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When Guys Write Fan Fiction


Running a magazine -- hard copy or electronic -- gives a body a profound appreciation for the wonders of copyright and the protection it affords the media David in a world of corporate Goliaths. Add to that over 20 years as a government "communications manager" condemned to watch others use her words to the greater glorification of their careers, and you end up with a person who possesses a profound appreciation for the importance of intellectual property rights.

Nevertheless, I never understood the rabid reaction of some writers to not-for-profit fan fiction. No one starts the writing life as an original. We all model our first efforts after something. Those who don't use novels, television series or films retell ancient myths and family legends or try to explain the events in favorite pictures.

You can't call it a new phenomenon. For most of recorded history, people only wanted to hear twice-told tales. Originality lay in the details. And despite societal strictures and the pressures that kept them anonymous, women played an important role in redefining and shaping the legends that form the basis of early modern literature. For example, some scholars believe bored upper-class medieval women wrote much of the massive corpus of anonymous Arthurian literature in imitation of official, mostly male historians and poets.

But these anonymous Arthurian writers didn't imitate their models exactly. They introduced new characters -- "Mary Sues" for "canonical" Arthurian heroes to fight and fall in love with. These writers obsessed over pageant, character emblems and emotional motivation. They even flavored their stories with not-so-discreet hints of homoeroticism, coming as close to Slash as possible in the time B.K/S. (Before Kirk/Spock). In other words, these women wrote fan fiction, and no modern Arthurian retelling -- from Tennyson's to Marion Zimmer Bradley's -- could exist without them.

You could call fan fiction an extreme case of imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. Even today, as long as no one attempts to sell their unsanctioned stories as originals, nobody gets hurt. No one mistakes even the most meticulous attempts at recreating a treasured book or television series for the real thing. Most of these efforts never see the light of day, much less publication. A few find homes at fan sites, and if luck smiles on us and the writer, the encouragement received for "getting it right" in that X-Files fanfic will prod the writer into attempting something bigger, better and all his or her own.

Franchises with trademarks and licensing agreements must take a dimmer view. Legally, their exclusive rights to sell Buffy or Star Wars merchandise depend on defending those rights against all comers. Even so, franchise holders know that they tread a fine line. Offend the fans imitating your line, and they stop buying any of your products.

Writers who storm their fan sites with intent to eradicate all evidence of fan fictional activity face an even greater risk. By taking direct action to protest the "misuse" of their characters, not only do they risk losing fans, they leave themselves wide open to future accusations of plagiarism.

By complaining about someone else's version, these writers provide incontrovertible proof that they read and absorbed the various elements of the fan fic writer's story, even if only subconsciously. A far wiser course would be to accept the flattery of the homage, avoid the imitations and let your publisher take care of the legal aspects. Publishers -- often franchise holders themselves -- live for this sort of thing.

Recently, however, publishers, filmmakers and other merchandisers started living for something else, something called "meta-fiction." Meta-fiction is a work of fiction about a work of fiction.

Mysteries featuring famous writers such as Jane Austin spearheaded the trend. Meta-fiction mysteries such as Alan Gordon's Thirteenth Night and Jester Leaps In capitalize on it, but as always, the biggest bucks will be made in mainstream products.

Filmgoers will get a taste of big screen meta-fiction when Shadow of the Vampire hits theaters around the end of the year. Impressed with the documentary style of the old silent flick Nosferatu, screenwriter Steven Katz asked a writer's favorite question: what if? What if Max Schreck, the actor who played the vampire in Nosferatu, really was a vampire?

Shadow of the Vampire boasts some very impressive talent behind it. Nicolas Cage produces, and John Malkovich (who probably qualifies as living meta-fiction since Being John Malkovich) and Willem Dafoe star. A feature in the recently mailed December issue of Realms of Fantasy marked just one of the openings in a multi-pronged publicity campaign. And the trendiness of the concept guarantees critical attention -- and a lot more praise than your ordinary vampire thriller…or fan fiction.

Yes, I said fan fiction. Just like your teenage cousin's Highlander/Lestat pastiche or all those anonymous Arthurian romances. These efforts differ not a whit from meta-fiction except for one thing: nine to one, a woman wrote them.

When women write in imitation of their personal obsession, people call it fan fiction and act as if the writer should be embarrassed by it. When men write it, they call it meta-fiction -- and pay men a great deal of money to write more.

You know, as a woman and a writer, that bothers me.

Jean Marie Ward

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To paraphrase Will Rogers, I never meta-fiction I didn't like. But if my work is going to be mentioned editorially, someone ought to at least review it in the magazine so everyone knows what we're talking about.

And where are these big bucks I'm supposed to be making?

Alan Gordon
(Author of Thirteenth Night and Jester Leaps In, from St.Martin's Minotaur)


My sympathies on the lack of big bucks, but trust me, compared to nothing (the going advance and royalty figure for fan fiction), any advance and royalty contract looks good.

As to a review, I've planned a double review of Thirteenth Night and Jester Leaps In since receiving reviewer copies of both in November (hence the plug). They're on the short list. Unfortunately, that short list is still six books long with three interviews and the January update standing ahead of it in line.

Tell you what, I'll aim to complete the review by January 6, but unlike Feste, I can't promise to hit my mark.

Jean Marie Ward