“I can’t believe this is the direction they are taking this show. Seriously, I’ve read fanfiction better than this.”
“This pairing in the show makes no sense. I mean in fanfiction authors would write novel-length fic developing their characters’ relationships, but the actual show just randomly hooks them with no development. It makes no sense.”
“Wow, this fanfic is amazing. The studio should hire this author to write for the actual show. It would be ten times better then.”
Chances are you’ve heard people say things like this, or maybe you’ve even said them yourself. I know I have.
When I become very devoted to a TV show, book, movie, etc., I immediately begin looking for fanfiction. Usually when I get hooked on something enough to want to read fanfiction, it’s because the original source material is good, but there’s still enough there for someone else to work with, whether there are unfinished or unexplained things in the narrative or there is something wrong with the narrative—anything from poor character development to lack of representation—that needs to be fixed. As media scholar Henry Jenkins said in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide:
Fandom, after all, is born of a balance between fascination and frustration: if media content didn’t fascinate us, there would be no desire to engage with it; but if it didn’t frustrate us on some level, there would be no drive to rewrite or remake it.
If I feel like a piece of media has already told an excellent, and more importantly, complete, story, I don’t have any desire to read fanfic based on it. I never look for fanfiction for books like Lord of the Rings, shows like Pushing Daisies, and movies like Pan’s Labyrinth; despite how much I love them, I wouldn’t go searching for fic because I regard the source material as practically perfect. Sometimes I believe the original author’s style is unique enough that other authors writing in the same world just wouldn’t feel right.
This forced me to realize that when I do read fanfiction, even for a fandom I’m obsessed with, it’s because there was something I didn’t love about the source material. Whether it’s a relationship or a character death or even the overall storyline, part of me looks for fanfiction because I’m not entirely satisfied with the original story.
Now, this isn’t always the reason that I—or anyone else—reads fanfiction. But whether you actively seek out fanfiction because you are dissatisfied with something in the original story, or you just read or write fanfiction for fun, chances are, after engaging in fanfiction, you develop a lot more opinions about the characters and the storyline.
Basically, whether you read or write it (especially if you write it), fanfiction helps develop your critical thinking in many ways. In other words, you start to analyze books, movies, and TV shows the same way any professional writer would. You start to spot more inconsistencies in the plot, or lack of growth in character development, or when writers are using clichés as an easy out to move the story along. Now, you don’t have to be a fanfic reader in order to spot a plot hole, but when you are constantly immersing yourself in and actively engaging in the world of fandom, I think you tend to spot issues like these more easily. Maybe you don’t think in these specific terms, but you know something is wrong, and that the writers are doing something that you don’t like—which prompts you to say “The fanfiction was better.”
If fanfiction really helps fans think more critically, then it definitely makes things more difficult on professional authors and writers, for a variety of reasons.
When I was watching Heroes, I read a lot of Heroes fanfiction before the disaster that was season three came out. Heroes, like Lost, was one of those shows that always left off on some massive cliffhanger that slowly made you go crazy until the next season came out. Before season three I was reading fanfiction nonstop to try to alleviate my pain until the next season came out. When season three aired, however, I found myself saying, “The fanfic was better.” The fanfics I read picked up the storylines and character arcs and developed them in a way that made sense. The actual series, however, did not develop anything well at all. To this day I truly believe Heroes only got another season because no one wanted the show to end on such a poor note. I wouldn’t necessarily say that fanfiction raised my expectations for the show—because season three was really just truly awful—but it did give me and many other fans an alternative to watching the show. Halfway through season three I saw many fanfic authors and readers state that they were no longer watching the show, but just living vicariously through fanfiction.
In some ways this both helps and hurts professional writers. Fanfiction in some ways can almost act as competition for the actual show, but there is only a limited amount of good fanfiction in the world, and all fanfics end as fast as a person can read, so I doubt this affects much in that way. On the other hand, even if fans abandon the show for fanfiction, they stay in the fandom, which means professional writers then have a chance of luring them back. I know people who refuse to watch Supernatural again unless they bring back Meg, but those fans are still active in the fandom. So if there is even a hint that Meg might come back, they could return. Fanfiction and fandom in general can act almost like it’s keeping fans on hold. But fans can also become pretty upset waiting for something that might never happen, especially when it comes to pairings.
Fanfiction in some ways can be like rubbing your eye: it feels awesome at first, but then everything just feels worse when you are done rubbing. If you are really passionate about a ship then of course you read fanfiction for it, and especially if the fanfiction is good, you can become even more upset the pairing isn’t canon. Now combine this with things like queerbaiting and the lack of boundaries between The Powers That Be and the fando—thanks to social networking—and you get a chemical mixture that makes chaos. The most recent incident in the Supernatural fandom, where WB executive Chad Kennedy said that he’d never actually heard about Destiel and had never been pitched a storyline where Dean was bisexual, demonstrates this pretty well. This incident came after years of queerbaiting and both actors and writers giving a wink and a nod and claiming anything could happen. Fans took to Twitter with their rage and subsequently Mr. Kennedy deleted his Twitter account. (He reactivated it after a day, saying that he’d needed “a day off”.)
