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A Few More Last Words

And one more thing...

All this debate about fan fiction, here and on Diana Gabaldon's blog and Charlie Stross's blog and ten or twenty or a hundred other places on the internet, has generated (I hope) a certain amount of light and (I know) an enormous amount of heat.

Why is that? I wonder. Why do both sides get so incensed about this issue?

There's a lot been said about copyright and trademark and infringement and fair use and who has the right to make money off what, and all that's well and good, valuable stuff, worth discussing and debating... but the fanfictioneers keep saying that it's all about love, never about money, and as I ponder this, I think they're right.

It is all about love.

On both sides.

Let's forget about all the legal and financial issues here. We've discussed those to death. Let's just talk about the emotions.

Here's the thing. I think the fan fictioneers write about certain characters because they love them. And I think the writers who object to having their characters written about do so because they love them too. Which brings us back to the "my characters are my children" thing, which may be central.

Now, not all writers feel this way, certainly. Some will say, "Do whatever you want with my characters, I don't care, so long as you don't impinge on my ability to make a living. If you start f*cking with my income stream, I'll shut you down. Elsewise, have fun." Which is fine, if you share that view. But y'know, I don't. I'll never say something like that. I DO care what you do with my characters.

Fiction is fiction. It's all made up. Dreams and visions made of word on paper. Every writer who isn't insane knows that. Every reader too. But still...

When I was kid back in the 50s, I read a lot of comic books, including Superman books -- SUPERMAN, ACTION, LOIS LANE, JIMMY OLSEN. At that time, those comics would occasionally publish what they called "Imaginary Stories." Even as a kid, I knew that was a stupid name. I mean, ALL the stories were imaginary, weren't they? Today we'd call them "What If" stories or "Alternate Universe" stories. They were stories outside the usual Superman continuity. "What If Krypton Never Blew Up" and "What If Superman and Lois Got Married," stuff like that. Some of them were pretty good stories. Lots happened in them -- more than ever happened in the "real" Superman stories of the 50s. Even so, they never completely engaged me. Because they weren't REAL.

Of course, Superman himself wasn't real. None of the stories were real. I knew that, even when I was eight years old. But there's a contract between reader and writer. I'm telling you a story, trying to make it all as real as possible. And you, the reader, while you're reading the story, you're going to pretend that these people are real, that the events in the story actually did happen to them. Without that pretense, why would you care?

(Once, at a Milford Conference several decades ago, I got in a long and heated argument with two New Wave writers who put forward the proposition that since fiction is not real, it should not pretend to be real, that good fiction is all about the words, that stories should celebrate their "paperiness" the same way abstract art celebrates its two-dimensionality, as opposed to earlier styles of painting that tried to create the illusion of three dimensions. Maybe that's why I have never liked abstract art. I certainly don't like stories that celebrate their paperiness. I want the illusion. I want the stories and the characters to be as real as they can possibly be, at least during the time it takes me to read them. And maybe afterwards as well).

The imaginary stories were intellectually interesting, as "what if" stories, but they never engaged me on an emotional level. I knew, as I read them, that nothing in them really mattered. If Superman or one of his friends died, well, it was no big thing. They would be back next issue, unchanged. On the other hand, a few years later, when Gwen Stacy died, I was almost as devastated as Peter Parker. Gwen Stacy was real to me.

(Which is also, by the way, why I hate hate hate the retconning that has become so f*cking common in today's comic books and films. It seems to me to be a breach of that unwritten contract between writer and reader. You told me that Peter Parker married Mary Jane, you had me read a decade's worth of stories where they were man and wife, you never said they were imaginary stories, you claimed that this was what was really happening to Spidey in his real life... and now you turn around and tell me, no, not only are they not married, they were NEVER married, none of that actually happened, nyah nyah nyah, but keep buying our comic, now we're going to tell you what really did happen. Sorry, no. Strike up the Who, I won't get fooled again. I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it).

As a reader (books, comics, whatever) and a viewer (television, film), I want characters I can care about, engage with, believe in. If I don't find them in the work, I'm going to lose interest very quickly. If I do find them, though... well, even though I know such creations are just fictions, I will nonetheless begin to care very deeply.

F'rinstance, I have never seen the third ALIENS movie. I loved ALIEN and ALIENS, but when I read the early reviews of ALIENS 3, and learned that the new movie was going to open by killing Newt and... what was his name, the Michael Biehn character?... well, I was f*cking outraged. I never went to the film because I did not want that sh*t in my head. I had come to love Newt in the preceding movie, the whole damn film was about Ripley rescuing her, the end was deeply satisfying... and now some asshole was going to come along and piss all over that just to be shocking. I have never seen the subsequent Aliens films either, since they are all part of a fictional "reality" that I refuse to embrace. Not even the film with Ron Perlman in it, and Ron is a both a friend and an actor I greatly admire.

