Have you ever heard of “fanfic”? It’s short for “fan fiction,” and refers to fictional (duh!) pieces based on works of art in the public medium, which are not authorized by the makers of the original works but which are done simply for fun rather than profit. Someone likes, say, the movie The Dark Knight, so just for grins and giggles they write their own little story based on The Dark Knight, either a sequel or an alternate ending or filling in some of the backstory, whatever. Star Trek fanfic is the most common (there’s at least one whole website, Trekiverse, dedicated to nothing but Trek fanfic), but there’s fanfic out there based on movies, TV shows, books, stage plays, even video games. I suspect you could even do history fanfic, if you’re just a huge admirer of Theodore Roosevelt or somebody.
I’ve thought about scribbling out some of my own for a while, but last week I finally did it. It’s a very short story called “Step One,” based on the movie Iron Man (a recent fave of mine) and you can read it here if you like. It’s a little rough around the edges — the plot isn’t all it could be, and there are a few typos I didn’t catch before putting it online — but not bad for a first try, I’d say. I’m thinking of doing some more, based on other movies I’ve liked: Watchmen, Enchanted, V for Vendetta, Music and Lyrics … I’ll keep you posted if/when any of those come to fruition.
Now, the question you might be asking … why? What exactly is the point of doing fanfic, since writing does use up a lot of time, and you can’t sell your writing without incurring a copyright violation and having to deal with major media corporations and their packs of slavering, rabid lawyers? Why waste all that energy for something that can’t possibly profit you?
Well, it depends upon your definition of profit, I suppose.
Granted, none of the people doing this are likely to see a red cent from their efforts, but there are benefits one can accrue that don’t show up on a line in the checkbook. One of them is simply the fulfillment that can come with creating something. Bill James, one of my own heroes, once jokingly said (in reference to compiling baseball statistics) that “the creation of data is a holy act.” But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve concluded that Bill was joking on the square — there is something sacred about building things, whether it be a car, a shelf unit, a statistical analysis or a short story. In creating something new, or rebuilding something old, I think we draw closer in a pre-conscious fashion to God the Creator. We get a taste of what He did and does when He made the universe, or when he remakes something anew — a tree, a planet, a saved soul. And there’s a solid, substantial joy when we do that, a shadow of what I imagine He feels in His work.
And fanfic is, if you think about it, an easier version of what a writer goes through in crafting a script or a book. You don’t need to struggle as much with developing the characters, for instance; all or most of them are already provided for you in the original work. You just have to lift them out and reposition them as you please. Settings and plotlines, likewise, can be re-used or spun off from the original media. So it’s an option for someone who doesn’t (or doesn’t yet) have the skills to do a work from scratch, or doesn’t have the time due to other obligations. It’s like building a model from a kit, as opposed to designing one yourself.
But I don’t think that’s all there behind doing fanfic. I believe another aspect is even more important.
Let me use an example: the movie Titanic, since just about EVERYBODY has seen Titanic. Most of the film, of course, is a flashback — Rose remembering her voyage aboard the ill-fated liner in 1912, her torrid but short-lived affair with Jack Dawson, and the ship’s (and Jack’s) eventual demise. The film states that she was 17 at the time. This story is bracketed by Rose, now over 100, visiting with a crew dredging up treasures from the sunken wreck in 1998 (when the movie was released). So there’s a gap of 86 years between the two series of events.
But have you ever wondered what happened with Rose in those 86 years?
Think about it. We know she arrived in America, got married and had at least one kid — in the modern-day sequences she’s being taken care of by a granddaughter. But that’s it; no other details are presented, or even implied. We don’t even know what happened when, after being rescued, she finally got to New York, or how she managed to escape the clutches of Cal, her slimy and possessive fianceé. We’re saddled with a huge blind spot, close to a century long. Thanks a bunch, James Cameron.
And yet, the movie is pretty effective at making you care about the people involved (even though, in our rational mind, we know it’s only a story and there was no real Rose or Jack or Cal). So we aren’t told what happens, but part of us still wants to know. We’ve made an emotional investment, and we want some closure. Fanfic is a way for us, the audience, to fill in the gaps left by the makers of the original story. And we can do it in a way that’s personally satisfying to us, without having to worry about whether a studio or a publisher will greenlight it.
I think of all my favorite characters in books (Xavier March in Robert Harris’ Fatherland, Ethan Feld from Summerland by Michael Chabon, Gordon Krantz, in David Brin’s The Postman) or film (the crew from The Breakfast Club, Music and Lyrics‘ Alex Fletcher, Evey Hoffman in V for Vendetta … and yes, Tony Stark), and part of my mind treats them as real folks whose welfare I care about. We’re wired that way — there isn’t naturally a separate compartment in our brains for fictional characters. That’s why kids can’t tell the difference very well — and why my son gets really tense during chase scenes in some cartoons. We have to create that separation as we grow up, and even as adsults it’s never fully effective. Emotionally, we still connect at a deep level with what’s going on in those pages or on that screen.
It’s only natural, therefore, for us to ask, “what happens next?” Do Ethan and Jennifer T. Rideout stay friends, maybe grow up and get married someday? What about Claire and Bender — will their unexpected romance survive Monday and the peer pressure of their social circles? What will Gordon find when he reaches California, and has the news of the Scouts’ Sacrifice preceded him? What’s going to happen to Britain now that Sutler and Creedy — and V — are out of the picture? I want to know these things. But unless somebody does a sequel, we’re never going to find out, we’re never going to get the closure we crave. Unless, of course, we create the answers ourselves. Fanfic, therefore, can bridge that emotional gap left by the works’ creators — not just for the person writing the fanfic, but for everyone reading it as well.
So I’m definitely looking forward to Iron Man 2 (scheduled to drop April 2010, if Gwyneth Paltrow is to be believed). But there are so many other stories still to be continued. For example: when Russell in Up accidentally stows away on Carl Frederickson’s flying house and ends up in South America, he’s gone from home for several days, right? What’s going through the mind of his poor mom (whom we get the briefest of glimpses of at the end of the flick) when her son turns up missing?!? They didn’t touch on that aspect at all …
… um, if you’ll excuse me — it looks like I’ve got some writing to do …