Imagine “VeggieTales’” Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber yowling songs about purple orcs to J.R.R. Tolkien’s elven lord Elrond.
Or John Watson’s mustache falling deeply in love with investigator Greg Lestrade’s hair.
Or perhaps a pregnant Harry Potter suffering from swollen cankles while Draco Malfoy tends to him lovingly.
While these strange topics seem to be worlds apart, one common thread pulls them together: Fanfiction.
The genre is defined by Urban Dictionary as “a work of fiction utilizing characters from a book, television show or movie, as opposed to original characters.” Popular “fandoms,” or kingdoms of fans, include “Sherlock,” “Doctor Who,” “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” as well as real person fictions (RPFs)—or fanfiction based on real celebrities and stars.
Fanfiction lovers are devoted when it comes to their fandoms, and many insist that this new breed of writing is actually better than original fiction.
“It enlarges the universe where characters live,” said Christine Luo, a freshman at Wayzata High School who reads “Sherlock” and “Doctor Who” fanfiction. “It’s written by a fan, for a fan.”
Luo confesses that she reads fan works almost every night. Some may think that this is far too time-consuming for practicality, but the number of devout fanfiction lovers is widespread.
On fanfiction.net alone, the “Harry Potter” fandom hosts more than 662,000 stories and 26,000 crossovers—which are stories based on multiple combined fandoms. Although fanfiction has existed since Shakespearean times, why has it exploded so recently?
Lyda Morehouse, a Shamus Award-winner and passionate anime fanfiction writer based in Minneapolis, credits it to our instant gratification culture.
“I think (the genre) is really popular because we go through things so fast,” Morehouse said. “You know, we want to hang onto some things that we really care about.”
Emily Deutscher, a freshman at Wayzata High School who admits to countless sleepless nights spent watching old episodes of “Doctor Who,” said technology is able to “spread our art across the world and reach more people.”
“And as generations like ours are exposed to this amazing realm of possibility, we embrace it and create more like it, gaining popularity with each piece,” she said.
Right: Lyda Morehouse, a published author and passionate anime fanfiction writer based in Minneapolis, got her start in fanfiction but admits that the standards are much lower than those set for novels. (Photo by ThreeSixty staff)
Jolt of inspiration
Sites like fanfiction.net and wattpad.com have been emerging stars, thousands wandering through the vast archives for hours on end. Readers and writers claim that not only is fanfiction entertaining, it’s also educationally beneficial.
An author of 15 novels, Morehouse began teaching science fiction, fantasy, and fanfiction classes at the Loft Literary Center in the early 2000s. Now a writer and artist in the fandom of “Bleach,” a Japanese manga series, Morehouse learned to write by crafting fanfiction for “The Dragonriders of Pern.”
“In some ways what’s nice about (being a) fanfiction writer and a new writer … is that so many elements are established,” she said. “Characters can be hard to establish when you’re learning to write, and so can plot. So maybe being able to use somebody’s world and somebody else’s characters can help you figure out basic plot. It can help you figure out how to show basic character. I totally think you can learn a lot from reading and writing.”
Teens are coming to similar realizations.
“I have definitely enjoyed writing more after I started reading and writing fanfiction,” Deutscher said. “I … noticed myself gradually warming up more to writing and trying to improve as a writer, as well as reaching out more, joining the school writing club, enrolling in more writing classes … improving my vocabulary to try and make my fanfictions sound more polished.”
Yet the genre is not void of drawbacks.
“One of the bad effects is that you never get out of it,” Morehouse said. “It’s partially because it’s hard to make the jump up out of it in terms of kudos. It’s really hard to stop and write a novel for a year when no one is cheering you on, whereas it’s a lot easier to just write the next installment of your giant “Sherlock” fic—you know 20 people will instantly give you kudos.”
Morehouse, along with most fanfiction lovers, also knows that the standards for online fan works are much lower than those set for novels.
“I’ll skim through a fanfiction, and I’m like ‘Hmmm,’ but if it’s good enough, sometimes I’ll keep going,” Morehouse said. “I wouldn’t do that with a novel. I would never put up with that for a novel. ‘Oh my god, bad grammar, you’re out.’”
Question of ownership
Yet a bigger concern surrounding fanfiction is not that it is a giant black hole or encourages lax literary standards. Rather, is it a blatant violation of copyright laws?
Nancy Sims, a copyright program librarian at the University of Minnesota, said the issue involves a lot of gray area. There are no defined rules, just legal opinions that can vary across the board regarding fair use.
However, an idea from the ‘90s called transformative fair use—taking an original work and shaping it into something else entirely—allows for a stronger argument against violating copyright., Sims said.
“If you take a story about Sesame Street characters and you make them … space-going-researchers … this is very, very different from your original Muppet show, your original Sesame Street,” she said. “And then, especially if … they don’t really act a whole lot like they do on Sesame Street, they’re confronting completely different problems than they do on Sesame Street, the more you go away from the original, the more likely it is going to be fair use.”
Twilight fanfiction “Fifty Shades of Grey,” in Sims’ legal opinion, does just that by taking a “fairly quick turn away from the original.” Additionally, “there are some things that aren’t copyrightable, and a generic plot outline or a generic character description (aren’t).”
Fanfiction readers and writers vehemently deny that it violates copyright laws, and some go to great lengths to avoid legal issues.
“It’s not like these stories are being made for profit and everyone I read puts disclaimers on their stories,” said Megan Hogan, a Forest Lake Area High School sophomore. “They are just stories, people writing about their favorite books, movies, et cetera. I don’t see why that’s a problem.”
Profit is an important factor in the debate. One of the four fair use factors asks whether you are harming the market for the original work.
“If you’re just somebody doing it as a hobby and not for profit … you’re less likely to be able to harm the market for the original if you’re just doing it for fun,” Sims said. “There are some really interesting arguments about fanfiction and market harm where people say fanfiction actually, usually, drives sales.”
Among all the gray legality, Sims urges writers to be aware of websites’ editorial policies. She cites an example from 2007 when LiveJournal wiped several fan communities stemming from copyright and pornography concerns. YouTube is also able to take content down if they have a private agreement with another company.
Not only do legal opinions vary, but popular authors have mixed feelings about their works being re-purposed by the public.
For example, authors like Morehouse, J.K. Rowling (“Harry Potter”) and Suzanne Collins (“The Hunger Games”) encourage fans to write their own interpretations of original work. However, Anne Rice, author of “Interview with the Vampire,” and Terry Goodkind, creator of “The Sword of Truth” series, prohibit their fans from taking such liberties.
“I do not allow fan fiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters,” Rice wrote on her website. “I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own original characters. It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.”
What is fair use?
The United States copyright law includes a doctrine called “fair use.” It spells out various instances by which a re-purposed work could be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching and research.
It includes four factors for determining whether a work is fair:
- What’s your purpose? Are you doing this for educational or critical purposes?
- Is the work you’re borrowing from published or unpublished?
- How much of the original work are you using?
- Are you harming the market for the original work?
Before the idea of transformative fair use came to light in the ‘90s, derivative works were judged using the four fair use factors alone. Nancy Sims, copyright program librarian at the University of Minnesota, admits that “thinking about fair use that way can be really confusing, because on almost every one of those points – if you have smart lawyers – they can argue each one any different which way.”