The Case For (and Against) Fan Fiction

Almost every writer I know has written their fan version of a favorite character, cast, or show, myself included. Even my snobbiest writer friends have a story in mind for Batman or the Star Wars Universe or Dorothy Gale, even if they’d never deign to write it down. It comes with the territory. Few writers can turn off their inner thieves when ensconced in a story they love. What they should have done was…

There’s a whole cottage industry around fan fic. Corporate tolerance for fan stories and films comes and goes, but even the piggiest suits seem aware that non-monetized fan fiction is good for their ecosystem. The more people talking about their properties – for free! – the better. You don’t want to piss off your hardest-core fans right before a multi-million four-quadrant movie is about to be released, and big corps can still be shamed if it looks like they’re picking on some fan writing stories for no compensation.

Fan fiction is oft dismissed as inferior to “real writing” but there’s certainly plenty of poorly written original fiction to go around. There’s no inherent reason your short story based on a minor character from Game of Thrones can’t be well written.

And really, isn’t most modern pop culture writing fan fic? Go to any comic store – the writers and artists of Superman, Batman, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America? All fan fic writers. The people who wrote the last four Star Wars movies and the Star Trek reboot? Highly paid fan fic, clearly, but fan fic nonetheless, as most of the men who created those characters are dead. (Hang in there, George Lucas!)

The reality is, some writers do get lucky and get the chance to play in their fantasy sandbox. Why celebrate them but pick on the writer posting Riverdale homages on their blog?

Some would argue that fan fiction is intellectual theft, that fans shouldn’t assume ownership of characters and situations they didn’t create, even if they don’t sell their work. On the other hand, some believe that work belongs to the fans, because without fans, where would these characters be? People blast J.K. Rowling for revisiting and expanding on situations from her Harry Potter novels – such as her belated outing of Dumbledore – but think nothing of people not named J.K. Rowling writing copious volumes of fan fiction, including slash fic.

So – to fan fic? Or not to fan fic? I have mixed thoughts on the matter. To answer in full, I will require two hats.

The good guy hat.

From one perspective, there are only two questions to consider when approaching fan fiction: Does it bring you joy? Are you hurting anyone?

If it makes you happy to write stories about Spider-Man or Ghostbusters, have at it. Life is too short to refrain from an activity that makes you happy. Truly. Write that Lupin/Snape slash fic and crank one out after.

Maybe fan fiction isn’t your main drive, but nonetheless, you have a story in your head. Mine is a third Tim Burton Batman film with Fairuza Balk as Harley Quinn. See? We all have one.

So, write it down. If you don’t want to write a full script, blast out a synopsis one afternoon, if for no other reason than to get the story out of your head so there’s room for the next one.

You can’t make money from your fan fiction. That’s stealing. But if you’re writing for yourself or posting stories for free on your blog or a fan site, and you’re not hurting anyone by doing so, and if it brings you joy, write all the fan fiction you want. No one can tell you otherwise.

The bad guy hat.

But why on earth would you want to?

I suppose fan fiction is fun and has it’s place (see above re: most writers think about it), but the choice is creatively limiting, not to mention a professional dead-end.

Those writers I mentioned who get to play in the superhero sandboxes? They all cut their teeth in some other way – prose fiction, spec scripts, indie comics, student films. Anyone hired to work on a corporate property has an original portfolio of work. Guaranteed. The people in the Gotham writing room didn’t get their jobs because they posted great Batman stories on their blog.

For 99.9 percent of us, fan fiction will not get us hired. You can’t share your stories properly. You will never publish them in a book. Few people will take you seriously as a writer. If the owners of the characters come up with an idea similar to yours, good luck doing something about it.

So my advice is for you not to devote too much time to fan fiction. Instead, take your creativity and focus it on something unique. The world needs newer and better stories, and fewer stories that repeat something written 30 years ago, which itself was a reimagining of something created 40 years before that. The boys who created Superman didn’t spend their afternoons writing and drawing Robin Hood comics. They created Superman.

I know it’s tempting – I have literally dreamed about re-writing Buffy Season 6 – but my advice is to resist. Figure out what you love about your favorite stories and create something with those qualities. I love powerful women, magic, sarcasm, and melancholy endings, and I can create my own characters and situations to explore those, without Buffy and Angel, and it will be mine.

You might feel stuck. You might feel like you need the creative crutch of working in a familiar universe. After all, you don’t need to describe Batman in any detail or waste pages on his origin or develop his motivation. It’s all there in the name: BATMAN! And your fan-fic readers would probably be bored if you covered too much ground they already knew by heart. You can jump right to the violence.

