For more than two months, Rosaleen Murphy, the heroine of my unfinished novel, has been sitting on the buckboard of a wagon somewhere on the Fosston Trail, tapping her delicate, buckled shoe with increasing impatience as she waits for me to figure out what to do with her. Meanwhile, I’ve banged out 35,000 words of fanfic* based on the early 90s TV series, “The Young Riders,” in just under 10 days. (You’ll find my FF here.)
I’ve been writing fanfiction since before writing fanfiction was cool. Okay, writing fanfic still isn’t cool. But it is definitely a thing; there are literally hundreds of thousands of stories housed on fanfiction.net, the best-known repository for such work on the Internet. There are many, many more stories posted on other sites.
For the uncool uninitiated, fanfic is a story written by a fan of a television show, movie, play, book or even real-world individuals (creepy), using the established characters and/or scenarios of the source material. Someone once estimated that 80% of fanfic is porn, by the way. That feels like an overstatement to me, but there’s certainly no dearth of explicit material online. Apparently people are so disappointed that the BBC’s standards of decency do not permit us to see Doctor Who get it on with his companions (or sometimes a previous incarnation of himself) that they are compelled to fill those gaps themselves.
(And an astonishing number of adolescent girls apparently imagine the members of the boy band One Direction get up to some very kinky hijinks behind closed doors. Flashback 40 years: I remember being shocked when I heard Shaun Cassidy was dating two girls at once. Times have changed.)
Another thing about fanfic is that a lot of it isn’t very good. There’s a reason some people make a living as writers, and the other 99.9% of us do not. “Grammar? Spelling? Consistent characterization? Plausible plotting? Who cares! My audience only wants to read about how Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman get their freak on. Oh, and they’re also vampires.”
On the other hand, occasionally you happen upon a fanfic writer whose talent is so astonishing that you wonder what the hell they are doing writing this stuff instead of REAL books. (E.L. James is NOT one of those writers, by the way, even though her 50 Shades of Gray empire started as a “Twilight” fanfic.). I’ve discovered brilliant authors in fandoms as diverse as “Scarecrow & Mrs. King,” “Babylon 5” and “Remington Steele.” Indeed, the stories by someone who posts “Babylon 5” fanfiction under the pseudonym kungfuwaynewho are better than the original series, in my opinion.
Not surprisingly, given that it involves the appropriation of characters and situations from copyrighted material by people who might expect to assume they own that material, fanfic is somewhat controversial. There has long been a raging debate about the legality of the stories, in which phrases like “fair use” and “for purposes of parody and criticism” are bandied about to justify cobbing from someone else’s creative efforts.
We fanfic writers tend to justify ourselves by noting that we don’t make any money from this creative exercise. (The aforementioned E.L. James is an unworthy exception.) A couple of years ago there was a movement afoot by publishers to “monetize” fanfiction – in other words, it was just fine with them if people skirted copyright violation, as long as they [the publishers and the original copyright holders] made some money off it. In 2013, Amazon launched a Kindle service that allows readers to pay to read fanfiction based on select properties with which the company had connived made an agreement. These include “The Vampire Diaries,” “Gossip Girl” and “Pretty Little Liars.” However, since Amazon does not allow hardcore porn even on Kindle, and as far as I can tell that’s the only kind of thing written around those shows, I can’t see this being a very lucrative enterprise.
Writers can get around the who-owns-what issue, of course, by taking up where long-dead authors left off; “public domain” is very useful for those who want their cake and eat it, too. By which I mean, those who want to kink up Romeo & Juliet’s balcony scene (or more likely, explore some hot and sweaty Romeo/Tybalt slash) and make money off it. I don’t think the recent fad for mashing up genres (e.g., Pride, Prejudice and Zombies) began as fanfic, but it seems like the kind of thing that might have. In fanfiction parlance, this is known as “AU” (alternate universe). Which is shorthand for I’m-going-to-do-whatever-the-hell-I-want-with-this-material. Turn Bilbo Baggins into a horny freshman at Mordor High School? Why not? “Oh, shit, Samwise! Principal Gandalf just gave me detention. What a hardass!”
I once paid good money for a real, hardcover book titled Mrs. Darcy, which began its life as fanfiction and purported to be a sequel to Jane Austen’s classic. And indeed it was, if by “sequel” you mean 450 pages of explicit, suspiciously modern Regency-era sex. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single gentleman in possession of a throbbing manhood must be in want of someone to straddle him in the back of a carriage.
Another interesting fanfic convention is the “crossover.” This involves mashing up two or more original sources. Some of these make sense; I’ve read some plausible “Scarecrow & Mrs. King”/”Remington Steele” crossovers, for instance. More puzzling are stories that combine, say, “Gunsmoke” with “Doctor Who.” “Watch out, Little Joe! That Dalek’s got you in his sights!”
Then there are the author-insertion and reader-insertion stories, written in the first- and second-person respectively. The latter can be especially disconcerting: “You lick your lips wantonly as you drop to your knees in front of Justin Bieber …” Wow. That doesn’t seem at all like the sort of thing I’m likely to do.
So why do so many people write fanfiction instead of their own original stories? In part it’s because the original creator was gifted enough to make us care about their characters. We don’t want Luke and Han and Leia’s story to be over when the credits roll. Or, conversely, we’re like Kathy Bates’ character in Misery, maddened by what the original author did to “our” characters. “How [insert series/movie title] should have ended” is a common theme in fanfiction.
And fanfiction can be easier to write than original work because the originator has already done all the heavy lifting. The characters are created and fleshed out. The scenarios are developed. Overarching themes are neatly in place. All we have to do is add an “and then THIS happened” coda to something that already has a substance and an audience. So maybe instead of trying to figure out what to do with my currently idle heroine, I should take a page from E.L. James’ lousy fanfic book (would serve her right) and crib from my fanfic to finish my “original” work. I’ll make Rosaleen a teenage rider for the Pony Express who forms an unlikely alliance with a sexy secret agent, and together they save the world from time-warped dinosaurs.
Yeah. That’ll work.
*If you’re genuinely interested in this topic, you’ll find a much more thoughtful and informative treatment of the subject here: https://reenchantmentoftheworld.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/a-short-introduction-to-fanfiction/