In Defence of Fan Fiction

Writing Quill

Thanks to a few of my friends on Twitter, I happened to spot this blog rant by Ms. Diana Gabaldon, author of the popular Outlander series of novels. Ms. Gabaldon has issues about fan fiction. Basically, she doesn’t like it.

my position on fan-fic is pretty clear: I think it’s immoral, I know it’s illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I’ve inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters.


What follows is her run-down and put-down of all of the excuses that she sees have been made to justify the existence of fan fiction. At the time of this writing, her post has generated some 592 comments, many from those who defend fan fiction in general, and many from her loyal fans, who take her disdain for the concept of fan fiction to even higher levels. Indeed, the first comment on this post states, “I honestly can’t believe people do this! I’d never heard of ‘fan fic’ until your post and I’m rather taken a-back. Practice schmactice. It’s lazy as much as illegal - how could you feel good passing off someone else’s ideas as your own??” Various inflammatory anti-fan fiction comments have surfaced in the discussion, including Ms. Gabaldon’s earlier comparison of fan fiction to selling your children into white slavery. A much more conciliatory post from Ms. Gabaldon was posted two days ago, however.

Ms. Gabaldon’s rant against fan fiction is somewhat full of hyperbole, and it’s echoed and magnified by her defenders who seem shocked at the mere existence of the hobby. I am perplexed that such a thing should come as a shock to people, particularly to authors who have fans of the works they’ve published. I mean, am I so much more connected to the Internet world and to the concept of fandom that I’m seeing something most people cannot even fathom? I don’t think so. How sheltered of a life does one have to live in order for the concept of fan fiction to come across as such an affront as to be among the worst things of the Internet? As a fellow Twitterer said, “If fanfic is the worst thing Diana Gabaldon has seen on the internet…well, I fear for her life when she sees 4chan.”

There have already been posts by professional and fan fiction authors very effectively defending fan fiction, and as I said, Ms. Gabaldon has posted a more conciliatory follow-up post, but as a professional author who has spent many of my formative years in fan fiction circles, I still feel the need to defend the hobby. Speaking as a professional author, I see no threat in its existence, and indeed, I can only dream of the day when fan fiction written around my professional novels appears on the Internet. To me, it would feel as though I’ve come full circle.

Practically speaking, fan fiction is not illegal; not in its traditional form. And I firmly believe that it should not be illegal. Not only is there a fair amount of case law that says that parody is fair use, there’s the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of fan fiction is enjoyed by small circles of friends, who obtain no monetary return for their efforts, and do no damage to the official copyright of the intellectual property owner. If anything, the author or production company benefits from this activity, through the fandom community it helps to build around the originating book, television show, play or video game. Attempting to stifle such activity — as Fox once did to all unauthorized X-Files fan sites, whether they had fan fiction or not — is an effective means of alienating the fan base that helped turn your franchise into such a success. Furthermore, if you criminalize something that typically stays within a small circle of friends and which does no harm to anybody, I believe you have harmed the fabric of democracy, and put a serious damper on individual creativity.

Now Ms. Gabaldon is more than just entitled to her opinion. She is an author and she has books and characters that are indisputably her’s. If she does not want other people playing in her backyard, she has the indisputable right to shoo those people away. The overwhelming majority of fan fiction authors will respect the wishes of the professional that they are a fan of. My objection comes in Ms. Gabaldon’s characterization of fan fiction in general, particularly that it is somehow intellectually lazy, and that individuals are wantonly violating other people’s copyright for their own nefarious reasons.

Certainly, the characterization of fan fiction that Ms. Gabaldon offers is coloured by some of what she has experienced on the Internet. And certainly, just as the Internet has so democratized the publishing process that any individual can run a blog, it seems that anybody can post fan fiction, regardless of their ability to string two words together or even spell. It would be a mistake to consider all fan fiction to be an intellectual wasteland, however. Quality fan fiction can easily be discovered if someone takes a little time to sort out the signal from the noise. Indeed, some projects match the professional quality of the series being honoured.

Consider the Audio Visuals series of unlicensed Doctor Who radio plays that fans of the series produced from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s. These were of startling professional quality, and circled among Doctor Who fans on at least three continents. The BBC did not object to them, because it was BBC policy not to object to individual projects that were non-profit. Because the Audio Visuals crew met the BBC’s criteria of non-profit, these individuals were allowed to operate in peace. The BBC weren’t being lazy about their copyright, either, since they did take steps to enforce it when it came to licensing music. As a result, the Audio Visuals crew had to write their own theme music for the series, and pay a license fee to use the TARDIS dematerialization sound (since it was produced by drawing a key along a piano string, it was, technically, music).