Creating new work can be harder, but take the leap anyway. Do you love Dr. Who? Time travel, romance, crazy villains, high stakes threats, a bit of silliness? Write about those things, but with your own creations. It’s not as hard as you might think.

Here’s a simple way to create new characters. Once you’ve identified what you love about a character – time travel, romance, etc. – make a list of all the other qualities that don’t matter so much: their name, physical appearance, personality, friends, what they drive, where they live, etc. Just the facts, not the fun stuff. Once you have that list, go down each item and describe its opposite.

Do you wish your favorite male character was genderfluid, your favorite white character was Asian, a straight character was queer? Do that. Give your character three kids instead of a companion, a hearse instead of a police box, a gruff exterior instead of goofy innocence. Give them a name that doesn’t sound anything like the original.

When you’re done, you’ll own that version of your favorite character. You can write whatever kind of stories you wish, worrying only about the continuity you established yourself. There are no stories you can’t tell with your own original characters. Banish the phrase “But My Favorite Character wouldn’t do that!” from your repertoire. You’ll probably think of new ideas as you write. You’ll change more character traits, introduce new cast members, arrange them in different combinations. New plots will come to mind. The more you free your creativity to work for you, the faster it will flow.

Even more, you can do what you like with your work. You can publish your novel, make an audio book, record a radio play, turn it into a comic. Whatever you want and can afford to do. You own it, and you’ll reap any revenues to be gained from it.

Maybe money isn’t your thing. A lot of writers say they just want to tell their stories and don’t care if they get paid. I don’t get it, but chacun son gout. But regardless of financial considerations, there’s pride in creation and ownership that you won’t experience if you don’t try to do your own thing.

Doing your own thing is important, and that brings me to my last and most heartfelt point.

As Mr. Rogers said, there’s only one you. You are the culmination of years of unique experience that no one will ever repeat in exactly the same way. Anne Lamott says if you survived childhood, you have enough material for fiction to last a lifetime, but you won’t be able to fully use that experience with characters and situations that someone else created. Your stories need as much of you in them as possible. What you know, what you care about, and what you want to say.

So create your own worlds. Take what you like about many different influences and create your new idea. Write a fan fic if it makes you happy, but don’t bury the rest of your light under the bushel of a corporate logo. You’ve got so much more in you and I hope you’ll let it out.

Obligatory Book Post

I have the bad habit of buying way more books than I read, with more coming into the house during a year than I could possibly read in that same time. (This is actually a subset of my habit of spending more money than I have, but I’ll not digress…)

I’m sure this habit is strange to no one reading this (in part because I’m sure that, indeed, no one is reading this). My goal this year is to get a handle on the to-be-read shelves, which now number four, if I don’t count the entirely separate and just as large shelf for to-be-read story magazines. I can’t stop myself buying The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction every other month, plus assorted literary zines. I like the pretty ones.

Since January 1, I’ve finished 16 books from the TBR shelf and added only three, two of which were birthday gifts. This represents heroic restraint on my part and I puffed my chest out a little as I wrote that.

What I’m reading

Nothing current, so don’t look for reviews of any hot new releases here. Some books on the TBR shelf are at least four years old, and there are a lot of used books on there.

Oldest book – Approaching Oblivion by Harlan Ellison. Bought used at Balticon last spring. Fantastic collection and eerily prescient. Ellison had an eye for bigotry and little faith it would be wiped out in any possible near future. He’s at his best deconstructing those for whom he feels the most contempt. I miss that angry savage genius. I need to read more of his books.

Most recent book – just guessing, but probably American Hippo by Sarah Gailey, published May 2018 and also purchased at last year’s Balticon. Charming spec fic about an American south infested with feral hippos, pinging off the actual historical fact that some politician thought it would be a great idea to breed hippos in America for food. It never happened, goddammit. Light reading, maybe a little predictable, but the characters are fun and they ride hippos like horses. The book’s goofy delight can not be understated.

Best book – Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. A filthy cousin to Bastard Out of Carolina, populated with Appalachian meth heads living in shacks instead of southern alcoholics in trailers. I haven’t seen the movie, so the book held its secrets and surprises. Alternatively nasty and beautiful, clearly written with love for its characters, even the meth dealers who’ll cut your head off if you look at them sideways.

