Homepage > Joss Whedon Off Topic > Fan Fiction booms as modern folklore (buffy mention)
« Previous : David Boreanaz - Blue Shirt & T-Shirt - Medium Quality Scan
     Next : ’Serenity’ Movie Screenings - Theater Managers Threathened ! »

From Newsday.com

Fan Fiction booms as modern folklore (buffy mention)

By Diane Werts

Friday 29 April 2005, by Webmaster

Fan Fiction booms as modern folklore

Legions of serious fans take to the Internet to let their imaginations run wild writing scenarios for their favorite shows

Have you ever loved a TV show so much that you wanted to be a part of it, to share the characters’ adventures, to guide the action into exotic realms unexplored in actual episodes?

Maybe you visualized yourself kicking butt with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or hanging with prehistoric heroine Xena at a modern-day Starbucks. Maybe you feared your beloved show’s scripters just weren’t heading in the right direction. Why not get "X-Files" colleagues Mulder and Scully together - reeeeally together? For that matter, what about Mulder and assistant FBI director Skinner? Hey, Kirk and Spock on "Star Trek" sometimes seemed more than just "good friends." And what if Mulder and Scully crossed paths with Kirk and Spock?

These may be idle daydreams - but only if you don’t type all your fervent imaginings into the computer, then post the doings on the Internet for the world to read. These days, it seems that’s what everybody else does.

Down a new-old path

Fan fiction has become a booming hobby, with millions of stories written for cyberspace by ordinary consumers of TV shows, movies, books, even video games. "Fanfic" recycles well-known characters by taking them down fresh paths, recounted in epic-length chronicles, 100-word "drabbles," explicit character vignettes and crossovers between completely unrelated series. The reimaginings use existing entertainment icons to present an alternative mythology to the "official" version - a modern grassroots folklore subverting corporate control of "intellectual property."

Yet it isn’t modern at all. While the Internet delivers fanfic with new efficiency through archives such as fanfiction.net, this kind of shared storytelling is actually an ancient form, which was once the norm.

"For most of human history, that’s how narrative evolved," says Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at MIT and author of "Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture" (1992). "There was never a single author, whether it’s Homer or Shakespeare. Writers always borrowed heavily from the stories of their time," which were shaped and altered while being retold, Jenkins says. "There’s a human need to tell stories to each other, and fanfic now fulfills that need."

"How many different King Arthur and Robin Hood stories are there?" asks Batya Wittenberg, who studied literature at Barnard after writing her own fanfic stories from age 9 (she started with a new "Wizard of Oz" tale). Now 29, the Kew Gardens Hills office manager discovered as the Internet mushroomed that thousands of fans were reconfiguring their faves.

She began riffing on shows such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" after she took a shine to a sixth-season "nerd" character named Andrew Wells seen in only an occasional scene. She remembers feeling, "’I bet I know what this character was thinking right after that. But I didn’t see it. So I’m going to write it.’ It’s like, here’s something the show didn’t explore. It’s filling in the blanks."

"They’re expanding the relationships into a place that we don’t have time to do on television," observes David Kemper, executive producer of "Farscape," the acclaimed Sci Fi cable drama whose fervent fandom still churns out stories online two years after cancellation. Like other TV professionals, Kemper says he doesn’t read fan fiction - studios forbid it, fearing lawsuits over "borrowed" ideas - but he knows what it is and that it means a valuable core of loyal fans. He also understands the urge that makes them write. Kemper loved "Star Trek" as a kid. "I remember thinking, I should be a 12-year-old on the ship with these guys, going down to the planets and seeing all these things."

"Star Trek" actually owes its franchise life to the devotion fanfic epitomizes. After the original NBC series’ cancellation in 1969, viewer zeal kept the concept alive in fan clubs, conventions and self-penned stories laboriously produced in printed fanzine form. "Fans were the only ones producing anything for a long time to satiate that hunger," says producer Ron Moore, who now runs Sci Fi’s "Battlestar Galactica" but cut his teeth as a writer on the several "Trek" TV sequels dating from the late 1980s. "It told Paramount there were people out there willing to pay for more ’Star Trek.’"

"It’s still considered the grande dame of fandom," says Melissa "Merlin Missy" Wilson, a 30-year-old analytical chemist in suburban Chicago. Wilson has written dozens of fanfics but is best known for her "Dr. Merlin’s Guide to Fan Fiction," a detailed online how-to widely consulted for a decade. Wilson says most TV fanfic is devoted to series with "some element of the fantastic or sci-fi" to stimulate imagination, as well as to "a certain kind of ensemble drama that just clicks with you." Fanfic writers know it when they see it.

