Fan-fiction: A Form of Flattery or a Form of Infringement?

Posted: July 6, 2012 in Writing
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’d heard of fan-fiction before, being the Harry Potter nerd that I am, but I never read any of it. I never dabbled in it either. You’d think, as a writer, that I’d start there before I decided to write my own stories. I mean, I can see the appeal – the world, the characters, the conflicts are already established. You just have to figure out which story to tell, and then write it down. It’s great practice for beginners.

But I’ve always had too many voices in my head. I’m constantly caught in an onslaught of new ideas, new characters, and new stories. I’d love to write fan-fiction, but there just isn’t any room left in my brain.

I was officially introduced into the world of fan-fic late last year when I read Dalton, a story about two of the main characters from Glee. It was a sort of spin-off show to the main storyline. Honestly, the writing was sub-par and some of the mistakes were those you learn to avoid in Writing 101. But the story? The story was beautiful. It had me hooked. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’d come home from work and sit in front of the computer for hours reading it. So, no – maybe the author wasn’t the best writer. But she was one heck of a story teller.

And let’s face it. There are plenty of “professional” writers who are impeccable when it comes to language, grammar, and punctuation. But they can’t tell a story. They give you no reason to keep reading. It’s much easier to break someone of the habit of putting commas in the wrong place than it is to break them of the habit of writing bad stories.

What I want to know is this: Is fan-fiction a good thing or a bad thing in relation to the original author and their work(s)? Let’s look at some pros and cons:

CONS

I’m going to start with the negatives because I think they’re a bit more obvious. First off you have the clincher – the fact that a person other than the author is using the characters, setting, and ideas that have already been established to create new stories. Essentially, that’d be like writing a sequel/prequel/spin-off series to an already established book without having the rights to do so. I can see the problem there.

Another major point is that fan-fiction can often cause negative, or at least unwanted, portrayals of characters, which can in turn affect the actors who portrayed them on the silver screen. Just do a Google images search of “Draco and Harry Fan-fiction” and you’ll get a very quick idea of how it might not be well received.

And, of course, fan-fiction writers don’t gain much experience writing in this way. They don’t often get helpful critiques, it doesn’t help them to get better at characterization, and becoming a well-known fan-fic writer doesn’t exactly earn them acclaim and respect in the writing world.

PROS

So, what the heck could be good about writing fan-fiction? Well, a lot actually. For one thing, it helps to perpetuate a story that people don’t want to see finished. Who here actually wanted Harry Potter to end? Fan-fiction not only allows characters to continue living, but also brings about the stories of characters who may not have gotten a lot of scenes in the original work. A great example of this is the Trio’s kids at the end of HP7 – we don’t know much about them and we’ve never seen them at school, except in fan-fic forums. These places allow fans to gather and continue to live in this universe.

This perpetuation also leads to something that most authors wouldn’t mind having more of – word of mouth. Sure, it probably isn’t a big deal to people like J.K. Rowing and Stephenie Meyer, but what about authors who have a very die-hard, niche audience? Authors like Cassandra Clare and George R.R. Martin who are beginning to grow in popularity but haven’t hit that mega status yet. I can imagine a great piece of fan-fic could drive a person to delve into a series if they were previously hesitant about reading it, just so they can discuss the other stories with their friends. I’m sure it’s not a frequent occurrence, but it’s got to happen on occasion.

The last reason is, in my opinion, the most important of all. It gets people to write. Have you ever read a book that was just so good that you immediately sat down and started to type out your own story? I have, but then again I’ve been doing that since the fourth grade. I’m hardwired to write. But what about those other people who thought about dabbling but never got around to it? Then they read that one book that changed everything. Sure, maybe they won’t become published authors, but they’re still writing and adding their creativity into the mix. They’re putting new ideas and stories out into the universe and how can we do anything but benefit from that?

THE BIG QUESTION

But there comes a point, right? There has to be a line. When has it gone too far, when is it not okay to write fan-fiction?

