The internet is kind of like one of those mothers who turns up all the time on daytime talk shows. She’s overwrought, bloated, takes no responsibility for anything, and is, above all, a terrible parent. It’s not hard to go to the comments on YouTube, or the discussion sections of pretty much any Wikipedia article to find the digital citizen equivalent of dirty faced urchins squatting in the dirt out in front of a shack with a mangy pit bull tied up out front, shoving pennies up their nose and getting into howling, incoherent fights over nothing at all.
To belabor this already over-stretched analogy a little more, fan fiction is foster child to the internet’s unfit parent. It wasn’t born on the internet, (with account of the first fan fiction ranging from 1970’s Star Trek bootleg novels, to dozens of works created to ‘fix’ Arthur Conan Doyle’s decision to kill off Sherlock Holmes (which actually convinced Doyle to resurrect the character), to parts of the Bible, and beyond, depending on what you can convince a given person to grudgingly admit is fanfaction) but something about it just cries out for all the other inbred children to pick and beat on it continuously for the hell of it.
And that’s a shame, because the boom industry of free fiction based on other works or popular culture is a surprisingly useful tool for a writer, both the bad and the good parts. And a lot of what it has to offer is unique to it. Things like…
If you’re as big a fan of SCIENCE! As me, you no doubt know a thing or two about proper experimentation methods. For example, when conducting an experiment on, say, the effect of LSD on unsuspecting college students (yes, that actually happened and in part inspired The Descendants), it’s a good idea to set aside some subjects who will not be tripping balls as a basis for comparison. It gives you a very simple ‘Thing vs Thing Plus Stuff’ comparison from which to draw conclusions.
Normally, you can’t actually do this with subjective things like TV shows because any two of these things, even very similar ones like Criminal Minds, The Mentalist and The Profiler, have some many variables between them that it’s hard to judge the overall effect of each on the show as a whole.
Enter fan fiction. As I’ll discuss later in this article, fans view works in an inherently different light than creators, so whenever they create a fan work based on a given work, they’ll create a variation based on their own wishes, perceptions and misconceptions unless they’re shooting for so called ‘original flavor’ and are very good at sticking to that.
This in turn is helpful for a writer to observe all the myriad ways a story can go and just how much more important the story is than the concept. Some writers even include notes and summaries that explain their divergences from the original work and their reasons behind it, allowing a unique look at the anatomy of a story and it’s various possible permutations.
Confession time: over the last year or so, I’ve written some fan fiction of my own with this concept firmly in mind. The whole point of the first one was to really pin down my ability to write the ‘voice’ of various characters. Seeing as how my own creations exist solely in my imagination, it’s sometimes hard to know if how you write their manner of speaking and choice of words will come through properly to the reader. But with established characters, it’s as simple as popping in a DVD to get a feel for those things and then read your prose to see if it carries through. The same can be said for a lot of literary elements like tone, where ordinarily you’re left to play things by ear, but you can absolutely learn better technique by working on replicating an existing one first.
But what about all the terrible stuff? Well…
The Sliding Scale of Quality and the Value of Mediocrity
There’s a lot of people online who use ‘fanfiction’ as shorthand for ‘low quality’. They’re the same kind of people who will bend of backward to deny that any fan-made work of any note is not, in fact, fan fiction, be it Wicked, pretty much the whole of the Marvel and DC universes, Paradise Lost, or ever written account of the Arthurian Legend (Lancelot was an OC or part of a crossover. I am not kidding).
The truth is that like everything, fan fiction has it’s pearls of brilliance and it’s oozing cesspits, just like and body of work. The difference is, there’s no filter on fan fiction; no editors telling people that no one wants to read about eyes being described as ‘orbs’ for eighty pages, or to tell them that the world is probably much better off without any written accounts of sex with Sauron and Gollum (at the same time!). Anybody can, right now, got to FanFiction.net, or LiveJournal, and post them up some fan fiction and no one can stop them. I checked. Lord have I checked.
