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 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.