Let’s just point out the elephant in the room: Fifty Shades of Grey. If you haven’t heard of this book yet, I’d be pretty surprised. But for those of you who might not know, Fifty Shades is Twilight fan-fiction that got a face lift. Basically, the author (E.L. James) wrote a story about Bella and Edward and their bedroom escapades (which were quite a bit heavier than the original story would leave you to believe, IYKWIM). A couple of things happened between here and there, but in the end James decided to pursue publication and turned the fan-fiction into a story of its own, replacing Bella, Edward, and vampires with Anastasia, Christian, and a billionaire.

It’s common knowledge that this was originally fan-fiction. And recently it became the fastest selling paperback novel of all time. There are two other books that round out the trilogy. And it’s being made into a movie, and a BIG movie at that – B-list actors need not apply. Let’s face it, she’s making a lot of money off of this. But, is that legal? Well, yeah, I guess. I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of speculation and a lot of people are going to discount her for its origins, but Meyer hasn’t slapped James with a lawsuit yet and at this point I doubt she will.

What does Stephenie Meyer think about it? She’s okay with it, actually. She said in an interview that it isn’t her genre, but that it’s good that James is doing well with it. She also said that obviously James had a story in her, so if it hadn’t started out as Twilight fan-fiction, it probably would’ve surfaced in another way. J.K. Rowling has also said she’s flattered by fan-fiction and glad that people write it. (And, yes, Dan Radcliffe and Tom Felton are aware of certain plotlines and they don’t seem to mind much either.)

But what about authors that do mind? Anne Rice and George R.R. Martin are apparently quite against it. Both of them consider it copyright infringement and Martin thinks it’s a bad exercise for want-to-be writers.

I believe fan-fiction is a good thing. I like being able to find a story I’ve never read before and read about characters that I already know and love. Maybe the writing isn’t the strongest, but these are written by die-hard fans, so you know that the story will be solid and that most details will be canon. I think that as long as it doesn’t leave the world of free publishing on the sites that host these sorts of things, it’s fine. I’m still not sure how I feel about Fifty Shades, knowing that the original intention of the story was a reproduction of the material found in Twilight.

But what I really want to know is what YOU think. Do you think fan-fiction is a good thing or a bad thing? If someone wrote fan-fiction about your characters, would you be flattered or would you call it copyright infringement?

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Comments
  1. Julie Glover says:

    I lean toward the view that making money off someone else’s work isn’t appropriate unless they get a cut. So writing fan fiction for your own amusement or putting it onto websites is one thing, but then packaging your story and selling it to make a profit without giving something back to the author who started the idea hits me a little wrong.

    In music, you can’t copy more than a measure or so before you’re infringing on copyright. But where can we draw a line with fiction? It’s a bit harder to determine. I’m interested to see what others think.

    • Karen Rought says:

      That’s an excellent comparison, Julie. What I don’t understand is the fact that everyone knows Fifty Shades is based off of Twilight, yet it’s selling books and movie rights left, right, center, and no one in the industry seems to be up in arms about it. Part of me is happy for James just because I think she’s made an impact on the erotica genre, but part of me just wants to stamp my foot and say, “no!”

  2. ddog13 says:

    I completely agree with the comment above. Making them for fun is fine, but for profit, is inappropriate,

  3. Jeyna Grace says:

    I actually started writing fan fiction after I wrote my own book, so it was sort of a practice thing for me, to keep on writing and not stop.

    True, it is good for beginners, but I think it’s good for seasoned writers as well, as it helps your brain stay active and helps you develop better sentences over time. On top of that, if you aren’t as popular as jk rowling, then writing fan fictions will help readers get to know you and your writing style better.

    I didn’t know 50 shades of grey was a fan-fic, and to know that, the author must be ecstatic! His fan fiction turned to a novel? Wow.. I think it’s fine if the original author doesn’t mind, but naturally, fan fictions aren’t suppose to be reaping profits.

    Personally, if someone wrote a fan fic on my character, I would see it as a compliment. But, it could have a bad effect on my book as well. At the end of the day, it all depends. If one is already famous, I don’t think fan fiction would hurt, as it might just push more sales for the author, but if one isn’t too famous, then maybe fan fiction might just spoil the story all together.

