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: