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A Working Definition of Fanfiction

by Melusina




In a discussion in firesignwriter's journal I described fanfiction as a conversation with and about the text, and that's the still the best description I can come up with.  Fanfiction is derivative - it wouldn't or couldn't exist without the source text.  That seems pretty obvious.  And for it to be fanfiction, I think it has to be written not for profit, but for the sheer enjoyment of playing in someone else's sandbox, without hope of monetary compensation.  Beyond that, I'm not sure I can draw a distinction between published derivative fiction (like Laurie King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice) and fanfiction.  For the purposes of this essay, I'm going to consider professional derivative work (novels, comics, and movies) and amateur fanwork (stories, art, and vids) to be the same sort of thing.  All of my specific examples have been drawn from professional published/produced work, rather than amateur fanwork.

Obviously there are many reasons why someone chooses to write derivative fiction rather than original fiction.  Authorial intent is something that's difficult to pinpoint, so in this post, I'm not going to examine motives, but effects.  Whatever the author's intent, derivative fiction always functions as a comment on the original text.  When multiple authors have written derivative fiction based on a text (for example Sherlock Holmes pastiches), then the various derivations "converse" not only with the original text, but with each other as well.

I keep coming back to the idea of a playscript.  When I see a performance of Hamlet, the director has taken Shakespeare's script and given it a spin that's unique to that production.  But, as an audience member, I'm not viewing the production fresh, without any preconceived notions.  As I watch, I'm also aware of other productions I've seen, famous productions I never saw, but I've heard about, criticism and analysis I've read about the play, etc.  It's impossible to experience an older play that's been performed many times as a new work.

Fanfiction is the same way.  When I write a story based on Pirates of the Caribbean, I'm responding to the movie and exploring the world, the characters or the themes of the movie.  And because I'm not writing fanfic in a vacuum, I'm also responding to the professional reviews I've read, to the meta posts people have written,  and to the other stories I've read set in that universe.

So, fanfiction is derivative fiction that responds to the source material and to other derivative texts.  In a way, it's the ultimate in media res - not only is the reader pulled into the middle of the story (necessarily, because no matter where the derivative story is set chronologically, the reader is already familiar with the setting and/or the characters), but she's also approaching the story with preformed ideas about the characters and situations.  Fanfic writers may be writing in spite of their readers' expectations, or in keeping with them, but either way, fanfiction is written with the knowledge that the reader will be approaching the text with a familiarity with the source text, and probably some of the secondary material (either criticism or derivative fiction).  That, to me, is the value of derivative fiction of any kind; the writer can assume that the reader is familiar with what has gone before and proceed from that point.

Fanfiction responds to the original text in many different ways.  The one we're probably most familiar with is a story that covers events that are missing in the original (either because they occurred before or after the time period covered by the original text, or because they were "offstage" and weren't described by the original author).  Scarlet by Alexandra Ripley is the authorized sequel to Gone With the Wind - it goes on to tell the further adventures of Scarlet O'Hara, in the same way that much fanfic takes the end of the original story as its point of departure, and simply continues the story as the author would like to see it play out.  For some reason Jane Austen novels are particularly popular choices for this treatment; there's a whole slew of them listed here.

Another popular form of derivative fiction takes minor characters from the original source and fleshes them out.  The most famous example of this may be Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which takes two bit players from Hamlet and makes them the center of the play.  The events of both plays unfold in the exact same way, but we get an entirely different perspective on them.  A more extreme change of perspective is presented in Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone, which confronts the racism inherent in Gone With the Wind by retelling the story from the pov of the African American characters.  Randall's book is less faithful to the canon of GWTW, but it is still clearly derivative - in fact the changes she's made to the canon are a deliberate part of the project to reframe the text and reveal its racist underpinnings.  However it's handled, derivative fiction that uses minor characters from the primary source is closer to original fiction, because there's more opportunity for the writer to shape the characters to his or her specifications rather than the original author's (a character like Lieutenant Groves is very nearly a blank slate - there's so little canon about him that a fanwriter can develop him into almost anyone she or he likes).

Closer still to original fiction is what fanfic writers call Alternate Universe or Alternate Reality stories - a story in which the original characters and situations are placed in a new setting.  For example, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary is a loose, modernized adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and the Coen Brothers' film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou is heavily influenced by Homer's "The Odyssey."  Could these stories have been told without using the references to earlier texts?  Absolutely.  But those references enrich the texts and give them a resonance that they otherwise would have lacked.  I think this technique can come off as gimmicky to some readers /audience members (especially when the characterizations aren't handled very carefully), but it's still a legitimate way of responding to the source text.

Sometimes derivative fiction is only interested in a character from the source text, rather than recreating the original world or scenarios.  Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series is a huge crossover featuring famous historical figures as well as characters from literature (Sir Richard Francis Burton, Odysseus, and Cyrano de Bergerac, among others) in an entirely new setting.  Alan Moore did the same thing in his League of Extraordinary Gentleman comic, in which he used various characters from fiction, but created a new world in which they interact.  Often in these cases, the author may twist the characters or reshape them in some way, but they are still recognizable as those from the original source.  In a somewhat more distant derivation, there's Warren Ellis' Planetary comic, which uses characters obviously derived from other comic and literary universes, although they've been recast and often renamed (for example "The Four" are clearly based on the Fantastic Four, but Ellis has reinterpreted them with a modern sensibility).  The changes he's made set up an implicit contrast between the (real) world that influenced the creators of the original characters and the modern world. 

In contrast, some derivative fiction is primarily concerned with the world from the original text, and peoples it with new characters.  Sena Jeter Nasland's Ahab's Wife is explicitly set in the world of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, but all the major characters are of  her own invention.  She could easily have told the same story with no references to Moby Dick at all, and yet her text functions as a mirror image of Melville's account, expanding on the world he created and balancing the masculine world view of Moby Dick with a more feminine perspective. 

In my opinion, all of these various ways of responding to a source text are equally valid and useful.  Each variation illuminates a different aspect of the source text - changing the characters' circumstances allows the author to explore what aspects of their personalities were shaped by the canon situations and what aspects are more intrinsic, removing the canon characters and introducing new ones allows the author to explore the canon world in ways that he or she might otherwise be able to, etc.  Of course, all derivative fiction should be based on the source text in some way (otherwise it's not derivative), and the best derivative fiction makes it clear to the reader how the author extrapolated his or her story from the source.  But for me, as a reader or a writer, it's not useful to categorize some of these kinds of stories as fanfiction and others as something else.  I read fanfiction not only to get more of what I loved in canon (although that's certainly an attraction, and is probably what the majority of fanfiction offers), but also to explore the world, characters, and ideas introduced by canon in less direct ways.  Stories that deviate further from canon, for example AUs or stories which significantly reinterpret canon events, provide a legitimate and interesting commentary on the source text, and, for myself, I'm not interested in a definition of fanfiction which would exclude these sorts of stories.


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