Fanfiction: What is it and Why Should You Care?

Fanfiction header featuring the title comically illustrated.

FANFICTION SPOILER ALERT

To our dear, intrepid readers. Before you continue any further, heed this word of WARNING: I’ll be mentioning details from a couple of series that are either ongoing or recently finished, such as the latest season of Game of Thrones, the Avengers films and Star Wars.
So as a law-abiding citizen of these respective fandoms, pray thee be wary.

Additionally, we should reiterate that we here at Lulu are not legal experts and cannot provide you with official counsel concerning copyright. Moi ? I studied French. Not Law. (Sorry, dad.)

Let’s say you’re halfway through season 8 of Game of Thrones. You’re midway down the road to disappointment, but you’re not jaded yet. You’re totally absorbed, perched precariously at the edge of your seat as the army of the living gears up to do battle with the dead. But, alas, where do we go to get our fix of violence, sex, and adrenaline after the credits roll?

And what if we’re not totally satisfied with the way things shook out? Sure, Jonerys might be canon now, but maybe you would’ve rather shipped John and Brienne of Tarth. Or maybe you weren’t satisfied with the LGBTQ representation in the series, so you write a slash fiction where Cersei and Daenerys have an unlikely encounter somewhere between Winterfell and King’s Landing to set aside their differences for a night. In any case, you take to your keyboard and login to one of the numerous forums consecrated to meditations of this particular breed. Far out in the digital plain, these vague fantasies take shape.

And now, I imagine there’s one or two of you reading with your heads cocked to the side, wondering what the heck I’m talking about.

And to you, I say: “Welcome to the world of fanfiction.”

Guardians of the Galaxy GIF

What is Fanfiction?

I imagine most of you have at least heard of fanfiction (or fanfics, as I’ll be referring to them later on), but let’s cover the basics. In short, fanfics are stories written by fans for fans, comprised of derivate elements from their source material in order to continue, expand upon, or otherwise interact with the original content.

It’s critical to distinguish between what is fanfiction and what is part of the original mythos or canon. Canon refers to content that is explicitly defined by the source material and is officially part of the lore. Let’s use Adventure Time as an example: fans may have speculated that Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen’s relationship was more-than-just-friends, but it wasn’t canon until the season finale when they kissed. When the kiss happened, the showrunners accepted Bubbline into the series’ official lore. 

Fanfiction as we know it has been around awhile. I’ve seen articles claiming that fanfics originated with Trekkie fanzines in the 60’s, and it looks like these stories have been on the internet as long as the internet has been, well, the internet.

The list of genres is formidable, but there are certain distinct categories that are more widely employed than others across the many fanfiction forums and sites. Some of the more common examples of genres and techniques used are:

AU (Alternative Universe)

Not a fan of the lineup at the end of Infinity War (Spoilers!)? Would you have swapped Cap for Spiderman? Star-Lord for Antman? If so, you might write a fanfic that takes place in an Alternative Universe and trade out the living for the dead. Authors of AU fanfiction take the original characters from a work and transpose them into a universe where a few (or all) of the details have been changed up.

Essentially, the author is asking the question, “What would happen if…?” and running with it.

Shipping

Would you rather have had Harry and Hermione end up hitched (Spoilers?)? Harry and Ron? Why not write a fanfiction in which you shipped the couple of your choice? Shipping is the reimagining of the source material’s canon relationships. The execution may vary; authors might choose to write a Songfic (a story with lyrics from a relevant song sprinkled throughout), a PWP (“Plot? What plot?” — a type of fanfiction that chooses to focus on the visceral rather than the emotional development of the relationship) and Crossover (where worlds collide and characters from two or more worlds intersect, not always to a romantic end but it can be) among many others.

Fluff

What if Kylo Ren and Rey laid down their arms and walked, arm in arm, along the ocean shores of Naboo, without a care in the world and blissfully ignorant of the conflict between the Red Order and the Rebellion (Could someone please tell me: is there a statute of limitations on spoilers?).  Whether you’re a pacifist or just need a reprieve from the conflict of everyday life, read a little Fluff to fill your free time with carefree, non-confrontational content. The idea of a story without conflict, for many creative writers, makes about as much sense as music without notes. But, alas, Waffy (“Warm and fuzzy feelings”) is an established subgenre of fanfiction with many subscribers.

The list goes on and on, encompassing every kind of fantasy imaginable. Deathfic, Darkfic, Self-Insert—If it’s your thing, then the reasoning is clear, but I imagine there are a few of you reading that might be asking: what is the point of writing these kinds of stories?

For a more exhaustive list of fanfic genres:

An Adaptive and Communal Style of Writing

The culture of participation extends far beyond the castle walls of fandoms lauding studios like Marvel, Disney and Cartoon Network or authors like Rowling, Gaiman and Martin. In fact, this type of exchange between creator and audience is the keystone to literary and cultural studies across all forms, even if certain critics are put off by the veneer of pop culture that permeates the discourse around fanfiction. But there are still others who say that we can trace the roots of fanfiction far beyond the turn of the century

Intertextuality in Literature

Let’s take a step back and think past the stereotypes, traveling back to the year 1887, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had just finished A Study in Scarlet, the first apparition of Sherlock Holmes. The fictional detective was renowned for his deductive reasoning and detective prowess, and his detached air and penchant for putting logic before emotion would pave the way for a new character archetype: the afflicted pragmatist, as much helped as hindered by their own intelligence. Echoes of Holmes would manifest in characters like House, of Dr. House, and Rick, of Rick and Morty.

