Fanfic is Not a Threat

How do you feel about fanfic? Does the thought of basement dwellers shitting all over your favorite franchise make you shudder? Does the idea of someone stomping all over your vision make you hulk out? Well, maybe it’s time to calm down over this douche-tide in a pony vagina (I’m going for a non-cliche way of saying “tempest in a teapot” – I don’t think I was entirely successful). Fanfic has been a thing for ages, and it hasn’t destroyed literature yet.

To gain some perspective, I’m going to turn to modding for a moment. I recently posed the question: how do you feel about other people modding your mods? The group I talked to were pretty cool about it, even found it flattering, but I’ve encountered modders who get bent out of shape about people messing with their “artistic vision” – which is bullshit, and here’s why.

First, modders are already playing in someone else’s sandbox. It was created for them, so they have few rights over the IP. Sure, they have copyright on any assets they made themselves. Anything they could sell separately from the mod (models, textures, etc.) is theirs. Anything dependent on the game is not. When modders get proprietary over the latter, this is what we call “being a dick.”

A modder could strip their content (characters, dialogue etc.) from the game and use it in something else. But a modder acting like that gives them greater IP rights than the original developer doesn’t get it. It’s like saying no one’s allowed to write fanfic of your fanfic. Nobody’s making money in this equation, so why would a fanfic writer care more than the original author? Because ego and insecurity – mostly the latter.

Often this “don’t touch my stuff!” mentality comes from a fear of someone else breaking your toys. But here’s the thing: if your toys are so easily broken, you’ve made shitty toys. This is more a problem in modding, where someone can literally break your toy by “playing it wrong” (which means your mod was already broken) or tweaking/removing a feature they didn’t like (because it sucked).

As for fiction, one kind of “breaking” authors fret about is fans correctly guessing what’s going to happen next, thus spoiling the series. But anyone who worries about that doesn’t understand how the execution is more important than the concept. If the author’s writing can’t compete with the fanfic, and the author responds with a tantrum, then the author is neither good nor gracious enough for me to give a damn.

If you want a good example of author magnanimity, look at how Terry Pratchett reacted to a bunch of fans writing lyrics for A Wizard’s Staff Has a Knob on the End. He didn’t get all huffy about other people taking his joke and running with it. He said (and I paraphrase), “That’s pretty cool.”

Consider how fanfic (or mods of your mods) fulfill a need that maybe you’re not providing. Maybe it points to something your work is lacking. If it’s something you can accommodate, then you stop the derivative work by giving the people what they want. If you don’t want to, then leave the fans to it. If it happens to be not within the scope of your work, such as hardcore pornography (if you’re not in that business), then leave the fans to do their icky thing. Your baby is all grown up. Once it’s out in the world, you can’t control who’s fucking it. If you didn’t want that to happen, then you should’ve never let it leave your house. Do what all sane parents do: pretend to live in blissful ignorance.

When it comes to watching your characters say and do things they never would, I can understand the distaste. I’ve told people they can write dialogue for characters in my mods, but is that because I don’t feel proprietary about them? Those NPCS did, after all, start out completely utilitarian in nature. So I considered how I’d feel if someone messed with the characters in my novels.

I had to mull that over, and decided it wouldn’t bother me that much, even though I care a lot more about them. After all, anyone trying to write for my characters is only writing facsimiles of them. They’re not the originals, and everyone would know that. How many people have written stories about Sherlock Holmes? Even when those stories are as good as the originals, they’re good in different ways. Like stories of King Arthur, they build on the legend. They don’t detract from it at all.

I’m not concerned for the same reason I can’t take Kurt Vonnegut fanfic from Kindle Worlds seriously. No one is ever going to replicate Vonnegut’s voice, which is the main draw to his fiction. It’s the same reason anyone trying to write like Douglas Adams or James Joyce ends up falling flat – because they don’t have that specific combination of neurons that produces that particular kind of magic. If you’re trying too hard to be someone else, you’re not putting enough of yourself into it, and that’s the only way you’ll create a compelling voice of your own.

So how do you inoculate your work against being (unfavorably) compared to derivative work? Make sure it’s damned good, so no one can compete. When someone can’t pull that off, they bully people off their “property” because they feel threatened, and it’s pathetic. Good authors are magnanimous towards fandom because they have nothing to lose by it, and they know it. The rest, just aren’t that good.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

4 thoughts to “Fanfic is Not a Threat”

  1. Fanfic actually benefits the author. It spreads your world around to people who would not have heard of you otherwise. It’s a form of advertising that encourages people to check you out.

    1. Great point! Fanfic is not only flattering, it’s good for business. I see a parallel there between that and those studies that found piracy actually does more good than harm.

  2. This was a really interesting read. I’ve put out a few mods myself, and in the readme, I added the clause that people shouldn’t release remixed/edited versions of the mod (barring patches etc). I didn’t even think about it — it just seemed like a given to me that you don’t mess with what someone else has done.

    So I was surprised when I read this and agreed with pretty much everything you said. It’s hypocritical of me to put restrictions on people remixing my stuff when a huge part of modding is doing just that with the original game itself. (I wouldn’t go as far as to say that there’s *nothing* which a mod adds which isn’t just a riff on the game itself, but surely on some level even novel ideas, personalities, stories etc in mods were built up on the base of the original game, and wouldn’t exist without it?)

    I guess next time I update those mods, I’ll just take those clauses out of the readmes.

    Perhaps unlike you, I think I’ll always feel at least a little uncomfortable with the idea of someone rewriting a story or a character in a way which is a huge break from what I wrote them as, but now that I’ve thought about it, it’s clear that “it doesn’t feel good” isn’t a good justification for trying to stamp down other people’s right to remake something which is, at least partially, a remake of another game itself. (Plus, I doubt anyone would actually care enough about any of my mods or other stuff to rewrite them anyway!)

    Thanks for the read and the opportunity for reflection.

    1. I used to have exactly the same gut reaction against fanfic. I’m sure most people only come to accept the idea reluctantly and with much thought – partly because it requires effort to accept people doing things you don’t like, even when those things are harmless (and may benefit you).

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