The Sanctity of Originality

I’ve had a conversation about this with several other writers, and I wanted to open up the conversation here.

If I went up into the attic, I know precisely where to find the handwritten pages and pages of Pern fanfiction. I was a green dragonrider, didn’t you know? My friend Cindy and I spent hours and days writing an interwoven story about our crushes on the various Pern young men (I had a thing for F’lessan, and she liked Piemur until the later books spoiled that by giving him a girl.) It was the eighth grade. We were thirteen. Cindy is the only other person alive who has seen those sheets of paper.

Many writers will admit to writing fanfic when they were younger, or even now, just for the fun of it. It’s a portal, a gateway.

World building, character building, those things take practice, and skill. For many beginners, it’s just plain easier to start off with a world and characters that someone else has made for you, particularly ones that you’d wished might have hung around longer, or had stories of their own. The concept of inserting ourselves into these beloved fictional worlds just allows readers to keep daydreaming the world. It lets us hang onto friends we’re not ready to part with.

What I do not like about fanfic these days is (a) people making money off of other people’s ideas, and (b) the shamelessness of it. I know I sound like a prude when I say it. But seriously, EL James is making a killing on 50 shades of grey, which is thinly veiled Twilight fanfic. She didn’t do the hard work of coming up with a character (I won’t go into whether I thought Stephanie Meyer did that, either).

I find it amusing, the shipping and the story after story about every cross-section of fictional worlds you can come up with. But I also find it frustrating and disturbing. Some of those fanfic writers are particularly talented. They are wasting that talent by not writing their own worlds and their own characters. It’s lazy.

The other part of this conversation that I had the other day was the concept of Fractured Fairytales, or fairytale expansions, retellings or undoings. Even myths for that matter. Are they just elaborate fanfiction?

What about licensed work – say a novel in the Star Trek Universe that is written by someone outside that space? Isn’t that fanfiction?

I really like some of this stuff,too, so I’m not casting aspersions. What I’m asking is more about the sanctity of originality, I suppose. Are we using archetypes to retell myths? Or are we using ready-made characters? Where is the line between creating something new, and stealing from someone else’s intellectual property?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think it’s worth talking about.


14 thoughts on “The Sanctity of Originality

  1. I’ve got a few things to say about this.

    First, I agree that fanfiction writing can be a good way for young writers to “get their feet wet,” so to speak. I think that it’s great that they want to start writing, and fanfiction is a way to practice. Eventually, however, you need to break out and develop your own ideas and stop mimicking others. It’s like how my niece developed as an artist: she started off drawing Pokemon as a kid, then eventually moved on to drawing her own pictures from her own imagination.

    As for writing something new, there is a certain point where all stories “borrow” ideas from others. I wrote a blog post about this awhile back. There’s definitely a line. For example, Harry Potter, as an overall story, isn’t 100% original. The basic plot orphan hero develops magic, gets taken away by an old wise wizard, defeats the evil villain with a special weapon) is a structure shared by dozens of other stories, and traces its roots back to Greek mythology. Just read the story of Perseus and compare his story to Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth, and others, and you’ll see a LOT of similarities.

    That’s very different, however, from writing a story actually set in Hogwarts castle, or the minor blurring of writing about Larry Gardener in Warthog’s castle. A lot of the mimicry we do is unconscious, since so many things are just saturated into our minds and experiences. You’ll never write something 100% unique. The key is to write something that is mostly unique. Develop your own characters, your own intricacies. Sure, it might be another “orphan hero defeats the bad guy who killed his father (or IS his father)” story, but it’s the personal details that make each story unique. If you don’t have your own unique details, you need to branch out more as a writer.

    Likewise, I don’t agree with writing a new version of a fairy tale unless it’s adding something REALLY unique. Fairy tales are public domain, and there’s no legal question of whether you can use them. But ask yourself: does the world REALLY need another version of Cinderella with only one or two things changed? I liken this to comparing the Toby Maguire Spiderman movies with the new “Amazing Spiderman” movie. The new one tells, more or less, the EXACT same story. There are only minor differences, and those differences don’t make a unique tale. It was pointless to watch. I’d rather see someone come up with their own, new, original superhero instead of rehashing all the same tales over and over again.