Over time, the Audio Visuals crew moved on from their efforts. They’ve written and acted professionally, many of them in the revived Doctor Who series itself (the current voice of the Daleks, Nicholas Briggs, will always be better known to me as the Audio Visuals’ Doctor, and a fine Doctor he was too). Some members of the crew have even bought a proper BBC license and have redone the Audio Visuals plays as BBC licensed productions starring previous Doctors. So, this fan fiction project was instrumental in preparing these individuals for work in the profession they so loved.

Doctor Who is possibly the best originator for fan fiction, in my opinion. As it is the most flexible format in fiction, with its portable hero that can be dropped into any situation, anywhere in the universe, there is no limit to what type of story you can write. And that’s what I did. From 1991 until 2004, the bulk of my creative output was Doctor Who fan fiction. I estimate that I wrote roughly 500,000 words in 17 fanzines that I either edited or co-edited, and I further helped dozens of individuals craft their stories into something submittable.

Through it all, I was exploring the creation of characters, plot, setting, narrative — all of that, while having with me the comfort of the toolbox offered by then twenty-six years of material in the Doctor Who universe. When I started writing with an eye to professional publication, I was a far better writer than I would have been if I hadn’t had the opportunity to write Doctor Who fan fiction. And I’m not the only one. I know a number of the individuals I edited who have gone on to professional work.

There is precedent here. Artists studying to become masters learn their techniques by deliberately copying the works of the masters before them. This is what I was doing until I decided I was ready to create my own universe.

It’s the community aspect that makes fan fiction such a draw. You wouldn’t get nearly as many people together without the common appreciation of a book or television show to draw people in. Friendships are forged within the community, some of them lasting a lifetime. I met the woman who would become my wife after posting a Doctor Who story to the newsgroup alt.drwho.creative. I encouraged her to write her own fan fiction, and published her work in Myth Makers (the fan fiction magazine of the Canadian fan club, the Doctor Who Information Network), and she won a MediaWest Fan-Quality Award for her efforts. She has since gone on to becoming a professional writer and, of course, her much anticipated young adult fantasy novel Plain Kate is due to be released by Arthur A. Levine Books this coming September.

Other professionals who got their start in fan fiction include Meg Cabot of the ever popular Princess Diaries series, and book, comic and television writer Peter David (whose works include Star Trek novels and an episode of Babylon 5). Both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, the two most recent show-runners of the BBC’s Doctor Who, came up through the ranks of Doctor Who fandom. You cannot say that these individuals have been a detriment to their profession. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So, to respond to the quote from Ms. Gabaldon’s commentator, there’s nothing lazy about fan fiction. When it comes to the best that fan fiction has to offer, you will find individuals working as hard as any professional, producing something that is well written, well crafted and a lot of hard work. And it has all been done for no reason other than love.

I admit that fan fiction has changed from the days that I started writing it. The presence of the Internet have significantly increased the number of venues where publication is possible. It has basically allowed individuals to bypass the editorial process, although fan fiction editors do still exist. The signal to noise ratio has degraded to some degree. To put it bluntly, you are going to see a lot of crap out there.

But the good fan fiction stories still exist. There are strong communities out there where stories are carefully edited, and where writers with experience have crafted stories that read well, feature characters that are in character, and plots that are interesting new takes on the worlds the original authors have created. People continue to emerge into the world of professional writing from fan fiction pasts.

So this author is not going to shy away from his fan fiction heritage. He will not shoo away the kids from his backyard. As long as they don’t damage the fence or step on my begonias, I’ll be content to listen to their playful chatter. I honestly think that my life and my work will be all the richer because of it.

Further Reading

  • The Internet may have contributed to the explosion of fan fiction in recent years, but it also provides tools for its management by intellectual property holders. Author Jim Butcher has embraced Creative Commons in setting out common sense criteria for handling the subject of fan fiction around his books. The guidelines are brilliant in their simplicity, and I may adapt them verbatim for my own works — assuming I’m lucky enough to have fan fiction written about them. (h/t Smart Bitches, Trashy Books)
  • A further rebuttal by Bookshop.
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