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In Defense of Transformative Works

Sigh. The fandom world has truly just been lit ablaze lately, hasn't it? Everyone has been at home for months, and bored, so they're coming up with reasons to hate things. It's all just loud, isn't it? Just really, really loud. So, instead of diving headfirst into all of that, let's focus on something a little more digestible. If you saw my last blog post, which was just me sharing a YouTube video about fanfiction, then you can probably guess that my love of stories extends even to fanfiction.

I support your fanfiction, it's valid, and so are your dreams.

Fanfiction and its source material are diametrically opposed lovers

One main reason I love fanfiction, is by its very existence, it argues against the use of derivative as a slur.

If you ever hear someone try to use derivative as a reason to discredit any media, go ahead and assume the rest of their opinion doesn't have the critical analysis they're pretending it has. Any person has heard that there are no original ideas anymore. Consider the story you pick up next. It's a window into a world. What makes up the aesthetics, characters, and setting of that world is the window dressing of a frame you've seen before. By the end of the book, I bet you've found a way to classify the tropes, cast of characters, and thematic genre of the story. The reason for this isn't because the author just coated whatever already existed as their own. It's because the tropes, genres, and exploratory themes we delve into in fiction pull from grounded ideas and messages we've already discovered in our own world. These stories are reminders of them and safe exploration of what you may or may not endorse in the "real world".

When someone says a work of art is "derivative," what they're really saying is it's accessible, and they recognize the themes in other stories they've read before. That alone isn't a reason to call something bad. If you don't like those themes, tropes, and settings, that's fine. But derivation is not a proper way to discredit media—should you live in a world where you believe that's something we can even do.

The other reason why I appreciate fanfiction is because it's a great stepping stone for budding and tenured authors. There are some published authors out there that disagree with this sentiment, but I think some of it⁠actualized or notstems from two places:

  1. A desire to maintain a sense of traditionalism that fosters the aesthetic of brooding writers hunched over an aged table, with simmering cigarettes resting next to an unwashed coffee cup, mountains of papers for a half-finished manuscript, and the signs of well-worn typewriter ribbons and pencilswhere all ideas are born of something more than repurposed tropes and universes already seen

  2. (And a much simpler point...) pride for their original work, and an inability to reconcile with the lack of control they have over any fanfic's plot resolutions, character psychoanalyses, and use of setting and its tangible objects

Admittedly, I can understand the second. It's hard to put something into the world only to have someone else pull from it something you're not expecting or really want. You have an aim and motivation for the stories you write. But there's a bigger thing to writing that I think more editors have an easier time contending with than writers may. That "thing" is: Once it's out there, it's out there.

You can say your piece on it, but you should let your story breed something bigger than your ideas. Your mind, though we appreciate it for the work you do, isn't some fantastic realm of unknown, geomorphic proportions yet unmatched. The wrinkles in your brain crease like cliff-side strata—just like anyone else's. What you can do with that mind is still wonderful and yours, but the same can be said for the flavor fandom can produce. And fandom has fervor.

If there is a universe, setting, or character you really love, fanfiction gives you the chance to play with them. Break canon, try out something entirely new! Go on, do it.

Fanfiction is often touted as the preteen's dream fiction. But plenty of people of varying ages, races, religions, sexualities, gender identities, and writing skills dabble in fanfiction. You shouldn't need that fact alone to legitimize it as a form of writing, but it might help knowing that plenty of people write and read fanfiction just as frequently as books on a shelf. In fact, some of your favorite authors proudly boast that they still write fanfiction, years after being published and making lots of money off of their original works. Sometimes we even see fanfiction get reworked as original fiction, but that's another topic for another time.

Point is, you can dream big in fiction, and you can dream just as big in fanfiction.

And the "dream big" notion is truly the reason I'm writing this now.

I've said before, "If it's not for you, put it down." I worry that this didn't translate to be as universal of a rule as I meant for it to the first time. So, let me emphasize this in a way that potentially does not make me look petulant or combative...

If it's not for you, put it down. (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧

Now, doesn't that feel better? You're probably wondering why I reiterated that point.

