Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On Fan Fiction

Why does fan fiction (known as "fanfic" in serious circles) capture the imaginations of so many fledgling writers and amateurs? Judging from the size of popular sites like (which boasts over 2 million writers), there is, to use a Buffy metaphor, an entire legion of Potential (literary) Slayers out there, who, instead of creating new and brilliant work, are instead toiling away at someone else's fantasy.

Why? When you go out to do the gardening, you don't go and plant flowers in your neighbors' yard to complement their design; you plant them in your own and create your own tropical paradise. Yet with media and the arts, it seems that the urge to fanfic is irresistable. The Author himself has, in idle daydreaming, conceptualized an entire sequel trilogy to the original Star Wars Saga, both a "sidequel" and a "sequel" to Harry Potter, and series 6/32 of Doctor Who.

According to Wikipedia, media scholar Henry Jenkins (and when you read the words "media scholar" as a title, you know it's going to be rough) says:

The encyclopedic ambitions of transmedia texts often results in what might be seen as gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story: that is, they introduce potential plots which can not be fully told or extra details which hint at more than can be revealed. Readers, thus, have a strong incentive to continue to elaborate on these story elements...Fan fiction can be seen as an unauthorized expansion of these media franchises into new directions which reflect the reader's desire to "fill in the gaps"

Basically, Mr. Jenkins' view seems to hold water. Even such esteemed personages as Russell T. Davies and J.K. Rowling have expressed their support of the fanfic medium for that reason; Ms. Rowling said she was flattered that others wanted to write their own stories using her characters as a base, and dear RTD deliberately left bits and pieces of the Doctor Who canvas blank to allow fans to fill in the gaps in their imaginations.

Yet I can't help but wonder if there is a deeper reason why fanfic is so seductive. In writing this stuff, all the hard work- introducing characters and relationships, creating a believable setting, building a history and personality for each character- has been done with you; you get to do the fun stuff, like blow things up that have already been made by the author, consummating relationships that have already been played out by the author, killing off characters that have already been beloved by the author. Let's face it: it's the writing equivalent of empty calories.

What about games then? Mass Effect 2 is a sequel (obviously, to Mass Effect), which allows you to import the character that you played in the original game, meaning that all your actions and deeds in the original game will have consequences in the second game. This has forced many players to go back and play the original game, making choices and decisions (e.g. one sequence allows you to save either character A or character B from certain death, but not both) knowing that they will carry over into the next game. Or, if you're sneaky, you can go to a save file depository, where players who have already beating the original game upload their characters (and by extension, the choices they have made and the personalized stories they have created) for others to download. Who is the "author" and who is the "fanfic" creator in this case? Obviously, the choices that are presented in the first game are products of the game developer, but the choices that are made are product of the individual players. In theory, with enough choices, and a broad enough universe, each individual player could have a unique experience they upload.

So if each one is different based on the player, shouldn't the player/audience have some credit for the story creation as well? After all, the experience of a piece of art depends heavily on the background and knowledge of the audience member. For example, the Crucible is a well-written play, but it become far more disturbing to an audience member who has studied McCarthyism. In that sense, the Crucible is really one work written by an author, that becomes two works when watched by a historically-aware and -unaware viewer, respectively. The aware viewer "fills in the blanks" and draws meaning from the play based on his/her own experience, adding to the work in their own mind, in the same way a fanfic writer does.

In a videogame sense, Mass Effect is also partially a product of its audience, and its experiential content is even more starkly drawn from player knowledge, ability and creativity: certain areas of the game (like later levels) aren't even accessible unless the player brings a level of accomplishment and skill with the game. Thus if you don't have a deft enough touch with the conversation wheel, you can't have a romantic relationship with one of the characters, meaning that that part of the character depth is lost. If you can, however, it is because of your own choices and contributions. That is, in a way, authorship of the fanfic kind.

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