Fan Fiction: A Personal Perspective
Sunita talked a bit about why some people write fan fiction. I’d like to talk a bit about my perspective.
A little background: I’ve been a reader in many fandoms for about ten years, but I primarily write in one. I also run a fandom community. Legality of fan fics doesn’t really come into it for my fandom. It’s manga-based, and manga creators and their publishers know that a large excited fan base sells books. They go out of their way to include characters that will draw the attention of those who like to create fan works. In the fandom for which I write, the author was herself a fan who did the same thing before she went pro.
To me the important thing about fan fic is that while a few people may write it in a solitary environment, from my experience it’s really a community-based activity. That’s both a good and bad thing, centered around the fact that fandom communities can be very insular.
It’s bad because it makes people lose perspective. There’s a balance that has to be reached within a community when it comes to fan fic. Some people are practicing writing and want constructive criticism, emphasis on the constructive. Many get it through beta writers; some want it from readers. They want to do it better. Other fans don’t care about improving. They’re only writing to share things with other fans, their love of the original work and characters, their take on aspects of the original work, and sometimes more personal things. They don’t plan on writing outside of a fandom.
The balance is how much criticism do you allow in the community and how? It can stifle fan participation until there’s next to none, and no one posts anything for the joy of it. On the other hand, without it, there’s a loss of a real sense of quality of work. Personally, I don’t allow it on the groups I moderate unless writers are OK with it. It’s part of their fic header. That way, those who just want to have fun and throw out an idea can do so without worrying about people jumping down their throats, and those who want to improve can do so. I think fans feeling fun and safe is more important.
That can lead to a skewed perspective though. In fan fic stories tend to be graded on a scale, which means a lauded story in fandom could be great, but there’s no guarantee. And when they’re hit with a lot of praise, writers can forget that just because a fic is considered better doesn’t mean it’s good.
I think that’s responsible for situations like some we’ve seen recently where less-than-spectacular fan fic has the serial numbers filed off and is published simply because it had fan support. There’s a huge difference between fandom-ready and publication-ready, and that seems to be getting lost.
A loss of perspective can also be a problem when misinformation is perpetuated. In m/m fandoms a lot of that centers around gay sex. We have some gay members, and fans are happy to ask questions, but the few guys just want to read fic and have fun, not necessarily be everyone’s Wiki. BDSM is another problem area. But I think that’s a problem whenever any small group of fans gets together. Not everyone is represented there, and not everyone is an expert. There are always Cliff Clavins. But the fact that people are talking to begin with can also spread good information. I’ve had fans from isolated parts of the world post to talk about AIDS for example, and everyone learned something from that discussion.
And that leads to some of the best things about being in a fandom and writing fic. The fact that the communities are insular tends to make them safe places to discuss a lot of topics, and fiction is a safe way for the members to express themselves on these topics without even really mentioning them if the aren’t able to.
Fan fic is certainly done solely out of love and fun for a number of fans. But for many others, the themes within reflect questions and issues within themselves, and they write to communicate these things and try to understand them. Gender, sexuality, abuse are just a few among the topics explored in fan fic. Some writers take familiar characters and change their sex and try to figure out what that would mean to his character and relationship, or they make him pregnant while he’s still male (I think these fics are partly revenge-based). Or maybe they subject him to rape, or uncertainty about his sexuality.
Other fans are incredibly supportive when discussions of these issues come up. Sexuality and experimentation are played with within fics and that’s celebrated. 95% of the members of one community I’m in are female, but over a third have said they don’t feel that way. Sexuality is represented in its many permutations. All of it is accepted. Abuse and negative situations are discussed and if people ‘testify’ they are supported.
Now I have to get a little personal. I’m a rape victim. It happened long ago, but for a long time it was something I had trouble addressing, at least up until I entered a particular BL manga fandom (I won’t talk about the differences between BL and Western m/m, which could fill a book; as Alton Brown says, that’s for another post). This particular manga contains rape and non-con situations between several men. Two of the men end up in a romantic relationship. It’s drawn in a beautiful style, aesthetically pleasing. It was something even I could look at, even though I didn’t understand why I would want to.
BL manga expects its readers to understand the rape tropes used within it. Because of that, the manga for the most part doesn’t explore this. But fic writers do. It led me to start writing about the couple myself, the first writing I’d ever done in my life, exploring their dynamics, getting into their heads, and letting me explore my past and my feelings in a safe way. These men were not me. They were not even female. I could start there.
But even more important, I started noticing similarities in other stories, women exploring similar themes, and they reached out to me and I them, and we found ways to talk about what had happened to us using these characters. Readers began opening up to me because of what I was writing, some of them telling me I was the first person they’d ever told about their rapes. One friend actually took the manga and her fics into her therapy sessions and began discussing it for the first time ever. And I began to talk about it openly.
Even though the characters and world used are someone else’s to start with, during the writing process it still becomes deeply personal to the one doing the writing. These characters become a way to easily express joy, laughter, pain and any number of things that the writer could not express any other way. I love the lighter side of fan fiction, but authors, if your characters have led to the easing of pain of others, isn’t that something to celebrate?
I’ve experienced this first hand in my favorite fandom. It is something I see in every fandom I read in: people with something awful happening in their lives or past, trying to talk about it through the fics they write. They go into a fandom because they love the original work. Most, including me, will never write well enough to publish anything and we don’t really want to. So we borrow the characters and places we love to help us say something important to us, in a place where we feel safe saying it. Many writers never even notice that they’re doing it.
At first I was sad that so many people in fandom are injured in some way. But then I realized of course that these are the people who are now able to express it. And that’s a very good thing.
This isn’t how it is for all fic writers. Some do just have fun. Some just want to explore what’s not been explored to their satisfaction. Others want to work on their writing. It’s all good, so long as they remind themselves to keep some perspective. But when you think about why fic writers write, remember that for some it’s not really what they keep the same as the original that’s interesting. It’s what they change. Because that’s where their story is, one they wouldn’t have been able to tell without fandoms and fan fiction.