Originality Is Meaningless

Originality Is Meaningless

Most of the time, people regard fan fiction as somewhat “lesser”—as though the act of borrowing characters or settings from someone else negated everything else about it and made it less worthwhile than so-called “original” fiction. I admit, I used to feel the same way. To be fair, that was largely because the only fan fic I’d come across was the sort that 11-year-olds write about Harry Potter … and the public in general is divided between that and the highly sexualised graphic fic you’ll find rated “E” on archives as their go-to stereotype of what fan fiction actually is.

Over and again, fan fic writers are told that what they’re writing isn’t worth anything, just because they write it for free on the internet as an expression of their love for a book or a film. Although that’s not all it is—it might be the utmost flattery to the writer that somebody loved their concept or characters enough to borrow them, but they’re also saying that they want more, that they want something different, that they’re not quite satisfied with what the writer gave them.

So rarely does fan fiction cross the public radar in anything other than a negative context that when it does, it’s usually in disguise.

It’s funny, really, this hang-up we have about originality. It’s only recently that it’s even become a concern. Shakespeare borrowed all his plots from folk stories, history and mythology. Hamlet, for example, was based on a Danish tale of prince Amleth. You don’t have to take my word for it, because I’m not the only one who’s talked about this:

Homer wrote historyfic and Virgil wrote Homerfic and Dante wrote Virgilfic (where he makes himself a character and writes himself hanging out with Homer and Virgil and they’re like “OMG Dante you’re so cool.” He was the original Gary Stu). Milton wrote Bible fanfic, and everyone and their mom spent the Middle Ages writing King Arthur fanfic.

(full quote is here)

Characters were recycled and reused. As it’s been said: “People were like, why would I wanna read something about some dude I’ve never heard of? There’s a new Sir Gawain story out, man!”

Now let me tell you about a book called The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

There is no other way of describing it: it is published fan fiction. The author, a teacher of Greek and Latin, was looking at the Iliad, and at Plato and what he wrote about it, and was like, “Dude, Achilles and Patroclus were totally a couple.” And spent ten years writing this book.

It has all of our favourite things about fan fiction: the alternate perspective (it tells us the pre-Iliad story, plus the Iliad stuffs, from the point of view of Patroclus), the angst (oh the angst), the fluff (some of it was totally adorable), and the smut (beautifully written and literary, but still smut). But it also has all our favourite things about books, like pages and a cover and good editing and lots of newspapers calling it literary.

See, that’s the difference, isn’t it? You write well-researched fic about Achilles and Patroclus and the critics call you inventive—oh, and “original”. Yep, one of the actual reviews inside the front cover calls it “an original page-turning homage to the Iliad”.

But any fic you write and post on the internet (no matter how well-researched it might be) is immediately dismissed because fan fic is a “starting point” and we value “original fiction”.

I have friends in fandoms from the Iliad (Achilles and Patroclus, mainly) to Hamlet (Hamlet and Horatio, and Gertrude murdered Ophelia) to Les Miserables (Enjolras and Grantaire because that’s basically canon), and they write fantastic fan fiction. It’s pure poetry in language. It’s in-character and well-informed and even, despite having been a labour of love and not money, well-edited. But apparently, it’s not worth as much as a book.

I think society’s attitude to fan fiction is changing, and I think that’s a good thing (up to a point). These days we’re so pretentious about what is and isn’t original, yet there is so much potential to explore old stories and fairy tales, to look at classic works and say, “I see something more than friendship there,” or, “I don’t think it should have ended like that”.

I’m not slating The Song Of Achilles because I think it’s nothing more than fan fiction. I loved it. I had SO MANY EMOTIONS about it—and it almost made me like Achilles enough to take his side in the essay I have to write this afternoon, although not quite. I’m pointing out that if things like that can be longlisted for the Orange Prize, why do we still look down on all the enthusiastic young writers exploring their skills through fic on the internet?

What do you think about fan fiction? Do you write it, read it, abhor it, like it from a safe distance?

And do you ship Achilles and Patroclus?

21 thoughts on “Originality Is Meaningless

  1. I used to love Harry Potter fan fiction. I don’t read or write it anymore because now I’m focusing on original fiction, but I’ll always have a soft spot for it. Fan fiction is just like any other writing – some of it is really good, and some of it is really bad, and then there some that are in the middle. If you want to keep the characters IC and canon-compliant, it actually takes a lot of work.

    This was a great post! We read Dante and Milton in eleventh grade, and since then I’ve considered them both fan fiction writers.

