What Is Fan Fiction?:
How to tell it from the other stuff
Approximately where I was standing,
when I described the fortress filling the horizon.
Here at the Wright Household, this article is legendary.
This is in part because I’ve been talking about writing it for at least a year and a half. It is more, however, because of my now-famous speech—in which I laid out for two of our sons the main points I wished to cover in such an essay.
It was December of 2015, and we stood on the ramparts at Bear’s Den in the Blue Ridge Mountains, looking out upon miles of countryside. As we halted atop the rocks, where the Appalachian Trail passes, I spread my arm, gesturing toward the open valley stretching beneath us and exclaimed:
“Imagine an immense black fortress, stretching as far as the eyes can see. The vast bulk rises up over the Blue Ridges, dominating the landscape. It is made of solid basalt, and it stretches for miles and miles. It has smooth sides with no handholds, crisply-cut crenulations along the top, and looming towers, from which a lookout could spot anyone approaching from any direction.
“Now, imagine this fortress represents the personality and qualities of impressive characters, such as Dr. Doom, Spock, Snape, or Batman. Pick your favorite.
“Each ‘stone’ of the fortress wall represents a quality about that character. Each was carefully hand-placed by the creators—writers, artists, actors, etc.—who helped shape the character. Together, these blocks of character developing, backstory, speech patterns, appearance, and actions form, in the mind of the audience, the titanic, solid edifice that make up our favorite characters.
“Now imagine that in all that vast, impenetrable, solidness, there exists only one window. It is a round window, the size of a porthole.
“On one occasion, once, a candle passed by this window.
“This flicker of light, seen through the tiny window, represents the emotions displayed by our character, a brief glimpse of suffering or hope or love in an otherwise impassive character.
“Fan fiction narrows the focus of the camera to that window. Sometimes, maybe, it shows a little bit of the basalt surrounding it. Instead of one flicker of candlelight, it fills the window with flames and fireworks.
“It then relies on the fan to imagine that the fortress is still present, even though the enormous mile-long basalt bulk of the rest of it is never so much as glimpsed.”
And, this, folks, is—in a nutshell—the difference between fan fiction and the other stuff.
Before we continue, let us pause for some definitions:
Professional – a writer who gets paid.
Amateur – a writer who does not get paid.
Well-Crafted Writing – solid writing and storytelling.
Fan Fiction or Fanfic – what we are talking about in this essay.
For the purpose of this article, the term fan fiction has nothing to do with getting paid. Both professional writers and amateur writers can write solidly-crafted fiction or fan fiction.
Note: Just because fan fiction, as defined, is not well-crafted does not mean that it is wicked or stupid. It can be great fun to write, and millions of fans love reading it. Some fiction written by fans for fans is well-crafted and does not fit the definition of fanfic used in this article. However, even the badly-written stuff can be great fun.
If you love writing or reading fan fiction, don’t let me or anyone else interfere with your joy!
That being said, let us look at our fundamental question: How do you tell well-crafted fiction from fan fiction?
Some people today try to use sardonically apply the term fan fiction to anything that takes place in another writer’s background.
Using characters and locations from earlier works in one’s fiction, however, is an age old tradition. Writers in ages past were expected to build on what had come before them. If it were the case that anything written using someone else’s characters or setting was automatically fan fiction, we would have to refer to Mid-Summer’s Night Dream by Shakespeare as “Huor of Bordeux fan fiction.”
Or label every episode of Batman or Superman that was not written by the original creator of the character as fanfic.
Both of these things would just be silly.
I first started wondering about this subject when I saw someone refer to my husband (author John C. Wright)’s novel Awake in the Nightland as “Nightland fanfic.” I remember frowning and thinking, “Something’s not right about that.”
I doubly thought this when I heard Andy Robertson’s story of discovering John’s Nightland tales when Mr. Robertson was running the Nightland website. He described how he and a few other writers were playing at writing Nightland stories, basically writing Nightland fan fiction…and then, John, this writer he had never heard of submitted the real thing.
