II: Terms and Technicalities
Having set the stage for my gigantic confession of inhabiting one of the lowest circles of absolute dorkdom, I now feel like I need to define some terms here a little bit before moving on into analysis and opinion and further personal revelations (ah, my liberal arts degree, you continue to serve me well). Of course fanfic is one of those slippery concepts which is simultaneously easy to define yet hard to explain, not to mention frequently oversimplified or misused (or so the vested insider, such as myself, would exasperatedly insist). But when have concerns like those ever stopped me. Thus, Fanfic 101:
The word itself is an abbreviation of “fan fiction” which is a straightforward enough concept; so it’s a label for works of fiction written (a) by fans of an existing work and (b) about an existing work. Implicit in this definition is the idea that in order to be a fan of something, that something has to originate externally to yourself. It’s possible to be your own biggest fan, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. This is about encountering someone else’s ideas and becoming so enamored with those ideas that you feel compelled to use them as the basis of your own semi-creative expression. And not in an analytical way, producing something that could be filed in the non-fiction section of the bookstore, like a memoir about a year spent watching every weekday’s installment of a soap opera, or a case study on the making of a doomed Hollywood epic. Fanfic is about fictional storytelling, by means of borrowing established characters and settings from someone else’s work.
Except, of course, that covers a lot of ground doesn’t it? Once upon a time Ian Fleming came up with James Bond – are modern Bond films just fanfic? Chris Carter originated The X-Files concept but the show quickly became staffed by a team of writers – were they all fanficcers? What about anyone who ever wrote a cash-in novel licensed as an X-Files product? I honestly think these are open questions, but I’ll try to pin them down nevertheless. Objectively, the answer to all of the above is “no” for a couple of closely intertwined reasons. Bond flicks and X-Files novels are created with all rights issues cleared (usually) and with an essential officialness about them, and the people who generate them get paid for doing so. Whereas fanfic is essentially an amateur pursuit engaged in by nonprofessionals, with either blithe disregard for copyright issues or a little lip service to Fair Use and whatnot. Subjectively, of course, if you are of the opinion that Casino Royale was James Bond fanfic I feel you should be entitled to your own point of view. “Fanfic” tends to get tossed around as an insult among people who follow entertainment the same way that “fascist” gets tossed around as a political put-down, and arguably with equal amounts of factual support.
I’ll get back to that idea of “fanfic” being a derogatory term in and of itself in a little bit, but first let me give voice to a question which would be understandably raised at this point: why in the world would anyone write fanfic to begin with? Writing is hard, time-consuming and solitary, and anyone who’s ever sat down to actually record the ideas in their head can at least momentarily comfort themselves with the thought, no matter how unlikely, that just maybe when they’ve finished composing their magnum opus they could potentially be compensated for it, in real money and public adulation. It is generally accepted, in fact, that this is J.K. Rowling’s origin story – she had an idea, she toiled over it and wrote it all down, and Harry Potter ended up one of the most successful and beloved series of books of all time. But if I were to write my own story about Harry and Ron and Hermione, no matter how that story turned out I would never be able to sell it or publish it commercially without getting sued. Why bother?
No doubt there was fanfic before the internet, but the latter’s existence undeniably boosted the viability of the former. Cheap-if-not-free web hosting means that anything and everything can be published non-commercially, which means you still don’t get paid for writing fanfic, and you won’t reach a mass-market audience, but you still might reach a few other human souls who happen to have both a common interest in the object of your fandom and a stable ISP. And ultimately (I would posit) this is the big draw of writing fanfic: a built-in, pre-existing audience.
It’s easy enough to imagine someone scribbling (or hunt-n-pecking) a rollicking adventure of Han Solo and Chewbacca as they fight Stormtroopers and bounty hunters and to further imagine yourself smacking that someone upside the head with some painfully obvious advice: instead of a trademark-infringing homage to their childhood heroes, why don’t they just come up with some SLIGHTLY original characters of their own? Everything is derivative of something else, anyway, and they’ve already got a plot in mind that isn’t a direct and blatant rip-off. Change the lovable rogue’s name to Zan Doble and his alien sidekick to a giant purple fuzzy caterpillar and their spaceship to the Eon Eagle, and voila! The result will no longer be fanfic! It could be the next thing the kids all go crazy for!
