Fanfiction gets a bad rap. Some of it is deserved, of course, but what else do you expect from amateur writers scribbling basically for their own amusement?
Of course you’re going to get purple prose, authors inserting themselves into stories as Mary Sues, and unrealistic and uncomfortable situations. But maybe the difference between ‘original fiction’ and ‘fanfiction’ is not that one is sadly ripping off other people’s characters, while the other is actually coming up with new stuff.
Maybe the difference is – ‘original fiction’ is just much, much better at hiding what it’s inspired by.
I started thinking about this issue lately because I’m currently working on two very non-serious bits of writing: one about the characters from The Iliad making havoc in the modern world, and the other re-imagining what Mansfield Park would look like if it was set today. (I have many more ‘serious’ projects that I’m procrastinating on, of course – don’t we all?)
Anyway, I started wondering – am I writing fanfiction? Or are they different enough from the original to be ‘original fiction’? After all, several authors have published books reimagining both The Iliad and Mansfield Park. Both The Iliad and Mansfield Park are in the public domain, of course, so that makes it easier for authors. No one’s going to sue them if their work is ‘not original’ enough. But don’t tell me that’s seriously the only difference between fanfiction and original fiction – that fanfiction is fiction about characters that are not in the public domain.
The next thought is obviously – everything is ‘inspired by’ something else. Authors love to talk about their influences on their writing. If you, as an author, want to see more of one type of story, you start writing them yourself. If you do this, you are a fan of something, and you are writing about it because you are a fan. Stretched to its broadest definition, this is what fanfiction is.
So at what point are these inspirations and influences far enough in the background that the world can acknowledge these authors as ‘real writers’? You can even tell, in some works, when an author models their character on another well-known character. And published authors are definitely guilty of inserting themselves into their own stories – both Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer have been accused of inserting themselves as Mary Sues into their plots. And in terms of plot – Shakespeare basically just re-wrote famous stories in his plays, and he is considered a master of literature. And many authors have made a career re-writing fairytales. Is this ‘original fiction or ‘fanfiction’?
Basically, I think my conclusion is, that like with anything else, the line between the two are not black and white. Fanfiction tends to be found on internet websites, tends to be of amateur quality, and deals with copyrighted characters. But that’s not always true – many fanfictions contain very high quality writing, and there are definitely writers who work with public domain characters. Also, ‘original fiction’ tends to be published by publishing houses, and contain original characters. But sometimes these original characters are clearly influenced by other characters. And sometimes published books could easily be described as fanfiction if they’d happened to be published online on a website instead.
Which brings us to that age-old question – what is originality? Does it even exist, or is everything just a recombination of old things that always existed?
In other words, it is possible that there really is “nothing new under the sun.” And if everything is just a recombination, maybe some writing is just a better and more interesting recombination than others. Which could lead to my radical title up there at the top – we could legitimately call all fiction writing fanfiction.
Provocative thought, no? Agree or disagree?
Note: check out my previous posts on The Iliad and Mansfield Park, if you’d like to know why I’d be enough of a fan of these works to write about them 🙂