Even amongst his contemporaries, the story radiated innovative energy that inspired, attracting both praise and criticism from the literary community. Mark Twain even borrowed Holmes in part two of his A Double Barreled Detective Story, written in 1902. The American humorist brought in the detective in order to critique the logic intrinsic to the original Holmes story.         

Is this an example of fanfiction?

Not exactly. It is similar though. Pulling a character from another work of fiction as a method of pointed literary commentary differs from the usage of the source material in fanfiction. The liberal reimagining of fanfiction is oft done without a critical objective. And while crossover fanfic might bare semblance to transfiction, the author of a crossover fic is pulling material from two different, pre-existing sources, rather than alluding to or drawing from a source within the context of their own original narrative.

 So, in the case of A Double-Barreled Detective Story, we can conclude that because Twain was using the character Holmes to say something new and different from the original narrative within the context of his own original story, A Double-Barreled Detective Story is an example of transfiction rather than fanfiction. We can also take a look at this problem through the lens of Fair Use later on.

Another key distinction is the importance of the fandoms in determining what is and what is not fanfiction. Without the fandoms, you can’t have fanfiction.

Are fanfictions legal?

Hugh Laurie Shrug GIF

In general? On the internet? No idea. The general consensus in the cyber-sphere on whether you can or cannot publish fanfictions on the internet is basically, “Did the author say you can do it? Yes? Then you can probably publish your fanfiction online without fear of litigation.”

Can I publish my fanfiction on Lulu?

Nope. Non. Nyet.

Lulu.com is an international company, and this means that we must abide by international law for copyright. If a work might violate the copyright of an author somewhere in the world, then we cannot accept or distribute the work. So, your “The Little Prince” fanfictions will have to wait until 2032, because even though Saint-Exupéry’s work has entered into the public domain in many countries, it’s still protected in France.

Even if you’re not making any money off of the sales, the simple act of printing and distributing their content is inadmissible for some authors. The only way to legally get your mittens on the characters or universe of an author is with written permission from the copyright holder. As you might imagine, that might not be super practical in some cases; I don’t imagine J.K. Rowling and Disney field many authorized fanfiction requests.

But that doesn’t mean your fanfictions are useless for your work on Lulu! The stories that you’ve written with borrowed characters and leased universes might serve you as a good jumping-off point for something original, and that brings us to our next point:

So…What can I do with my fanfictions?

Use your fanfictions as a starting point for something uniquely you. Remember: nothing happens in a vacuum. As an author, we encourage you to interact with other texts, to participate in the ongoing literary conversation, but we also want you to bring something new to the table.

Even if you’re writing a form of transfiction, make sure that it is founded on an original concept or idea.

Copyright

When publishing a derivative work, one of the most important factors to consider is Fair Use. Section 107 of the Copyright Act lays out the following framework for determining whether or not a work falls under the category of Fair Use:

  1. Purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes: What was your endgame? Were you trying to make money? Courts will be more likely to view non-commercial usage as Fair Use. This does not mean that just because you didn’t make any money off of the work, you’re automatically in the clear. But it does help.
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work: I know that it sounds like we’re pitting authors against the law, but let’s remember: at the heart of copyright law is the desire to protect and promote creative expression. This means that fictional, more imaginative works will be harder to pull from under the Fair Use doctrine.  
  3. Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole: The more of a work you use, the harder it’s going to be to claim Fair Use. And how integral the portion you used is to the original work is a factor as well. For example, if you were going to snatch a house elf for your story (don’t), it would be better for you to use Winky rather than Dobby. People cried when Dobby died. I don’t even remember what happened to Winky.
  4. Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work: Here, the courts would look at the impact that your work has on both the current and potential future market of the original, copyrighted work. Does the existence of your work detract from the market value of the original and would it ever redirect sales that otherwise would’ve gone to the source material’s author?

Now, Section 107 probably wasn’t around back in 1902, but for just for the sake of it, what would this mean for Twain’s A Double-Barreled Detective Story?

Well, Section 107 also specifically mentions that works directed at criticizing or commenting upon the original are Fair Use. Historically, courts have ruled in favor of parodies and works that exaggerate features from the original in order to make a point. Such is the case for A Double-Barreled Detective Story, and for that reason, hypothetically, Mark Twain would be on firm legal ground.

Other tips:

 Don’t use any names or characters that are copywritten. That means no Mickey Mouse (until 2024, then things get complicated), no Batman or Superman, and certainly no trace of Harry Potter.

Be transformative in your art, not adaptive. The central concept and theme of your work must be different from the original. This comes down to what’s generally referred to as “Fair Use,” and the idea is that your work cannot defame the source material or do anything to impede traffic/diminish sales for the original work. This is oftentimes the bases for which a copyright case is built, so it’s important that your work be different enough from the original that no one is going to conflate your brand with theirs.

If you’re not sure that your work follows those two guidelines, at least make sure that the source material has entered into the public domain. To be sure, you can check here:

For a more in-depth look at examining copyright law, check out this Stanford University Libraries article. It will help you determine whether copyright protects a work.

3 thoughts on “Fanfiction: What is it and Why Should You Care?”

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