Fanfiction writers have all felt the weight of a comment that demanded someone update faster, regarded their content as egregious because it broke canon, or otherwise angered the reader because something happened they didn't want to happen. (But we've talked about that last point, haven't we?)

These blows taken from the public can be overwhelming for writers who set out to tell specific stories that make them happy. Readers seem to take personal offense at the recycling of canonical material that doesn't align with their perspective. I've even seen this happen when the intention to violate canon is boldly stated in the author's notes as a heavy disclaimer to canon warriors.

Still Making an obvious statement about Fanfiction

Both the writer and the reader are looking for different things when they head to fanfiction archives. This is true in original works, as well, but fandoms get tenacious about their desires when they've made the decision to head to one or all of the popular fanfiction websites out there. What happens when one of those passionate fandomites happens to be a canon warrior? The answer is usually even more long-winded than this post, and it's in comment form devoid of helpful criticism or approach.

But fanfiction writers don't have any obligation to canon. Transformative works don't exist "just to tell the story"—it's in the definition of its own genre. There are plenty of authors who will focus on "story rewrites" in a fit of rage when the media they've consumed let them down. But assuming every fanfic writer is just spite-writing their way through to the end can limit a reader's interpretation of the work. Even if the content is subtly different, it's still a creative endeavor that doesn't need constraints to be valid.

Canon and lore can be so fun. It's what breeds the very genre of writing we're talking about, but it is also full of delicious details that keep us on the edge of our seats and make us want to bend and explore them on our own.

Published Fanfiction Has Existed for Hundreds of Years

Here are some published examples of fanfiction that maybe you didn't know about or expect (and we're not counting the fanfiction-to-original-fiction content):

  1. Paradise Lost by John Milton - This epic poem was published in 1667 and is about the dichotomy of good and evil, and man's relationship to God. As such, it is centered around the Fall of Man—the fateful sins of Adam and Eve.

  2. Othello by William Shakespeare - Honestly, Shakespeare popularized a lot of source material that didn't start as his own, and Othello is no exception. This play actually started as the Italian story "The Moorish Captain". Critics have regarded the Italian work as racist, with the interpretation it is meant to warn against interracial marriage. Shakespeare changed the plot and characters to add some more tasty oomph. His classic work looked at relationships with a complicated, tragic, and passionate lens—as he was known for doing.

  3. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri - This triad of narrative poetry was finished in 1320, and it consists of a tour of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. Now, this one is usually referenced as Biblical fanfiction, akin to Paradise Lost. In some way, I agree, and that's why I've kept it on the list. But I think this is more of a thematic and setting mirroring than following a specific story from the Bible.

  4. The Once and Future King by T.H. White - This story actually takes the legends of King Arthur and Camelot and adds some of White's own flair. The story more or less follows the same grandiosity of the original, which on its own makes it a fanfiction. However, there is subtext that leads readers to believe Lancelot might be gay, and the subject of his desires could be King Arthur. If that subtext reading is true, we call that a slash fic.

  5. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood - This one I still haven't read, but it's on a list to eventually get to. This one is The Odyssey written in the POV of Penelope (Odysseus' wife). That Homer guy had a lot of fans, let me tell ya.

  6. The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor - This is probably one of my favorite series, and I continue to re-read it from time-to-time with the same enthusiasm as the first time I picked it up. This story uses Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to tell a slightly different one. What if Alice wasn't just a daydreaming young girl with her head in the clouds? What if she was Alyss Heart, destined Queen of Wonderland, who trusted her story to one Lewis Caroll and was betrayed by the contents of his finished product? Seriously. It's great, I'll stop while I'm ahead. But read it.

  7. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys - When doing my research to add more to this list that I didn't know, I came across this one. This is a parallel narrative that was written in tandem to Jane Eyre. The narrative shift moves from the "madwoman in the attic" as a child to Rochester in the later half of the book, apparently. I really liked Jane Eyre in high school. This really makes me want to check out Wide Sargasso Sea sometime soon.

There are so many others, but I wanted to give a decent list. You can find even more online. Some works may just take small elements and inspiration (people say Tolkien was a Norse fanfiction writer, but I'd say it's just inspiration rather than derivative).

I hope you've enjoyed this talk of fanfiction. What are some fics over the years that you've loved?


Also published on my book blog.

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