    Have you read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl? It’s about a girl who writes fan fiction, and it’s showed in a positive light. Plus it’s a cute story.

    1. I haven’t read it, no, but I might look into it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. :)
      I’ve read some awesome crossover Harry Potter fics, but I confess I’ve not sought out the ones solely based in that fandom, simply because it hasn’t been one of my main fandoms since I was of an age to read fan fic.

  2. There is a problem with fan fiction, in that what the fan writes may not be what the original author would want. A fan may well see that there’s more to a relationship between two characters than the author let on, but that may well just be the fan’s view.
    When you read the story and think “Those two are *so* a couple”, then that’s fine. But when you then write a story about them getting together, and the person who created those characters sees it and thinks “They are so *not* a couple”, then it runs the risk of changing the way that others perceive those characters in future books that the author may release.
    This is one of the problems that some authors have, and why they absolutely hate fan fiction. It’s felt that they’ve created their worlds and their characters, and then someone comes along and totally changes it.
    I think from this perspective, writers of fan fiction need to respect the characters and worlds that the original author created. Even if it’s so obvious that there was something between the characters and the original author just didn’t know it because it went on while the page was turned.

    An interesting example of what could be called fan fiction, is Thieves World by Robert Aspirin (and many others). Robert Aspirin created a world and characters, and wrote the first short story in it. Then other authors at the time, some well known, some not, continued the overall story with their short stories set in the same world, using the same characters. It’s very interesting to see how the different authors got on with the people and places, and how they respected the previous stories, being careful not to have anyone act out of character, or introduce anything that just didn’t fit into the overall world.

    Some of the best fan fiction I’ve read does a similar thing, it may use one or two characters, but mostly focuses on the bit players and further explores the worlds that have been created. There’s a lot of Star Wars fan fic for example that doesn’t even use any of the original characters, and is set on planets mentioned in passing.

    I find these sorts of fan fic far better, because by respecting the characters and worlds that have been created, and by keeping the new characters and actions within that, the fan fic seems far more like the original stories, which are what you would have read in the first place and liked so much to either read or write fan fic.

    In short, when it’s done well it can be very good. When it’s done badly, you’re left wondering if the writer actually read the book they’re basing it on.

    1. I think it’s true that in some situations, fan fic is totally not in keeping with the author’s intentions. At the same time, readers have just as much right to their interpretations as others — and fan fic readers don’t have to be swayed by it. I’ve read fic for pairings, but I still don’t ship them at all.

      I have some issues with John Green as a writer, but one thing he says is that “books belong to their readers”, claiming that he as a writer doesn’t have any right to assert his interpretation of a character. And of course, writing those interpretations as fan fiction isn’t so different from writing them in a critical essay in terms of influencing future readers.

      Fan fic that explores an extended universe can be fascinating and it’s hugely creative, but I don’t think it’s BETTER than fan fic that stays within the environment of the canon and uses the author’s characters, because people have a right to imagine what they want. I know that my beta readers have sometimes come back to me and said, “Hey, I think this character feels this because…” and it’s something I never thought of, but I actually love it as an interpretation.

      I suppose it all comes down to your interpretation of “ownership” and whether characters belong to the original authors or not, though…

  3. I love well-written fan-fiction. :) (Is it fan-fiction or fan fiction)? Especially fan-fiction about Lily and James, because nobody really knows how in the world they went from Lily screaming at James and calling him an arrogant toerag to the two of them getting married and having Harry.

    I wrote Harry Potter fan-fiction when I was (guilty as charged!) eight or so. It was Harry Potter 8, 9, 10, and 11 because, you see, the Malfoys weren’t dead and they were clearly evil (I hated Draco’s guts) and Harry needed to kill them. In number 8 Harry somehow defied the rules of all magic and made Dumbledore, Sirius, Dobby, his parents, and all of his other dead friends come back to life. They then continued to kill the Malfoys off one by one in the next books. On my eighth (or ninth) birthday, my parents secretly copied the stories and sent them to J.K. Rowling with a birthday card, hoping to get it signed by her. It wasn’t able to get signed, but I did a form letter back and it had a copy of her signature on there, so that was pretty cool. :) And someday J.K. Rowling will read my (terribly-written) fan-fiction stories. ;)

    1. It can be fan fiction, or fan-fiction, or fanfiction. I don’t think any one of those is more “right” than the others!

      I only used Harry Potter fic as an example because when I first started out on writing websites and sharing my work, it was the main thing I came across. (That and Twilight.) Most of it was written by young and inexperienced writers, because of its youthful audience, and therefore a lot of it was fairly poor. I have no doubt that many of them grew up and matured as writers and are now putting me to shame with their prose, ehehe!

