The Perils of Fan Fiction

The other day, I was listening to a Star Wars audio drama called Conquest of the Empire, a fairly well engineered audio drama set shortly after Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith. It opened with an epic starfighter battle, but there was no dialogue and no narration to tell me it was a starfighter battle, I knew because of the music and sound effects. Many viewings of the movies and countless hours spent playing Star Wars video games told me instantly what I was hearing and even who was who. (Imperial Tie Fighters have their own set of sound effects, as do the Rebels.) It was all very thrilling and interesting to listen to, and made for a great start to the audio drama.
But, what if I gave that audio drama to my fiancée? She has never seen the original trilogy, only watched the new ones casually, and never played a Star Wars video game in her life. What would that brilliant opening have meant to her? Nice music and meaningless noise, I imagine. And, even if she listened to the whole audio drama series, then listened to the beginning again, what would she get from it? Maybe a little more, but still essentially meaningless noise and nice music.

Why? Because from start to finish, it’s never explained what those noises are, or what they mean, it’s just assumed that the audience already knows them or has the basic familiarity to guess. To go even further, even the characters aren’t explained in any detail, and there are a lot of them thrown at the audience as the story progresses who are just names but are never developed in any way. Who are they? What does this mean? Who is that heavy breathing guy? If I hadn’t seen the films, or listened to the old masterfully done NPR Star Wars radio plays, I would never know.

So, with this in mind, I thought I’d write a little bit about fan fiction and the costs associated with it.

The first thing I should say is that I myself once wrote fan fiction as well, although just a smattering of it, during my anime fandom days of my early to mid twenties. As mildly embarrassed as I am to admit it, I was a Moonie, a Sailor Moon fan, and did indeed write two fairly forgettable works of Sailor Moon fan fiction (Sailor Moon:SSX and Sailor Moon/Blackjack: For Philosophers and the Dead) and helped author an aborted fan fiction Star Trek Series called New Frontiers. A name which was later taken by Peter David, one of my favorite Trek writers, for his own series of what amounted to professional authorized fan fiction under the guise of “Non-Canonical Licensed Properties”. (These are those books in your bookstore based on properties like Star Trek, Star Wars, Warhammer, D&D, and others which are written by professionals instead of amateurs, but still don’t usually actually count towards the core-work except in a few special cases.)

I’ll leave those discussions of what is and is not fan fiction for others, however, as to get back to the point- I did write some fan fiction and read my share of it once upon a time, so while I am no expert, I do know a bit about it as a topic and genre. However, at a certain point I suddenly found I couldn’t do it anymore. I found writing fan fiction just left a bad taste in my mouth. I think for me it was the point that I was putting a lot of work and creativity into something that ultimately had absolutely minimal payback in any sense of the word.

Yes, it was fun to write, and yes I did give me a built-in audience of fellow fans who loved the original work as much as I did, but what was I really getting from it?

Was I learning how to construct a setting? (No, someone else had done that.) Carefully build and structure characters and relationships? (No, they were already there.) Create plots and situations? (Yes, but that’s a basic writing skill.) Was I trying out new writing styles and techniques? (Not really, the style, themes, and underlying concepts behind the work had already been prepared for me.) Was I getting good feedback from a variety of sources? (No, because I was only dealing with like-minded fans, as opposed to a variety of individuals of different backgrounds capable of offering different forms of feedback.) Was I getting my name out there as a writer? (No, because people either read my stuff because of the original, or avoided it because of the original work.) Could I use this work in the future? (Yes and no, it could never be anything but internet fan fiction, but there were characters and other things I could use later for other projects.)

That was a whole lot of no’s, and only a few yes’s and maybes.

So, I made the choice to stop writing fan fiction.

I stopped reading it too, and started to read only original works by master storytellers whose names had danced around my English classes but whom I had never really touched. There turned out to be a reason people actually loved these authors. Who knew?

So, with that in mind, let’s look a bit more at the issues involved with writing fan fiction. I will organize it into a classic fashion: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good

It’s fun! As I said before, it’s a lot of fun to take your favorite characters and play “what if” with them. What if A and B got together? What if C made a different choice at that pivotal point? What if D was a little late in the crucial scene? What if…The list is endless, and everything is there and already made for you. You just need to plug your own ideas into the pre-existing framework and GO! You know how the characters speak, you know who hates and loves who, you know…everything about the story, so you can just jump in there and write-write-write! Then, when you are done writing, do you have to struggle to be heard on the internet? No way! Because you are part of…

Fandom! If you love something, chances are someone else does too, and thanks to the internet fans of anything and everything can get together and swap anything related to anything. Since there’s only so many times you can talk about the aspects of an existing work (i.e. there are only 6 Star Wars movies and a limited cast of characters) it’s natural to want to explore more about your favorite world. This is where fan fiction comes in, and any fandom site worth its salt will have a fan fiction section where people can trade stories and swap ideas and comments. If you actively participate in this community, you can make new net-friends, trade ideas, and generally have a great time participating as a productive member of that work’s fandom. Also, once you post it, you gain an instant audience who will give you…