Thing is, it hasn't worked. Though I've avoided seeing the films, the reviews I read still poisoned the well. I know too much about what happens in ALIENS 3. I know Newt dies. And just that little bit of knowledge has seriously crimped my ability to enjoy ALIENS itself. It's still a fine, exciting film, but now when I get to the end, when Newt is climbing into the tube and asking Ripley if she'll dream, instead of the frisson of emotional satisfaction that I used to get, the little teardrop at the corner of my eye, I remember, "F*ck, Newt has an alien inside her, she's going to die," and I get pissed off and sour all over again.

All over a character who does not exist, has never existed. I know that. It does not make the feelings any less strong.

And if I can feel that strongly about characters created by other people, can you possibly imagine how strongly I feel about my own characters?

That's why I liken them to my children. I can care about Newt and Gwen Stacy and Frodo and Captain Ahab and the Great Gatsby and on and on... but I care about the Turtle and Abner Marsh and Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow and Haviland Tuf and Daenerys and my own guys a thousand times more. They are my sons and daughters.

There are lots and lots and lots of people like me, I think. And it's that which accounts for the emotional vehemence of these debates on fan fiction, on both sides.

The fan fictioneers fall in love with a character or characters, and want to make things come out right for them... or come out the way they want things to come out. I know that much of the old BEAUTY AND THE BEAST fanfic was posited on the basis of Catherine and Vincent consommating their relationship and living happily ever after, with occasional adventures. There was certainly a ton of it based on wiping away our entire third season; many B&B fans feel about Catherine's death just as strongly as I feel about Newt's. They want to undo it. I would strongly suspect that out there somewhere there must be ALIENS fanfic where Newt does NOT die horribly too. It's love of the characters that prompts people to write these things. Hell, if I was ever hired to write a new ALIENS film, the first thing I would do would be to say, "Hey, remember how at the end of ALIENS Newt asks if she will dream? Well, she will. All the films from that moment have just been her bad dreams. We'll open my new movie with Newt and Ripley waking up..." Which would be a sort of retconning, I know, which I just denounced. So sue me. Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. It would also be the most expensive fanfic in history, I guess. Too bad I'll never get the chance.

But let's turn it on its head, and look at the things from the writer's perspective. As much as the fans may love our characters, we love them more. And suddenly we are confronted with stories in which other people are doing all sorts of things with our children... things we never envisioned, never authorized, and may even find stupid and/ or repugnant. Characters we killed come back to life. Living characters are killed. Villains are redeemed. Straight characters become gay. Romeo and Juliet don't commit suicide, they survive and live happily ever after and have seventeen children.

Sure, we could shrug and say, "None of these things really happened. These stories are not canon. They're just imaginary stories. They're not REAL." And I'm sure many writers do this. But I can't. All legal and financial aspects aside, I don't want to read your fanfic where Gatsby and Daisy run off together, and I certainly don't want to read the ones where Gatsby runs off with Tom Buchanan, or the two of them and Daisy have a threesome, or Gatsby rapes and murders Daisy... and I'm pretty sure F. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn't want to read 'em either. Now, plug in Jon Snow and Jay Ackroyd and Haviland Tuf and Daenerys Targaryen, or any of my characters, for Gatsby and Daisy and Tom, and I'm pretty sure that you can figure out my reaction.

It's like with Newt. I don't want those pictures in my head. Even if they're nice pictures, if you love my characters and only do nice, sweet, happy things to them. You're still messing around with my people. I won't use any analogies here, I know how that upsets people... but there is a sense of violation.

It's not rational, perhaps. These are all just made-up people. Words on paper. Who cares what happens to them? Let's just all celebrate their paperiness.

But I'm not wired that way. And neither, I suspect, is Diana Gabaldon.

This has nothing to do with money or copyright or law. It's a gut-level emotional reaction. And it's all about love. On both sides.

Or to put it another way:

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Comments

( 186 comments )
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idemandjustice
May. 9th, 2010 03:51 am (UTC)
You're not going to convince any of the people who are strongly set in their opinions, but I think you have swayed some of us who are more on the fence. At least, you've given a lot to think about, and I've really enjoyed reading your perspective on this.

I wish I'd stopped at Aliens instead of seeing the other two movies, too. I also wish I'd stopped watching Heroes at season two, speaking of retcons, holy shit, the things they did to Sylar.

