A quick definition: fanfiction (fanfic) is definitely not plagiarism. Proper fanfic authors make it clear that the author(s) of the canon (the original source material) deserve the credit and fanfic writers don’t get paid (unless a publisher commissions them for the offical “based on the TV series/film” books). Fanfic provides prequels, sequels and fill in the missing scenes (the ones left out because they held up the plot or time/word count pressures squeezed them out) or explore alternative universes (what if character A didn’t resort to plan B, what if C made the opposite decision).
So why do they write it? Fanfic’s been around since stories began, but the internet has helped by providing an easy, convenient way of sharing and distributing such stories. Anyone who’s re-interpreted a Biblical story, a fairytale or a myth has strayed into fanfic. Anyone who thinks that raiding the myth kitty is somehow superior to someone writing an alternative episode of “Star Trek” is fooling only themselves. What both myth kitty raiders and fanfic writers share is that they take original characters from other’s story and create their own story from them. The former do it because it’s a convenient shorthand to refer to Penelope rather than describe some long-suffering wife’s patient wait for her husband’s return. The latter do it for very similar reasons: you can write stories where your readers already know your characters. In both cases it avoids having to fill in the backstory or having to explain why your characters are behaving as they do, because your reader already knows. Leonard Cohen recently complained he couldn’t mention minor Biblical characters in his songs because no one knew who they were. He was mourning the loss of a common, cultural reference point. Fanfic authors have been successfully shifting common, cultural reference points beyond a generally Western, generally white, generally male culture to stories that genuinely cross boundaries.
Novelist and poet Sheenagh Pugh refers to fanfic as “the democratic genre”. A fanfic story can be written and posted on-line and receive feedback, which is generally positive and constructive, within hours. An original story has to be posted to editors who, snowed under with submissions, take months to respond and often do so with a standard rejection letter which doesn’t offer any feedback on the story. The fanfic world is definitely a friendlier and quicker way of getting reviewed by your peers. But don’t think the criticism is kinder. Fanfic reviewers will put your characterisation and plotting under a microscope. The worst crime a fanfic author can commit is letting a character stray out of character, and fanfic readers do not hesitate to condemn. It’s a good way of flexing fictional muscle and useful experience for writers learning character development and how to write character-driven plot. Fanfic is a starting point for most writers. Many fanfic forums and communities have their fair share of professional writers who also write fanfic and will take the time to review and constructively criticise a story with potential. It’s an incredibily useful way for newer writers to cut their literary teeth or for existing writers to re-discover the excitement of writing.
It can be awkward for writers of open canons (ie a series where more books/episodes are planned) to encourage fanfic as the writer doesn’t want to be swayed by any ideas in the fanfics. I think fanfic writers have to accept they are playing in someone else’s sandpit and if someone else wants to take the sandpit away, they have the right to do so. Although some writers, eg Anne Rice, have geniune reasons for not wanting their work turning up in fanfic, generally attempts to stop fanfic or sue the fanfic writer are like trying to bolt the stable door after the horse has bolted. Once a story is in the public arena, it is public. Having said that, fanfic writers do have a responsibility to keep canon characters in character and not abuse the original with poor fanfic. Ultimately if a book/movie/TV series attracts fanfic, the original’s done its job: it’s created a memorable story with characters that people want to continue living long after the original’s finished. Fanfic’s a compliment. Long live fanfic.