At Galacticon3 over the weekend of 25/26 May, fellow author Sarah Madison and I, along with Jennifer Robison (who betas for the Stargate Atlantis Legacy tie-in novels) led a panel discussion on fanfiction.
I cut my writerly teeth on fanfiction, the way that so many writers do. I still do write fanfiction, as it happens. I wrote a short story in the Lancer fandom last Friday evening that really I’m very proud of. It has everything I want for my pro writing: a recognisable world, characters the reader can empathise with, and a plot where the conflict comes from the PoV character’s clashing past and future. It even has a resolution by the end. And all in less than 3000 words.
Which proves, I hope that fanfiction writing is as real, as legitimate, as everything I’m doing with the Shield novels. Fanfiction isn’t something furtive and amateurish that we should be ashamed of and that’s done in the margins, but it’s all grown up now (actually, the title of our panel). It’s creative and transformative and a hugely important way for fans to express love of their favourite shows and books. It’s written by thousands of people. Sometimes—often—it’s written badly. But sometimes it’s incandescently brilliant: there are some fanfiction writers whose stories I’ve read far more often than their canonical source material. Those writers **sing**, and what they write should never be dismissed as ‘only fanfic’.
Preparing for the panel, I was forced to think about why I write fanfiction—why anyone does. For me, it has a lot to do with how well-built the world is and how complete it is, and how compelling the characters are, but mostly and importantly, how much potential there is to explore more. The canon material needs to have possibilities, gaps and spaces where a fanfiction writer can work to expand on this idea here or subvert that canonical pairing there. It doesn’t mean that the source material is inherently flawed, but that it has places for writers to play in.
Take a TV programme. Any TV programme. Usually the script writers have 50 minutes to get across their story – world, character, plot, dialogue. In those 50 minutes, they must do their world building and exploration of character (if there is any) and all they have to use is action and dialogue that has to be fast and snappy. In some ways that takes a skill I wish I had, in others it’s limiting because they operate in a world where what they write is played out in a visual medium that’s mediated by the actors speaking the lines, the sets, the angles the cameraman takes, continuity (or the lack thereof), the network policies towards contentious issues and the demands of the advertisers who fund the network (and hence, ultimately, the show itself).
Those limits are what the fanfiction writer likes to push and pull at. Fanfiction is more inclusive of ‘difference’, for example, and tries to embrace it through slash, BDSM, writing people of colour etc in a way that the source material often still struggles with. How many shows do you know where BDSM is featured? Or where sexuality and societal pressures can be explored by utilising a bit of gender bending? Because fanfiction isn’t beholden to the advertisers, it can be brave. And it can be shocking. That’s a freedom mainstream writers might envy.
The existence of fanfiction doesn’t mean that the source material is bad, but that it has the potential to be stretched in a way that no TV programme can do if it wants to keep its advertisers happy and the funding rolling in, or no mainstream book can manage if the writer wants to find a publisher. I think it was writer Sam Starbuck who said that good canon generates good fanfic.