The Terrible Satisfactions of Fan Fiction (and Writing Who We Know As Fan Fiction)
In the late 90s, I was obsessed with a television show on USA Network, La Femme Nikita,* which was vaguely based on the wonderful French movie La Femme Nikita and the horrible remake Point of No Return. The show centered around Nikita, a woman who was forced into being a government agent for a nefarious covert agency who often had to consider the greater good while doing bad things. There were all kinds of supporting characters like Michael, her love interest and the main who trained Nikita as an agent, Birkoff, the computer genius who helped run the covert operations from headquarters, Operations, the dastardly man in charge of Section (the covert agency), and Madeline, Operations’s sometimes lover and the second in command at Section, and also worked with Nikita who was the tormented emotional core of the show. The show was filled with angsty goodness in each episode as Nikita struggled with the life she was forced into, having to kill or be killed. She had freedom, but only so much. She had Michael, but only so much. It was romantic and agonizing and wonderful. Sometimes, I wanted more than what I could get from a one hour episode. That’s how I learned about fan fiction, where fans of the show wrote elaborate stories using the characters and the world built within the show as a starting point for telling new stories. There were hundreds and hundreds of stories that asked and answered the question, “What if?” posed in countless different ways. I could read stories about Nikita marrying Michael and having a child and negotiating their careers as spies, or Birkoff and Operations having an affair (SLASH), or Nikita and Operations having an affair, or Nikita escaping and starting over only to be caught, or Madeline taking over Section or Nikita going rogue. The permutations were endless and there was something terribly satisfying about seeing just what was possible within the Nikita universe when the characters were freed from their creators.
Fan fiction has been around for quite some time but the genre really took off when the Internet made it possible for fan fiction writers to share their work with a wider audience. There are fan fiction communities for almost every television show, particularly those grounded in science fiction and fantasy. There are fan fiction communities that build on books, plays, musicals, movies. If there is a fictional world populated by interesting people and ideas, there is a fan fiction community willing to serve those stories in their own unique way. Not everyone is a fan of fan fiction. There are concerns about copyright infringement given that fan fiction draws from someone else’s ideas and someone else’s creation. It is hard to know where to draw the line between fan appreciation and fan appropriation. When I think about fan fiction, I think, my goodness, look how much this person loves the fictional world they are writing from. Fan fiction seems like the highest compliment.
Not all fan fiction is well written. Just as in any writing community, some writers are more talented than others. What I love about fan fiction, though, is how passionate and deeply invested the writers of fan fiction are. La Femme Nikita, for example, has been off the air for ten years and new fan fiction is still being created involving the characters from that show. As a devotee of the show, I still have my favorite Nikita fan fiction websites bookmarked. I check them every few weeks to see what’s new and I revisit old favorites. I always marvel at how imaginative some of these fan fiction stories can get (and often, how dirty because fan fiction with an explicit sexual bent is quite popular, both with me and the rest of the fan fiction reading community). Sometimes I read fan fiction and think, whomever is involved with these franchises should hire these writers. When fan fiction is good it is so very, very good. There is some awesome stuff being written that reinterprets existing ideas in really unique ways. I also love how if writers of fan fiction don’t like the direction a show, for example, is taking, they can rewrite the plot, they can change how it all ends, they can make the story more personally satisfying. That’s powerful, the ability to rewrite a story in that way, to realign a given world as a writer sees fit.
Henry Jenkins is a new media scholar who does a lot of work involving fan fiction and he talks about this idea of transmedia storytelling, of telling stories across genres and formats, stories that are grounded in “complex fictional worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories.” In his wonderful book, Convergence Culture, he talks about transmedia storytelling in The Matrix franchise (among others) and how storytelling in The Matrix extended beyond movies into video games, comic books, and other properties. Fan fiction definitely falls under the aegis of transmedia storytelling, and represents this idea of stories across genres and formats, stories that can both stand alone and yet contribute to a greater whole. Some franchises actively encourage fans to participate in transmedia storytelling while others are resistant and want to protect their intellectual property. It’s all very interesting where the lines are drawn when it comes to telling stories. Do we have a right to appropriate the complex fictional worlds that have been created by other writers? I am very interested in the possibilities.
Over at Write by Night, David Duhr has a thoughtful post about writing who we know and basing fictional characters on people we know in our real lives or writing fictional stories based on the experiences of people in our lives. As I read his post, I couldn’t help but think that when we draw from personal experiences or write characters based on people we know, we are, in a way, writing a kind of fan fiction. We are taking true things that rise out of our complex and real worlds, and reinterpreting them, perhaps, even, realigning our worlds as we see fit. I often worry, as a writer, about whether or not the people in my life will see themselves in my stories, what they might think about what they see of themselves in my writing and whether or not I have that right. Just as the owners of intellectual property worry about the liberties fan fiction writers might take, it makes sense that people would want to establish boundaries about the liberties the writers in their lives will take. Everyone has a right to privacy, has the right to keep their lives from being splayed across a writer’s stories but as a writer I also think I have the right to write from my life and when I do write from my life, I’m writing about me and if you happen to be in my constellation, I’m writing about how I see you or I am writing about the distance between us from my place in the universe. There are certainly times when I do write directly from my experiences. I’ll change the names and places of these sad occasions** but the stories are deeply grounded in truth or, at least, my truth. In these instances, I tend to be somewhat ambivalent because I’m not misrepresenting facts.
I do tend to draw from my real life in really subtle ways, without subtext or ulterior motives. When I write a story involving parents, any parents at all, my parents are likely to think they are the inspiration. As far as they are concerned, they are every parent in my fiction when nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the characters in my stories are terrible or terribly damaged. My parents are great. And yet. They take the one true detail and make wild assumptions about every fictional element in the story and proceed to interrogate me exhaustively about things I don’t feel like talking about. If, for example, I give the father in a story the same occupation as my father, he assumes I’m making some commentary on his parenting when I really am not. These instances are just me writing a bit of what I know because when I was a kid, my father would talk to me about his job and he still does, so I feel like I can fake writing his profession fairly credibly. This is me showing you I have always paid attention, Dad! My parents once read a story of mine published in an anthology in the late 90s, one of the few things of mine I’ve shown them because I prefer to operate in the don’t ask, don’t tell mode of publishing where they are concerned. In that story, the parents are apathetic and probably alcoholics and the mother sews. My mother sews and when she read the story she said, “But I don’t drink.” All I could tell her was, “This is not about you.” It really wasn’t. That story had nothing to do with my parents at all save that I remember watching my mother sew as a kid and I loved doing that so I thought it would be a nice emotional moment in the story. When I write male characters, boyfriends tend to think I am writing about them if, for example, a character has the same hobby (say, hunting) as they do or if there is a bit of dialogue exchanged that mimics a conversation we once had. When we’re hanging out, they’ll say, “I’ll bet this is going in a story,” and I’ll say, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” I am forced to repeat, “This is not about you.”
At times, I think the people in my life want to see themselves in my stories and are disappointed when they don’t because so many people incorrectly assume all writers do is poach flagrantly from their lives, as if we have no imagination at all. We write what we know but we also write what we don’t know or can’t possibly know. Yes, I draw from my real life, but a given story is not necessarily a reflection of or commentary on how I feel about the people in my life. Simple common sense should be your guide. When I am asked, “Is this me?” I often want to respond, “I don’t know. Is it?” If you only recognize some small part of yourself, I am taking very, very creative liberties. I am making things up. I am telling stories. When I am writing from my life, I’m recognizing the people who surround me and fill my world, much the way writers of fan fiction do when they use someone else’s fictional world as the point of origin for stories of their own. Starting from these truths is a small way of acknowledging the ways the people in my life inspire me, for better or worse, to tell stories. Do I have this right? Is it fair? I don’t know but I have common sense and a decent sense of discretion. I try not to be an asshole about writing from my life unless my enmity has been earned. This is also why I don’t date writers.
In my favorite La Femme Nikita fanfiction, Nikita and Michael find their way to each other with no strings attached to their happiness. They continue working for Section because spies are awesome, generally running Section together. Operations has been eliminated, killed violently, preferably, because he is such a bad man. My favorite fanfiction from this world is always in search of a happy ending. When I write from my life, I too am in search of a happy ending or a new history or a whole new world entirely. There is something so terribly satisfying about happy endings and brave new worlds.
* It has to be said that nearly every plot from my other favorite show, Alias, was lifted DIRECTLY from La Femme Nikita. They did not even bother hiding it. Alias is fan fiction as embodied by a television series.
** Shameless Evita reference