See, in the publishing world, there’s generally some level of filtration on what the world is allowed to see, AND editors whose job is to seek and destroy bad tangents, weird phrasing, and generally fine tune the story. The result is that very few out and out awful stories see the light of day unless they might prove highly profitable in spite of this (You know the ones I’m talking about. That’s right: the Sword of Truth series).
Fanfiction doesn’t have this process. The closest they come are what’s called ‘beta readers’, who do the job everyone expects editors to do (ie: proofreading) and by and large leave the chaff an editor would cut intact. Often, it’s the lack of this process that leaves a good fic in mediocrity, and for our purposes, that’s a good thing.
See, writers do a lot of reading. It just comes with the territory, and mostly, we read to see how things are done right. This is unfortunate, because a LOT of writers really need to see things done wrong to keep them from thinking that the thing they’re contemplating doing is new and original instead of just terrible.
That’s where mediocre fanfiction comes in. As above, you already have a baseline for what the work is actually like, and by reading middle of the road and inferior versions (but not the terrible ones), you can more clearly see what’s going wrong. Are the fight scenes dry and lacking dynamics? Are the relation ship arcs too sudden or too drawn out? Does the tone feel off for some reason?
This also works in reverse for when you find a fiction that does something better than the original. I haven’t checked, but money says that there’s Friends fanfiction that figures out how to make the Ross/Rachel relationship work instead of the painfully drawn out mega-arc it bloated into in the actual series.
Of course, I’m sure the writers had an idea in their head that they were doing something interesting, but there’s another lesson you can get from fanfiction, namely…
Fans See Works Far, Far Differently Than Creators
About a year ago, I found an entry on the Descendants TVTropes entry talking about the perceived treatment of other countries in the series. I disagreed with the entry, made kind of a fuss about it on the forums, and another fan came along and edited it in a way that’s a little antagonistic, using some of my own words. I now regret that episode, because while I still despise the concept of Death of the Author, I’ve since come to a realization about the nature of fandom that puts the whole thing in a new light and it comes from my recent interest in investigating the whole fandom phenomenon.
While a lot of my frustration in that incident came from the fact that I pride myself on my accessibility, people still came up with their own interpretation based on what they read and felt was important (in this specific case, that part that bothered me most was the idea that every Chinese-American we’d met at that point was portrayed as a criminal when Barn Owl and Patricia Masters are both Chinese and unquestionably heroic, and the idea that China in the DU is even more communist than ever when I don’t think I even every mentioned China’s situation (because I honestly don’t know. There are holes in my world map for the DU and China, India, much of Africa and Australia haven’t come up yet)), I’ve since come to understand that this is actually just a facet of how fandom works.
Even though a person can just post to the Q&A Thread, or send me an email if they have a question, that doesn’t mean they feel they even need to. If they see what they think they see, there’s no need to ask the question (beyond ‘what do you have against the Chinese?’, I guess). And beyond that, if they like their interpretation better, it doesn’t matter what I think, that’s what they’ll go with until I sink that speculation in canon (and sometimes not even then).
The remarkable thing I’ve found when reading fan fiction is what precisely different groups of fans find important and definitive about a given character, setting or plot. Sometimes characterization points are big and obvious in the work itself and the fans go along with it, but other times, the fans dissect a work down to its base elements and find one line, scene action or throw away gag and declare that this is what’s important.
For example, in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction community, there’s an entire genre based on a single episode from the second season; Halloween. The plot of the episode revolves around everyone who bought their costume from a certain shop becoming that costume on Halloween (For example, Xander Harris dressed as a soldier and thus gained military training, a working gun, and ‘memory’ of the layout of the local base plus the personality to back it up). It was also shown that some of the knowledge gained stays with a person.
The fans love the hell out of the concept, and the mechanics are vague enough to allow wiggle room for how it actually works, prompting the fans to use the idea as the springboard for crossovers, huge genre shifts, and sprawling epics about the aftermath. All for an idea used once in one episode and only referenced again three times in the show itself.
