Is Fan Fiction Plagiarism or Inspiration?
How derivative works foster creativity
Fan fiction (or “fanfiction”), in its most basic definition, is a written genre that uses elements from conventionally distributed work (such as established characters, settings, plots or scenes) to create new works of fiction. Because of fanfiction’s derivative nature, there has been much debate among authors, publishers and those who create digital media as to whether fanfiction as a genre should be considered a form of plagiarism or work that is built on inspiration. Much like other digital writing genres (e.g. texting, emailing, blogging, tweeting, ranting or trolling) the term fanfiction comes loaded with expectations about the genre, specifically its style (or lack thereof), and preconceived notions about the individuals who compose these texts. For those who are savvy in the realm of alternative digital realities, the term fanfiction may call to mind a particular kind of sun-deprived nerd who, while cloistered in a bedroom with a laptop, creates the most unreadable tripe imaginable.
Yet while techies, educators, established authors like George R. R. Martin and even other online writers (see Adi Robertson’s comments on the history of Trollfic) may deride fanfiction writers for writing that is perceived as lacking originality, some fanfiction stories have become best-sellers in their own right (most notably Fifty Shades of Grey, which was derived from Twilight, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Their success has turned negative assumptions about fanfiction writers’ originality and readability on their heads. What was once thought of as simply another form of plagiarism is proving to be a viable outlet for new literary work because these works demonstrate that originality can spring from a derivative practice. What is not quite clear is how fanfiction writers shift from drafting derivative work to creating original pieces. The crux of that shift from the seemingly inane to the innovative could very well be due to the reflexive, synergistic relationship fanfiction authors enjoy in their experimental author/reader online communities.
FanFiction as a “churn”
In order to understand how innovation springs forth from fanfiction’s derivative practices, we must move past the definition of fanfiction to examine the authorial practices that contribute to the development of original writing. Fanfiction is a metagenre comprised of synergistic co-constructions between original authors’ creations, readers’ imaginations as they respond to an original work, and the embodiment of readers’ imaginative response in their own writing. On one level, fanfiction writing can be likened to the practice of mimesis or derivative poetry, a practice many poets undertake in preparation to create their own work. When an aspiring poet engages in mimetic poetry, they select a master poet and/or poem they admire and use aspects of that work as a foundation to create a new work, practice rhetorical devices, or develop their writing style. The aspects of poetic mimesis can range from using the same rhyme scheme of the original poem to continuing the theme of original poem to craft a new conclusion. In practicing other authors’ styles, the aspiring poet learns how the master poet established voice, turns of phrase, metaphors and so on. The aspiring poet then uses what they have learned from their etudes to develop their own approach to crafting poetry.
Like mimetic poets, fanfiction writers engage in a similar practice, rearranging their favorite works to get a better understanding of how fiction is constructed. In response to a survey I circulated to fanfiction authors, one wrote:
Fan fiction removes a lot of the barriers… I guess it’s kind of like writing with training wheels, allowing you to focus on craft without spending so much time world-building or researching.
This response shows how fanfiction made writing more approachable for authors because their writing was not focused on a perfect, final product, but rather the process of composing using the guidance of a text they felt comfortable with.
Yet fanfiction as a practice goes further than mimetic poetry because it includes a critical component: online fanfiction communities chock with readers who immediately consume and critique the writing that is posted. Fanfiction writers, who are consumers of fanfiction themselves, respond to the critiques of their readers and oftentimes modify their writing approaches to satisfy their readers. By engaging with other reader-authors in fanfiction communities, fanfiction authors not only develop a dedicated fan base, but they are pushed to accept critical feedback on their writing from that base, which forces them to be more creative and thoughtful about their work before presenting it to their audience again. On the face of it, fanfiction authors experience criticism and revision much like authors in other writing communities. The difference is that fanfiction writers and readers experience feedback from an extremely large pool of very diverse respondents who read texts from an equally large pool of genres and source material.
Variety tends to characterize fanfiction on multiple levels as a result of this synergistic interplay between a large audience of diverse writer-readers, who draw from a range of authors and who write in a range of genres and styles. This interplay can be thought of as churning that agitates the stock of fanfiction work to bring the “buttery cream” of original writing to the top. On the first level, within the metagenre of fanfiction there are a variety of genres and conventions that span from the fantastical, like crossovers stories (where characters from one book/game interact with characters from a different universe) and male pregnancy, to dark fiction, erotica, parodies and light-hearted romance. Moreover, there are no preferred works fanfiction authors emulate. It is easy to assume most fanfiction is derived from pop culture juggernauts like Star Wars, the Harry Potter series and Star Trek, especially since historically fanfiction as an online phenomenon began with Trekkies writing Star Trek-inspired fiction. However, classic texts like Les Miserables also provide jumping-off points for the imaginations of fanfiction creators. Co-opting a range of texts gives fanfiction writers a range of styles and approaches to experiment with without needing a foundation in literary scholarship, because they have the support of their communities to help them hash out the details of a text. Fanfiction authors’ work can also manifest in a range of textual forms, from doodles on the edge of a teen’s term paper to chapters upon chapters of erudite alternative endings to a favorite series. As a result of the confluence of diverse sources and formats, fanfiction gives rise to innovative rhetorical practices like genre mashing. These innovative practices within derivative work push fanfiction writers toward originality because the experience they have in the online community are solidified into habit once the authors turn to their original work.
Contrary to popular belief, on the creator/consumer level of the fanfiction universe, there is no set ethnicity, race, education level or age demographic among fanfiction authors. The fanfiction realm contrasts traditional writing groups because offline writing groups tend to have participants who are like each other in some way. Participant similarities in offline writing groups typically stem from similarities in education (think MFA programs or graduate student writing circles), similarities in locale (community writing groups,) or the similarity in the age or culture of participants. In fanfiction communities, however, a lot of those commonalities are thrown out the window. The heterogeneous nature of fanfiction communities allows for diversity of thought among readers, respondents and writers. Diversity of thought makes space for feedback that might be deemed unacceptable or unconventional in a traditional writing space. The diverse nature of fanfiction communities also creates space for people of diverse backgrounds whose voices have not been heard in traditional writing communities. That said, within these differences, fanfiction writers, like writers in traditional writing communities, ultimately regroup themselves according to one critical similarity- enjoying similar types of stories. Diversity of thought allows niche fanfiction writers to find their “tribe” among people who are not like them at all. Consequentially, the diverse thought that is fostered by these online communities allows fanfiction writers to address diverse individuals whose imaginations are not currently served by traditional publishing and media.
What results from the extended interplay between these different levels of diversity, constant feedback, constant revision and an authentic audience is a cycle of online writing churn that continually mixes the old to push writer growth and give rise to new fiction. The cycles of feedback and revision a fanfiction author undergoes on a website can be just as extensive and harsh as the feedback and revision cycles of a traditional writer working with an editor. A review of fanfiction.net makes it clear that many dedicated fanfiction writers submit multiple revisions of chapters and complete drafts to their audiences before deciding whether their work is satisfactory. Thus, the churn fan fiction authors go through can be considered a synthesis of the writing process and mimesis on a global level.
Dr. Kenya Mitchell is a Professor of English at Santa Monica College. To read more of her work, please go to her website.