    Starting off mimicking is fine as a way of learning the trade. But you need to break out of that if you want to be a successful creative person.

    • I think we all lean on the backs of others when we write… the question is “how much is too much”?

      And I do think that the monomyth and archetypes are things that everyone can dip into. I just chew on stuff like this, you know?

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly about fan fiction being a training ground for folks not ready for wordbuilding. I even think it’s a fine hobby if you’re not a serious writer. If you seek payment for it, though, you’re a fraud: a professional writer who isn’t actually professional enough to put in the necessary work.

    I don’t think myth and fairytale retellings are the same. Those stories are like the bare bones of human consciousness, just archetypes and concepts without detail. The characters are usually ideas and not people, so there’s a lot to be built into it to make it a legitimate story. If you do more than recite the facts as stated, if you flesh out these shadow puppets into living, breathing beings and do justice to the themes of the stories while putting your own twist on them, you’re not writing fan fiction.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with Amanda. Fanfiction has always mystified me, because the part of writing that absolutely enthralls me is the world-creation. Why wouldn’t anybody want to create a world? And perhaps this is my inner Victor Frankenstein speaking, but who doesn’t want to piece together their own characters? Fanfic’s definitely useful as an exercise, but I think it’s like learning to paint by emulating the great masters. It’s a stage in the process, not its culmination.

    I love faerie tale retellings when, as Amanda points out, they offer something really new. Those were my writing gateway, because they provided a really rough sketch of a plot (the hardest part of a story for me) and then let me run wild with the details. And I think there’s something really Jungian going on with folktales, faerie tales, and myth–we are all always telling these stories. Writers like Shannon Hale and Robin McKinley do the faerie tale retelling brilliantly.

    • Amanda and I have talked about our love of McKinley. We’ve decided we need to pressure you to join Twitter with us, Brenna 🙂

      I think this has been an interesting conversation, mostly because we aren’t really pooh-poohing fan fiction. I’ve seen many writers talk down about it online, and I wondered if that was a pervasive opinion.

  4. How can you bitch about 50 shades of Grey when Twilight was out there? Hate the source of all evil, Twilight. All of its fan fiction is just a symptom of the original problem.

  5. Personally I think fan fiction is the literay version (and more sophisticated) of when I was a kid pretending to be Luke Skywalker. I am lying, it was last week, not just when I was a kid.

  6. Hi, I just stumbled on this post. I hope it’s not too late for me to join the discussion. I know that there are a lot of people who say they wrote fanfiction when they were young and they view it as “a good way to practice.” I’m in the minority I guess because I didn’t do that, unless you count the make-believe adventures that I never wrote down when I was around seven or eight years old. At that time I had no concept of writing a story down or what fanfiction was. I’m in my 30s, so at that time, fanfiction wasn’t really well known, and I didn’t have anyone like your friend Cindy to share my enjoyment of the Pern books with. (F’lar was the one I character I liked best, and I usually dreamed up ideas about him and Lessa, but I didn’t write them down, because it never occurred to me.)

    I wrote my first original novel between the ages of 13 and 15. It was awful, and it was probably only “original” in the sense that it wasn’t anyone else’s intellectual property. I’ve written others since that I think were improvements, and I have other, more current original projects that I hope to publish when they’re complete. I also enjoy writing fanfiction.

    I do agree with you that there are a lot of lazy fanfiction writers or just plain bad fanfiction writers out there nowadays. I also have a problem with 50 Shades of Grey, and in general with anyone who seeks to make money by stealing from someone else’s intellectual property. (I don’t have a problem with novelizations or licensed expansions. Whether or not those expansions are worth reading is another issue.)

