Harnessing the Dragon: A Middle Ground for Fanfiction

With Naomi Novik’s recent announcement about the Organization for Transformative Works there’s been a renewed energy in discussion of fanfiction and its impact on the specluative fiction community. I’m not really going to comment on the OTW — I tend to concur with John Scalzi on its feasibility and potential danger to the fanfiction community itself. But particularly given my involvement with the BetterEULA project and interactive elements in storytelling in general, the discussion got me thinking about the intersection of reader participation and speculative fiction, and, of course, virtual world and video game space. No, video games can’t solve all your problems. Just most of them.

I have to get this out of the way first: I don’t generally like fanfiction. I don’t read it, I don’t write it, and when someone promising devotes a disproportionate amount of their time to writing fanfiction rather than creating their own worlds (and especially characters) I tend to get a little bit sad.

Further, I could not write about Harry Potter. Harry Potter is not mine. I think that characters are almost always foils of their authors in some intrinsic way, and I would no sooner march around with someone else’s character — especially uninvited — than I would try on another person’s skin. It is creepy to me on that level and I can honestly say always has been. I must be a freak, but I have simply never had the inclination to puppet someone else’s creation.

I have, however, participated in shared worlds, in small doses. And I fully recognize that whether or not fanfiction tweaks my particular melon, its sheer proliferation indicates that there is a powerful human drive at work here, and smart authors and publishers are wise to ride that wave rather than trying to push it back in the bottle.

But here’s the thing. I do think that unbridled fanfiction is actually harmful to an IP. Here’s why.

1. Fictional worlds and fictional characters have themes and trajectories that fanfiction writers do not know about. Any author participating in even cursory worldbuilding has notes and copious information that doesn’t make it into the main stage — it is backstory in its simplest terms. By ignoring or operating without these background rules a derivative work is attempting to redefine a character or place in their own terms; they are inherently attempting to alter the IP without the owner’s knowledge or, often, express agreement.

2. The more you let someone do something illegal, the more they will start to feel entitled to do so. Turning a blind eye will only work for so long before you start getting major problems, and by then there’s no way to correct the situation without royally pissing off some of your most devoted fans. When you allow someone to spend a significant amount of time creating something, you are allowing them to invest, and if you spontaneously take away that investment, they are, pretty rightfully, going to be ticked off and never buy your work again.

3. Fanfiction dilutes an IP. It is not, as some have postulated, simply “expanding” a universe. It is not “transforming” anything. It is creating a myriad parallel universes in which things the original author did not intend happen all over the place. This is not immediately and inherently harmful, but when someone starts to invest in reading these parallel universes, they are storing up situations that did not happen. It’s very similar to using cheat codes in a video game. A little bit of it isn’t going to hurt anyone, but when it is systemic and sustained eventually you are going to lose the entire concept of what the original game was, because a game, like a world, is defined by its limitations or parameters, which fanfiction and cheat codes generally exist to remove.

All of these considerations are purely in terms of the integrity of the story itself, and don’t even take into consideration the potential and historic legal pitfalls that exist when you allow fans free rein over your world.

But I assert that by looking closely at what fans are getting out of the fanfiction experience — and it appears to be an awful lot (what do they want? A sandbox! when do they want it? Yesterday!) — it is possible to provide them those advantages and satisfactions without falling victim to the many dangerous pits surrounding the relinquishing of IP. Video games allow interactivity every day without surrendering their creative rights. If you play your cards right, with a little sensitive attention you can turn fanfiction energy into an engine that drives a fanbase, builds a community, and satisfies your readers when you’re not laying a book in front of them.

Containing fanfiction has already been attempted. In fact, a year ago someone caught on to monetizing it in a serious way. How it’s working out for them monetarily I have no idea, but I tend to concur with those on Making Light who said they would likely burn through their cash and then pop like a soap bubble. It looks like they’ve made a soldiering attempt to build some community there, but it looks like trying to build a community around a mall, which has never panned out very well.

