Fan fiction writers give favorite characters, worlds longer lives
“She was murdered?”
The story begins there, in a flashback, with four now-orphaned children. But it really began ages before that, in a world where the balance between magic and Muggle is delicately, scrupulously maintained.
Sarah Mahon, 14, had, ostensibly, turned the last page on that world. Several years ago, as a fourth-grader, she finished “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and felt… what? Satisfied? Kind of. The book did tie a lot of loose ends. Happy? Sure — that final scene on Platform 9 3/4 is a delight.
Restless? Searching? Unready? All of those. She wasn’t done with that world or those characters. She couldn’t let them go. Not yet. Not when she had so many ideas.
So, she sat down to write the story of characters not in J.K. Rowling’s books, but living in that world.
“It wasn’t very good,” she says now.
But that seems almost beside the point. When she took the world of Harry Potter and made it her own, she became one of millions who write stories based on books, characters, TV shows, movies, bands, anime and even songs they love. She became a writer of fan fiction.
What has existed on the literary fringe for decades, since “Star Trek” fans in the 1960s began self-publishing magazines containing stories about that series’ characters, has emerged as a publishing force. E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy began as a “Twilight” fan fiction called “Master of the Universe,” before emerging as the raciest read to hit the bookshelves since “The Story of O.” In the U.S. alone, 25 million copies of the three books have been sold, according to Vintage Books, and rights for a film have been optioned.
And last month, Abigail Gibbs, an 18-year-old Australian and writer of fan fiction, signed a six-figure publishing deal with HarperCollins for “The Dark Heroine: Dinner with a Vampire,” another novel that began life as a “Twilight” fan fiction.
Beyond the trumpeted stories of fan fiction writers made suddenly wealthy, though, there are the tens of thousands of writers preparing for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November, when the goal is to write an entire novel in one month. Anecdotal evidence suggests a goodly portion of the novels written during NaNo- WriMo are fan fiction.
Which leads to the question: Why?
Why add to what someone else has done, rather than create an original world.
“I had ideas of how a certain story could have gone, how it could have changed differently with just a small detail,” explained Kaylyn Blacklock, 18, a Colorado Mesa University freshman studying biology. “And I wanted to tell it how that detail changed the whole outlook for me and see where it went by doing so.”
The first fan fiction she ever wrote was based on the anime series “Bleach” and dealt with Ichigo Kurosaki, the main character, dying in an accident and being in Heuco Mundo as a child, not remembering anything.
If it sounds confusing, that’s because it probably is to anyone not familiar with the world of “Bleach.” Fan fiction, then, is just that: for fans. It’s for people who love something so much that they just want more, they think about the world in which it exists and what else that world might contain. It’s a continuation of that feeling of being so caught up that turning the final page or watching the final minutes causes genuine sorrow.
In fan fiction, then, the sorrowful good-byes aren’t necessary.
Sarah, a Grand Junction High School freshman and marching band member, has felt that involved several times: reading the Harry Potter series, Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and, recently, Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” and “Insurgent.” She reads and she’s struck by characters about whom she wants to know more, for whom she can conceive a lifetime of stories.
“I keep (the character’s) general personality, but I’ll change a few things when I’m thinking about their life and the things they might do,” she explained.
Kaylyn said if she’s writing a darker story that hews more closely to the source material’s original plot, she tries to step inside the characters’ minds — “you force yourself to sort of feel what those characters are like,” she said. “If they are warriors on the front line, you force yourself to see the enemy in front of them, the steel in their character’s eyes, the heat in their gut.”
And if she feels she’s managed to do that, she’ll post the story on one of several Internet fan fiction sites, where other fans, writers and readers of fan fiction offer critiques, sometimes harsh, often instructive, she said.
The Internet has become the framework for the fan fiction movement. One of the biggest sites, fanfiction.net, hosts millions of stories about a staggering array of topics: the boy band One Direction, Captain Kirk/Mr. Spock love stories, Harry Potter/“Twilight” hybrids, long-cancelled TV shows such as “Firefly” and “Moonlight,” the song “Amazing Grace” and on and on and on.
Because fan fiction exists largely on the Internet, it also exists in nebulous legal territory. In an article for the Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Review, Rebecca Tushnet argued that “the secondary creativity expressed in noncommercial fan fiction deserves the protection of the law. Section 107 of the Copyright Act allows ‘fair use’ of copyrighted material. Fan fiction should fall under the fair use exception to copyright restrictions because fan fiction involves the productive addition of creative labor to a copyright holder’s characters, it is noncommercial, and it does not act as an economic substitute for the original copyrighted work.”
Authors whose original work is spun into fan fiction fall on both sides of the argument. Anne Rice and George R.R. Martin hate it. Stephenie Meyers seems OK with it, as does J.K. Rowling — whose Harry Potter far and away inspires the most fan fiction on the Internet.
Authors’ objections often are tied to the bizarre places fan fiction can go. There’s some genuinely weird, objectively creepy fan fiction out there — XXX rated, skin-crawly, horrifically violent, just plain wrong fan fiction. But a lot of it — most of it, even — Sarah said, is good, just trying to exist a little more in a beloved world.
“The impulse to ask ‘What happened next?’ is probably as old as the first well-told story,” Tushnet wrote. “Storytellers have long drawn on a vast reservoir of cultural knowledge. No one had a better claim to characters and situations in that reservoir than any other person. For example, moved by characters he did not create, Alfred, Lord Tennyson imagined and described the further adventures of Ulysses.”
It’s that desire to know what happens after that final page, to walk a while longer in beloved worlds, that inspires Kaylyn and Sarah in their writing. Through fan fiction, through the Internet, they’ve made friends with similar interests, friends who understand the fascination.
Friends who will scoot to the edges of their seats in anticipation when they read, “She was murdered.”