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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:



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.
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...
May. 10th, 2010 04:40 am (UTC)
I felt the need to comment, because I'm an artist too.

Basically, you learned the skill for drawing manga style because that's what you liked at the time. Manga artists were like your master, as in the old days aspiring artists apprenticed themselves to established artists and learned to paint/sculpt/fresco by copying their master's works. Most manga artists belong to various schools of thought and if you look at their work and that of their "masters" you may see the similarities. (Or you may not. Naruto author Kishimoto Musashi copied the work of AKIRA's Otomo Katsumoto throughout his childhood - painstakingly, as you did, but you only see any similarity in his pencil sketches, not his inks.)

You might revile your early start in manga now, and hate that the skill your hand learned shows up when you're not paying attention, but what did you replace it with if not the skills your professors taught you?

I think fan-art and fan-fic is the natural starting point. It's where you start learning the skills before you know what you want to do with said skills. You didn't wake up one day and start illustrating. You saw someone else illustrating and wanted to do it too.
May. 10th, 2010 08:31 am (UTC)
Oh of course, I did learn a lot from it! And definitely appreciate the parallels between old apprentices of the masters. Manga artists were definitely my art heroes at the time.

I did go a bit overboard though, and for a few school years there, manga-style is all I ever drew - that's why the habit still sneaks in. And then I went to art college and realised I could learn so much more from the different practices and styles being taught there. I definitely still use the skills I gained from copying manga, in pen and ink illustration today, just not in the same styles.

I guess my overall point was trying to echo the other above comment, that doing original work is so much more satisfying, than copying ever was. And writing fan-fic did help me hone descriptive writing skills, which came in handy in art college assignments. :) IMHO fanfic and fanart are very useful stepping stones toward doing original work later, just as long as one doesn't get stuck in using someone else's techniques or characters.
May. 9th, 2010 05:19 pm (UTC)
Great comment, I very much agree with your "genie in a bottle" image - stories are "out there", and it's not the author's place to try and protect them. It's like my mum's description of having kids, in fact: "It's like cutting off your arm and watching it run around in the road."

That is, stories may be your children. But they'll always leave you and belong to the world once they're born. ;)
May. 11th, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
and you can include "Arthuriana" or stories about King Arthur, since there IS no definitive "source" nearly every work of fiction featuring Arthur and/or related characters is fan fic.

The negative of this is aberrations like the Richard Gere "First Knight" which other than the characters named Arthur/Guenevere/Lancelot, bears no resemblance to the canon. Clive Owen's recent "King Arthur" attempted to put a "real history" spin on it, but again, totally missed by naming totally new characters with the names we have come to know and love from Malory or Cretienne.
The stories aren't bad in themselves. I rather enjoyed both movies. I just wish they didn't make them King Arthur stories.


George R.R. Martin
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