The Unlimited Playgrounds of Fanfiction

The Unlimited Playgrounds of Fanfiction

By Amy Berner

There are fans out there who just can't let go. If you're reading this column about television shows that have been canceled, you might be one of those fans. It's okay. There's nothing wrong with that. Heck, look at me - I'm the one still writing articles about them. But the cameras have stopped rolling for both BUFFY and ANGEL. You miss them, right? So, what are you going to do about it?

Some fans have already answered that question. They're writing fiction about them. Adventures continue on thousands upon thousands of web pages all over the place. Fan fiction stories - often referred to as "fanfic" - are set before, after, during, and nowhere near the actual episodes, but they are out there, and new ones pop up daily. Why so many? Because writers are seeing that more stories are out there to be told. "I think that at its best, fan fiction fills in the blanks," explains fan fiction writer Tania Lang. "A 42-minute episode is by its very nature forced to omit things.... Even if it's only a ten-minute car ride, what was discussed in those moments, or even the silence, can be quite eloquently filled by a good piece of fanfic."

It's not just BUFFY and ANGEL who get this special treatment. Name any show or movie out there, and there's probably a fan fiction story or three about it. From stand-bys like STAR TREK and THE X-FILES to newer fannish obsessions such as HARRY POTTER and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, there's enough out there to fill more than a few libraries.

Who are these people, and why do they sit at their computers and write new stories around these characters? Good question. So I asked. The authors mostly go by internet "handles" or pen-names, and many tend to stay semi-anonymous. I believe this has to do with the negative image that fan fiction sadly has. Agilebrit mentions one reason for this: "I find it interesting that fan fiction seems to be held in contempt by many 'real' writers. You can't be creative, they say, if you're stealing someone else's characters and worlds. They conveniently ignore the fact that there are really only about 35 plots, that get recycled over and over and over again.... There is nothing truly original under the sun, and we all borrow from each other shamelessly. Fan fiction writers just admit that we do it."

Among the fan fiction writers and readers I polled, almost everyone agreed that the beauty of fan fiction is also the curse of fan fiction - anybody can get in on the fun. As writer Harmonyfb put it, "Anyone can participate, simply by virtue of picking up their pen. There's no license, no training, no board of high muckety-mucks who say whether one can or cannot write fan fiction." The good side of this is that people who normally would never consider writing any sort of story turn out a fantastic tale that never would have been written otherwise. The bad side is that there are a lot of people out there who should put down the keyboard and back away. Slowly.

Due to the sheer volume of writing out there, finding the diamonds in the rough isn't easy. For every person who works hard to craft their stories and has a good team of people to "beta" (proofread and review) their work, there are ten who have forgotten about the existence of Spell Check or who decide to take a character they happen to dislike and bash them into unrecognizability. Writer SoulVamp says it another way, "There's a ton of garbage out there that looks like it could've been written in crayon on a paper bag, but there's also a lot of really brilliant stuff."

There are a heck of a lot of fan fiction Cardinal Sins that were mentioned, ranging from spelling and grammatical errors to unfinished works-in-progress. One of the worst examples of these Cardinal Sins is the dreaded Mary Sue. Who is this frightening persona? It's the writer putting him or herself into the story and becoming better, stronger, prettier, and somehow more glorious than who they really are. Then, they can participate in the fun, win the object of their fannish adoration, and/or show the rest of the characters up in some way, usually becoming the hero of the piece. They are too good to be true. A story featuring a Mary Sue is far more of a personal wish-fulfillment than true fiction, and it's not much fun for the reader.

You've learned your two fan fiction vocabulary terms. Congratulations! Want another one? Here you go: slash. And I'm not talking about the punctuation mark, here. It's an entire sub-genre of fan fiction. The definition of "slash" seems to adjust a bit depending on who you talk to, but the most common definition seems to be "a pairing of two characters of the same gender that didn’t happen on the show." The name comes from the punctuation used to denote the pairing, such as Giles/Ethan or Buffy/Faith.

Surprising? The writers of slash explain their rationale:

"The relationships between the male characters on BUFFY and ANGEL especially have always had a sexual undercurrent to me," says Tania Lang. "I don't see it in all characters of course, but in the vampires there has always been a blurring of the lines between sex and violence whether intentional or not."

"Some of it has to do with the sheer scope of ideas you can explore adding a homosexual relationship into the mix" says Dove. "Slash also helps you explore more worlds then just your own. I've had people write me telling me that they've never read Slash, loved my story and made them think what it's like to be gay in today's world. That is enough for me."

Not every fan fiction writer delves into this arena. "I don't want to offend a potential gay or lesbian audience by not properly portraying a same-sex relationship," says Lizbet Marcs. "I suppose if I ever write a same-sex couple, I want to do a good job and write it as 'real,' rather than just throw two hot guys or two hot women together on the same page for the one-hand reader set."

Her comment brings up an important topic: fan fiction sometimes has the reputation that, as writer Celli laments, "All fan fiction writers are frustrated romance novelists." This may partially be due to the lack of limitations on fan fiction. Some people take it far. Very far.