    • Karen Rought says:

      That’s great to hear that you started off writing fan-fic and then just kept going from there. I don’t think Meyer is ecstatic over Fifty Shades, but I don’t think she really minds either. I think she’s probably a little put-off that it’s erotica given her own morals and values.

      I agree with you though – I’d be happy if someone connected with my character so much that they wanted to write their own stories based on him/her. But you’re right – it all depends. If you’re not super well known, it might lead to some discrepancies and I could see where that’d be bad.

  4. asraidevin says:

    I am absolutely addicted to Dragon Age fan fiction. It’s a great way to have the story done in your head the way you wanted it to end, or to take the characters some place else (or for all those fan girls, stick yourself into the story). Or use non-playable characters into the main story line. Lots of possibilities and I think for creators of any characters, when you have people obsessed with your characters it’s a good thing.

    I can’t say I haven’t written any fan fic. Characters get stuck in my head and when i’m stuck with my own characters, I have to write them out. And I have considered taking alternate universe (50 Shades is AU Twilight- same characters, totally different setting, events all of it. There are shades of AU) fan fic and turning it into something for sale, because it really doesn’t resemble the original story at all, just inspiration.

    • Karen Rought says:

      I agree! I’d love to have people that crazy about my characters.

      When does that inspiration cross the line though? I can understand how some authors would be upset that they came up with this unique series of events, and then had someone else take that specific formula and use it.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. bwtaylor75 says:

    As you can see from the comments above, every writer seems to have a different opinion on where the line is. If we look at music, more specifically cover songs and bands, we will see a similar scene. There are bands who make a living dressing up like KISS and playing nothing but KISS songs. While it may be fun for the short term, they can’t be a bootleg KISS band forever. That is unless they accept the fact that they are nothing more than a copy of an original work of music. If any band records another artists music they must acknowledge the creator and pay them royalties. It should be the same for fanfic. Fans writing about their favorites stories for fun is fine, but as soon as they seek publication the creator should be acknowledged and royalties must be paid. Let’s face it, without TWILIGHT, 50 SHADES wouldn’t exist.

    Does fanfic have a place? Yes. Can it go too far? As 50 SHADES has shown us, yes it can.

    Each writer/author will have their own opinions on fanfic. I tend to agree more with George R. R. Martin. Why would you want to take someone else’s world and characters and bend them to your vision? It’s great that you feel inspired, but write your own characters and story. To me it’s just lazy writing. Some may say it’s a great learning tool for aspiring writers. You can get that same practice with your own characters and world. You may even learn something about world building in the process. To me, fanfic seems like a crutch and an easy way out. Become your own writer, with your own voice. Write your own stories.

    • Karen Rought says:

      I think the point that Stephenie Meyer made was a good one – that if Twilight hadn’t existed, Fifty Shades would’ve come about in some other way. Obviously James had a story to tell, and she just happened to tell it in this format. I think there would’ve been something else out there to influence her writing if Twilight hadn’t been written in the first place.

      But on the flip side, I do agree with you. Fan-fic writing is a crutch. You can either learn to walk on your own, or continue with the aid. You’ll never get better, but at least you’re walking? Some people don’t want to be writers, they just want to write fan-fic. And that’s fine! But you’re right – if you want to become a professional, you have to write your own stories.

      • bwtaylor75 says:

        I found an interesting article about this from Associated Press reporter Leanne Italie.

        Here’s the link: http://news.yahoo.com/fifty-shades-books-now-fanfic-own-170146986.html

        This is taken directly from her Ms. James’s official website and bio, “E L James is a TV executive, wife and mother-of-two based in West London. Since early childhood she dreamed of writing stories that readers would fall in love with, but put those dreams on hold to focus on her family and her career. She finally plucked up the courage to put pen to paper with her first novel, Fifty Shades of Grey.”

        Not one mention or nod to fanfic, even though 50 SHADES was orginally titled “Masters of the Universe” when it still contained Twilight names, back when Ms. James went by Snowqueens Icedragons. Change a few names, the title, find a small press willing to publish, and you’ve got yourself a best seller.

