For reasons too embarrassing to go into here, I’ve recently become a little bit obsessed with the boyband One Direction. Yes, the pre-packaged quintet of young men marketed at girls half my age. Let’s just agree that this has been a real low point in my twenties and move on.
Immersing myself in the One Direction community gave me my first real exposure to fan fiction, usually called fanfic for short. These are stories centering on already established characters, whether fictional characters from a book or film, or idealised versions of real people. These stories can be “canon”, and take place within the characters’ usual setting, or “alternate universe”, in which they lead different lives. For example, recasting One Direction as schoolmates rather than popstars, or Harry Potter and his pals as non-wizards. Sometimes, worlds collide, and you’ll find Frodo Baggins on tour with the Rolling Stones.
Half of me dismissed this as piddling nonsense, while the other half became completely overinvested. A friend had to put up with 3am texts from me wondering if I’d ever find the kind of love two members of One Direction found with each other in an alternate universe story.
And this is where fanfic becomes problematic. From the 1960s, fanfic was a rather niche activity, restricted to hardcore fans who traded stories at conventions. With the rise of the Internet, fanfic is now available to everyone – including whoever it’s about. Considering how graphic some of the stories are, it must be alarming for a celebrity to stumble upon a story that places them in such sexual situations, written by somebody they’ve never met.
If it’s a little inappropriate to pull real people into graphic literary fantasies, surely imaginary characters are okay. Every few years, I reread David Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean series, a low-rent Lord of the Rings from the 1980s. Although there are 12 books in these series (plus one “non-fiction” book detailing the history of the world they take place in), I always feel sad when I close the last book, and can understand why some fans would want to continue the story. The best part of the books is the sarcastic sorcerer family at their centre: why not cast them in more adventurous situations?
While some authors and filmmakers embrace these spin-offs written by fans, others are not so enthused. Fantasy writers Diana Gabaldon and George R. R. Martin have been particularly outspoken about their disdain for fanfic.
Martin’s point is mainly that it’s lazy writing. He’s spent a great deal of energy building an elaborate and believable world, and fanfic writers use his hard work to create an instant emotional reaction in readers. Gabaldon is a little more irate and litigious: fanfic is essentially illegal, she says, as it uses her copyrighted intellectual property.
Many are quick to suggest that Gabaldon may be tossing stones inside her glass castle, as the hero of her Outlander series was inspired by a Dr Who character. Nevertheless, she’s spent decades crafting this world: who are we to invade it?
I can understand why creative people are protective of their creations, but also why fans would want to add to them. Is it all that different from an art student practicing painting by copying van Gogh’s Starry Night?
I can also understand why real celebrities would be creeped out by having new lives imagined for them. That said, if you need me, I’ll be reading about the boys from One Direction going on a date. I hope they kiss!