I read a blog entry about fanfiction today and – as with most things that end with a blog response of my own that’s not just me saying “look at this, it’s brilliant” – I disagreed with it.
But before I launch into the disagreement part, here’s the entry:
It’s by a fantasy author called George RR Martin, responding to an ongoing debate about fanfiction and professional authors – context at the bottom of the post if you’re interested – but this is the part that caught my eye in particular:
Here’s the thing. I think the fan fictioneers write about certain characters because they love them. And I think the writers who object to having their characters written about do so because they love them too. Which brings us back to the “my characters are my children” thing, which may be central.
Now, not all writers feel this way, certainly. Some will say, “Do whatever you want with my characters, I don’t care, so long as you don’t impinge on my ability to make a living. If you start f*cking with my income stream, I’ll shut you down. Elsewise, have fun.” Which is fine, if you share that view. But y’know, I don’t. I’ll never say something like that. I DO care what you do with my characters.
Reading this, I felt that kind of hand-flappy excitement you get when somebody’s wrong on the internet, and you wish they were in the room so you could communicate exactly why they’re wrong… or, well, wrong is the wrong word.
It’s more that the world of fiction he’s describing is a parallel universe to one I experience as a reader and as a writer. It’s an uncomfortable but sort of thrilling discovery – like finding out that someone else sees the colour green as your blue. It’s like arguing with an intelligent, good-natured Republican – ie, you find yourself realising that two well-meaning, intelligent individuals can look at the same thing (the world, a story, the universe) and see utterly different things.
When I look at stories – or children, for that matter – I see entities that exist out there in the world, utterly separate from the authors/parents who created them. There’s a foreigness in the idea that an author has some kind of ownership over “their” characters that goes beyond narrow legal issues of copyright. It’s as foreign as people who see property as an inalienable right rather than a handy construct to stop us all bashing one another over the head.
Or, to use a religious example… in Christianity, as I’ve always read it, Jesus doesn’t “belong” to God – he belongs to everyone. In the same way, a story doesn’t “belong” to the author – it has its own existence out there in the world. Jesus was the Word made flesh. Characters are Word-clay that’s had life breathed into it by the imagination. No one owns them – they’re a part of the world.
Once a character has been committed to paper or its digital equivalent and “sent out” into the world, they exist in the realm of stories – which, in turn, exists in the minds of readers.
Characters and plots and worlds echo one another. They influence how each story is experienced. Characters, themes, plots and ideas can give birth to new life – in terms of how they influence stories that come after. They can change depending on who they’re “with” (ie who’s reading the story or interpreting it).
Martin’s framing of the situation sets up an opposition of “people who care about their characters” and “people who only care about the money their characters make”, implying that if you are emotionally invested in the characters you’ve created, it follows that you’ll want to keep everyone else away from them.
But, how about this? What if you see each piece of fiction as a part of a larger whole? And “my characters are my children” is better expressed as “my characters are the latest arrangement of a fundamental fictional reality that exists behind everything, all the time, in the human collective consciousness”.
The idea that a character belongs to its creator seems as strange as the idea that I could own the seasons, if I happened to be the first person to articulate them as concepts.
Behind all this is a kind of faith – I believe fiction exists in some way beyond each individual author. Stories have a kind of fire and power that can’t be owned. We can enjoy them and make new ones and share them and explore the worlds of stories. But we can’t own them on a metaphysical level, any more than we can own fire itself.
When it comes to fanfiction, there’s a lot of bad writing and a lot of wish-fulfilment. There’s also a lot of creative stuff that I think, if we were talking copyright, would constitute fair use because it transforms the source material so much…. but, whether or not fanfiction’s good, I think it taps into something important about fiction.
Fanfiction embodies the idea that a work of fiction takes on a life of its own. It comes through an author – perhaps you could say they filter it out of the collective narrative consciousness – but it could just as well have come through someone else. But, you’re also doing what literature has always done – explore and retell the same stories. Shakespeare was accused of reworking “mouldy tales”, and few of his plots are “his”; James Joyce wrote Homer fanfic; Stoppard wrote Shakespeare fanfic. Literature eats itself, digests itself, converts itself into new energy.
Fanfiction itself embodies Tolkien’s idea of “sub-creation”; it’s a Platonic game, seeking out something beyond the shadows that is the essence of a story.
Ok, a lot of it’s just porn written by lonely 15 year olds. But, porn that has the potential to unlock and showcase the vital spark of fiction.
NB: If you like to delve into the roots of things on the infinitely regressive internets, you can read the beginning of the debate, here:
I haven’t read all of the debate, so if you read it all and I’ve missed something interesting, let me know.
George RR Martin’s initial post in response:
And then the post that I quoted from at the top: