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.