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Fanfiction at its most pure.

I’m not going to comment on the recent drama with certain authors decrying fanfiction of their work.  Instead, I want to offer up two of the purest examples of fanfiction that I can think of.

In my family, storytelling is an everyday part of life.  When I was 5 years old, in 1st grade, my mom would write me little stories about my favorite characters (usually Wonder Woman and Scooby Doo) and put them in my lunches.  I requested these stories, I remember, because I wanted Wonder Woman and Scooby Doo to do things relevant to me and my life, such as talk about their favorite foods, show up at bedtime and let me stay up until 10PM, etc.

Basically, I wanted to insert my favorite characters right into my life and imagine what it would be like if Wonder Woman showed up at my window looking for blueberry yogurt.  (In the story, I helped her out by opening the fridge and finding her a spoon.)

My 3-year-old companion is really, really into Frog & Toad stories.  Alas, there are only 4 books, with no hope for more, and he knows all the stories by heart.  So what does he do?  Asks me to make some up!  Frog & Toad stories have their own unique logic and sense of humor, and he can immediately tell if I don’t get it right.  “No, that’s not how it goes!”

Among his requests:

  • Frog & Toad go to the grocery store and get cake
  • Frog & Toad play basketball with a rainbow basketball
  • Our cat plays basketball with his friends, including Frog & Toad
  • He drums in a rock concert with our cat, Frog & Toad

He’s also a fan of “Little Red Riding Hood Fixes The Wolf’s & Granny’s Car.”

If this isn’t fanfiction, I don’t know what is.

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Does writing slash about white men make you racist and sexist?

Some speculation. Full disclosure: I am not deeply into any fandom. Even though I strongly support fanfiction and think it’s awesome, it’s possible I don’t truly understand some of the issues at hand.

So, I’ve been reading the metafandom community on livejournal, and issues that come up over and over center around these related questions:

“Why do we hate / what’s wrong with Mary Sues?”
“Are we really antifeminists and racists for writing about white men? We’re women; we should write about women. And, like, more black people. Should we feel bad about this?”

These issues are related. Mary Sues occur when a fanfiction writer creates a new character, or adapts an existing one, to be her avatar. She’s often too perfect and rather undeveloped, and a lot of people hate Mary Sues and bash other fanfiction writers for writing them.

Mary Sue.
It’s not hard to understand the impulse for Mary Sue — if I’d just read Twilight and I longed to be a part of that world, I’d go ahead and write myself in. That’s part of what fanfiction is about. There are Serious Writers in fanfiction, a lot of them, but there are also simply fans who love the original material so much they want to make it come alive for themselves again.

By writing a Mary Sue, they’re saying, “what if I was still the same, and Twilight was actually my reality?” Of course, writing yourself in makes you tremendously vulnerable, so they often try to throw people off the scent by killing themselves off, or making their Mary Sue annoying or over the top, etc. See? It’s not really them. But still, the meta-message is, “I’m special enough to enter this world that I love.”

Why people hate her.
It’s not real. It couldn’t ever happen. Of course, none of the fandoms are real, and no-one believes it is, but when an obvious self-insertion happens, the purists in the audience revolt. They are looking for the truth-in-story, and they believe they’ll get there closer by only using the existing characters, in character. These kinds of readers hate Mary Sue possibly because she represents real life intruding on the story world.

Writing about WASP men.
The lore goes, fandom is mostly made of educated females who are attracted to men. From my own experience in both a small liberal arts college and a big state diploma mill, I got the impression that most college-educated women were white. Yes, I did have friends that were not white, but if I looked around at my cafeteria, there was vastly more pasty ivory than brown.

People write stories that are natural reflections of their life experiences. If you grew up in a white family, and went to a mostly-white high school and college, it’s not a shock that you’d write about white people. It’s not a crime! You aren’t racist just because you aren’t black, or Mexican, or whatever.

There’s also the fact that most TV shows have mostly white people, still, accompanied by the token minority characters. Then again, I haven’t watched TV in many years; maybe I’m wrong about this.

Write what you know?
I’m of two minds about this.

  1. If a writer is not black / Asian / female / male, how can he-she-it possibly have the cultural authority to write about it?  Isn’t it appropriation / fetishization for a white writer to do a story about life on the streets as a Mexican gangster?
  2. Writers are imaginative and inherently have the ability to understand people, regardless of sex or species.  I’m pretty sure Bram Stoker never was a vampire or a woman, and yet he managed to do pretty well with those characters.

I can understand why most of fandom likes it over F/M and F/F — they’re women! They’re attracted to men! It’s hard to write any erotic story if you are not excited by it, yourself.

Write what turns you on!
Most women I know aren’t attracted by the idea of having sex with other women. Some of them have tried it, and the response is, “Eh, I came, but it didn’t do that much for me.” I don’t expect a female writer to write good F/F if the idea doesn’t do it for her — I expect that her best stories will come out of what she is emotionally passionate about, and what turns her on. In fandom, I expect that the male characters will turn her on more than the female characters, since she is probably attracted to men more than women.

Don’t write to prove a point or push an agenda — it won’t result in good art.

In my writer’s group, a lot of people are “trying to get into” something, whether it’s horror, science fiction, etc. It’s because they think those genres are cool, and they want to be cool by being in the scene, just like learning to play guitar so you can pick up chicks. It’s externally motivated by how they want people will think of them as writers, and the way they’d like to think of themselves.