There's a favorite book of mine that has an unreliable narrator whose very existence is questionable. That's the popular theory with the fans, that the main character in the book doesn't really exist, or died as a baby, and the whole thing is a fantasy of his insane mother. You've finally articulated exactly why this bothers the hell out of me. I've reread the book a couple of times, hunting for clues to try to prove everybody wrong, to prove that he does exist. I've only so far found clues to support what they say, but it's all open to interpretation, since the whole book is a total mind-fuck. And I could never explain why it bothered me. As someone pointed out to me, none of it's real anyway, since it's fiction. But in the context of the story that main character was real to me, and it upset me to think otherwise.

In the end, I think you're absolutely right. It's all about the love. Thank you for the books you write, and thank you for sharing your views with all of us here.
nutmeg3
May. 9th, 2010 06:23 am (UTC)
Am I the only one wondering what book you're talking about?
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shakauvm
May. 9th, 2010 03:51 am (UTC)
Wow, very insightful (and interesting) essay on the topic.

My wife is really into fanfic, as in writes them, reads them, is involved in various fanfic communities, etc. She enjoys it, and I therefore benefit from it, so I guess I'm biased towards it, but here's my take:

Authors have been ripping off each other from the dawn of time. It's human nature to take a story, modify it, and make it your own. Homer adapted oral stories from the Trojan War, Virgil adapted Homer, Jo Graham adapted Virgil in The Black Ships, etc. The entire corpus of Greek writings about the Trojan war comes from dozens or hundreds of different authors, all writing about the same characters, and making the stories their own.

If Homer had been around, and shut down Euripides when he was writing events that took place with Agamemnon's family after the end of the Trojan War, would we as a whole have benefited from it? He probably would have been pissed off about "his" characters being exploited, all killing each other and going crazy and such. I can imagine it: "Euripides, WTF, man? You just made Helen vanish - disappearing into the sky to become a star?? How does that even make sense with the continuity of the story? You're ruining a perfectly good story!"

I do sympathize with you (and Homer) - hell, if any of the real people from the Romance of Three Kingdoms are probably rolling over in their graves after seeing what video games have done to their likenesses - but I think there's a primal human desire to coopt, adapt, and create anew.
idemandjustice
May. 9th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
I tend to feel the same way you do, but I do think a distinction deserves to be made between retelling of old stories, and using the work of someone who is still around and holding the copyright.

I have a couple of friends who've published books that are retellings of the Phantom of the Opera, and another about Dracula, so... I totally get where you're coming from.
(no subject) - shakauvm - May. 10th, 2010 02:11 am (UTC) - Expand
da_gopher
May. 9th, 2010 03:52 am (UTC)
Well, one thing is for certain...
You certainly enjoy writing a great deal Mr Martin; I doubt many others would spend so much time and energy responding to their fans about the issue.
tekalynn
May. 9th, 2010 03:55 am (UTC)
That makes a great deal of sense. Thank you.
hadgm
May. 9th, 2010 04:01 am (UTC)
The Melanie reference made me smile :)
illuminatedwax
May. 9th, 2010 04:08 am (UTC)
Fan-fiction, while almost always complete dreck and garbage, has produced some really good art. The fantastic Sherlock Holmes movie is a work of fan-fiction. Anything based on Greek or Roman gods is technically fan-fiction. There are so many instances throughout literary history of people stealing characters and either writing something faithful to them or simply forcing those characters to their own purposes. And a lot of times, really good works have fallen out of this.

Yes, it would be sad if there were a ton of Tolkien pieces written after Christopher Tolkien's death that were just horrible, Hollywood pieces of garbage, but that's not fan-fiction's fault. The point is that there are going to be Good Stories and Bad Stories. What we should lament is the fact that a Bad Story exists, not that characters or setting were stolen to make a Bad Story.

Writer's creations (or any artist's creation) are let loose upon the world when they're published. They cease to exist only in the books and begin to exist in the mind of the reader. That genie cannot be put back in the bottle by any writer. I think South Park has made this point very well on a couple occasions. There was an episode with George Lucas where they were arguing against the idea that George Lucas can do whatever he wants with his movies and his characters, and nobody should care because they're [i]his[/i] characters. Their point was that, no, those Star Wars characters are not entirely George Lucas's anymore. They're [i]our[/i] characters now. Star Wars was a successful movie because it had good characters, and good characters are just as real as any person you or I know.

