The Associated Press had a story a few days ago about how Fifty Shades of Grey has its own fanfiction now, and it was a pretty interesting story. It brought to mind a rant on a fan fic rant community I saw recently where somebody was pointing out that a Twilight fic labeled as a Fifty Shades AU was pretty much like dividing by zero.
One of the points the AP story hit on was the issue some people have with the idea of “file off the serial numbers” fanfiction being published (and sold) as original fiction. Since I know some authors who have done this, I generally don’t express my opinion all that loudly, but if it’s a topic even AP is writing about…
I’ll be the first to admit when it comes to fanfiction I have lots of rules and lines that other people don’t. I don’t like original characters beyond the villains/incidentals/known family members category. I don’t like AUs. I don’t like traveling to oddball locations because the author knows them. (This does not mean in younger days I didn’t do any of those things, but I’d prefer to burn those stories now.) Both of those are because my take is “their sandbox, their rules.” If I want to play with original characters, well, that’s when I head to Exeter. Ellie actually started as an original character back when I was first writing Trixie Belden fanfic a million years ago. But basically, when I decide to write in a fandom, I make myself play by the rules in that universe. And the idea of publishing any of my fanfic as original fic horrifies me.
The idea that Fifty Shades was published (vs. posted as fanfic) bothers me on a fundamental level. But it also raises some interesting questions about where the line is between original work and derivative work. I’ve read some fanfic where I liked it, but the characters to me were more characters with the same names as the ones in the fandom than being the actual characters. That’s when I feel like telling the author to go write original work. At the other end of the spectrum, I read a Hawaii 5-0 AU the other day because I kept tripping over it in searches, and the characters were them, but the circumstances around most of the characters were so different that it made me wonder where those lines really are. That story? You could have done the “file the serial numbers” approach and it was different enough that most people probably wouldn’t have noticed it was originally Hawaii 5-0. It was very much a “what if” scenario. As writers, we do that all the time. Almost every story development process has a “what if” component in there. So where do you draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate?
A lot of times, it’s easier to puzzle over the motivations of fictional characters, regardless of medium. That leads to wondering about how things might change if circumstances change. A lot of fanfiction out there has those roots. And I know that stories I’ve written often are influenced by seeing fictional characters acting or reacting to things. For example, there’s an element in my novel that was inspired in part by a scene in an early Hawaii 5-0 episode. In that case, it was something that Danny does because he’s a cop that reminded me that the character who’s a cop in the novel would share that mindset. And that clicked with how the cop in question fits into the Exeter world to give me something I hadn’t quite been able to make work before.
That circles back to the original question: Where are the lines? I know one prominent author is on record as saying that instead of readers publishing fanfiction in her universe, she’d prefer they take the “file the serial numbers” approach, turn it into original fic and then try to put it out there. Some authors adamantly oppose fans writing fanfiction in their worlds. (I think if an author says that, fans have a duty to respect that and not write fanfic for that authors’ works.) Some believe it’s a sign of enthusiasm from fans and enthusiastically encourage it. And some ignore the world of fanfiction.
As an author, I stick myself in the “fine with me” camp. I wouldn’t ever read it, for a lot of reasons, but I’m not going to prevent people from writing it. But if somebody then turned it into original work and tried to sell it, I’d be pretty irked by that. That’s my line. You do it for fun, for yourself and for other fans? Great. Go for it. You decide to try and make money off of it? That’s when you need to hop into your own sandbox. And I think that’s consistent with my approach to writing fanfiction.
Do you write fanfic? Do you mind if somebody writes fanfic of your work? How do you feel about the “file the serial numbers off” approach?