Fan fiction: blessing or curse?

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.

Creative Commons Licence
Fan fiction: blessing or curse? by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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One response to “Fan fiction: blessing or curse?

  1. Erin

    It’s true that most fanfics are written horribly, but sometimes you’ll find that one gem that just makes this whole medium worth it.

    A few years ago I used to trash fanfiction every chance I got. I only saw it as the excuse a bunch of teens use to write smut about beloved characters. It actually pissed me off even to think about it. And then tvtropes linked me to a story someone wrote about Showtime’s “Dexter”, and I’ll be damned if that piece wasn’t written just as (if not better) than the show itself. I was baffled that something like this existed.

    Gun to my head, I’d probably say that the world was better off without fanfiction, simply because such a large part of it is awful. But here’s the thing that I don’t think you’ve touched upon when it comes to this issue. Some people who write fanfic do it because the show or book series they hold dear is over. It’s finished and it’s not coming back. A show I used to watch religiously just ended and the original creator of it said that he now hands the characters over to the fans. And you know what? That both made me feel dread and relief. Dread for obvious reasons, and relief because maybe this show will manage to live on in our hearts. Fanfic means that there’s a chance someone out there will write an awesome adventure for those characters.

    And I definitely agree that trying to fiercely protect our characters can’t lead to much good. If I was a famous writer I’d love to check out what the fans have written about my books. Even if it was smut or just plain bad, I’d have a hoot reading through them. Because writing, in the end, is supposed to be fun.

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