Idolization Or Manipulation? | The Conundrum Of Fanfiction | Opinion

As I was going over my notes from last year’s post about reading Twilight for the first time in preparation for the next instalment—breaking in here to say my post about reading New Moon for the first time is slated for October 4—one entry in that Chronicle of Thoughts really stood out:

Page 331 — To be perfectly honest, Carlisle’s backstory has me more intrigued than Bella and Edward’s story—which is kind of a problem considering theirs is the main plotline. This retelling of Carlisle’s past is the first time I’ve felt myself being really pulled into the book and my attention has been truly captured. I’m actually really fascinated by this.If you have written or know of any Carlisle fanfics focused on his upbringing/life in 1600s London and the first couple of centuries of his vampire-dom, please send them my way because I totally want of that kind of content.

Essentially, Carlisle was my favorite character because of his backstory. I wanted more of it, especially since I couldn’t get myself as invested in what was happening with Bella and Edward.

Again, at the time of writing this post, I’ve only read the first Twilight book, so I can’t say whether or not there is more information about Carlisle to come. I’m hoping there is, but I haven’t looked too much into it to avoid spoilers going forth (which is perhaps futile considering how much I already know about the series, but I’m trying to go in with an open mind unhindered by that knowledge as best I can).

But what little I did have made me want more, referencing fanfic as a potential source to fill in these gaps or expand on things about Carlisle’s past in 1600s London because I had a suspicion it existed.

Fanfiction can be interesting to discuss. There is a vastness within fanfic, with something for literally any pop culture thing, creating a sense of community because it gives people the opportunity to find others who love their favorite shows or books or share their passion for writing.

However, it can also be tricky because of the nature of fanfic itself.

Depending on who you ask, a work of fanfiction might be inspired by something, but may also borrow or even steal and infringe on the original work.

Sometimes, what starts out as fanfiction takes on a life of its own, blurring the lines even further.

What Is Fanfiction?

Fanfiction is as it sounds. Written by fans, it brings existing characters in pop culture into new storylines. It could be inspired by a book, television series, film, video game, celebrity, anything with a fanbase.

This could be granting a redo of an event, taking everyone and throwing them into a completely new setting or, picking up where a story left off as a sort of unofficial epilogue or, as fanfic is often associated with, exploring non-canon romances—pairings that do not exist in the original material, like the popular pairing of Rey and Kylo Ren from the most recent Star Wars trilogy.

These are typically uploaded online, with Fanfiction.net and Wattpad being among the most well-known sources.

Most of the time, it’s all in good fun.

I myself have only written fanfiction once.

It was a crossover between The Hunger Games and Les Miserables. It seems like a bizarre combination, but only if you didn’t know me during senior year of high school.

From what I can recall of this I-kid-you-not-almost-novel-length chaos, the whole thing was set a few decades before Katniss’s storyline begins, with the narrator being an original character created for the purpose of this fanfic, along with a few others like the former victors mentoring the new Tributes and a handful of the not-important competitors.

Pretty much else was a character from Les Miserables, specifically a member of Les Amis de l’ABC, aka a Barricade Boy (excluding Marius). Eponine also made an appearance.

The narrator was from District Four, with Courfeyrac being the male Tribute from that District because I have SUCH a soft spot for him.

Enjolras was District Two because that was Cato’s in the original Hunger Games book. Grantaire was District Twelve.

Basically, the Barricade Boys were out to start a revolution within the arena.

I made an effort to stick with the lore of The Hunger Games, as well as making a few references to various iterations of Les Miserables from book, stage, and screen. The character of Patria was inspired by a scene in the book where the guys tease Enjolras about not having a girlfriend and he just responds with “Patria” to basically say he’s not getting involved in romance until France is in a better place. His country is his true love.

Within all of this, it kind of spiralled into a slight Aaron Tveit fanfic because he played Enjolras in the 2013 film and I had a thing for him. References to shows he had been in like Next to Normal and Catch Me If You Can were sprinkled in there, as well as a few nods to Vikings because George Blagden (Grantaire) played Athelstan on that series.

I did upload it somewhere, so I’m sure it’s still out there, but it’s not something I’ve touched in years apart from stumbling across the file on an old flashdrive when I was looking for something else.

Overall, I started this mess because I needed a break from my main writing project. At that point, I was three years into my first novel and still not anywhere near finishing the first draft.

It was a great way to shift gears and trying something new, to practice writing from the first-person POV because my novels are third-person, and pretty much take the leap into a different genre.

I had an absolute blast with it and, though I haven’t written any fanfic since then, I can see why people are so drawn to it.

But there are some issues with fanfic that leave it with a sometimes unfavorable reputation.

(Copy)right Of Way

The thing that makes fanfiction such a complicated issue is what it is.

There is some debate over whether or not fanfic is a legitimate form of writing or storytelling because so much of it is already there. Fanfic employs established worlds, characters, stories, and so on and blends it into something new. While fanfic often bends these things, perhaps putting these characters in new scenarios or introducing new original characters into the mix, having so much already in existence leads some to feel as though not as much work is being put into it, that it’s “easy writing” compared to what inspired it or “not real writing.”

