Fictional Friends on Facebook

Steffi McBride, Jack Lancaster and Tracie Martin are, like many of us, on Facebook.  However, Linda Jones sees this as “disconcerting.  The Web 2.0 phenomenon is weaving a fictional web that can carry on where a book finishes – how can you tell who’s real and who’s made up?”

 Why is it disconcerting?  I’ll leave aside the patronising notion that us poor delusional readers can’t tell fact from fiction.  I’ll also assume that Facebook users who are friends of Tracie Martin know she is a character and have become friends because they’re fans of Alison Kervin’s novels featuring Tracie Martin.

 How many times have you read a book or watched a film and wondered what happened to the characters after the final page or the credits rolled?  Or what happened before the book or film started?  Or found yourself exploring what happened in those missing scenes, that tantalising white space indicating a time break or that slip between choosing a course of action and being thrown into the thick of it?

 There’s a whole genre of fiction based around this: fanfic.  Some authors accept fanfic (so long as fanfic writers acknowledge they don’t own copyright and credit the original author).  Some authors are more possessive and don’t welcome fanfic based on their characters.  Here’s an alternative to time-consuming and pricy lawsuits: create a Facebook or myspace profile and allow fans to post questions and start discussions where they can be controlled.

 Linda Jones continues, “But where does that leave the humble reader?  We expect a book to tell the story and not that it will be continued across some latest technical wizardry on the whims of marketing people.  When we hand over our cash to pay for the latest bestseller we are investing in what is in our hands at that very moment, not some nebulous future journey plotted through cyberspace.”

Or do we?  I read books for a variety of reasons but chiefly I’m looking for credible characters I can believe in alongside good writing and a good story.  My own stories start with characters.  And a character I care about will often live beyond the story (whoever wrote it).  Authors generally do build a complete picture of a character and know far more then is relevant to the novel.  Why shouldn’t authors use social media to establish communities around characters?

Would you include fictional characters on your friends’ list?  Which fictional characters would you invite to be friends?

Why J K Rowling’s Harry Potter Lexicon Lawsuit Win is Good News

Steven Vander Ark planned to publish a Harry Potter Lexicon that infringed the copyright of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and companion books “Quidditch through the Ages” and “Fantastic Beasts and where to find them” also written by J K Rowling. Judge Robert Patterson has banned the publication of the lexicon and awarded J K Rowling damages. This is good news because:

1. It does not stop anyone writing or publishing a guide to fictional works – the court differentiated between work that merely broke copyright and work that was transformative, eg provided a new insight to the original works.

2. It does not stop anyone making fair use of copyrighted original works – the court made the point that fair use was not just about the amount of material copied from the original but also the nature of use – the lexicon was not transformative because there were significant amounts of verbatim copying.

3. It does not stop collections of critical essays or literary criticism that make fair use of copyrighted original works, because the essays and criticism are transformative.

4. It does not stop fanfic (fan fiction) – the court took into account that the lexicon was a commercial venture and, although unlikely to impact on the sales of the Harry Potter novels, it would impact on the sales of J K Rowling’s companion books. The commercial intentions behind the lexicon weighed against it. Fanfic that credits the original, is a not for profit venture and is transformative – eg a prequel, sequel, parallel universe or uses original characters – is not banned.

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Long Live Fanfic

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.