I think if someone wants to write a story about someone they know, they should be encouraged to do so. The person they're writing it about (or the person that created that person) might not be too happy about it. They may, very rightfully, sue that author for stealing their likeness. But I don't think the act of writing that story should be discouraged. It's entirely fair for an author to be disgusted at people writing in their universe. But you can't put that genie back in the bottle. You can't constrain the imaginations of your readers.

At the same time, I think it is smart for an author like yourself to point out that making fan-fiction is robbing yourself of a great deal of creative growth. Aspiring writers that just make fan-fiction all the time are cheating themselves out of what it really means to be an author. They're stunting their growth as an author. Fan-fiction is an exemption to the rule, or more accurately: "Don't write fan-fiction" is a rule you should only be allowed to break once you have proven you can follow the rest of the rules.

That said, I think someone's feelings should never stop somebody from making something they feel passionate about making. While you should be nice to people, it's your life. Don't apologize for your art.

And I should point this out: we would never have modern rap if stealing from other sources was considered completely off-limits. Modern rap is built on the idea of stealing short bits from other people, crafting a whole new song out of them, and rapping over the resulting chimera.
ocelot_eyes
May. 9th, 2010 12:33 pm (UTC)
"Aspiring writers that just make fan-fiction all the time are cheating themselves out of what it really means to be an author. They're stunting their growth as an author."

I used to write fan-fiction when I was a teenager (and most of it should have stayed on my computer and not gone out into the great wide internets...). I also started learning illustration by doing fan-art, copying other artists' work, namely that of my favourite japanese manga artists. I didn't trace, I honed my skills of looking at the page and drawing the same lines and same proportions, getting the character expressions exactly right.... but it took me YEARS to then eradicate the overly practiced lines and "look" of manga characters, from my art. It still creeps in from time to time, when I'm just sketching and not thinking seriously about it, I revert to drawing faces and bodies in anime/manga proportions rather than what I am actually seeing.

As I grew from "fan artist" to serious art college student, I started to put myself in these manga artists' shoes, and wondered how they would feel to have someone copying their work line for line?..

I focus now only on doing original art, and it is so much more rewarding than fan-art ever was!! In fact, if anything so much as resembles someone else's interpretation of the same subject, I go out of my way to make sure I don't inadvertently copy this other painting or reference photograph. It may have inspired me, and I can certainly learn and benefit from the technique, but I feel the need to incorporate the technique into my work in an original way.

In terms of fan-fiction stunting creative growth as a writer, I think the experience may be something very similar...
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aearonlinn.insanejournal.com
May. 9th, 2010 04:16 am (UTC)
As so many have said before, it is your right, and yours alone, to say what you will and will not countenance in terms of fanfiction. I appreciate you sharing your views so clearly and generously.

But I will say that comic books, part of your reasoning for why you dislike fanfiction, are part of mine for why I DO like it in certain lights. What are the major DC and Marvel comic books today but fanfiction? Stan Lee doesn't write Spider-Man any more(hence the crap retconning-- I stopped reading it too, my friend), and has not for a long time. Yes, the people who do are sanctioned by the company... but can obviously not be trusted any more or less than fanficcers, as you yourself note. More than once I've stopped reading Spidey for years because of that kind of crap. Don't get me started about clones.

1602 is fanfiction, but subsidized, and my god it is beautiful. Those are not Gaiman's characters, but he did something brilliant with them. He got paid, fanficcers do not (and do not expect to). I'm not saying they should-- they should not. It's Marvel's choice who they pay to write their fanfiction.

And we could go on and on about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Of course, that's all in the public domain. I reckon no one cares 100 years after they're gone what someone does with their characters-- it's having to face it while alive to which authors (justly) object. But it is, in essence, fanfiction for which Alan Moore got paid.

But it is what it is; those are not their characters. They made them their own, but they never will be, not really. It's a kind of homage to make something new of them like that.

You do not write a series that was ever intended to be carried on by anyone else in the same fashion. I do acknowledge that this is a different kettle of fish, and have never been into that kind of fanfiction, admittedly. But I see where it comes from, as a lover of comics and such. I in no way disagree with your own stance; I only mean to point out that there are others that have a certain validity I think is being mostly ignored in this maelstrom.
kymbeee
May. 9th, 2010 04:20 am (UTC)
Amen. As I commented on Diana Gabaldon's blog, I feel that fan fiction is quasi-sacrilegious. And there's a peaceful feeling inside me knowing that my two absolute favorite authors feel the same way.
o_bunny
May. 9th, 2010 04:22 am (UTC)
"Portraits of His Children" indeed.
will_couvillier
May. 9th, 2010 04:22 am (UTC)
This is understandable, and yet also the flip side is understandable. I respect the characters that are brought forth, but I also itch to write tales in certain worlds/universes. I would write an Amber tale, tell the story of a Wild Card, scribe the journal of the victim of a horrid Suggoth, or fling myself into the rich potential of the Flinger universe.