Now, I’m not saying reading fanfiction causes things like this to happen directly (excessive queerbaiting does), but I think it can strengthen fans’ desire to see their pairing become a reality, especially when writers say things like: “Character A couldn’t be bisexual, because it doesn’t make sense with how we developed Character A. Having them end up in a relationship with Character B wouldn’t make any sense.” Well, that’s maybe what writer What’s His Face says, but it wouldn’t take much for fans to spam said writer with a handful of fanfics set within the canon universe that keeps the characters in character, while still developing a queer relationship in a natural and realistic way.
So is fanfiction really making it harder for professional writers? I don’t really know if it actually does, but fanfiction, despite all its problems, does hold writers to a higher standard. After all, no writer wants their fans to look at their entire body of work and proclaim, “The fanfic was better.”
Excellent post and very good questions. There’s a discussion going on in the comments of a post over at The Geekiary (http://thegeekiary.com/2013/11/06/baiting-the-fandom-that-feeds-you/comment-page-1/#comment-5858) that also brings up aspects of this topic — especially the idea that a show’s creators, cast and crew need to hold themselves to a higher standard both onscreen and offscreen to prevent miscommunication and fan frustration and anger.
As you point out, fanfiction often fills a gap in the source material. You don’t see as much fanfiction about certain books and shows because the source material completely fulfilled reader/viewer needs.
I avoid fanfiction now because I was a horrible addict when I compulsively read it all the time (and when I read it because I wanted to relax and enjoy it, it quickly re-launched the horrible compulsive reading), but even when I was into it I avoided fandoms where I was engaging with the canon on an ongoing basis or might do so in the future, or had a strong attachment to it. (I’d read fanfic in fandoms where I’d never seen/read the source material, or Harry Potter–which was okay–or Naruto–which was godawful but I liked it when I was 15). So I definitely was a case where of course I preferred the fanfic–if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be in that fandom. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate the strengths of the original works.
Naruto for me is a prime example. It’s ickily sexist, the manga is often confusing to me, I’m not really into shounen action-type stuff anyway, and the plot ends up horribly tangled and frustrating, yet I still write fanfic in that world sometimes. The basic setup of the world, with its rival ninja villages, powerful clans, and different geographic settings, plus the way it’s really relationship-focused despite being a show about teenagers beating each other up, the huge cast, and its bravery in having a lead driven by the belief that loneliness is hell and that reaching out to others, protecting them, and maintaining their esteem is his life purpose, all created the environment on which a wide variety of fanfics flourish. The manga can’t actually explore these things in the way I’d want it to, because of genre conventions and because the target audience is at least 8 years younger than me. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have a BETTER plot and better execution, to the point where I might find it tolerable to actually consume (and I have tried, since the fandom has been important to me–when my boyfriend raped me, the first thing I did to cope with the emotions was write a Naruto fanfic). But I don’t think any writer should feel at all bad if they inspire others to write fanfic that many consider better than the original. It’s a sign that they built something that spoke far beyond the constraints of the original medium or genre or breakdown of the original creative team or whatever it was that caused disappointment.
I think some fans get their egos too wrapped up in the subject of their adoration. I came to fanfic late (age 19), and so it’s always been pretty easy for me to let it go if a series is left unfinished or has aspects I don’t like. For me fanfic even seems more real/meaningful than the canon, which is part of why I avoid it for things I’m actually a fan of–it overwhelms the canon. There’s just more of it, going in all directions, and fanfic often seems more raw and real. (I’ve actually never really understood why people get emotionally involved in hoping a series does the ship they want–sure, I have an opinion about the relationships the creator chose, but, uh, so does the creator. They’re all valid. I can express mine in my writing, the creator expresses theirs in their art. Theirs just happens to be called “canon”. It’s all a conversation.) I guess I have the opposite problem–instead of the actual canon events affecting my relationship with the entire body of imagination around the work, the fan-produced stuff overrides the actual canon for me. I think fanfiction can make it harder on the fans, too.
Hi, loved the post, I came across it, when I was writing also a blog about fan fiction, you can check it at https://carladoria.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/writing-fan-fiction-cheer-up/
I just love the way you analyze fan fiction on how much influence it has not only on fans but also on original writers of TV shows.
I actually haven’t used fan fiction as season filler or cliffhanger filler, I tend to read it after I see a plot development that doesn’t appeal to me at all. But I’m starting to wonder if this wouldn’t be a good idea, after all, season hiatus or cliffhangers really get me anxious 😀
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