Friday, April 27, 2007

Good Fanfic?

Denis McGrath has an entertaining rant against fanfic.

Unlike most anti-fanfic posts, which are based on the dubious premise that fanfic violates the rights of the creator (so why doesn't a spec script violate the rights of the creator?), Denis's argument is that fanfic is badly written and stupid, which is a more legitimate argument.

I certainly don't think most fanfic -- including my own occasional attempts -- is very good, though I will say that I have seen plenty of fanfic that is no worse than the average spec script for the same show.

But here's a question: can you name any actual good fanfic? That is, fan fiction you think qualifies as good storytelling in and of itself?

I sometimes think that could apply to some of the stories at the Batgirl Bat-Trap Homepage. Though it seems to be part of a fetish site (about Batgirl being tied up and the like), and though the prose in the fanfic is kind of over-ripe sometimes, some of the stories aren't bad. And if you read enough of them it really does, in a weird way, come to feel like the author has enriched and expanded the '60s Batman universe for the better. It helps that the author has, instead of just writing straight-up Batman stories, writes stories focusing on an under-used character (Batgirl) and creates a new universe of characters to back her up, even while the main characters of the original show still have a lot to do.

That's the most legitimate use of fan fiction: creating stories that the original show would not have done, with characters who weren't the stars. In that sense, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is the greatest fanfic of all time: it's a Hamlet fanfic that turns the spotlight on two under-utilized characters from the original play. And what's wrong with that?

I also think that, quality aside, fanfic is an important part of a show's fan community. Writing a fanfic is a way for a fan to express his or her take on a character, or the show's premise, or the way it's developing. It may not have value to someone outside the fan community. But within that community, you can look at Fan X's fanfic and understand, better than that fan could put it in non-fictional prose, what Fan X thinks the main character wants or where that character is headed. I never got strongly into the fanfic culture, but when I was a poster on a decade ago, that group would have been much the poorer without the fanfic, in-character songs, in-character skits and much more created by fans. Heck, my first post on that group was a fanfic where Chicken Boo was Sweeney Todd, complete with song parodies (London was OK with him cutting up his customers and making them into pies, but they turned on him when they discovered he was a giant chicken). That's just part of what being a fan is all about.

Your choices for good fanfic?

Update: McGrath responds here; I don't have much to argue with in this post (yes, "overripe prose, and the weird, slightly fetishy sheen" are indeed an off-putting part of almost all fanfic).

There's actually a reason why someone might turn their energies toward fanfic instead of coming up with original stuff, and one of the commenters over at McGrath's blog implies it: coming up with good original characters can be really hard. And without good characters, it's harder to do good writing.

So for some of these fanfic writers -- and we're talking people who do it for fun, not professionally -- it's easier to start with clearly-defined characters and setups that someone else came up with, and build from there; the stories and dialogue flow naturally from that.

I remember years ago I started to write a fanfic for a now-defunct hour-long action-adventure show that shall remain nameless. I'd gotten up to like 10,000 words when I stopped, and I stopped because I realized I was putting all this energy and work into a fanfic that I should be putting into real writing. But it was so much easier and more fun than real writing, and that's because I knew who the characters were and didn't have fo "find" them in the writing. I still think those 10,000 words are some of the funniest writing I ever did (not that that's saying much).

Of course it's not the same caliber of writing as original writing, nor even a spec script. While a lot of specs are bad, they do require one thing that fanfic doesn't, and that's discipline. A spec script not only requires that you format the text properly, but it requires you to fit everything into a set structure and a reasonable length (meaning you can't write endlessly long scenes or wander away from the plot for thousands of words). But of course that's another reason why people find fanfic enjoyable to write, that it's free from the constraints and disciplines of writing a spec.


justkim said...

I haven't read much fan fic, but most of what it only average at best. However, I think the story "Phoenix Burning" ( is very well done. It was written after the end of Buffy Season 5 and speculates about Buffy's inevitable return.

Anonymous said...

John W. Nowak's Rescue Rangers stories, mainly about Gadget Hackwrench and her "Byronic" sister Widget, are particularly good!

Anonymous said...

The best fanfic I've ever read is A Dark, Distorted Mirror by Gareth Williams, a five-volume series (in which each volume contains volumes, though they grew in length and complexity as the project went on) set in a parallel universe/alternate history of the TV show Babylon 5--as you say, something they couldn't have done on the TV show.

But it's not just a gimmick--Williams took the characters, recrafted them in his revisioned history of the world they were in, and told his own stories with them, stories as funny, as tragic and as engrossing as those on the TV show (and some even more so--I dare anyone to read Volume IV, Part IV, "A Future, Born in Pain" and not weep for the protagonist of that chapter, even if you're reading it out of context).

Loren said...

I stumbled across this fanfic some time back, a 200+ page illustrated Rescue Rangers fanfic. I didn't read it, but skimming through the pages, I was impressed by the artwork. So I'd say it's at least good fanfic in that respect. (It also unfortunately appeared to be about inter-character romance, which seems to be unusually prevalent in fanfic.)