        Call it what you want, believe what you like, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I had done what this woman has done. Wrong is wrong.

        Not all fanfic is like this, the scene as a whole is a mostly harmless way for fans to continue the stories they love. The line was clearly crossed with 50 SHADES, when money became involved. My favorite part of the article is when aspiring author, Sara Eberhart, says when she does finally seek publication it won’t be with her fanfic.

        You can also check out what E. L. James has to say about publishing “Masters of the Universe” on this podcast here: http://www.popculturejunkie.net/profiles/blogs/watch-final-installment-of-pop

        Sorry if I’m stepping on your toes Karen, but I felt like some of these things needed to be known. Take from them what you will.

  6. i may disagree a bit with the previous commenter. how many times have we heard that there are no new stories out there, only new ways of telling them; your own? we are also told time and time again at conferences, in writing classes, and in writing workshops to study the writers that we admire, to reader like writers and to figure out what works in the books that we love and apply that to our own writing. how is this different? in one of my favorite movies about writing – finding forrester – the author gives the young aspiring author under his tutelage some of his own words to use “until you find your own”. i love that.

    i have actually read fifty shades of grey and although i found it mildly entertaining i would never ever have thought it had anything to do with twilight until i read that here in this post. it may have started as fan fiction but it did become its own story. i do think meyers’ story is so much better all around, but i’m sure that is a matter of much debate and personal taste.

    i think as long as fan fiction is used as an expression of creativity and exploration and not for monetary gain of any kind (and as long as the original author is always given some kind of homage as is their due) that their should be a place for it in our community. i myself have never written any, but i can see its appeal. there have been many books, many characters that i have wanted to see continue or tinker with their futures after i’ve come to the words, “the end”.

    • Karen Rought says:

      That is an excellent point, Valerie, and I love that quote that you used. I think that writing fan-fiction puts you on crutches, but in the end it’s still writing and we all know how important that is to do every day. It definitely has a place in our community.

      I’ve never read Fifty Shades, so I wasn’t sure how close it was to the books. I’ve heard of others saying that she took whole scenes from Twilight and just used them for her purposes – but that was also a person who was well aware that it had started out as fan-fic.

      Thanks for the great comment!

      • you’re welcome. i’d be interested to know what scenes are supposed to be directly from twilight – i didn’t recognize any. if there were any, they were cleverly disguised.

  7. […] Fan-fiction: A Form of Flattery or a Form of Infringement? […]

  8. Kaitlin says:

    I really love fanfiction, I cut my writing teeth on it, so to speak, so it’s near and dear to my heart. Fifty shades kind of makes me cringe. I don’t like it, but more because it’s badly written soft core. I mean, I’ve heard that the second book takes off writing wise, which is good, but meh.

    At first I was against the fact that it was a fanfiction. Then I realized “wait, it’s an Alternate Universe fanfiction”. Now, as another author, Jami Gold, pointed out, she was still using the characters and what they evoked in a reader in order to build her story, so… now I’m just not so sure. I’m certainly guilty of yoinking a character from established books as a placeholder until I can go back and replace them with a proper character.

    In conclusion, I really hope fanfiction is written of my work. I’d love to be the author those authors who didn’t mind my first fumbling chapters were to me. But I really hope no one sells it. >.>

    • Karen Rought says:

      I think it’s a testament to Stephenie Meyer that she hasn’t tried to go after her. I think she’d certainly have the basis to do so, but I’m glad she didn’t. She doesn’t need that kind of press.

      I like fan-fiction, and I think it certainly has its place. I’m with you – I’d love to know people were so into my characters that they wanted to write their own stories using them. I mean, we all write for various reasons, but don’t we ultimately write to inspire?

      Thanks for the comment!

  9. […] few weeks ago I talked about fan-fiction. The debate continues about whether it’s considered copyright infringement, but one thing is […]

  10. […] I’m sure many of you are very familiar with the idea of fan-fiction and it’s various pros and cons. In Fangirl, Cath writes fan-fiction about a non-existent character named Simon Snow. It’s […]

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