Favorite book – The Cripple of Innishmaan by Martin McDonagh. Close runner-up to Winter’s Bone for best, but some of the characters are a little too quirky/cutesy, and I felt like McDonagh was writing for the audience laugh rather than what felt true to life or real for the characters. On the other hand, I’m not native Irish, so what do I know? The disabled boy in the title is by turns loved and lonely. Mostly he’s picked on and tired of being treated like an invalid. When word goes round that a Hollywood movie is being filmed nearby, he takes drastic measures to get transport, hoping he’ll be cast as local color and perhaps be taken all the way to America. The characters’ sense of longing for something better than their small village life rang true. Not as good a script as McDonagh’s In Bruges, but lots of good stuff.

Worst book – Catacombs of Terror by Stanley Donwood. I picked this up for $2 at an Ollie’s because I like pulp trash once in a while, but this wasn’t worth the hour on the stationary bike it took to read it. I wasn’t expecting a novel of consequence, but this lacked any sense of wit or lyricism. A hard-boiled detective novel can hide a lot of sins behind a few pithy observations and luxurious cynicism, or go all in with off-the-wall lunacy (such as Warren Ellis’ Crooked Little Vein, which I loved.) But this was an empty egg carton of a novel. It’s hard to believe the writer could muster up enough enthusiasm to write something so bland. Was there nothing on TV that night?

Most disappointing – a tie. What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund had an intriguing title but barely dipped below surface observations in what amounted to the writer’s somewhat rambling thoughts on the topic. About 70 pages of writing spread out over 400 pages. Lots of pictures, if you like that sort of thing. Also, The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. A fascinating premise – a fiction writer living in a police state is interrogated about the gruesome content of his short stories and their similarities to a number of bizarre child murders occurring in his town – slowed down by farcical characters and a plot twist that felt like a cop-out. Its tense encounters are undermined by its sense of ridiculousness, and it was difficult to tell McDonagh’s intentions. Imagine The Usual Suspects broken up here and there by Monty Python sketches. I expected something Kafka-esque and wasn’t ready for The Pillowman.

Most embarrassing – IDW’s reprint volume of the Planet of the Apes magazine from the 1970s. Not because I’m embarrassed to read Planet of the Apes comics, which I’m not because monkeys are awesome, but because it was soooooo bad. Every sentence ends with three !!! The human character hates apes!!! Until he doesn’t!!! And then he really does again!!! Why can’t they be brothers??!! Oy.

Honorable mentions – The Locked Room by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (I’ll be looking for the others in this series of mysteries); Brat Pack by Rick Veitch (glad to see this collected); Apt Pupil by Steven King (pulp trash, but tightly written and sufficiently disturbing. As good as I remembered).

 

Why I’m Not Rooting for Green Book at the Oscars Tonight

As a rule, I’m not a fan of criticizing a movie or television show I haven’t seen, which of course means I’m going to make an exception, albeit from a different angle. I’m not going to critique the quality of Green Book. I like Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. I’m sure the acting is great. The costumes look nice. I’m sure the director did a fine job putting it all together.

But I do feel the film worthy of criticism as an entity. Not unlike our nation’s many statues commemorating generals of the Confederate Army, the craftsmanship is not what I question, but the existence of the film as a whole, in this place, at this time.

Viewed as a cultural nugget, divorced from its individual parts, Green Book is that film that comes along every award season, pregnant with meaning and self-satisfaction, yet so tepid at its core that the thought process behind its creation should be questioned.

First, aren’t we sick of making and seeing this same movie over and over? The biography of Don Shirley is new, of course, but we’ve seen this tale before. Did the world really need another film about one black person and one white person setting aside their prejudices and distrust to shake hands over the color line? This trope has been tired for a long time. Certainly it’s worn out by now.

Can’t we expect more from art than blunt force character evolution, especially on the subject of race? Given the atmosphere in America right now, we need more from our artists. The people for whom the movie’s message was intended will never see it, and the audience it reached should have been tasked with weightier questions.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Green Book has been holding its own throughout the Hollywood award season. When I first heard of the movie, it sounded corny. The story of a white man chauffeuring a renowned black jazz artist around the deep south during the 1960s seemed like such an obvious awards grab that I didn’t think anyone could take it seriously. Lately, the industry has been honoring interesting, if not particularly challenging, films, and I hoped that trend would continue. Certainly they’d learned their lesson from The Help.

And yet here we are. Thirty years after Driving Miss Daisy, Hollywood’s treatment of race hasn’t progressed too far beyond remaking the same basic pitch, only with the roles of chauffeur and passenger reversed, and the white character still in the driver’s seat.

