Wednesday, July 10, 2013


The subject of fan fiction comes up a lot in my life as I work in a bookstore and most of my friends are voracious readers. I first became aware of it when my younger sister would look up stories that continued the Harry Potter series. I thought it was cute that her interest in that world could be continued via works written by other huge fans. Soon after, though, I learned that these 'fan fic' writers didn't always just imagine what happened between Ron and Hermione after graduation or what the children of Harry and Ginny would be like*. A lot of these writers took things in entirely different directions, often completely changing fundamental parts of the characters. Fan fic that makes Ron and Harry lovers? No. Neither Ron, nor Harry are gay. And nothing would be wrong with it if they were! But they're not, so I have a problem with writers completely changing these characters. At that point, it feels more like they're stealing characters, rather than being inspired by them.

One of the now most famous works of fan fiction is the bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. I haven't read the books, but I've thumbed through them enough at work to know that they have very little to do with the Twilight series, from which Fifty Shades was inspired. (Granted, I've never read the original works so maybe the publishers changed more of the details.) What I don't get about this series is why E.L. James ever even associated herself with Twilight? I get that she was inspired by them and was, I guess, writing on a Twilight website or something, but if I had written the series, I would rather have said I was inspired by Stephenie Meyer rather than call my project fan fic. To me, it sounds like she was too lazy to think up her own characters.

Recently, the subject of fan fic came up with a couple of my friends, and even though we squashed the conversation quickly (as to avoid an argument), I definitely thought about it more later, trying to get my thoughts in order. I started by comparing it to other works of art: music and movies. Both of these creative outlets have their version of fan fic: musicians cover songs all the time and how many movies nowadays are remakes of prior versions? So why does it feel so different?

I love covers! Some of my favorite songs are covers of already well-known songs. Sometimes the cover is even better than the original! (Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah"! The Smashing Pumpkins "Landslide"!) The difference with covers is that the original creator of the song is going to be credited and compensated. Sure, an amateur musician can play another person's song in a show and make money, but they could never record that song without getting permission from the original artist and paying them for its use.

Music is so protected that even some hooks are protected! It was just a few years ago when the Red Hot Chili Peppers sued someone for having a song that sounded like one of theirs. Why is that protected, yet using a writer's characters aren't?

Did anyone see The Great and Powerful Oz? Did you notice that they never showed the ruby slippers? That's because the Wizard of Oz and certain specifics are owned by Warner Bros. Disney was allowed to create a story set in the same world, but were not allowed to borrow all aspects of the original.

And in a different route, movies are made from books constantly. There's an entire category at the Oscars for adapted screenplay, which, essentially, is an award for fan fic. Production companies have to buy the rights for books and depending on the contracts made, have to stay true to the work, so why is it different when a writer creates something new from a book they've read?

Before I explain the situations where I think fan fic is appropriate, I would first like to say that "Fan Fic" is a terrible name. I hate it. I think it has evolved and become a catch all for anything written based on something else. A lot of people (including myself) roll their eyes when they hear that something is fan fic and maybe we're all just  jealous that E.L. James is a millionaire now, but let's take this time to change it. Let's just call it: Fiction. And then if the writer feels so inclined, they can mentioned what work inspired them.

Now, appropriate situations for fiction that is inspired by other works. I think that timeframe has a lot to do with it. I had no problem with that trend a couple of years ago of remaking classics and including zombies and vampires or whatever else seemed like fun. I feel like it seemed okay because the essence of the original work was still there and I think a lot of those aren't even under copyright anymore, are they? I'm also okay with writers saying that they were inspired by a specific work, but I do think if it's going to be published and sold, that it needs to be an original work. For example, I think John Green is amazing and I would love to write my own version of Looking For Alaska, but it's going to be a little suspect if my novel takes place at a boarding school and involves similar characters and then I go on a book tour and talk about how much I loved Looking For Alaska. If a writer can't think of his or her own original idea...maybe they aren't meant to be a fiction writer.

So there are my thoughts. What are yours?

*Um, spoiler alert?

+Title from The XX


Serena McClain said...

I definitely agree with this for the most part. You've heard my latest rant/acceptance of movie adaptations as essentially fanfic (makes the book lover in me much less of a snot), and you make a good point about music. To that end, Amazon's attempt to broker deals between the original authors and their inspired offspring seem to be a step in the right direction.

The whole idea of inspiration is a bit touchier for me. It's so hard to find a bright line between inspiration and theft. It feels like almost everything has been done and certain tropes have become engrained, so I suppose we're guaranteed to find many books familiar in some way.

Miss Scarlet said...

Yeah, I would agree. I'm always surprised when musicians sue over hooks because it feels like there has to be a finite number of melodies and hooks. But, again, you can't write "fan fic" of a song and get away with it. *sigh*