929 and Harry Potter had an impressive 186,525 stories. Occasionally a non-science fiction or fantasy series has an impressive rating—Gilmore Girls (5,916) and CSI (7,098)—but generally, science fiction and fantasy rated the highest on average, with most universes featuring hundreds if not thousands of stories. Non-science fiction and fantasy fanfiction numbers are considered high if they reach one hundred.

Nielsen popularity of a show won't guarantee that fans will love it so much that they'll immerse themselves in an orgy of fanfiction delight. The ever-so-popular Friends TV show netted over 2,400 stories (a number considered rather high for a mainstream TV show), whereas Dark Angel, which only ran for a few seasons before being cancelled, rated nearly twice that at 4,250 stories. Days of Our Lives, one of the most popular daytime soap operas for more than twenty-five years netted only 680 stories. The total for Sex and the City? Only two.

Why is the genre of science fiction and fantasy so inspiring? One of the earmarks of science fiction and fantasy that sets it apart from other genres is worldbuilding. An incredible amount of creativity and architecture goes into creating an entire world for a story. Histories, peoples and even an entire new set of rules for magic and physics are created, yet only a fraction of that worldbuilding is presented in the story.

The medium in which the story is presented will allow the fan to glimpse only a certain amount of that new world the writer has created. Cinema, both the silver screen and its baby sister television, constrains storytelling to a strictly-limited amount of time. Directors cram as much as they can into that amount of time before the window closes and no more of the story can be seen. Even books are limited by size (despite J.K. Rowling's amazing ability to write a book that is deeper than it is wide). These limitations don't quite do justice to the worlds built by authors.

Fans sense this. After the final credits roll, after the back cover closes, the fan's mind keeps going. The fan is inspired by the great question of "What If?"

What if Crusher and Picard chose to pursue a romantic relationship? What if Luke Skywalker gave in to the dark side, killed Emperor Palpatine and joined his father as a Sith Lord? What if Hermione really chose Harry over Ron? (Heaven forbid!) As writers all know, once a good idea gets into one's head, there is no getting rid of it except by writing it down.

And so they do. The amount of fanfiction written rivals the amount of wholly original and new works created every day.

The Internet is rife with countless sites devoted to particular universes, with fans showing their dedication in story, song, and even filming their own series of episodes. For example, some fans are so enamored of the idea of Ginny Weasley's love for Harry Potter that they've created the fanfiction site Ginny Potter. Some fans with a musical bent are Harry and the Potters, offering their own brand of rock songs like "Stick it to Delores Umbridge." This is not mere filk, but original music compositions and lyrics. For some impressive professional-caliber Star Trek fan television series, check out Star Trek: Hidden Frontier and Star Trek: New Voyages. These fans have filmed their own series, complete with special effects that rival those of any professional show on television.

For decades fanfiction was limited to a closet pursuit of a few typed pages brought out only to be shared among a select group of like-minded fans, those fellow fanfiction appreciators who wouldn't laugh, who also wished that a certain television series wasn't over and had this secret burning desire for more. During the 1980s fanfiction was published and distributed through Amateur Publishing Associations (APAs) or distributed at conventions. With little quality control, most of the fanfiction was of poor literary standard, thus giving rise to the now-inaccurate stereotype of "Bad Fanfic."

But with the growing popularity of the Internet, fans have found a medium in which to share, not only to give exposure to their labors of love, but also to get sufficient feedback to improve the quality of their works.

Many fanfiction sites offer "beta reading" (a form of literary critique) and voting/rating as a form of quality control. Beta readers can offer constructive critique on a piece before it is posted in a public forum. With a voting/rating system, well-written stories rate highly among fans. The not-so-good fade away from public view. The peer recognition of quality stories helps keep the general quality of the stories on sites like this high. Thanks to this feedback system, the fanfiction out there is more good than bad.

Not all fanfiction is so lucky as to go through the refiner's fire. Sometimes the fiction is absolutely terrible, often suffering from woes ranging from the pornographic "Pizza-Boy Titillations" to the ego-stroking Mary Sue-isms. Science fiction and fantasy are often read for escapism, so naturally, this would spawn fiction where authors write themselves into the story. Fortunately, such fiction has a very limited audience (read: audience of one—the author—and possibly five others who had the poor luck of stumbling upon the web site where it was posted) and is soon forgotten. A shame that another poorly-written story will come to take its place.

Many people—some fan writers included—think that just because a story is fanfiction that quality doesn't matter. Fanfiction suffers from the misconception that a fan writer is not a "real writer." This is not true. Quality writing can and does matter and one does not have to be a "professional" to turn out quality fiction, even if that fiction is fanfiction. Because of this, the reputation of fanfiction is improving and many talented fan writers are being acknowledged for the high quality work they create.

So why would someone want to choose to write fanfiction? First and foremost: love. Love is the spark for creativity. When fans love a universe so much, that love has a way of inspiring them. One cannot write any fanfiction—good or bad—if one does not love the universe that inspires it. Fan fiction can be nothing but a work of love. Due to copyright issues, fanfiction can only be considered derivative work of amateur status (amateur meaning that authors cannot receive any monetary compensation in fees, royalties, etc. for their work). If one cannot write for money, then one writes for love.

