What is Fanfic?

What is fanfic?  Is it a crime to write it?  Is it a sin?

There’s a lot of misunderstandings about fanfiction (aka fan fiction, fanfic), especially since ‘netfic became more popular than fanzines.  (Don’t worry.  All terms will be explained presently.)  Fanfic is generally defined as writing stories based on TV shows or movies, without the permission of the copyright holders.

Stephen Downes defines fanfiction as “any work which embellishes, alters or rewrites the work of another (usually a published author) with new storylines, characters, alternative endings, beginnings and substitute sets of morals, ideals or sexual politics.”

The Urban Dictionary says “fanfiction is when someone takes either the story or characters (or both) of a certain piece of work, whether it be a novel, tv show, movie, etc, and create their own story based on it. Sometimes people will take characters from one movie and put them in another, which is called a crossover. ”

Wikipedia says “Fan fiction or fanfiction (also abbreviated to fan ficfanfic or fic) is fiction about characters or settings from an original work of fiction, created by fans of that work rather than by its creator. It is a popular form of fan labor, particularly since the advent of the Internet.”

Please note the last seven words of the paragraph above.  Fanfic predates the Internet.  Many people are under the misapprehension that the Internet created fanfic.  The Internet simply made fanfic cheaper and more accessible.

Once upon a time, there was a TV show called Star Trek.  (You may have heard of it.)  Some fans felt three seasons wasn’t enough, so just as Tom Sawyer played Robin Hood and King Arthur with his friends, they played Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura and Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy and Nurse Chapel and Scotty.  Only instead of going outside to play make believe, these fans wrote down their stories.  Some were good.  Some were dreadful.  Some were eventually professionally published (often with the names and serial numbers filed off).  Many of these writers wanted to do things that the censors wouldn’t let NBC do at the time:  “adult” stories, what-if stories, crossovers, deathfic.

Examples:

  • What if Spock went into pon farr and Kirk was the only other person there?
  • What if Spock and Kirk were stuck in the 1930s with Edith Keeler?
  • What if the Enterprise found Captain Buck Rogers’ capsule and thawed him out?
  • What if the Enterprise went forward in time and was trapped in the Planet of the Apes future?
  • What if Kirk were never rescued in “The Paradise Syndrome” and Spock became captain of the Enterprise?
  • What if Spock really killed Kirk in “Amok Time”?
  • What if the Enterprise met the Battlestar Galactica and its ragtag fugitive fleet?

These stories were printed in homemade magazines called fanzines (fan magazines).  The fans didn’t invent fanzines — they were already around, but more for discussing SF and fantasy than writing stories based on other people’s characters.  But with mimeograph machines in their parents’ garages, these fannish authors abducted the term fanzine and refused to give it back.  Eventually, printing methods improved.  Photocopying costs came down.  (Oddly, photocopying costs were much lower on the West Coast than the East Coast, which affected the price of ‘zines.)  Kinko’s made editors’ lives easier.

Once writers get in the habit of writing, they don’t stop.  Fans of one show seldom like just that show, they become fans of other shows.  Star Trek fanzines and letterzines started having material from other shows and movies.  Eventually, those shows and movies started having their own ‘zines.  There were genzines.  There were multimedia ‘zines.  Under the table and in a whisper, there were slash ‘zines and het ‘zines.

It was a glorious time for fanfic authors and readers.


Vocabulary:

AO3:  Archive of our Own (archiveofourown.org), a popular ‘netfic site that has quite a few “adult” stories, theoretically by invitation only, but it’s easy to get invited.

AU:  alternative universe, a what-if such as what if your favorite Harry Potter character that J. K. Rowling killed off lived, what if the Pevensie children stayed in Narnia, what if Leia Organa had been trained since childhood as a Jedi knight

canon:  what happened in the original material

crack or crackfic:  a very silly story, not meant to be taken seriously

crossover:  a story that combines the characters from two or more fandoms, such as Batman meeting Jessica Fletcher or Dr. Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory and Dr. Spemcer Reid of Criminal Minds collaborating on a physics project together/

crunching:  The Mills Brothers sang “you always hurt the one you love.”  Crunching is showing how much you love a favorite character by writing a story where he is physically and/or emotionally hurt.

deathfic:  a story that features the death of a major character

fanfic or fanfiction:  an amateur story written by a fan, based on characters and situations created by someone else (usually a TV show or movie, sometimes a book or series of books)

FanFiction.Net:  one of the more popular fanfic websites, sometimes referred to as the Pit of Voles because it obeys Sturgeon’s Law.  Proofreading is regrettably rare.

fanon:  something that happens so much in fanfic that it is accepted by other writers as semi-canonical

fanzine or ‘zine:  a homemade magazine containing fanfic stories, poems, artwork, etc.

genzine:  a fanzine that has stories rated G to PG-13, with limited sex in the stories

het:  R or X rated stories focusing on male characters with female characters

hurt/comfort or h/c:  a story where character A is badly hurt, so that character B can comfort and console him

letterzine:  a homemade magazine with little or no fiction, with the emphasis on letters between fans discussing and debating their favorite shows

Mary Sue:  a character who is beautiful, intelligent, has multiple skills, is often of royal or noble birth, frequently has psi-powers, a born leader, and whom the hero falls head-over-heels in love with; very common in beginning writer’s stories as they attempt to have a character who is good enough to keep up with the canon cast, and winds up outdoing them in every category.

multimedia:  a fanzine that has stories from multiple fandoms

‘netfic:  fanfic that originates on the Internet, instead of being published in a ‘zine first

slash:  stories of any rating focusing on romantic relationships between two characters of the same gender, especially if they were heterosexual in canon, ie, Ellison/Sandburg, Kirk/Spock, Solo/Kuryakin, etc.