And it could, that’s true … but it’s terribly unlikely. For every new idea that catches on in a big way there are countless ones that don’t. A person who clears their own path for commercial success also potentially clears the path toward utterly indifferent obscurity. So fanfic offers a trade-off: give up any notion of being a “real” (paid, successful, respected, etc.) writer and in exchange get a pre-assembled audience to validate your output.
Because the validation is all but guaranteed, as we consider some of the secondary draws of fanfic as a hobby. In most cases there’s a pervasive sense of never being able to get enough of a good thing. Seven Harry Potter novels and eight movies? Some people want more. Nine seasons of The X-Files? Some people want more. And some people, with just a hint of a creative bent to their minds, want more so very badly that they will go ahead and conjure up more themselves. There’s a certain point we’re passing here where fandom shades into superfandom. Fandom entails appreciating something for what it is, including the finality of a complete story. Superfandom never wants the story to end, and refuses to acknowledge the concept of diminishing returns. And at the same time, superfans don’t really want the story to change either, so a “new” story which is actually the same old characters following the same familiar beats in endless wheel-spinning is not just acceptable but actually desirable.
So the genesis of a fanfic writer might go something like this: someone discovers the Twilight series and falls in love with it, quickly reading the entire set of novels and becoming a superfan. They want more, but there isn’t any, in the sense of published novels by Stephanie Meyer. So the superfan turns to the internet and joins message boards where other superfans congregate to talk about how Twilight is the pinnacle of western literature. And sooner or later someone on those boards mentions how they’ve written a new Edward and Bella story themselves, either filling in the gaps in the novels or taking place shortly after the last one ends, and the story either appears on the message board itself or the poster has some modicum of HTML design ability and posts a link to a website dedicated to hosting these Twi-fics. And everyone else on the message board posts responses to the story along the lines of “ZOMG SOOOOO PERFECT!!! MORE, PLEASE!!! TEAM EDWARD 4EVA!!!” and the brand new superfan is right there with them, and simultaneously thinking “I’ve always wondered what would happen if Edward and Bella went on vacation in Egypt and Edward had to rescue Bella from mummies” and the new superfan starts composing a tale answering that very question. And the new superfan knows it doesn’t really matter how well the story turns out, because everyone else on the boards is going to loooooove it, because it gives them exactly what they crave: more Twilight.
There are some variations on this, two main ones I can think of off the top of my head: the corrective and the exploitative. The corrective version arises when superfans become so obsessed that they feel an irrational entitlement over fictional properties, to the point at which they feel it is possible for the originator of an idea to do that idea “wrong” by failing to tell a story “the way it should have gone.” Fanfic, then, offers the remedy, by allowing someone to tell the story “right”. This comes up a lot with superheroes and comic books, which of course lend themselves well to the “and here’s ANOTHER story about the X-Men” approach because that’s essentially been the business model for going on eight decades now, and because the legit publishers of the comics have passed the properties around through the hands of various work-for-hire scribes innumerable times. So it’s not a case of not being able to get any more X-Men outside of fanfic, because there are approximately 19 new issues of X-Men on the stands every month. It’s rather a case of being indignant at the way Chuck Austen “ruined” the X-Men and channeling that umbrage into one’s own X-Men stories which are far truer to the characters and sharing them with like-minded fans.
The exploitative version, depending on how your mind works, is either immediately self-explanatory or horrifyingly opaque in a manner which leaves you unsure as to whether or not you even want me to explain it. I think I’ve rambled on enough for today so I’ll let you think it over, and if you do want some elaboration (which I promise to keep reasonably non-retina-searing) then I will provide it tomorrow.