Which brings me to my second issue. In Green Book, we have yet another film about a vibrant black character in which a white person is front and center, for no reason other than his whiteness. Had the real-life Tony been black, while holding the exact same job and performing the exact same function, his role in the movie would have been negligible because it would not have been noteworthy for an African-American celebrity to have an African-American driver. It would not be considered exceptional for a black bodyguard to intervene to protect his black boss.

Tony is a hero only because he’s white. Haven’t we progressed to the point where a movie about a noted black person in America can be told without viewing that life through a white person’s gaze? The screenplay was co-written by the son of Shirley’s bodyguard, so this specific story would not exist but for Tony, but clearly Don Shirley is the notable figure. No one would make a film about Tony the chauffeur absent his connection to a famous party, yet here Tony is considered the lead.

(There is also some controversy about the nature of the friendship. According to the Shirley family, Tony was more an employee than friend. See “Family of Black Man, Don Shirley, Portrayed in “The Green Book” Blasts Movie and Its “Lies”, Black Enterprise)..

Third, I hate that they called the movie Green Book. The book of the title is the Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual travel guide that helped black Americans find restaurants, hotels, and gas stations where their business would be welcome and to avoid “sundown towns” where they risked arrest or violence if they were seen after dark.

There must be a thousand fascinating, maybe even heroic stories to be told via the Green Book, many of them tainted by America’s tragic history of racial violence, without which such a book would not have been necessary. The actual book was an iconic African-American cultural artifact yet the movie places it in the hands of a white man and gives him the job of keeping Don Shirley safe, transforming Tony, in effect, into the Green Book. It’s a stunning act of literary theft.

So that’s why I hope Green Book gets shut out tonight. The film turns Don Shirley into a passenger in his own life, fabricates a relationship with a centered white person to make a facile statement of interracial friendship, and reimagines the Green Book as a tool that a white person used to keep a black man safe.

We can do better.

I’m not mad that the filmmakers made the film they wanted to make. This isn’t Twitter, so I’m not going to call for everyone involved to be driven from Hollywood, never to work again. They made what they made, and I’m free to see it or not.

I would never say Green Book shouldn’texist, even if maybe I wish it didn’t or existed in a better form. I will never say that white artists should not make movies about black people, because on principle, artists should be free to create whatever comes to their mind to create. But, artists also should be held to a high standard and when times require better, we must ask them too, to be better.

I’m sad that we are now less likely to see a version of Don Shirley’s life focused on his struggles and achievements, rather than his maybe-fictional friendship with his driver. I’m bored to tears by the very idea of another ham-fisted film about race (oh, look, it’s The Upside…) I’m embarrassed that a group of white filmmakers had in their hands the fullness of Don Shirley’s life and chose to make a film in which he shares half with a white person.

So I ask – did we need this movie in this form? Did it add to our cultural conversation or merely distill an exceptional black man’s life down to the months he spent traveling with a white man? Would we not have been better served by a fuller presentation of Don Shirley’s life or the story of the Green Book itself? I’d say the filmmakers missed an opportunity to tell a bigger story and traded it for corny Oscar bait.

Who am I?

Another writer on the road to somewhere. Publication, obscurity, the couch – all likely destinations. 

I’m Will. I’m too smart, down-to-earth, cynical but not sour, snarky but all in fun. Socially anxious, depression survivor, too serious for my own good. I can be awkward, probably have a skosh of Asperger’s, and am often inappropriately honest. No elephant in the room shall remained undiscussed. 

I don’t lie. I’ll try not to lead you astray. I avoid giving advice, but I’ll share whatever I know about whatever I know. If you’re interested. I have two settings: All and Nothing. 

Here you may find notes about the writing life, my inspirations, what I’m working on, my obsessions, my friends and their work and their obsessions. If I work hard and have some luck, maybe some writing success stories. Some journaling and memories. There’s a good chance I’ll talk about depression and isolation, because it helps and because you’re not alone. Probably some complaining and the occasional rant. Almost certainly some one-off posts showing off whatever catches my eye or blabbing on about some weird thought that popped into my head. Can’t have enough of those. 

I’ll try to keep the dream journals to a minimum, but I do have some wicked cool dreams. You won’t be sorry. 

Things I like, in no particular order: comics, art, literature, travel, new languages, noveling and short-storying, drawing and painting, SF&F, good movies, theater, music, dudes, dogs. I used to include “politics” in that list, but it’s not fun anymore. I’ll leave it at that for now.