Anonymous said...

I used to read way too much Digimon fanfic... Oh man, was that stuff terrible...

Anonymous said...

I have read a metric ton of fanfic, as I've been involved to various degrees in writing fanfics off various Japanese animation series since 1993. So I can pretend to expertise.

Fanfics can be...well, categorized in many ways, but the triad by which I divide them are: self-inserts/thinly disguised personal fantasies, extensions, and cross-overs. The first category is the most common and is, I expect, what you identify as 'fetishistic'. Lots of fanfic writers either write themselves into a fictional world or heavily identify with a specific character, who effectively functions as the avatar for their fantasies. This may involve sex or power or violence or whatever, but often heavily distorts the source material to fit into the story patterns in the author's head. A lot of fanfic writers do nothing but this, while others move on to other things.

The second category takes a single series and in some manner extends the canon of it or changes the canon (alt-universe stories). This is where you will find the really good stuff, which is generally less fetishistic. Indeed, I've seen some fanfic I thought was much superior to the original series in this category. (There's a lot of Ranma 1/2 fanfiction which is better than the canon, which varied a lot in quality according to how funny the author-artist was in any given week.)

Finally, you have stories which either combine characters from several series or fuse them together in some way. Done well, this can be very good, done badly, it can be an even bigger train wreck than self-inserts.

I'm going to plug one of my own works in this regard because it's 3 in the morning and I'm too tired to find something I didn't write. (Egotistic, I know...)

is the homepage for a joint project of mine with a friend, Children of an Elder God, which takes the animated series Neon Exodus Evangelion, a surrealistic mecha show from Japan and reinterpets it through the lens of Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories, instead of the gnostic, kaballistic, and Christian symbolism of the original.

Why write fanfic?

Several reasons. You have a built-in audience. When you're doing something as a hobby, that's a huge incentive. I have written a lot of original work, and it all basically drops into the audient void; I might as well just spend the time jumping in front of cars for all the attention it gets. Whereas, you have a fan community to produce for with fanfic. That's a big incentive, compared to spending hour after hour on something that may end up with no one ever reading it or caring.

Secondly, I disagree that original work is necessarily better than fanfic. I have read a ton of fiction and lots of it got published despite being miserably mediocre or outright terrible. The same applies to movies and TV. Most fanfiction is not very great, but most of any kind of fiction is not very great.

Further...well, it's like this:

There is a tension in all writing projects between the author's creativity and the restraints imposed by the editor / manager / script manager / whatever. Every author needs some source of external discipline to produce their best work or else they become too self-indulgent as happens to many famous authors once they are so rich and powerful their editors can no longer tell them anything they don't want to hear. (See Robert Jordan for a perfect example.)

At the same time, the constraints imposed by editors/rules/etc may often choke off creativity and lower the quality of the final product. Comic books especially suffer from writers who have to shoehorn their stories into larger editor-driven projects which may well wreck them entirely. (See Rucka's run on Wonder Woman.)

Fanfic writers often have no one to act as a source of restraint. Which means when they are good, they are very good and when they are bad, they are wretched. Their best is not choked off...they can go places the original didn't or couldn't go. But it also means there is no one to stop a plunge into self-indulgence.

The best fanfic writers restrain themselves and produce something great, the worst produce self-indulgent messes, as a result. Much like original writing, except the extremes can go further.

Certain stories compel us to tell and retell them through the centuries; I'd argue the real mark of a story's greatness is whether it inspires retelling. Because those which are not retold, reshaped, those are the stories which will, in the end, be forgotten.

John Biles
Ph.D--British History

Anonymous said...

If you look hard enough, past the really bad stuff that covers most fanfic (of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings variety, anyway), there really are some good stories that actually have a plot and character development. Not everything is average or bad.

However, the majority of people writing fanfiction don't pay enough attention to the basics of writing, like grammar, because they think they don't have to, since (presumably) the reader already knows everything about the setting. Such logic escapes me, but, sadly, there it is.

So the really good stuff, that does have development, good grammar, plot, etc., is hard to find but good when you do find it. I think it comes from those authors who want to write well and for fun, not just one or the other.

And that's my two cents. XD

Anonymous said... is pretty good, but ends as though it's been cut off. is very good too.

Kelley said...

In response to Sumana Harihareswara - I am both amazed and horrified at the fact that there is a world of Colbert Report fanfiction.

More so by the discovery that some of it is actually ENTERTAINING.

Anonymous said...

I've been into some types of fanfiction. It all depends on what you are a fan off. I will admit that most fanfictions are strange, badly written, and even disturbing, but it's a way for a person to express themselves. I get a good laugh, and every now and then you come across good writing skills. (Harry Potter fanfiction seem to contain most of the skilled writers from what I've seen.) Some are bad, some are good. If you don't like them, don't read them. I do the same thing. Read what you can tolerate and leave the rest alone.