Andy Robertson recognized that there was a difference between fan fiction and what John had submitted.
This subject reared its head again with the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The script was approved by the author. Thousands have seen the play, and, yet, the debate rages on: Is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fan fiction?
The fact that a serious debate can take place on this subject regardless of the original author’s support shows that there is more to the issue than just ownership of the character.
What finally pushed me over the edge, however, was a brief, unpleasant foray into modern Marvel comics.
Marvel has replaced all the original heroes we love with new heroes of the same name who are different. This might not too bad, if the characters were noble and heroic, but they are not. The new set of characters emote. They stand around while others admire or adore them, and they do easily tasks that the real heroes found difficult.
There was something familiar about this kind of writing. I had seen it before. But it took thinking about it for a bit before I sat up and exclaimed, “Oh, I get it! They’re writing Marvel fanfic!”
For all I know, they actually hired fan fiction writers to be their current writers. If so, that would explain a lot!
So what is fanfic?
The key to understanding the difference between well-crafted writing and fan fiction is to remember the fortress and the window.
You can write about the fortress without mentioning the window. But, you can’t write about the window without depending on the reader to be picturing the fortress. Because the whole point of showing flames and fireworks in the porthole is to give the impression that these are the true passions secretly raging in the heart of the otherwise impassive character.
If the audience is not picturing an impassive character, the fanfic doesn’t work.
Fan fiction, by nature, is parasitical. Like mistletoe growing on oak, it cannot succeed without a host story, the work of the original creator, to prop them up. In this case, the oak is the “fortress”—i.e., the work done by the original creator/series/etc. to establish the character.
No one is amazed when Spock falls for Mary Sue—unless they believe the person doing the falling is the one true Spock, the emotionless Vulcan.
Because winning the heart of a Vulcan is exciting.
Winning the heart of Joe, an overly-emotional guy?
Not so much.
No one is amazed Dr. Doom is beaten by Gary Stu, unless they are picturing the character being beaten as the most impressive villain of them all, the tyrant ruler of Latvaria with his vast armies of robot Dooms. Actually being able to finally defeat Dr. Doom, at least without the use of squirrels, would be truly exciting.
But if Gary Stu merely beats Steve the Thug?
Not so much.
Basically, well-crafted fiction tells a story that is true to the characters and setting. Fan fiction puts the personal desires of the writer and the fans above the needs of the story.
Jason Rennie, publisher of Superversive Press, described it: “The bad stuff feels wrong because it is forcing characters and a universe into a direction it won’t naturally go. You need to do violence to the universe like some incompetent interventionist god to make it bend the way you want.
But the good stuff, like the [Monster Hunter International] add-on stories work because they fit in the universe and don’t do violence too it. They feel like they belong.
Lady Thor and Black Chick Ironman do violence to the universe to fit, as does Mary Sue etc.
But good “fan fic” like Star Trek Continues doesn’t do that.”
Mr. Rennie defines fan fiction as “doing violence to the [fictional] universe.” What does he mean by that? What is the kind of violence that is usually done?
The first kind of violence is emotional.
I mentioned the tiny porthole through which a single candle passes as an analogy for the emotions showed by some stalwart characters. They act out of duty or purpose and do not let their emotions come between them and their goal. Only rarely, at moments of high tension, do they occasionally reveal the single crack in their fortress-armor.
Fan fiction rips open that crack and makes the whole story about emotions—emotions that the character would never ordinarily express.
After prohibition ended in America, it became popular to have movies that glorified drinking, such as Philadelphia Story, where partway through the story, the dignified main characters would drink too much and suddenly blurt out what they were really thinking.
Or they would kiss someone that they would never otherwise have kissed.
Emotional fanfic treats the our characters as if they are perpetually drunk…or worse…so that they act without inhibitions, saying or doing things that the real character—the one that has to live with the consequences of their actions and who, usually, has some modicum of dignity—would never do.