Other examples are lower key than this, like a single episode’s mention of a hobby or skill becoming so important in fandom that fics where that skill isn’t mentioned or used when the character is featured becoming rare, one-off nicknames becoming common place, and arguments being expanded upon.
Why is this important? Because understanding what fans like can help you write canon that they’re happier with. Obviously this needs to be tempered by your original vision and reason; I’m not ever going to pair Morganna and Liedecker romantically (so stop asking), or turn the series to the dark and edgy path, but if the fans think certain powers need to be used better, or that certain characters need more face time, who’s it going to hurt?
By studying the fandoms of similar works, and my own fan reactions I like to think that I’m already able to do this to some degree without a huge fan base of my own to analyze. For one thing, I do try to incorporate more intelligent and in character uses of powers than is typically used in X-men, for example, and I also work to avoid giving characters fleeting interests and then abandoning it.
A lot of this can be gleaned from just looking at internet discussion, but some of this stuff isn’t really discussed, it just becomes part of the ground consciousness and is expressed in fanfiction.
And one final point I’d like to make:
Some of it is Really Enjoyable
Remember all the reading I said writers do? Yes, we learn from what we read, and some works expand your horizons, but like most entertainment, the real point is enjoyment and really good fan fiction can supplement the enjoyment of the original in a lot of ways.
I personally enjoy just what’s called ‘Original Flavor’, which is where the fic writer tries to cleave to existing canon and continuity, often slotting their story into the existing narrative, or appending it to the end as a continuation. This is especially nice for works that were cut short in real life for reasons that have nothing to do with the creative process, leaving fans without a satisfying ending for whatever reason, or just to feed the desire for more from a work that had a lot of room to explore and just didn’t.
At the same time, I also appreciate certain gimmicks that can only be brought about by fanfiction. Most prominently, you have crossovers, which can be interesting, but are legal and logistical nightmares to do in real life that only get worse when new media and the legal rights involved there get involved.
Another interesting concept is the fusion, where two works are blended, with setting, concepts and characters taking on aspects of one another (or just powers) and the consequences of these changes are explored. I only know of one instance of this happening (outside of parody) in real life: DC and Marvel’s Amalgam Comics event which was extremely weird (Batman/Wolverine became Dark Claw), but fun as hell. Good luck ever seeing that again now that they’re owned by rival titans Warner Brothers and Disney respectively.
And finally, the very downfall of fanfiction, the lack of editorial checks and balances, can also be their strength. A fan fiction author doesn’t have to care about standards and practices, or an executive producer’s little hang-ups, or the editor and chief’s mad-on for a character the fans hate/destroying things the fans love. They do what they want, create what they want to see within a world they might not own, but that they’re familiar with.
Sometimes they just don’t have the talent to pull it off. Or their ideas are bad, or ill advised. But sometimes they’re good. Hell, occasionally, you’ll find something that’s outright brilliant, that might even surpass the original (at least in your eyes). I’ve seen this in fandoms I’m not even part of, and for works that weren’t even good to start with (you know the ones, I’m not even going to name them).
I’m not going to lie though: it’s hard to find the jewels sometimes. The largest archive on the internet has tens of thousands of works for the most popular items and only about a hundred of those are top shelf. Is it worth it? That really depends on how much you care, but if you’re the kind of person who can enjoy some airport fantasy novels and big, loud blockbusters from time to time, you can find enough that’s good enough to satisfy.
And even if you don’t, there is value for a writer with an eye toward creating their own, original works to both read and even write a little fanfiction for the reasons stated above. Even if you don’t I hope it gives you a little more perspective than you’ll find on most of the net where most arguments are either that it’s IP theft that’s all about Harry Potter having sex with Voldemort, and viscous whinging about fanon and ‘correcting’ original works (because in internet discussions, both sides are usually arguing from the most idiotic position possible).
My advice? Just give it a try. It can’t hurt, it might help.
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