They, however, are not mine.

And I do respect the children, really.
eddiejc1
May. 14th, 2010 01:21 am (UTC)
Just one quick comment about David Fincher's Alien3---since the franchise is owned by 20th Century Fox, and not Sir Ridley Scott who directed the first movie nor James Cameron who directed the second, Fincher's film is NOT "fan fiction." The literary equivalent would be Thomas Harris' Hannibal, the long-awaited sequel to his bestseller The Silence of the Lambs. For years fans wondered what was taking him so long. After he finished, many wished that he didn't.

Edward J. Cunningham
Rockville, MD
jpclemen
May. 9th, 2010 04:29 am (UTC)
Morality and Copyright
The fact that so many recent legal copyright battles have stemmed from corporations enforcing distribution rights which they in turn obtained by forcing contracts of adhesion on brilliant creative minds has cut in to our cognizance of the moralilty and justice of copyright. The most basic right of all is for a person to have freedom of thought. Close behind is the freedom to express those thoughts. Authors use those two basic rights to share new and entertaining worlds, from their imagination to our consciousness through whatever medium they work in.

You see, copyright isn't fundamentally about the right to make a profit off of one's own creative output. That's just a side effect of the more basic right to control one's own thoughts and expressions.
p_zeitgeist
May. 9th, 2010 07:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Morality and Copyright
copyright isn't fundamentally about the right to make a profit off of one's own creative output.

Well . . . yes and no. At least in the United States, there's a significant extent to which it's about precisely that. The provision in the constitution that gives Congress the right to grant copyrights reads, in its entirety, as follows:

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;"

That is, the overall purpose is to encourage the production of intellectual property, for the good of the nation as a whole; the method of encouragement is to give the author or inventor who comes up with something good the right to make a profit off it. This makes U.S. copyright law somewhat counterintuitive for many people, and particularly for many writers and artists, who tend to assume that the law is intended to give them moral rights (or, as you put it, to allow them to control [their] own thoughts and expressions. Not so, at least in this country -- the author's period of control, far from being the purpose, is the price we pay for what we want, which is both the production of the work in the first place and the future work that may be built on its foundations when the day comes that everyone is allowed to use it.
stillking
May. 9th, 2010 04:35 am (UTC)
focusing on this post, not fan-fiction

For what it's worth (cold comfort though it might be), Newt does not (did not) (never had) an alien in her. THAT would, truly, have been unforgivable.

The third film is nonetheless not great cinema, though the bar-codes on the napes of the prisoners' necks are a mildly-funny remnant of the initial Gibson/Red script, at the end of which seven survivors gathered round Ripley sleeping (or possibly dead) in her hypersleep chamber. (Get it, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, glass coffin, yes I'm serious, yuk yuk yuk.) This proto-finale did not make it to screen.

I love your series; I want it to end, and to end satisfyingly; do what you have to do.
ravenclaw_eric
May. 9th, 2010 04:37 am (UTC)
Retconning, in comics, always puts me in mind of 1984. "He doesn't exist. He never existed. The Party says so. 2+2=5."
maine_character
May. 9th, 2010 04:45 am (UTC)

The song puts it across well. Anyone can sing “Wish You Were Here” around the campfire and not owe Pink Floyd anything but thanks.

But if they start to sing, “Wish You Were Beer,” then whoa. That’s changing the story. That’s not why they put that song out there, and that’s not the feeling they want people to take away from it.

I can well understand the pull of fanfiction. Thirty years ago I made up tons of stories with my Star Wars action figures. Great galactic battles with surprising twists and brave heroics the screen has never seen. I loved exploring that galaxy with those characters.

And yet, as you say, no one knows your characters the way you do. ‘Cause me, I had Luke killing Vader and running to Leia and making out and more. It was Oedipus without the mother. But I didn’t know that, and those characters sure didn’t deserve that.
ailsaek
May. 9th, 2010 04:46 am (UTC)
I can understand that. Part of the reason I don't read fanfic is that so many of the stories violate my idea of the characters (the other part being my fear of bad writing). I know people have thrown Miles and Ivan into bed together, for instance, but I can live without reading it.

Fanfic about TV and comic book characters doesn't bother me as much, because the characters are written and rewritten by so many people, and I'm already rejecting a fair amount of canon for some characters (Impulse is not dead, but Jean Grey is). One could view all writing about comic book characters after the first writer leaves as fanfic.
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