The Care and Feeding of a Fictional Character

Do characters belong to the person who created them? Or to the fans who love them so passionately that they spend their nights and weekends laboring to extend those characters’ lives, for free? (1)

One of the more fascinating conundrums in the world of fiction, especially in regards to fanfic, is who owns what? Some writers are better at sharing than others, much to their credit and my entertainment. So, why would an author decide to share… or not?

As an elementary education degree student, one of the things I learned about teaching reading was that it is a creative act. Every one of us creates a unique understanding in our minds even when reading the same text in the same language based on commonly agreed upon definitions and grammar. The picture I conjure in my head when I read a description of a setting or a character might be similar but will never be identical to the one in the author’s mind when he or she wrote it, no matter how precise the verbiage. Therefore, the Harry Potter and Voldemort characters in your head as a result of reading the text are arguably your own.

Rowling and Stephenie Meyer have given Harry Potter and Twilight fan fiction their blessing; if anything, fan fiction has acted as a viral marketing agent for their work. (1)

JKR surely created a fascinating magical world and populated it with compelling characters. Is it any wonder some of us fell in love with them, became so attached that we invented new stories just so we could continue to experience the magic? And where’s the harm in sharing that love? Thankfully, JKR realizes that none of these fanfics are stealing a single dollar away from her – in fact, I suspect they have just the opposite effect. Would any of us HP fanfic fans not rush out and buy an 8th HP book or go see another HP movie just because free fanfic exists? I doubt it.

Fanfic writers are keeping the HP phenomenon alive despite the fact that the last book has been published, the final movie released. I doubt I was the only fanfic author that noted a huge jump in readership in the two weeks following the release of the two latest HP movies. I’m further willing to bet it wasn’t a coincidence. We all want the characters to keep on casting spells and having arguments and falling in love. We want them to keep on living.

Other writers consider it a violation of their copyrights, and more, of their emotional claim to their own creations. They feel as if their characters had been kidnapped by strangers.(1)

I personally can’t imagine a greater compliment than when a reader tells me they love one of my characters, that they seem “real” to them. And I think that reaction is precisely because of my “emotional claim” on my creations. Would I particularly want someone to write a story involving one of my characters – for the purpose of the argument, let’s say Jamie Swain – and turn him into a womanizing loser? A drunken, loutish, child-abuser? An adulterer? Well, I probably wouldn’t read it, but I’ll tell you this: I’d be flattered as hell that somebody cared enough to make an attempt. That a figment of my imagination so captured theirs.

And here’s an interesting tidbit: not two days after I started contemplating writing this post, a fanfic reader on FictionAlley.org contacted me to ask permission to “write a sequel” to one of my stories. I can’t even express how bowled over I was by the request. (Of course I said yes!)

I think it’s regrettable that some of my favorite authors are so anti-fanfic; Anne McCaffrey, for example, is notoriously so. As a teenager, I used to get lost in the fantasy of Pern, dreaming up outlandish scenarios by which I, an earthbound girl, could somehow find my way through Between and land in a weyr of my own. Oh, the adventures my golden queen and I experienced! Would my adolescent proto-fanfic stories have been crap? Quite possibly. Would they have lived up to Anne McCaffrey’s standards? Unlikely. But I fail to see the harm it would have done to have written them, shared them for free (assuming I was brave enough at that age), and learned about the craft of writing in process. Who knows how many of my readers – likely other highly imaginative teenagers – might have been drawn to McCaffrey’s original works in exchange? Maybe none, but I certainly wouldn’t have stolen any away from her. Marketing and promotion are hard enough. Why would anyone want to quash such spontaneous adulation?

This particular article I’ve quoted earlier goes on to explain how some authors – notably Orson Scott Card, another of my favorites – believe that unless they vigorously defend their copyright, they might somehow lose ownership or control of their work. The author of the article posits that this might be a shaky legal leg to stand on, in fact. I don’t pretend to know who’s right in this matter. Maybe the line of demarcation falls somewhere near a profit threshold? JKR certainly comes down hard on those who presume to make a dollar off her intellectual property, as attested by HP Lexicon guy who compiled an encyclopedia of her work. The collaborative content had JKR’s blessing when it was available for free online, but things got rather contentious between them when he tried to publish it in print for profit.

A writer’s characters are his or her children, but even children have to grow up eventually and do things their parents wouldn’t approve of. “We don’t own nonfictional people,” [Racheline] Maltese says, “and at the end of the day, I don’t think we can own fictional ones either.” (1)

If the old adage, “there’s nothing new under the sun” is true, then where does that leave us? Where does sampling end and plagiarism begin? Fan fiction might seem like the most blatant form of ripping off an author, but even that isn’t quite so cut and dried, considering how much inventiveness and original creation are added by a fanfic author to whatever canon fodder he or she sourced.

I personally get a huge amount of benefit from HP fanfic, both as an author and a reader, considering the supportive community, encouragement, and entertainment derived. But I don’t make a single shiny penny, and neither does any other fanfic writer or beta reader or queue admin or archive host. And neither is JKR losing a dime in the process. In fact, I strongly suspect her coffers are growing like they’ve been subjected to a Geminio Jinx as a result.