Fanfic has also been deemed a form of plagiarism or theft because the person writing the fanfic is taking ideas from another creator.

There is also an issue of legality involved, as a majority of characters brought into fanfiction are copyrighted, spurring the debate over fair use.

In the United States, fair use is a doctrine of law permitting limited use of copyrighted content without having to get consent from the copyright holder. In this case, the copyright holder would be the publisher or author.

This means a fanfic writer doesn’t need to approach Little, Brown, and Co. or Stephenie Meyer to write Twilight fanfiction.

There are still rules about copying the work, so permission would be needed to feature a passage from Twilight in an anthology, for example.

The attitude towards fanfiction has shifted and ranges from one author to the next.

Stephenie Meyer actually has a link to Twilight fanfiction on her website.

Orson Scott Card, author of the Ender’s Game series was initially against it but had a change of heart, eventually saying, “Every piece of fan fiction is an ad for my book. What kind of idiot would I be to want that to disappear?”

Some, however, are steadfast in their opinions.

George R. R. Martin is opposed to fanfiction, believing it to be a poor exercise for aspiring writers and copyright infringement.

Sharon Lee, co-creator of the Liaden universe, is also against fanfiction, stating, “Nobody else is going to get it right. This may sound rude and elitist, but honestly, it’s not easy for us to get it right sometimes, and we’ve been living with these characters…for a very long time.”

This is a point I can understand, and something I’ve been gravitating more and more as I create my own content and near publishing.

Guises to Keep is the one I worry about most in this regard. I’m apt to joke about bracing myself for the erotic fanfiction featuring James and his valet because of their close relationship.

I anticipate some things being taken out of context, including in the form of fanfiction, with things being veering in a direction I never intended.

It’s also a deeply personal book to me in a way that my others aren’t, because scenes in the first draft unexpectedly coincided with my father’s death, and it became an escape and a catharsis for me then and remains so even half a decade later.

I started this project when I was fourteen, and I still refer to it as the “main WIP” even though it is still oh so far from being publishable at this point in time and I’m focusing primarily on Bound to the Heart because that one is closer to ready.

The thought of someone out there “borrowing” the characters I have spent almost half of my life creating and working with, those who feel almost like family to me, and warping them into something else, is a little unsettling.

Issues In Inspiration

Agents often ask for comp titles when querying, or books that yours is similar to. This is for their understanding as well as a potential publisher because they can gauge how well your story may be received or sell if they take it on.

An author may pitch their novel as Eat, Pray, Love meets The Fault In Our Stars because their protagonist is a teenage cancer patient who goes on a globe-trotting journey of self-discovery after her latest prognosis is not as expected. This gives the prospective agent or publisher a sense of expected readership and such. Readers who enjoyed either or both comp titles would be likely to pick up this new work.

An author of a retelling would indicate such. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is exactly that: Pride and Prejudice, but with zombies.

Pemberley Ranch by Jack Caldwell, another favorite of mine, takes the story of Pride and Prejudice and centers it around the time of the American Civil War.

These are distinct retellings because the author is taking a well-known piece of literature and putting their own spin on it. Retellings might also be from the perspective of a character other than the protagonist.

Grendel by John Gardner is a retelling of Beowulf from the monster’s view. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is derived from Hamlet but revolves around Hamlet’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and makes Hamlet a secondary character.

On a similar note The Lion King is basically Hamlet and I like to consider The Lion King 1 1/2 as Disney’s homage to Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead since it follows Timon’s side of the story.

This all begs the question: is a retelling fanfic?

If a story revolves around Juliet’s nurse in Romeo and Juliet rather than the titular characters, does that make it fanfic or a retelling?

If a story revolves around Primrose’s experiences in District Twelve while Katniss is competing in The Hunger Games after volunteering to take her place as Tribute, does that make it fanfic or a retelling?

Where is that line?

It’s the same issue I mentioned in my post about Genre Fiction compared to Literary Fiction, where a seemingly distinguishing feature is in the original work’s popularity and how old it is.

A retelling of Gulliver’s Travels is less likely to be deemed fanfiction than a retelling of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy because the prior has been around for so much longer.

But isn’t it the same principle? Taking something that already exists and changing something?

Prompt And Circumstance

Considering it in the scope of a writing exercise, fanfiction to me isn’t too different than writing prompts.

In my early elementary school years, from about first to third grade, my classes would be periodically tested on our writing skills. They would give a prompt like “You find a door in the woods and open it. What happens next?” and we would have an hour or so to write a short story.

As you might guess from the length of this blog post alone, I don’t think I ever actually made it to the end of one of these exams with a finished story because even then I could never write a short story.

These eventually shifted to persuasive essays in the fourth and fifth grade, something like “Who is your hero and why?” or “What is one change you would like to see made to your school?”

Prompts are sometimes used by authors looking for inspiration, or as a warm-up before they start working on their actual project.

Going back to George R. R. Martin’s point, fanfic can be a prompt in its own right and a way to play with an idea that is presented to you. When you don’t know what to write, it can be a way to spark those creative juices.

Like those writing exams, fanfiction supplies a few characters or a world and tasks you with making something of it. It may also be easier to focus on a particular weakness in your writing when you don’t need to be as heavily-concentrated on other things.

Writing a scene featuring a character you are already familiar with can help with learning to write dialogue because we know a character like Blair Waldorf is going to have a different dialect and mannerisms than Sue Heck. Using a location you know well like the Friends apartment or the Dunder Mifflin office can improve your setting descriptions.

However, this can be done too liberally.

Commercial Fanfiction

The only issue I personally have with fanfic is when it goes too far.

But how far is too far?

In my opinion, fanfiction goes too far when it becomes mainstream, when it hits a point of popularity beyond its main audience.

I don’t mean something like a Tangled fanfic gaining traction and finding readers in the Star Trek fanfic community, but rather something going beyond the realm of fanfic itself.

Say I’ve written a fanfic about a celebrity.

I’m going to use 5 Seconds of Summer bassist and vocalist Calum Hood for this.

Let’s assume this story is set in during the North American leg of the band’s tour. The narrator is an original character named Sadie, who eventually earns the nickname of Trouble (as a nod to their song “How Did We End Up Here” because of the lyric “Everyone was asking for your name/You just smiled and told them Trouble”). Sadie’s dad is part of the crew for the opening act and Sadie gets to tag along since it’s the summer before her senior year of college and the first summer she’s spent with her dad since her parents’ divorce.

Sadie and Calum end up meeting backstage and hit it off. He invites her to an afterparty, things kind of go from there. Sadie’s dad doesn’t love what she’s getting into but things are starting to heat up with Calum so she doesn’t want to listen to his advice.

Of course, stuff happens. A Starbucks date leaves to Calum being late to a soundcheck. Hanging out in the green room of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon ahead of the guys’ performance leads to an awkward encounter with Kylie Jenner. TMZ is trying to figure out who Sadie is and getting all up in her grill. They get into a fight at a music festival that seems to end the relationship for good. But somehow these two end up making it work until the tour bus drives into the sunset.

Now let’s say I upload this Calum Hood fanfic and it gains traction. Plenty of reads, mostly-positive reviews. So much so that I decide to take a chance and see if this thing can get published.

But not without a few tweaks.

Calum is renamed something like Charlie. 5SOS is twisted into a completely fictional band with its remaining members becoming Brandon, Tyler, and Alex. A few other details get changed along the way. The title goes from “Lonely Heart” to something completely unrelated to the 5SOS discography.

Lo and behold, I eventually land a publishing deal.

What was once a fanfiction is now a bestseller.

This might sound like a far-reaching example, but it really isn’t.

In 2019, a film called After hit cinemas, based on a 2014 novel of the same name by Anna Todd.

After follows a college freshman getting into a new relationship with a bad boy on campus named Hardin.

However, in its original iteration, Hardin is actually Harry Styles.

Yes. That Harry Styles.

After was first published on Wattpad, with Todd drawing inspiration from various alleged relationships Harry Styles had been in as well as other One Direction-esque elements.

The book didn’t get the best reception, with some critics drawing comparisons to Fifty Shades of Grey not only in its writing style and glorification of toxic and abusive relationships, but its origin because, as I’ve mentioned a few times, Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a Twilight fanfiction titled Master of the Universe published by Snowqueen’s Icedragon.

Another, perhaps unrelated tangent, is when the actuality of the story is stretched beyond believability to the point that although it is introduced as fanfiction, it feels like its own thing and the characters are just coincidentally named Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann.

In the early days of this blog, I uploaded a post about my reservations about bringing historical figures into my works of historical fiction, citing Becoming Jane as one of my reasons for this.

In short, this is a film I consider fanfiction because of its portrayal of Jane Austen’s relationship with Tom Lefroy and the way it plays with the idea of his inspiring Mr. Darcy. It’s a topic that has fascinated me for years and something I love exploring in my spare time, but I have mixed feelings about Becoming Jane because of the direction, and at times liberties, it takes with history.

While I do like it, I only list it as a guilty pleasure. I almost think I would enjoy it more if it weren’t about Jane Austen, or if I didn’t know so much about her.

To me, it wasn’t about Jane Austen, but a character named Jane Austen.

This is another potential consequence of fanfiction.

Often hailed as a positive, it’s another way to tell the stories we want. Fanfic writers are able to make amends, so to speak, on behalf of characters they feel got dealt a bad hand or deserve better. It supplies the ending we want or improve some area of the story that didn’t satisfy us.

But in seeking what we want, do we lose the essence of the original?

More importantly, are we manipulating the author’s intent or infringing on their content?

There may not be a definitive answer to this. I’ve been exploring both sides in this article because I am able to see the pros and cons of the issue.

Fanfiction allows us to pay homage to the things we love, but is it at the expense of that which we honor?

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