Fan fiction extends story beyond ‘The End’


By Anna Weldon / Impulse Editor

Before Tim Joy first started writing fan fiction 10 years ago, he was working on an original story.

“I looked at it for the first time the other day, and well, let’s just say that it will never see the light of day,” Joy said in an e-mail.

Although not a well-known published author, Joy is now the owner of and a frequent fan fiction contributor to the site under the name Jeconais.

Fan fiction is not new to popular culture, but its fairly low profile is lately on the rise. Driven by responses elicited from fans of original works, fan fiction as a form of artistic expression is taking over the Internet, making it difficult to read a popular book or watch a blockbuster film without seeing a reaction to it.

As its title implies, fan fiction is a form of artistic production undertaken by fans of a particular literary or cinematic work. Fan fiction writers base their narratives on pre-existing texts of all forms, using a popular author’s characters, setting and themes to continue the original author’s story or produce their own. The secondary works then often circulate among other fans on the Internet, allowing for endless permutations of a single narrative concept. Fan fiction is not limited solely to written fiction. It extends to movies, television and video games, as well.

Joy finds fan fiction to have an “easy nature,” giving him and other writers the opportunity to be more prolific in their writing. The canon, or official work, acts as a guide. Readers already know the characters and plot, so the fan fiction author does not need to take the time to introduce everything.

“This freedom lowers the barrier of entry, and allows anyone with an idea and some time the chance to think of an idea and start to write it,” he said. Joy’s creative writing process is much like those of more traditional authors: “It starts with an idea,” he said.

“If the idea stays with me for a week or more, I’ll write a few thousand words and see how the characters are interacting, if the idea is interesting, and if I can sustain it to a new story. It’s a very small percentage of ideas that I actually write in to full stories,” Joy said.

Mark Best, a lecturer in the English and film studies departments at Pitt, teaches a course in which he incorporates a fan fiction lesson. He encourages students to search for their own examples of fan fiction online, as fan fiction is circulated “primarily through the Internet,” Best said.

“Students have found examples of fan fiction based on anything from the life and lifestyles of different celebrities, the basis of ‘The Real World,’ real-life stuff, to sports, to fan fiction written on solitaire,” Best explained.

Because fan fiction derives from another piece of artistic expression, the possibilities for its inspiration are virtually endless. Fans who feel passionately about any basic text can write lengthy narrative responses that would then be termed fan fiction. There is only one criteria these fans must follow: Their work must be based off a formerly produced text, rather than represent something original. “They’re taking something that’s already been created,” Best said.

But as Joy notes, although it is derived from previous works, fan fiction still allows writers to create something. It gives writers the chance to expand their own ideas and receive feedback from other authors.

“Fan fiction authors (at least when they start out) thrive on feedback, and that feedback can be harsh — far moreso regarding grammar and spelling than anything else. So you are forced to learn the rules you didn’t pay attention to at school,” Joy wrote in an email.

Best understands the importance of fan fiction, but he’s clear to note the difference between it and original artistic production.

“It’s like apples and oranges,” he said.

Fan film, another outlet for enthusiasts, takes an approach similar to that of written fan fiction but applies its elaborations to film. Neepa Majumdar, professor of film studies, also incorporates the subject into her semester-long course.

“[Fan film] is any film that takes as a starting point an existing film and either uses images from them and adds a new soundtrack, or makes a new film that pays tribute to or critiques it,” Majumdar said.

Unlike fan fiction, fan film has much more recent origins, and has exploded on the Internet with the help of certain video-based sites. As fan films are most frequently based off of popular franchises, they are closely related to the parody short, but according to Majumdar, there’s one important difference. Fan film is “a loving parody, not meant to put down the original. Everybody recognizes it,” the professor noted. “Fan film and parody, they overlap a lot.”

Because film equipment today is more readily available to everyone than it has been in the past, film production has drastically increased. Anyone with a camera on their phone could film a short movie and upload it almost immediately.

“One thing is clear, that the short film is in some ways more prolific than our standard feature-length film,” Majumdar said. “Most people watch, on average, one short film per day.”

The ubiquitous nature of short films and the ready availability of filming equipment his gives fans the opportunity to develop their own creative response to a previous work through the short film.

“It’s exploded now that people have the means of making them at their fingertips,” Majumdar said.

For fans who feel passionately about a television show or novel, it isn’t uncommon for them to create their own form of expression in response.

And the first time these reactions began was in a galaxy far, far away.

“People say that the first films that elicited this sort of fan involvement were the ‘Star Wars’ films,” Majumdar said. Today, film reactions exist for almost every popular franchise, including “The Lord of the Rings,” “Star Trek” and even the popularized and highly-parodied “Twilight” series.

In the case of “Twilight,” fan fiction extended from amateur creation and became mainstream. The “Fifty Shades of Grey” series began as a response to the “Twilight” franchise. Originally writing simply as a pastime, E.L. James chose to strip her books of their fan-fiction quality in order to publish them as separate entities. She invented her own characters — Christian and Anna — and rewrote her books substantially to distinguish them from the “Twilight” series.

Although the use of another author’s characters and story concept would normally raise significant copyright issues, fan fiction writers can typically avoid legal issues as long as their work is not distributed for profit. For “Fifty Shades of Grey,” James had to significantly change her reaction into its own franchise to separate it from fan fiction.

“While it started as ‘Twilight’ fan fiction, it’s not that anymore,” Best said. “To become something different, something publishable, it had to stop being ‘Twilight’ fan fiction.”

Perhaps because of its racy themes and tales of sexual exploits, “Fifty Shades of Grey” reached a larger audience than usual for fan fiction. Once James made her work original fiction, a wider variety of readers were able to indulge in the adult literature.

Best explained that these themes are often examined in fan fiction.

“Fan fiction allows that [sexual] area to be explored. You’re not going to have a lot of sex on mainstream primetime TV shows. Fan fiction allows you to do that,” Best said.

But despite the mainstream popularity of James’ books, fan fiction still exists largely as an alternative hobby.

Joy didn’t disagree.

“Fan fiction is a hobby, and as such, should be fun and stress free,” he said.

Joy explained that the main purpose of fan fiction is entertainment. Those who want to continue the end of a story or are waiting for an author to release something new tend to create their own stories.

“I also think that it has a small role to play in keeping a level of interest in the original author’s work,” he said.

Although the visibility of fan fiction is increasing, the phenomenon still exists mainly online.

“Fan fiction is typically amateur in both the sense of who’s making it and how it’s being distributed,” Best said. As such, it’s held to a separate set of standards than original works, both legally and artistically.

“Thanks to the Internet, it’s far more widely available,” Best explained. “One could say it’s of far lesser quality. Anyone can write fan fiction and put it out there and that’s great. It’s very democratic. But if anyone can do it, then anyone with bad writing or ideas and writing skills can do it. The quality is often really dubious.”

Despite fan fiction’s amateur nature, Best finds major production companies open to a response from fans. “The fact is, many companies producing material are far more open to fan input. So fans have much more of a say, and there is a much greater desire to cater to the fan base,” Best said.

“It’s very simple, and most interesting. You’re taking something that you really love and care about and doing what you want with it,” Best said, noting that fan fiction gives fans free reign to manipulate and expand on virtually any artistic production.

And with the Internet readily available for virtually anyone, nearly everyone has the opportunity to participate in the production of fan fiction like Joy and the other writers on fan fiction websites.

“It is fun to take something known and twist it,” Joy said.