Fan fiction is fiction about characters from existing, copyrighted fiction. Fan fiction is created by fans of a franchise rather than the original creators themselves.
Although we associate it with the internet, fan fiction has existed long before we had computers, never mind the world wide web.
It existed as far back as the Bronte siblings and their tales of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and his two sons, Arthur and Charles. Their juvenile fiction can be viewed as a form of fan fiction depicting real people.
The birth of modern fan fiction began with the Star Trek fandom and their fanzines from the 1960s and 1970s.
Of course, fan fiction really exploded with the advent of the internet. Since fan fiction is seldom written for publication or commercial gain, many fanfic writers were delighted to have a free forum which allowed them to share their stories with fellow fans.
But the question remains – is fan fiction a tribute to the original source material or an insult?
Authors’ reaction to fan fiction of their works varies from delight to outrage. Anne Rice famously took a stand against fan fiction of her work:
“I do not allow fan fiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own characters. It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.”
Although her attitude later softened towards it, she wasn’t alone in her disapproval of fan fiction.
Likewise, Robin Hobb expressed displeasure about fanfic featuring her characters, notably those who originally debuted in the Assassin trilogy. One of the heavyweights of the fantasy genre, George R.R. Martin, is also very anti-fan fiction.
Now, fan fiction is a sticky subject. On one hand, it can be seen as complimentary that others wish to pay tribute to their favorite fandom. On the other, it can cause creative and legal difficulties. Especially if an author’s original copyrighted work is largely published online.
There have been instances where fans start off doing fan fiction and then use that as a basis to create thinly veiled versions of existing works for profit. This is a form of creative tracing – since the plot, character dynamics and world have already being established by another, the creative thief can simply stand on the original creator’s shoulders.
We all know that Fifty Shades Of Gray started off as Twilight fanfic. However, to give E.L. James credit where credit is due, the final product was vastly different from what inspired it.
There is a difference between being inspired by something and simply copying it without even creating a parody, an authorized deconstruction of the genre or even acknowledging the original source material.
Of course, you can’t bring up fan fiction without mentioning Alan Moore, the eccentric comic book genius well-known for re-inventing superhero archetypes and folklore staples. However, one must keep in mind that he was working with either analogues of famous characters or else using famous fictional characters which fall into public domain.
He wasn’t taking someone else’s copyrighted characters and writing commercial fiction using them without authorization.
The uglier side of fan fiction is the sense of entitlement expressed by many fanfic writers. A sense that an author forbidding fanfic of their work is being unreasonable, unstable, ungiving.
The internet is quick to label authors and creators who are against fan fiction as unstable, selfish and prone to ranting. Authors who don’t allow fan fiction are accused of “not sharing.” But in fact, authors share their fictional worlds every time they publish a new work featuring their characters.
Ultimately, it is the original creator’s right to forbid derivative works, non-profit or otherwise, if they so wish. Fans aren’t owed the right to create fanfic and for every superb respectful fan fiction out there, there’s an equal number that feature characters raping and brutalizing each other for no reason other than the fanfic writer’s titillation.
Personally I have a lot of time for respectful fanfic and many of the writers. As long as fanfic acknowledges the original creator’s copyright and is non-profit, I see it as the equivalent of modern day oral storytelling. People gathered in forums rather than around a communal bonfire, sharing and weaving tales not of Robin Hood and King Arthur but of Spock and BBC’s Sherlock instead.