Fanfic characters blurt out their loves, hates, romantic longings, and fears…personal things most characters would never reveal come pouring out of their mouths. Even worse than never reveal, things they would never feel come gushing out.
Other types of violence include:
Talking about nothing real—conversation limited to things like relationships, how awesome they are, and other simplistic conversations
Overly simplistic relationships: everyone is so buddy buddy, without the real differences of personality that every human relationship faces.
Super-cool wow wonder—a lot of time is spent on how much other people admire the character.
The ability to easily beat anything…quickly.
Years ago, John and I used to watch Star Trek: Next Gen, which we, for the most part, enjoyed very much. But they had one tendency that used to drive me crazy. In order to show how tough an enemy was, they would have the enemy beat Worf the Klingon.
Only, they never spent any time building the fortress that is Worf—ie, showing him using his great fighting prowess to win the day. They merely traded on the viewers knowledge that Klingons were tough in order to demonstrate how much tougher others were.
This went on for a while, with Worf being tossed around in a number of shows in a row. Then one day, emotional counselor Deanna Troy was possessed by an evil power, and—to show how EVIL the power was—she picked up and tossed…Worf.
And I jumped up from where I sat on the couch beside John and shouted at the TV: “That’s not Worf! That’s a Worf-shaped balloon!”
And that is what happens in fanfic. It’s not Snape who falls in love with Hermione, it’s a Snape-shaped balloon. It’s not Sabertooth—the baddy who used to beat Wolverine to a pulp—that Wolverine’s adopted daughter beats up with one punch, it’s a Sabertooth balloon. (Wish that was fanfic. That one was Marvel.)
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with most fan fiction pieces. Sooner or later the reader looks up from the porthole where all these wild emotions are happening and exclaims, “This isn’t a fortress! It’s just a fortress-shaped balloon!”
Essayist extraordinaire Tom Simon offers both a historical perspective and additional terms that could be useful to future discussions on this topic: “Puts me in mind of the flap between Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Richardson more or less invented the epistolary novel with Pamela, which was a shamelessly sentimental and long-winded tear-jerker that even most aficionados of eighteenth-century novels now find unreadable. Henry Fielding wrote Joseph Andrews, a novel ostensibly about Pamela’s brother, but in a completely different tone – lighthearted, humorous, and salted with picaresque adventure. Richardson was furious, and called Joseph Andrews a ‘lewd and ungenerous engraftment’ on his own novel.
“In the same way, we could fairly call 50 Shades a lewd and ungenerous engraftment on Twilight; lewd, especially. Wicked is an engraftment on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Fan fiction of the Mary Sue or slash types could be generally described as engraftments; whereas a genuine contribution to a canon grows organically from the characters and situations already developed.
“Perhaps we could reverse-engineer a terminology for this. The original source material would be root stories; sequels and prequels and shared-world stuff, if done competently and with respect for the root, would be branches; stuff that really does not belong, but is forced on out of fan-service, moneygrubbing, or sheer self-indulgence, we can call by Richardson’s term – engraftments.
“This not only takes the pro-vs.-amateur question out of the equation, it is also independent of the authorized-vs.-unauthorized issue. For instance, The Phantom Menace may have been an authorized part of the Star Wars canon, but it is so different in tone and intention, and does such shameless violence to the previous canon, that we may fairly call it an engraftment on Star Wars – even though it was done by the same writer and director.”
An author of well-crafted fiction is the servant of his muse. He listens to the words and wisdom the Divine Muse sends. He writes a story that honors the characters, plots, and themes he has been given.
A fan fiction author expects the plot and characters to perform for him. He, as we heard above, does violence to the source material. Or, at the very least, he leans on the source material for the force of his story, without himself adding to the “fortress.”
You have heard of people who are tone deaf.
Fan fiction is muse-deaf.