Next, obsession. This isn't so much the fan being obsessed with the idea, but rather the idea being obsessed with the fan. All writers are victim to this obsession, where an idea gets stuck in their head and they must write it or die. Again, this is caused by the "What If?" question so common to the science fiction and fantasy genre.

Then comes convenience. One of the difficult parts of writing original fiction is the building from scratch of worlds, characters and more. In science fiction and fantasy, this can be a lot of work. Then the author has to disseminate the information to the reader in a skillful and elegant manner, avoiding the dreaded "infodump." With fanfiction, the universe and characters are already established, thus leaving the fan author free to get down to the plot and the action.

Fanfiction has another advantage in a pre-existing fan base. Readers will flock to read a story by an unknown writer simply because it features their favorite characters.

There are plenty of online guides to writing fanfiction. Melissa Wilson, a fanfiction author, offers a fanfiction-specific guide, including grammatical and style tips and how to avoid common pitfalls of the fanfiction author. DMOZ offers a list of resources useful to the fan writer.

Finally, what about copyright? Copyright is a nebulous issue and there are many rules and regulations covering copyright. For example, are you stepping on someone's trademarked toes if you write a vignette about Spock, or are you safe from being smacked with a copyright lawsuit from Paramount? Writer A.T. Lee presents an excellent article, Copyright 101: A Brief Introduction to Copyright for Fan Fiction Authors. (Quick answer: a fanfiction story can be considered a derivative work and generally derivative works are considered allowable.)

Fan fiction is an integral part of the science fiction and fantasy genre, providing quality fiction. It should no longer be a victim of stigma, but should be considered a literary form in its own right. Flatter those authors who created the universes we love so much. Read and write fanfiction.

Copyright © 2005, Heidi Wessman Kneale. All Rights Reserved.

About Heidi Kneale

Heidi Wessman Kneale is an Australian author of moderate repute. By day she works technological miracles for the local library. The wrest of the time she writes books and wraises babies.


Jul 4, 23:49 by IROSF
Let's talk some more about fan fiction!

Heidi Kneale's article can be found here.

Another article on the topic, published over a year ago, can also be found in the archives. And it's worth noting that that article stirred up a conversation of it's own back in the day.
Jul 5, 10:55 by Jed Hartman
Thanks for the followup article!

I haven't had time to read this in detail yet, but for now I have one small quasi-correction to one brief item at the end. Kneale writes: "a fanfiction story can be considered a derivative work and generally derivative works are considered allowable." The emphasis and implications of that statement, in my reading of it, don't quite match what the "Copyright 101" article says, which is:

"Therefore, technically, all fan fictions, which are derivative works (see, Sec. 4.1), are copyright violations. While many copyright holders turn a blind eye to such works [...], they don't have to be so nice about it."

Note that "derivative works" is one of the categories of material protected by copyright.
Jul 5, 14:00 by Bluejack
Yes, that point was also clearly made in Khadiz' original article.

Derivative works are protected by copyright unless specially licensed by the author.

Presumably Kneale's point is that authors generally allow it, but that could have been clearer.
Jul 5, 19:04 by David Bratman
Anyone at pains to observe that fan writers are, or can be, "real writers" should be cautious about dismissive remarks about "mere filk."

Kneale says of the Harry Potter songs, "This is not mere filk, but original music compositions and lyrics."

But the genre of filk includes not just parodies, but original music, not to mention original lyrics. If it's songs about science fiction, especially if it's songs inspired by existing SF literature and film, and it's distributed in an amateur context, it is, or is likely to be considered, filk.

As an example, Leslie Fish, one of the most renowned filksingers of all, got her start in the field by writing original songs based on Star Trek - some humorous, some serious.
Jul 6, 15:28 by Carey McGee
Since fan fiction is such a hot topic, I thought I'd toss in this link to Neal Pollack's recent, (and rather dismissive) article for Wired.
Jul 25, 13:23 by Dan Goodman
At least one sex-story website has a fair amount of fan fiction, which is in the same category as stories about famous real people: The fan fiction is under "Celebrities."
Aug 10, 12:49 by Allan Rosewarne
Real cautious stepping into the water here. But let's go anyway...

The type of story mentioned previously is a specific subcategory sometimes known as RPF (real people fic). Interestingly, in many, many cases the characters are based on current popular "boy" bands (think 'nsync, etc.), and pro wrestling figures. Fan fiction community has actively discussed the appropriateness of this type of writing.

Restating something I mentioned before, not all fan fiction writing (appropriating characters from another work and incorporating that into a non-licensed derivative work) is smutty; furthermore, I would not even say the majority is smutty. Empirical evidence, way back in summer 2003 or 2002, the internet's major fanfiction archive stopped accepting writing into its archive that was smutty, and the archive still receives hundreds of submissions each week.

Being quite again.

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