Fan Fiction. Fiction written about a franchise by fans instead of the actual authors. Fan Fiction has something of a bad reputation among the general public. It’s often poorly written, has unrealistic plots, and the fans can be obsessive and argumentative about their work. I don’t think that’s a completely fair overview of Fan Fiction. That is the worst case scenario, some pieces of Fan Fiction are quite impressive and can lead to great things.
Before I continue I want to acknowledge that yes, there are tons of bad Fan Fictions out there. Hundreds of thousands. There are stories of Severus Snape having a holiday with the Teletubbies, Indiana Jones sleeping with Lord Voldemort, Superman falling in love, and creating children with Jessica Rabbit and a 3,500,000 word story about the game series Super Smash Brothers. That last entry is pretty impressive as it’s longer than War and Peace, you have to admire the author’s dedication. The other entries… Hmm….
Fan Fiction has yielded several notable successes. The Mortal Instruments series penned by Cassandra Claire started off as a Harry Potter Fan Fiction. Eventually the author replaced the characters with her own creations and changed the setting. The plots have been noted by fans to be similar but although the film adaptation flopped in the box-office, the book series is still a roaring success. The Twilight series also started as Fan Fiction until it was picked up by publishers and became global. Each book is inspired off a different classic. Twilight on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, New Moon on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Eclipse on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Breaking Dawn on Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and more recently 50 Shades of Grey… okay so it’s poorly written but no matter what you think of it you can’t deny its popularity.
Those examples were changed so they were pale shadows of the work they were inspired from, to avoid copyright. What about pieces of Fan Fiction that directly take characters from established series? Isn’t that a breach of copyright? Yes and no. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman were both quoted as saying they don’t mind Fan Fiction as long as the writers don’t claim ownership and credit them as the authors. George R.R. Martin hates Fan Fiction and sees any form of it as a breach of copyright. Parody shows like Robot Chicken or shows that mock the franchise such as The Simpsons or South Park have armies of lawyers at their disposal.
Okay but what about the other way around? What happens when writers use ideas created by the fans in their work? This happened in the Sherlock Episode The Empty Hearse. (Minor spoiler warning) While showing possible theories on how Sherlock escaped his death, Sherlock and Moriarty lean towards each other as though to kiss. This idea was taken from a fan who had posted her idea online. Ideas, however, can’t be copyrighted so in this case the writer of Sherlock, Steven Moffatt, didn’t break any laws. Another example. A fan of the Spiderman comic books wrote a 12,000 word essay on a plot hole concerning Gwen Stacy’s affair with the villain known as Green Goblin, Norman Osborn. After writers at Marvel read the essay they made it official.
You can’t stop people writing and you can’t stop people writing Fan Fiction. Unless they post their work online and claim ownership of the franchise, what harm does it really do? They’re having fun writing and people enjoy reading their work (sometimes for the wrong reasons). Who knows, maybe the writer could eventually pen the next best seller?