(1) All quotes in this post are from “The Boy Who Lived Forever” by Lev Grossman, Time Magazine, July 7, 2011. Find the complete article by clicking on the title.

Fan Fiction, Defined?

That title was rather misleading because I’m not sure the term can be defined. But whatever it signifies, I’m not ashamed to admit my journey to becoming a novelist started in the world of fan fiction. And since my first original release also takes place within that realm, I thought it might be helpful to familiarize my readers with the lay of the land, so to speak.

 

“Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.” (1)

 

Fan fiction, or fanfic, has a jargon all its own. I write AU (alternate universe) because I include at least one OC (original character that I invented) interacting with canon (JKR’s published works) characters. I was careful to avoid making my OCs into “Mary Sues” or “Marty Stus” and instead created characters with real emotions, strengths, and flaws. My first story (George & Annie) was a straight romance, but my most recent story (Here Be Dragons) is “slash,” which means that it centers around a romantic pairing of two men, but all my work is chock-full of fluff (mushy romance) and lemony goodness (the sexy stuff).

Now, the characters I chose to write about are secondary if not marginal in canon. It is far more popular to write about different “ships,” or romantic pairings of characters. For example, if I’d written fanfic about Harry, Professor Snape, Hermione, or Draco (and most especially any romantic combination of these four, and I mean any combination) my work would be far more broadly read, I suspect simply because readers feel more strongly about these characters. However, I prefer to follow my muse, which mostly steers clear of these folks.

“Right now fan fiction is still the cultural equivalent of dark matter: it’s largely invisible to the mainstream, but at the same time, it’s unbelievably massive.” (1)

The sheer volume of HP fanfic is astonishing. A single archive, FanFiction.net, currently (as of November 2, 2011) boasts 557,715 individual stories, an inventory that grew by 1,515 in the previous week. And that’s just Harry Potter fanfic – FF.net hosts stories based on hundreds of other books, movies, and other media. Dozens of other Harry Potter-centered archives exist, too, and not all stories are cross-archived like mine. That’s a whole heck of a lot of creativity!

I can personally attest to having hundreds of readers from all over the world (thanks to FanFiction.net’s amazing tracking statistics available to authors). This is due to absolutely no advertising at all – fan fiction relies purely on word of mouth recommendations (nearly every archive encourages its readers/members to create a list of favorite stories and authors) and stumble-upon serendipity (each archive offers a search engine with varying degrees of user-friendliness).

These aren’t all one-shots (stories complete in one chapter) and drabbles (stories less than 500 words, usually) being posted, either. George & Annie runs 470,000 words and 70 chapters long (depending on which archive you read it on) and took four months to write, plus weeks – okay, months – of editing, polishing, tweaking, posting, and revising. Twice, the thing was vetted in its entirety by a collection of archive admins, volunteer experts who help maintain a minimum standard of quality. In short, it took a lot of work by a lot of people to get online.

But it was a labor of love. I’m proud to say that for every moderated archive I’ve posted on, I’ve earned validated author status, which means they trust that my work is up to snuff and no longer has to wait in the queue for inspection before being posted. There are comic parts where I still laugh out loud, romantic parts where I still feel a heart-flutter, and sentimental parts where I still shed a tear every single time I read through them for editing purposes. Some of my reviewers have referred to this story as “the G&A universe,” and my first spin-off from this tale, “Here Be Dragons,” is gaining a solid readership, too.

 “Fan-fiction writers aren’t plagiarists who can’t come up with their own ideas, and they’re not all amateurs.” (1)

As I’ve said before, my own motivation for writing George & Annie was to “practice” writing a novel. So, by definition, I was an amateur. And I won’t deny there is a generous helping of complete crap posted on fanfic archives, but there’s also some really amazing, inventive writing to be found.

Cassandra Clare, a young adult novelist currently known for The Mortal Instruments saga, got her start with HP fanfic. She’s still famous within such circles for her Draco Trilogy (Draco Dormiens, Draco Sinister, Draco Veritas, all of which can still be found online with some digging). Sarah Rees Brennan, a.k.a. Maya, like many other fanfic writers gone “pro” with the publishing of original fiction, has pulled all of her previously popular HP fanfic, but is still regarded as historically influential within the HP fanfic world. Loads of other gals (and probably some guys, but I haven’t found any who’ll ‘fess up to it since getting published) have used fanfic to springboard into, or partner alongside of, exclusively original creativity.

“The problem is that for most people, any kind of writing looks like work to them, so they get confused why anyone would want to write fanfic instead of original professional material, even though they don’t have any problem understanding why someone would want to mess around on a guitar playing Simon and Garfunkel.” (1)

For me, writing is an addiction as well as a creative outlet. I couldn’t stop it now if I tried. I’ve got six original novels “completed” (though I find something to tweak every time I read through them), but I still love writing fanfic and intend to write more. If it wasn’t for my positive experiences with fanfic, I can honestly say I wouldn’t be writing today. And I’m tired of people implying it’s anything to be ashamed of. It’s an amazingly diverse, accepting, supportive and creative community to belong to, and I’m proud of the fact that a select subset of them enjoy my work!

(1) All quotes in this post are from “The Boy Who Lived Forever” by Lev Grossman, Time Magazine, July 7, 2011. Find the complete article by clicking on the title.