Outside of video game territory, the primary shared world I participated in was Pern fandom. Anne McCaffrey, way ahead of the curve (because, like new models for online magazines, I believe that interactivity in fiction is ultimately the wave of the future, and that includes derivative work), saw what her fans were doing and gave them some guidelines to behave by if they were sharing her world. It wasn’t handled perfectly, through little fault of hers, but it was a hell of a lot better than anything else of its kind that I’ve seen.

Here are, in my opinion, the critical things that Pern fandom did:

1. It split the universe, deliberately creating a definably separate parallel universe for the Pern world where specific world-altering events did or did not happen. This separated the sandboxes of McCaffrey’s Pern and her fans’ Pern without changing major sensory features such as landscape, world mechanics, or environmental feel. This was a stroke of genius that prevented Pern from going the way of Darkover. Bulletproof? No, but close enough.

2. It gave fans rules by which to create their characters, even employing some basic random number generation. This is like pouring a nice fat dish of agar for your community. Using some very simple game mechanics, it ensured that participants had an even field and some baselines to play by — and also an achievement ladder that they could climb. The Pern fangroup also provided an entire system by which new fangroups, or “Weyrs”, could be created. This egalitarian mindset helped ensure that Pern was, for the most part, an amazingly peaceful, pleasant place to be.

3. It allowed participants a huge degree of freedom in their choice of expressive media, whether that was text storytelling, live (text) roleplay, craft-making, textile-art, or even game creation (MU*s). There was very little in terms of expression you could request permission for from the fandom and be told “no”. And resultingly some players created some amazing things — cookbooks, sculptures, costumes, and more.

4. It actually grew the world by requiring that players created their own characters rather than manipulating the characters of the author. “Canon” characters were off limits and could not be given dialogue or represented in more than a passing reference fashion. This kept McCaffrey’s novels further distinct and commoditized while presenting a very reasonable and accept
ab

le alternative for fans that encouraged them to have personal investment and engage creatively with the world.

The cohesiveness of this system meant that fans were provided a clear, sanctioned, fun playground to exercise their creativity in. Not only was McCaffrey protecting her IP, she was encouraging some amazing creativity amongst her fans. She was having them engage in some of the most compelling elements that would later feed the explosion of massively multiplayer online games — in a simple, clear way and in her own world, encouraging them to create characters to which they would form indelible lasting attachments.

Could players break the rules? Sure. And they did. There were a few major kerfluffles in the fandom that I was aware of, and all of them resulted in lack of maintenance from McCaffrey directly on the system. Fan systems do need to be maintained and at large capacities become organisms that need attention if they are to avoid going feral. Some Weyrs did go feral, and a few of them were even put down for it — all stemming from the groups engaging in activities for long periods of time (years) that the original creator did not know about. Once McCaffrey did know, she felt that her world theme was compromised, and felt compelled to take action to correct it. This drove away a not insignificant number of fans, as their investments were taken — and illustrates the importance of maintaining a communication line between the IP originator and the major arteries of the fan groups.

But despite these hiccups, relatively few people actually deliberately ignored McCaffrey’s wishes. Why would they? She’d given them the core of what they wanted. And if anyone did piss in the sandbox by defying her, the entire community would typically rise up and smite them down — McCaffrey didn’t even have to lift a finger. Fans generally have a great deal of respect for the creators of the works they wish to occupy; if they are treated with respect in return, they’ll do tremendous things for you.

Authors and owners of secondary worlds have started to crawl their way onto the Internet, some of them kicking and screaming. The next step is for them to give some focused, competent attention to their fans and the careful growth of community. I think it is no coincidence at all that some of the most prolific fangroups concern worlds created by women. Fan groups need to be nurtured and understood — while still treated with firmness when they go astray.

Would I build on McCaffrey’s foundation? Sure. In lots of ways. But that foundation does exist and, rather than allowing the fan community to run wild and untended, it behooves the owners of IP to take a proactive role in letting them into their worlds. Reader creativity and participation is here to stay, and, properly leveraged, it can be one way that books can effectively compete with live media. As usual, the solution exists in looking for potential rather than burying our heads in the sand until the explosion comes.

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