  4. I love fanfiction, the well-written ones at least. Even when the stories do not at all resemble the author’s style of writing, or the characters are completely out-of-character, there are still little bits hidden throughout fanfiction that offer a unique insight and different POV of a situation you may have never before thought of differently. If that makes sense.

    I may be biased, though. I read and write fanfic, but read a hell of a lot more than I write. I have seen the horrors of Fanfiction.Net (*cough*My-Immortal*cough*) but I have also discovered some real gems that, in my opinion, are better-written (and much, much longer) than the actual, canon material.

    I do understand that some authors do not want their readers writing fanfiction with their work, and I get that since the authors basically invented the worlds and the characters, they feel entitled to their canonical universes. However, I also really love it when other authors encourage (and, in some cases, read) the fanfiction of their book(s).

    As to the Harry Potter fic jibe you slipped in at the beginning, there are a lot of majorly-cliched and/or Mary-Sued fics in the Potter fandom –and I should know, I’ve read HP fics for years– but mainly because the Potter fandom is so broad. It appeals to everyone, and people from just about every walk of life write HP fics. Yes, you do have cliche, Sue-filled fics written by teens, but those teens can also produce novel-length works of art that are read, reviewed, and liked by thousands of people. Adult ficwriters can –and do– but into the too-oft-used plotlines of “Harry turns to the Dark Side”, “Harry is abused by the Dursleys”, and/or “Harry’s real father is Snape”, but again, they can churn out hundred-thousand-word-length fics that draw many, many readers. (that’s also why so many crapfics exist) But yeah, the HP ficdom is the one to turn to if you want diversity. (and the never-ending supply of smut is a bonus [I’m such a perv, but Neville is hot.])

    1. Trust me, I have nothing against the entire body of Harry Potter fan fic. Whether it’s just a 200-word headcanon (I’m partial to Marauders’ Era ideas) or a longer crossover, I’ve come across some gems. I was referring specifically to the sort written by writers incredibly new to the art, many of whom start out in the Harry Potter fandom before moving on, because that was the only fan fic I came across for many years!
      I think I phrased it misleadingly though, because I’ve had to explain this too many times already… ehehe. :)
      Because I hang out primarily in the smaller fandoms — not that they’re necessary SMALL, but they’re not as huge as things like HP — the fic is very different, just because of the atmosphere. In the Hamlet fandom, it’s limited by the number of people; in the Les Mis fandom it varies in quality but there are some truly gifted and well-educated fans who bring spectacular 19th-century puns to the table; in the Good Omens fandom it’s frequently hilarious even while ripping your heart out…

  5. Oh, I thought I commented on this!
    Anyway.
    I would be happy if someone wrote fanfic of my stories, because that would mean they’d liked it enough to want it to continue.
    And I think that every theme, amazing plot, etc has been done before – so don’t worry about originality.

    I do not ship Achilles and Patroclus but I have a friend who goes on about them enough that I may have to read about them and see.

    1. They’re practically canon and also adorably heartbreaking.

      Yay, you’re back! I feel like I’ve had barely any comments recently and I was wondering if nobody liked me…

      1. OK. There’s some book with them, not the one you mentioned, where she really likes Achilles and Patroclus. *can’t remember what it is* *will have to ask*

        Ha ha, I feel like that a lot. It’s nice to know that other people especially people with *cough*really cool blogs *cough* feel like that, sometimes I think I have unrealistic expectations. I mean, I have 200 followers and I see maybe 15 regularly in the comments. What.

        1. Is it the Iliad? Because that’s a thing. ;-) For srs though, let me know what it is so I can have all of the fanfic.

          You have more followers than me if you have 200; I like to think I produce quality, but I produce it in a way that leaves me rather unnoticed in a corner of the internet even three years after this blog came into existence.

          1. *giggles* Yes, but… I keep thinking there’s another series, based off of it. *googles*

            Well, it shouldn’t be ignored! *doesn’t understand Freshly Pressed because honestly there are some blogs that should be FPed several times over and they never get it*

          2. Alas, though long have I dreamt of a coveted space on that front page, I have never had the honour. I shall remain unobserved until the time comes and then, my friend, THEN I shall take over the world.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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