Network television can’t enter into the realm of NC-17, but fan fiction has no such restrictions. NC-17 stories range from those that include romance as an integral part of the plot to Fan Fiction Vocabulary Word #4: PwP (Porn without Plot). Writers have different reasons for turning up the heat. Sinister Beauty had this to say on the subject: "There are a lot of interesting things that go on in the bedroom that change and develop characters. People loosen or tighten up. Fears come about. People face old demons or make new ones. Consequences come from sexuality, whether good or bad, that are incredibly interesting to explore. Also, sex can be just downright funny." SoulVamp, meanwhile, explains another NC-17 rationale: "I do go in this direction sometimes not to be merely titillating or exploitative, but more for the same reason a movie might be rated R: the use of more explicit language is often kind of a natural flow of a scene. Also, obviously a graphic love scene is not something a viewer would've seen on the source programs, so you're giving the reader something they couldn't get from the show alone."

Again, this isn't everybody. Hjcallipygian avoids NC-17 because "that's never what those characters were about for me. Plus, I like the challenge of creating complex plots and stories within a PG-13 (television standard) environment. I could easily have my characters say, "F*** this!" or "F*** that!" - but I like the challenge of thinking of a different way."

But wait. Aren't these characters owned by major media corporations with armies of lawyers? Isn't using their intellectual property like this a little on the risky side? Not necessarily, says Charity Fowler, a lawyer who wrote a paper on the subject of fan fiction. She cites the concept of "fair use" to explain: "The fair use doctrine... permits works to be used for 'socially laudable purposes. Fiction (that) builds upon what came before is the tradition of Western culture, thus making it a reasonable and customary use. This overall view supports a finding of fair use for fan fiction... It is noncommercial, non-profit, highly transformative work that comments on our media culture and teaches writers how to craft a well-written story. It affects no market that the owners would license. It causes no harm that the owners can identify - if anything, it helps increase the desire for their product. If media culture is truly our culture, then we need to be 'concerned about how the corporations keep infringing on our cultural wellspring' and be willing to draw the line that says here is where your ownership ends and the public's begins."

People are demonstrating that they care enough about the characters to continue their adventures, and this is a testament to the original material. Rather than taking away from the original product, fan fiction benefits it. Ladyhawk had this to say: "Overall, I think fan fiction makes for better fans. People are choosing to have a dialogue with each other about a piece of literature and they are springboarding from that and using it as inspiration to create their own literature."

A writer who goes by the name of Herself has a similar view: "For me, fanfic is about community. It's at least as much about being read and having a dialogue with my readers - sharing our mutual experience of the characters, who exist both within and without the show they come from - as it is about the pleasure of writing a fictional narrative, and the endorphin rush that comes with that production." These dialogues are happening constantly. The most common method is via feedback, which Harmonyfb refers to as "writer crack." It's immediate, it's direct, and it opens lines of communication that would not normally occur.

Lines of communication become bonds, and bonds develop into friendships and gatherings. In fact, the people who write fan fiction become as a much a part of the hobby as the stories themselves. At the end of July, two hundred BUFFY and ANGEL fan fiction writers from all over the world are gathering at "WriterCon" in Las Vegas to talk about their hobby (www.the-sandlot.com/writercon). The response to this gathering has blown away the organizers, who originally hoped that perhaps fifty people might attend. Publishers and professional writers will be present, and the main guest is Jane Espenson, a former BUFFY writer who will serve as Co-Executive Producer of TRU CALLING next season. This event is a big deal, with workshops, forums, and special events focused on improving fiction-writing skills.

Some people have a very philosophical approach to fan fiction. "I think fanfic is our response to the enormity of our modern world and the anonymity of our society," explains a writer named Sonya. "In times past, cultures had stories and fables that were passed on verbally, and in each re-telling of the story, something would change... Each storyteller had a little bit of control over the mythos that both shaped and described his or her world… We still identify with and are guided by our heroes, and our culture is still shaped in part by the stories we tell. What has become less is the average person's participation in the storytelling and story-making process - we have less control over our icons. Fanfic is... a response to that, to the need to have a say in these stories that are still so psychologically and culturally important to us, though their creation has become distant from us."

Viciouswishes has a motivation that is less complicated but just as persuasive: "I love to write. And the worlds I write in, I want to go on forever."

You think that you're immune? That you would never sink to this level of geekdom? Not so fast, bucko. Sometimes, a story idea just hits you out of nowhere, something that you wanted to see or thought you should see that never happened, and then? It's all over. I speak from experience, because it happened to me.

There I was, driving to work last September, minding my own business, when WHAM! I was hit with an idea. It'd been months since CHOSEN aired, and I was mired in the usual Southern California traffic. My mind wandered, and I started to wonder how Xander might have dealt with Anya's death... and all of a sudden, a story appeared fully-formed in my brain. All I had to do was write it down. Once I got going and received some of that crack-like feedback, I kept going. It's gotten so bad that I'm now a part of a team writing a virtual new season combining BUFFY and ANGEL characters called HEROES (shameless plug time: we're at heroes.councilofwatchers.com). Once you start, it really is like a drug. Worse - it's like chocolate.

Yes indeedy, It could happen to you. And who knows... You might even like it. Stretching your creative muscles isn't a bad thing. The playgrounds full of familiar characters are out there, or you can build your own for others. The possibilities are endless. The stories might find you all by themselves. To invite them in, all you have to say is, "What if...?"

The End

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