I’ve discovered that fan fiction is a topic that I feel very strongly about, but I had no idea I cared until last week. I don’t write fan fiction. I don’t read it. It was only about a year ago that I discovered fan fiction existed, and I was not interested in the slightest.
A few days ago I read this post by Victoria Schwab, author of The Archived. I recommend you read the post and the comments, [EDIT: Apparently Ms. Schwab deleted the post on her site, so I’ve changed the link to the cached page from google.] but the gist is a fan asked Ms. Schwab if she would be okay with someone taking her characters and writing new stories about them to sell. She said, “I hope the story will feel done. And in the end, those are *my* characters. I’m happy for people to write fan fiction, but I wouldn’t want to see it on shelves.” I admire her diplomatic answer.
But for me, diplomacy wasn’t even on my radar. I was furious. I gripped my computer with the jealous claws of Gollum clutching his Preciousss and said, “Not my characters, you won’t!” And I’m not even published!
When I got past the fury and down to the heart of the matter, I realized this is less about fan fiction (someone rewriting an author’s story purely for fun and to amuse fellow fans) and more about plagiarism (someone rewriting an author’s story, changing names and identifying details, and passing it off to a publisher as their own creation). As an admin in a large liberal arts college for three years, I was well-acquainted with the rampant problem of plagiarism. This is not just a problem in education but in publishing, journalism, and scientific research. No one seems to think it matters that you write your own words any more (or as the case may be, your own characters, setting, or plot).
I spent five years researching Mars for my shelved sci-fi trilogy. I learned about environmental engineering, aeroponic and hydroponic farming, and underground architecture styles. I studied the effects of reduced gravity, longer day/night cycles, and increased radiation on the human body. I bought books about the Mars rover, colonizing Mars, and space exploration. I spent countless hours reading articles from NASA and the Mars Society about plans for Martian colonization. I mapped out all the locations from my book on a map of Mars and calculated how long it would take to get from place to place by car or by rocket plane. I made my own soymilk!
That work matters.
Trying to publish fiction based on something someone else wrote is the same as saying, “I don’t need to do all that work. See, I can write your characters just like you!” No, you can’t. Even if the writing style is bad, the world-building is lacking, and the characters don’t feel real, you can’t rewrite a story and call it your own. Once in awhile I read a novel and think, “I could do this so much better than this author. This is awful writing.” Then I slap myself. Sure, I could edit or ghost-write a story, but I wouldn’t be writing that story. The heavy lifting would be done for me: plot, character development, and setting. And that heavy lifting is what makes a person a writer.
If (and that’s a big if) I ever get published and if (again, a HUGE if) my stories find enough of an audience that people write fan fiction about it, I’ll be flattered. I’ll also cringe inside and think, “Please don’t. Do your own heavy lifting.”