    To a point, I can see how fanfiction can act as practice for people to are not experienced with character development the world building. I also know that there are fanfiction writers who spend a lot of time and effort developing concepts and areas of the world that the author or creators of a series only touched on. A friend of mine is creating a whole religious sect in a fanfic world because she felt like it would make the universe she was writing in more balanced. So, I can’t completely agree with you on that point. I think a good, well written fanfiction can add something valuable or at least interesting to the existing body of work.

    I write fanfiction now because I enjoy it. I enjoy filling in the gaps and answering the question of “what if?” If I write a fanfiction, it’s because there’s something about the characters in the franchise that I find compelling. I do a lot of research for my fanfictions. Military regulations, uniform codes, World War II history, mythology, martial arts, Indian culture, cars and trucks from the 1960s are all things that I have researched for the benefit of a fanfiction. I’ll admit that I may be in the minority with the level of research I do. Last week I spent an hour reading about bindis for a two line reference because I wanted to make sure I was describing the right thing. I’m obsessive and I admit it.

    When it comes to my original writing, I also spend weeks or even months researching and world building before and during my actual writing time. I’ve developed languages, created histories, drawn detailed maps, written more about the subcultures in my fictional worlds than I know about the ones in my real-life country.

    I’m not a lazy writer; I’m a hardworking one like you who enjoys spending my downtime writing for other fans of shows and movies I love. I’m not wasting my talent; I’m choosing to use it to bring enjoyment to my friends and anyone else who comes by my page. I think that’s a valuable, worthwhile thing for anyone to do, regardless of whether or not the person has aspirations of publishing professionally.

    • thanks for commenting, I was hoping someone who wrote and appreciated fanfic would join in. I agree with you that many fanfic writers spend a huge amount of time, effort and talent on their works. And I’ve read some of them, found a few to be tremendously enjoyable. 🙂

      Do you also write your own original stuff?

      • Yes, I do. I think I mentioned it toward the end of my previous comment. I write primarily speculative fiction. I have original two novels finished. I would consider those to be more of the “practice” than any of my fanfiction in terms of their quality. They were written in my teens and 20s, and I’m not sure whether there really publishable. I have some other original projects that I do hope to publish when they’re finished, though.

      • Ah, yes. I saw that part. I should have clarified to ask if you have anything you hope to publish. I find the fanfic universe fascinating, and a lot of opinions both for and against.

        It’s a whole aspect of fandom that I think has always been around, just not share and avidly enjoyed as much until the internet gave it a place to live.

        I have a friend who uses her Stargate fic to gain interest in her original sci-fi novel.

        I posted this blog to be able to have a conversation about it, because I think it’s worth talking about. There is real value to fanfiction, it does give fans a way to explore aspects of their fandom that no other venue really allows. It’s fascinating.

        To me, it’s also fascinating what kinds of – uproar? emotional response? – fandom can elicit.

      • I agree with you. Fanfiction used to be something that was mainly published in print fanzines, and there wasn’t as much awareness of it. The Internet really has caused a big change in the dynamics of fandom and fan fiction in particular.

        I wouldn’t try to use my fanfiction as a way to generate interest in my original work. I do talk openly about my experiences as a fanfiction writer, and I have a blog series entitled 100 Things I Learned by Writing Fanfiction, where I sometimes do mention the names of fanfics that I’ve written, but I write fanfiction under a separate identity. I’ve actively turned fanfic readers down when they asked me in comments or personal messages whether or not they could read any of my original work.

        I’ve actually been considering whether or not to do a post here on WordPress about what my fandom pen name is and why I’ve kept the separation there. On the one hand, I want to be open about what I do and why I do it, and on the other hand I don’t want to give the impression that I’m trying to trade on the success of a franchise that I’ve written fanfiction for. I don’t think it’s fair to do that.

        I agree with you on that last point too. It can get a little ridiculous. I’ve been called names when I said I thought Firefly was boring or said that I didn’t enjoy the new Battlestar Galactica. I’ve always stayed as far away from shipper-wars as possible, and the Stargate fandom was bad about that for a while….

  7. Pingback: Fanfic and the Ladder of Literary Darwinism | Caroline Norrington

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