Fan fiction is an interesting topic to discuss, largely because of the complicated area—legally speaking—in which it sits. For those who aren’t familiar, fan fiction is where you take someone else’s writing and adapt it, using your own ideas. There are two main ways in which this usually materialises. Firstly, you can rewrite some of the story to bring in a change that you think is appropriate or works better (for example: rewriting Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets because you think the basilisk should have killed Harry). Secondly, and the much more common iteration of fan fiction, you can continue the story (for example: writing about what happened to Harry after The Deathly Hallows).
Unfortunately, fan fiction is infringement upon someone else’s rights. It’s the same for almost every media; I can’t make a short film in the Star Wars universe where Darth Vader lives and he and Luke restore the Jedi Order and upload it to YouTube without Lucasfilm (and therefore Disney) very quickly forcing me—or, more likely, YouTube—to take it down. Or worse, sue me into bankruptcy.
It is worth noting that the law on intellectual property is different to copyright. For example, Sherlock Holmes has been in the public domain since 2001, as Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930. That means you can write freely about the character of Sherlock Holmes. The BBC adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch, however, is not public domain. To write fan fiction of that iteration of Sherlock would require written permission from the producers, as the adaptation itself is their intellectual property.
Ultimately, fan fiction puts you on very shaky ground, legally. No matter how you defend it, you are using somebody else’s intellectual property and publishing it under your name.
As fan fiction is intellectual theft at the end of the day, why is it a complicated issue? It seems that not all authors have the same opinion of fan fiction. Neil Gaiman has said that he’s okay with people writing it about his characters, whereas George R. R. Martin has said that no author should allow it because of the damage it does to the artistic credibility of the original work. Those who allow fan fiction of their work to be created almost always have caveats, the biggest of which is usually that the writer doesn’t mind what you do with it as long as you don’t try and make money. I can’t put Shadow Moon—from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods—into my book and then try and sell it, even if he’s only relegated to a cameo role.
I think it’s also important that we define selling. For the most part, money is not a factor in selling. Selling means that it is commercially available. The majority of fan fiction websites are not distributing, they’re displaying the material and that is an important distinction. If I uploaded my book with Shadow Moon on one of those sites I’d be fine—with Neil Gaiman, at least—but if I published it on Kindle as a commercially available self-published book, or used one of the many other self-publishing platforms, I’d run into a lawsuit, even if I made it available for free, because I am still selling it. Now, it’s possible that I’d just get a stern email saying that I should remove the book from sale. It’s also possible that I’d get a very official letter from a team of lawyers with a court date seeking hundreds of thousands, or even millions, in damages. I would lose that lawsuit as well. Almost guaranteed.
On the other side of the argument, there is nothing inherently wrong in writing fan fiction if it’s for personal use. It can be a fun distraction and I know several writers who partake in it.
Some writers suggest it as a writing exercise, however in this regard fan fiction does fall quite flat. You’re taking someone else’s setting, characters and, quite often, massive elements of their plot and adding a bit. While any writing is good practice, fan fiction is, in my opinion, one of the worst ways you can develop your writing craft.
Most importantly, you’re training the wrong things. With everything else done for you, all you’re doing is developing your skill to put one word in front of the other which is the easiest thing to work on. You’re not working on all the other elements that make good storytelling. You’re doing zero work with characters. Someone like Stephen King who, realistically, is arguably only just a good writer from a technical standpoint, is as successful as he is because he’s fantastic at creating characters. This is one of the main reasons why he’s in the position that he is. At its very core, writing is about characters. You can have a ground-breaking plot with a fantastic setting and writing so good that it defies logic, but without well-written characters your masterpiece is nothing more than a jolly nice interactive map. The characters make the story something great and, if you rely entirely on other writers to make your characters, you’re never going to learn how to do it yourself.
What would be a much more effective way to use fan fiction is to take your characters and put them into someone else’s setting. Your character—who is an entirely original creation and not a fictionalised version of yourself with God-like powers and perfect luck and all the other horrific traits of a Mary Sue or Gary Stu—are told that they’re a wizard and are sent to Hogwarts. Your characters will react and interact with the setting and plot differently, and that makes something interesting that is also developing your skills as a writer.
That’s why all of this boils down to fan fiction being a very complicated issue. Not only do you have to contend with the original author’s opinion on the matter and the legal standpoint with rights holders, but you also have to consider why you’re writing it and decide if it’s the best thing for you. If you’re doing something for fun and it’s just for you then, really, there’s nothing wrong with it. If you’re doing it to develop skills or to publish then there are dozens of alternatives that will serve that purpose better, like writing your own original material.
© 2019 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.