Feedback! So, once you have penned Inu Yasha’s latest epic adventure, you can just slide on over to your favorite fan forum and post it, and you’ll instantly get a few dozen people (minimum) reading your story. Sure, you might have made mistakes, and they’ll call you on it, but if you went to a supportive and friendly forum, then they’ll also help you a bit and give you a little bit of feedback about how to improve. (Especially if you get attention from the “Queen Bees’ of that particular forum, the writers considered the groups’ best.) The more feedback (and social approval) you get, the more you’ll want to write, and it re-enforces your self-confidence a lot as well. It’s a great way to get practice as a writer, and writing is all about practice, practice, practice, because as someone once said “easy reading is hard writing”, a comment I agree with. (Of course, if you don’t participate in the larger group’s community, you’ll find it harder to get feedback or noticed, and can easily leave unhappy and discouraged, but them’s the breaks in any social group.)

The Bad

Training Wheels need to come off! Someone once commented to the magician Penn Jillette that a fellow magician was performing real magic (as in witchcraft) because the person was unable to figure out how it was humanly possible to do what he did. Penn’s reply was simple, and to paraphrase it: “it’s not magic, it’s 800 hours of practice, and if you put that much work into it, you could probably do it too.” In this case, writing is magic, and it’s a skill, a very hard skill. If you want to be good at that skill, you need to practice it continually, and there are a lot of skills involved in writing, not just characters and situations. Building and selecting a cast, a whole cast, is a skill. Knowing who your audience is and how to reach them is a skill. Choosing themes, metaphors, subtexts and tone are skills. Worldbuilding (from the atom up), is a skill. These are skills that a full author has, and needs to have, because they are creating everything from scratch. These are also the skills that a fan fiction writer isn’t exercising or learning as they write fan-fiction. The very skills that give a work depth and substance. No wonder when most fan fiction writers try to write something else, they produce hollow crap, because they never learned how to make the cake, just the icing.

Every style has a weakness. At the above site that hosts Conquest of the Empire, there are a variety of other audio-dramas based around the Star Wars setting, but after looking at them I immediately decided not to bother listening to a single one of them. Why, you may ask? The answer is simple- reading them I quickly realized that they’re almost all people telling grim and gritty commando stories set in the Star Wars universe. I love Star Wars for its swashbuckling adventure feel, and I want Star Wars stories which reflect what I love about the movies, so I have no interest in their dramas. For me, they have deviated too much from what Star Wars “is”, and while that will obviously not be true for everyone, for me it’s enough to push me away from listening to them.

As I stated about training wheels, each good creative work has a style and a “feel” that is unique to its creator. This is based on the choices that creator made about the story when they conceived it, but it also locks down what can and can’t be done in a particular work without it no longer being of that work. Many a published author has lost their fan base when they took their stories “in a new direction”, or “tried something different that I know you’ll all love”. That author probably didn’t really understand what it was about their work that their audience loved in the first place, and so they changed what worked in favor if what didn’t. (For that particular audience.)

Now, how does this apply to fan fiction? The fan fiction author never made those creative choices in the first place, and probably only understand what makes a work “good” based on their own instinctual feeling of what that work means to them. They know what they love about that work and are trying to produce more of it for themselves and for their friends, and therefore they are learning to write in certain way. If they write in a different way, they risk losing their audience like the published authors did, and so there is this constant subtle pressure to stay within certain invisible boundaries if they want their fandom to continue to support them. (And peer approval is often one of the greatest forces in a fan fiction author’s motivations to write, since it’s the only payment they’re getting outside of self satisfaction.)

So, to boil it down further, the fan fiction writer has a strong motivation to learn to write in a certain way and a certain style. Unsurprisingly then, they do write in that certain way and style, and some of them become quite good at it. (Sometimes indistinguishable from the original author, in fact.) This is actually a bad thing for two reasons: 1) outside of fan fiction’s parroting of creative works, there is no “right” way to tell a story in the real world! There is only what works and what doesn’t work to bring your point across. (So more skills the fan fiction author isn’t learning.) And 2) the fan fiction author is not developing their own writing style, but in fact learning to write as someone else, and they may find that everything they do from that point on is in fact just more of them writing in the style of the original author. (For a visual version of this, look at Japanese doujinshi artists who become “professionals”, and are still drawing just like the artists they drew doujinshi of. You can literally glance at a manga these days and tell who was “inspired” by whom if you know the last generation of artists as the studios more and more use doujinshi artists to fill their rosters.)

I blame much of this “creative inbreeding” (where creators base their creations on others who based their creations on something they didn’t completely understand) for much of why TV, comics, books, and film are much the way they are today. And, I expect it to only get worse.

