By Kristin Khadija Mahmoud
What is Fanfiction and why is it a dirty word?
Fanfiction is fan made literature that comprises pretty much anything a person is a fan of like movies, books, celebrities, games, mythology, the list is probably endless. Fanfiction has been around for a long time. The idea of creating a new story based on something someone else has done is hardly a new concept and wanting to change the original work is not a new idea either.
We’ve been adapting and changing narratives in modern culture for nearly a century. One of my favorite stories is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and every few years we get a new movie that is based on that novel. Make no mistake, those scripts fall in the realm of fanfiction or “derivative works.” Shelley’s work is in the Public Domain because it has existed for 200 hundred years. Imagine all of the Harry Potter fanfic in the abyss of the internet becoming published novels where the fanfiction authors face no legal consequences and earn money. The catch is that you’ll just have to wait an additional 70 years after J.K. Rowling’s death. (Information based on US laws, excludes copyright laws in UK)
I am sure the concept of fanfiction sounds insane to those who were curious and brave enough to click on this piece. Could fanfictions actually become novels? Yes! Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is base off Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice and now exists as a movie. Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a fanfiction. Literally anything is possible.
Now that you have an idea of what fanfiction is you will now want to know why it is considered to be a “dirty word.”
The Dirty Word
Fanfiction tiptoes copyright laws. You’ll find many fanfictions featuring a disclaimer stating what the fanfic author owns (original characters and ideas within the fanfiction) and what they do not own. Most authors adore the source material and simply want to keep the story going, or add a situation brewing in their minds. I am including a link here that will take you to the Wikipedia page about the legal aspects of fanfiction.
There are many reasons this term is seen as dirty or bad but one relates directly to how the author’s feel about their work. When Anne Rice produced her vampire novels she came out hard against fanfiction. Why not? Her work was loved and celebrated, however, she viewed fanfiction as a threat to her hard work. She worked hard to publish her work and earn a few pennies only to watch as other people were taking her characters and writing different stories.
Many websites like fanfiction.net and archiveofourown.com do not allow fanfictions of works by certain authors. They respect the wishes of the authors just as fans should also respect those wishes. For some authors, fanfiction represents a lazy approach to writing. They see fanfiction as a theft of their characters by people who cannot craft their own characters. (Anne Rice has made a sentiment similar to this in the past.) Fanfic writing is seen as a disrespectful form of writing by some writers.
There are thousands upon thousands of fanfictions floating along like a patch of plastic in the ocean. Many of them have the misfortune of being terrible. I have read a few, written a few, and I even tried to beta read one for someone before we both became frustrated with each other. Some fanfiction literally describes what you see in the movie it is based off. There are fanfictions that describe every clothing item a character has worn, including the eyeshadow pallet their character used. Creators of these terrible fanfictions neglect to stop and think about the relevance of these details; they simply do not understand how trivial details make readers want to smash their heads against their computers.
However, many of the terribly written stories are written by young writers. I started my first fanfiction when I was eleven. I have an old copy buried in a closet and pull it out from time to time to have a good laugh. It was corny, boring, and cliché. Fanfiction is a way to help young writers grow and experiment. They are terrible because the writers are new an inexperienced.
The dirtiest fanfictions are the ones that make J.K. Rowling cringe: pornographic and erotic fanfiction. These stories cover all manner of sex-related stories whether the events are consensual or not. They exist and are not suitable for younger audiences and some are not suitable for those who have trauma related to the sex stories. Many authors warn readers in advance about what to expect due to a movement that aims to prevent people from suffering from triggers.
Pornographic and erotic fanfiction can take an even darker turn when it is written about real people. I stopped following several Tumblr blogs for fanfictions that detailed the life of Tom Hiddleston. Not only did I find it unsettling that they would write about meeting his mother and sister they also wrote about meeting him in real places. These stories have the potential for very real and very dangerous consequences. The lines of reality blur so much that I wonder if there are people who plan to act out these stories. It feels like an invasion of privacy, as though a celebrity is a character they play and not a real person.
Fanfiction is not straight forward, it is complex and dynamic. Stories are not created equal, nor are their authors. Fanfiction is a safety net and a horror show. It has created writing communities and torn them apart. It is neither good nor bad. It can shake a reader to their core in a way the original author could only dream of, or it can make a reader want to give up on stories altogether. It might be a dirty word that we whisper quietly, hints of shame creeping in as we try to hide it, but it is a thriving culture.
*** Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and I am not offering legal advice. This is intended to be informative and educational. If you have legal questions or concerns please contact a lawyer who specializes in copyright laws in your country.
Also, this website might be useful for further reading on the subject.