But it usually results in poor storytelling because they aren’t really passionate about what they’re writing. They try to write dark, gritty stuff but don’t have a keen interest in the “thin ice of life,” as Steven King says. “Be yourself,” is always the advice given.

A word about women characters in popular entertainment…
This being said, I’d be blind not to notice that even “strong women” in entertainment, especially movies and TV, are still often defined by what men think of them. They’re like men, but in a sexy chick body. These heroines are admired because of traits usually seen as masculine, often despite their unfortunate female status, and this evaluation happens both within the story world and with real life.

The way I’ve seen it, women characters are depicted as women first, and people second. But this is not the fault of only the writers — women, in real life, also classify themselves as women first, people second. I see it all over author bios, especially of romance writers:

“I’m married to a wonderful man and am the mother of n fabulous children…” Or, slightly more modern:

“I’m a mom, writer, coffee drinker, and avid reader… not necessarily in that order.”

Anyway, I’m not surprised that female fans don’t resonate with most of the female characters found on TV and in the movies. Being a male protagonist is not remarkable, and it’s easier to see beyond the male-type machine into the unique character within (or make up the uniqueness!) than it is for female protagonists, especially if you’re sensitive about your own place in society as a person with a female-type machine.

Write what you like to write. I don’t think you’re being racist or sexist by writing about white men. I don’t think you’re antifeminist by not writing F/F, and I don’t think your uncool if you aren’t really into horror or science fiction, but want to write Mary Sue-ish romance instead. Only by being true to ourselves as unique beings will we make race/gender a non-issue.

Links: -> roundup of posts

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Writing fanfiction — why do they care about what you do?

I can understand some authors’ negative attitudes about fanfiction. They clearly feel threatened in some way — creatively, legally, morally, or financially. Whether their feelings and arguments are irrational doesn’t matter; I accept the validity of the perceived threat. Anne Rice and Orson Scott Card, two authors who have been outspoken about fanfiction, are entitled to their views on other people using their characters and worlds. Emotionally, they have something to lose.

I can understand the attitudes of pro and aspiring-pro writers…

Fanfiction communities, in general, are pretty damn respectful about the original creators’ wishes. Since fan works are tributes to both the original works and the creators of the original works, fan writers and artists usually abide by the originators’ wishes. For many, it takes some of the fun out of making fan works if the creator doesn’t want them made, just like giving a surprise party for someone who wants their birthday ignored.

Even the aspiring-pro writers’ attitudes are understandable. They obviously have ambitions and are dead set on improving their craft. Since people tend to give autobiographical advice, it’s natural to project their own aspiring-pro goals onto other people. Just like a father telling his kid, “You’re wasting your time playing guitar. You should be studying the stock market, making something of your life while you’re young.”

…even if they don’t understand why some people want to write fanfiction.

They don’t get that:
1) Fanfiction is actually a great way to hone your writing skills with the right mindset. In martial arts class, we had the option of doing full-contact fighting with our classmates. Our teacher created “RCEs” — Restricted Combat Exercises. It was a game where we did fight each other, but we were only allowed certain things. These restrictions made us focus on strengthening certain aspects of our combat abilities that would go untended, just because there are so many variables to worry about in real-time combat. It takes a lot of experience to fight well, and the restricted, but still combative, environment helped us with that.

2) A lot of fanfiction writers don’t want to be published. It’s an enjoyable hobby, and only that. Many of them do not write because they’ve always wanted to be writers, but simply out of love for the original works. You see this same attitude at many open mic nights — the people are obviously amateur (most of them), but they aren’t doing it because they want to be pro musicians. Anyone judging them against pros is missing the point: they are doing it to more deeply experience the songs they love, to really get inside the music. (When I have time, I will join an amateur symphony orchestra, just so that I can be in the glorious, golden center of art music again.)

My blind spot?

But what I don’t really get is why non-authors care so strongly about fanfiction. They have nothing to lose, unlike published authors. After someone commented on my previous fanfiction post, I had to do a little research on people’s attitudes.

Vanessa had said:

I wouldn’t say I’ve seen rancor but there’s definitely an attitude of why bother, you’re wasting your time, you don’t get anything out of it from some aspiring pro writers, even if a person says they’re just writing it for enjoyment. The thought process seems to be you could come up with an original, publishable story in the same amount of time. And of course some people just consider it right out plagiarism.

She is clearly more in tune to the scene than I am. While I had thought that the general attitude was either positive or, “um, it’s kind of lame,” I discovered a lot of non-published authors being actively against it. Arguments showed up such as:
– It’s a waste of time. If people want to write, they can write their original stories just as easily. (Variations on this are, “It’s lazy.”)
– It’s not serious writing.
– It’s plagiarism.
– It’s stupid and no one should do it.

Illogic of these ‘arguments’ aside (why is fun a waste of time?), the interesting aspect of this is: why do non-writers care so much?

If I want to spend my leisure time writing fanfiction — in a fandom where the original creator gave express permission to write it — instead of playing video games, who does it harm?

This sounds like a very teenager-ish, idealistic attitude. “Why should anyone else care if I dress Goth? It doesn’t hurt anyone,” etc. But really, it feels like people have a moral crusade against something that will never affect them. Unless they think it does affect their world for the worse in some way.

If anyone can shed some light on this, please do. I seem to have a blind spot here, and I want to understand.