Just like martial artist movements show the style of their masters, so writers show the style of their masters, spiritual or literal. And, as Bruce Lee pointed out, style breeds rigidity and weakness, strength is in flexibility. Fan fiction writing teaches style, not flexibility.

Accessibility Issues. Recently, I listened to a audio drama based on The Legend of Zelda, or to be more precise, based on a fan fiction, based on the video game The Legend of Zelda. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get into it. Issues of quality aside, it was based on a game I had never played, and characters who obviously someone who played the game would know just came and went as needed. Even worse, there were references to things that were never explained, and it was just assumed that I would know the world and some of its rules and concepts. So, after two tries, I just gave up, even though I honestly wanted to listen to it because I am familiar with some of the voice actors in it and admire their work.

One of fan fiction’s greatest strengths is that it can draw upon sometimes rich pre-existing bodies of creativity and have fun with it. Twists on characters and worlds, in-jokes and cameos are a huge fun part of writing fan fiction. However, there is a huge danger here in that the more you draw on that body of pre-existing knowledge; the less accessible you make the story to people who don’t already know what you know. Yes, you can explain things, the original author did, but sometimes there is no simple explanation for why something is as it is unless you know the original story. It’s like trying to translate a language, you can get the ideas across easily enough, but it’s easy to lose the subtext and feeling that goes with that idea.

So, you’re left with a choice. You can either write for fellow fans, or you can write for a general audience. The more you write for the fans, the less anyone who isn’t a fan is likely to understand it, the more you write for a general audience, the more you risk boring your fellow fans who already know this stuff, and you can’t use too much pre-existing knowledge for fear of overwhelming casual readers. A tricky balance which can easily turn into a lose-lose situation. Most fans, it seems, choose the easy way and just write for their fellow fans, which is fine, but they need to remember that it is a choice, and like any choice, there is a cost associated with it.

The Ugly

Ghettoization. Continuing with the theme of accessibility- by writing fan fiction you are automatically limiting the audience of your work. You gain a small devoted audience who will read anything related to it, but at the same time you lose a large audience who won’t touch it because it’s related to the original work, or because they recognize it as fan fiction. (And thus probably more work to read than they care to bother with.) Even worse, in the bizarre nature of internet fandom there is also Ghettoization within fandom communities themselves, so even all Inu-Yasha fans or Firefly fans won’t read your fanwork. Some of them will only read fanwork by selected authors, others require stories be focused on certain characters or situations before they will think about reading them. So, by writing fan fiction, you’re actually writing for an audience within an audience. Good luck with that!

“No Future” isn’t just a song by Aikawa Nanase. So, you spent 600 hours of your life writing Simpsons fan fiction, congrats. Now you can pack it up and go on with your life knowing that only you and a small group of people on the internet can ever or will ever read those 600 hours worth of work. Yes, it is possible you might be able to rework it to being “original” or use some elements you created later in other original works, and sometimes that works quite well, but usually not. In addition to all the bad points above in writing fan fiction, you haven’t developed anything you could actually sell or use in the future. Even the guy who wrote badly disguised Simpson fan fiction still has a work he can market to a larger audience, and might even be able to return to from time to time. But you, the guy who has created and built one of the best written and most intricate pieces of fanwork ever are left with nothing but a sense of satisfaction and a few megabytes of word processing files. If you’re fine with that, no problem, but it’s the truth, and you need to be aware of it.

Intellectual Property. The bad news is, you’re probably breaking the law as set out by your country’s Intellectual Property rules and regulations. (At least if you live in the USA.) The good news is, it’s not worth their time to prosecute you, and fan fiction acts as a form of subliminal advertising, so they’re probably more than happy to let you go on your merry way as long as you don’t try to profit from it or threaten their rights. Of course, if you’re producing media besides simple writing, say audio drama or videos, then there’s a chance you’ll be pissing off more than one rights-holder if you use music which isn’t your own. The more outside material which isn’t yours you use, the more likely someone will come and step on your creation. Welcome to modern copyright law, and tread carefully. Just because person A got away with it, it doesn’t mean person B isn’t going to be the one made an example of. (The Chinese call this approach “Killing a chicken to scares the foxes.”)

Final Thoughts

Despite what you may think reading the above, I am not against fanfiction or others writing it, and in fact I think the “fun” and “fandom” factors of fanfiction are worth a lot, especially when you’re a young writer. Most people who write it have no chance of becoming a professional writer (most writers period have no chance of going pro!) and if it’s a hobby they get a kick out and can enjoy with their friends, then why not? However, that said, I do think even though it’s the harder path, trying to write original fiction instead of fanfiction is worth it. Learning how to use writing to communicate your ideas is a very important skill, and that includes making your work accessible to others. (Which is a skill in and of itself.)
But, I’ll write more about that another time.