Hello again, creative minds.
Today, I want to share some thoughts sparked by the phenomenon of fan fiction, or fan-derived works in general. Are such works a lazy exercise, nay barely-legal copyright infringement, or are they a celebration of ideas and creative diversity amongst those who truly love the original works?
Let’s start with a famous example of an author opposed to fan fiction: George R. R. Martin. In a blog from 2010 (link below), Mr Martin, in a rather world-weary style, laid out various arguments against fan fiction. These can basically be broken down into two main camps – legal and personal.
On the legal side, we have copyright. Copyright is, as Mr Martin points out, the ticket for writers (or any artists, for that matter) to make their living. He cites a couple of examples of 20th century copyright issues that badly affected well-established writers (e.g. Marion Zimmer Bradley) because a fan had wanted to publish their own work based in someone else’s universe and make money from it.
Fair enough, I reply. The golden rule of any fan fiction writer should be Thou Shalt Not Make Money Off Another Writer’s Back (exceptions do exist, such as Todd McCaffrey taking on the mantle of his late and great mother, Anne McCaffrey, but this was family and full consent was given). If writing is ever to remain a viable profession, then those who practise it must be able to sustain themselves from their works.
Moving onto the personal arguments, the eternal one concerns love. A writer spends literally years – sometimes decades – getting to know their characters. They give intellectual birth to them, nurture them, guide, mentor, befriend and chastise them. Who wouldn’t, then, feel parental protection as they watch their offspring toddle off into the big wide world? Once out there, they are no longer under your control.
Again, fair point well made. But to counter such arguments, I’ll state what I feel should apply to flesh-and-blood offspring as well; you might create them, but you don’t own them. Ideas are the children of the mind, and like children of the body they must be allowed to grow up and go their own way in the world without a helicopter parent in tow.
I’m advocating that ideas should belong to the original author insofar as they and they alone are allowed to profit from the distribution and sale of these ideas. However, I think it a terrible, even cruel, stance to forbid others the joy of exploring a world and meeting characters in ways the original author might not have considered.
Let us set a few things straight. The vast majority of fan fiction is badly-written (grammar, spelling, structure, etc.). A large percentage of fan fiction also throws the characters into situations that stray far away from how they were originally portrayed (e.g. Harry Potter would probably not, if we stick with the character’s original traits, motivations and histories, have sex with Draco Malfoy). It’s no wonder that many authors opposed to fan fiction believe such writing should be consigned to private diaries or – even better – the recycling bin.
But every aspiring writer must start somewhere. We don’t expect a novice to sit down at a piano and reel off music on a par with Mozart from the get-go. However, we do expect – and encourage – them to study and play Mozart’s pieces before they can appreciate the craft of music enough to compose works of their own. Why should writing be any different?
It might be hard for an author to read a story in which their beloved character suddenly deviates from the original canon. Perhaps strictly conservative parents feel the same way when their son or daughter suddenly comes out of the closet. But should either situation stop the parent from loving and accepting their offspring, or the author from loving their creations? Would thousands of other fans suddenly forget the original canon that started it all?
Ideas are wild, unpredictable and vibrant. When you try to fence them in, they freeze like tender plants in winter frost; forever beautiful, but brittle and dead. No one else can touch them, or take away seeds to plant in their own gardens. Ultimately, such protectiveness harms the essence of creativity, which is to share, to grow, to evolve and explore new territory. You may try and groom your children for a life indoors, pampered and protected, but it’s the ones that are allowed to roam and be carried to new and exciting corners that will thrive and develop beyond the confines of one person’s imagination.
I’d love to know your own thoughts on this, but please, leave the trolls under the bed.
George R. R. Martin’s blog.
Fan fiction: blessing or curse? by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.