Then came ‘netfic.  Now, ‘netfic is not inherently bad, just as ‘zines are not always good.  But ‘netfic has a tendency to jump from writer’s brain to keyboard to posted on-line, without stopping for a breath in between.  This is especially true of the younger writers.  Paula Smith had this to say of the difference in the writing process between ‘zines and ‘netfic:

In writing, there is a crucial step of rewrite which is not regularly being seen these days. This is one difference we noticed in the late 1990s with fans coming in from the Internet. In the old days, I would write the first draft of a story in longhand, type it up, read it again, fuss with it, type it up again. And then the editor would read it, recommend changes, and you would have to type the whole bloody thing up yet again. The stories went through the typewriter more than once, and a lot was changed slowly but crucially. I’ve noticed the difference in my own writing. Now, you write something, put it aside, write something, put it aside, and then jam it all together.  {Paula Smith}

On the one hand, ‘netfic is free.  (Due to printing costs, ‘zines can be as expensive as hardcover books.)  The feedback is almost instantaneous.  On the other hand, GIGO.  Since no editor looks over the story before it’s posted, typos abound in ‘netfic.  Typos aren’t unknown in fanzines, of course, but authors and editors at least try to catch and correct them.  As Paula Smith said, “Another difference is the level of literacy of people coming to it—and the level of entitlement about their level of literacy: “Well, I don’t care if this is misspelled because that’s how I want it to be.” I may sound a bit snotty, but heck, I’ve seen typos completely wreck the point of a story.”


Is fanfic a sin?  Is it a crime?

Most people say that fanfic violates copyright.  This is why is must be done on an amateur basis, and fanzine editors and publishers can only charge enough to get their printing and mailing costs back.  They cannot make a profit.

However, there’s the Fair Use argument.

Like every other potentially infringing thing we do on the Internet every day, from reblogging a photo on Tumblr to uploading a song cover to YouTube, in the U.S. fanfiction writers are protected by a magical thing called the Fair Use clause. The Fair Use clause states that if use of someone else’s work is “fair,” it’s OK. Traditionally, “fair” has usually been granted to purposes of education or commentary, but this is also the clause that allows and protects parody. (By Gavia Baker-Whitelaw AND Aja Romano )

Many “real” authors got their start in fanfic  Mercedes Lackey, Jean Lorrah, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Lois McMaster Bujold, Rosemary Edghill, Jean Graham.  Dr. Lorrah uses the supporting characters she developed in her Star Trek fanfic stories in her professionally published by Pocket Books Star Trek novels.  (I don’t know whether Pocket Books is aware of this.)  Take a close look at Bujold’s Hugo-winning Miles Vorkosigan series.  If you squint, you can see the roots of a Klingon admiral in Aral Vorkosigan and a Starfleet officer in Cordelia Naismith.  Rosemary Edghill’s Hellflower trilogy started life as Star Wars fanfic, with Butterfly St. Cyr as a business rival to Han Solo.  I’ve seen a series of romance novels where the heroes were very clearly based on the men of TV’s Magnificent Seven, although again, I’m not sure if the publisher was aware of that.

If you are willing to risk the legal issues, fanfic is a good way for writers to practice.  Since the settings and characters already exist, the writer can concentrate on plot, description, etc.  Fanfic does not require a plot; many fans see nothing wrong with a vignette that is just character development.

And then there’s the success story many fanfic readers and writers are both proud of and embarrassed by:  Fifty Shades of Gray.  It started life as Twilight fanfic.  People are pleased (and jealous) that one of their own made it to the big time.  They’re embarrassed because it’s so dreadful.  But then, so was Twilight, IMHO.

“Author Orson Scott Card (best known for the Enders Game series) once stated on his website, “to write fiction using my characters is morally identical to moving into my house without invitation and throwing out my family.” He changed his mind completely and since has assisted fan fiction contests, arguing to the Wall Street Journal that Every piece of fan fiction is an ad for my book. What kind of idiot would I be to want that to disappear?’ “(Wikipedia)

The inimitable but oft-imitated J. K. Rowling says she’s flattered by fanfic set in the Harry Potter universe.  (Which is a good thing, because there are over 776,000 HP stories at FanFiction.net and 154,267 HP stories at AO3.)  Shannon Hale admits she still writes fanfic on occasion.  Raymond Feist, Anne Rice, and George R. R. Martin are opposed to fanfic and have requested their fans not write any based on their novels.

I think fanfic is A, harmless fun, and B, good writing practice.  My opinion may change when other people start writing stories about my characters without permission.  As the saying goes, YMMV;  your mileage may vary.  What’s your opinion on fanfic?

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