Reality isn’t big - really

The tube’s big kahunas include the "Trek" series, "Buffy," "The X-Files," "Xena: Warrior Princess," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." (a 1960s fanfic pioneer that’s still active) and "Alias," all of which seem obvious. But also "The West Wing" and "JAG," which don’t, along with "Gilmore Girls," "Law & Order" and "Diagnosis Murder." Also inspiring fanfic are soap operas ("Passions"), animated series (from "Justice League" to "Rugrats"), even wrestling entertainment. Wilson says, "Sitcoms don’t get a lot. Reality shows don’t get a lot. They don’t draw in the kind of people who write fanfic. Those are shows you click onto, watch and move on to the next show."

More appealing are shows in which viewers feel a stake in the characters’ emotional lives. That bond can pull the writer personally into the tale. The "Mary Sue" story is a subgenre in which a perfect, altruistic, often tragic character represents an idealized version of the writer herself. And it usually is a "her." TV fan fiction writers are overwhelmingly female (with more men in areas like anime and video games that attract male users). "In the shows that tend to attract fan fiction," says MIT’s Jenkins, "women are a ’surplus’ audience. For men, what they want from the show is fully aired onscreen, while what women want is in the margins. Fandom is a mixture of fascination and frustration."

TV episodes revolve around plot. Fanfic writers prefer character. Their prose often languidly describes a passionate intimacy that’s rarely conveyed between commercials. "Farscape’s" Kemper notes that fanfic writers work in "the written form: This is for you to curl up on the couch to read and daydream. Whereas our show had to be visual and aural. They’re two different things."

The presumption of fan fiction to get inside characters’ heads ticks off some professional authors. Legal action has been taken by Anne Rice to deter fanfic of her vampire books and by J.K. Rowling to stop "adult" takes on Harry Potter. Fanfics often lead with disclaimers that their writers don’t claim to own the characters or seek profit from their "fair use" extensions.

"Galactica" producer Moore, conversely, is thrilled to hear of even peculiar permutations of his characters. "I always loved it when writers went into strange nooks and crannies and turned the universe upside down in ways that we couldn’t. ’Wouldn’t it be great if Kirk and Spock were lovers?’ We can’t do that, but it’s great that somebody can."

Which they certainly do. While some stories are innocuous what-ifs - the latest poker night of "Galactica’s" Starbuck, or chance meetings between characters from "The West Wing" and "Will & Grace" - others are intricately detailed accounts of sexual explorations far beyond the series’ established "canon." A wildly popular subgenre named slash, for the slash punctuation between character names, revolves around explicit sexual acts that make physical the emotional connection between male "buddy" pairs - Solo/Illya on "U.N.C.L.E.," or that ever popular Kirk/Spock team.

MIT’s Jenkins is unfazed that women write such elaborately envisioned homoerotica. "Our culture loves passionate friendships between men that are more glorious than any man would have in real life," he says. "On ’Star Trek,’ Kirk loves a girlfriend-of-the-week that he abandons at the end of the episode. But if Spock is in trouble, he’ll risk everything in his career to go save him. It doesn’t take a PhD in comparative literature to see the real relationship there."

No dead shows

Writer Wilson observes that "without a male-female power dynamic in the relationship, you can get down to quote, unquote ’pure’ emotion." Would that also explain all those Xena/Gabrielle fanfic flings?

As the online activity around "Xena," "U.N.C.L.E" and "Trek" proves, there are no dead shows in the fan fiction universe. Tales are still being written around 1960s hits "Bonanza" and "Combat." Even short-run series such as NBC’s 1997 half-season spy drama "UC: Undercover" have inspired hundreds of stories online. Writers collaborate to string together "virtual seasons" of canceled cult faves like the 1990s "Gargoyles" cartoon or CBS’ "American Gothic" spooker.

And, of course, mass media are evolving from the passive model of reading and watching to the active engagement of computers and video games. If "Galactica" producer Moore is an old-school creator of top-down television, he also answers viewer questions on the show’s Sci Fi site, writes a blog dialogue on its moral and aesthetic choices and records "podcast" commentaries fans can download for listening while watching episodes.

So is Buffy an immutable creation that a studio can employ copyright laws to prevent others from adapting? Or is she a folk character a la Snow White, and a fine jumping off point for storytelling variations? "I’m sure Shakespeare wouldn’t like a lot of the incarnations of Romeo and Juliet," says Moore. "But once you create characters and they leave your computer and go out into the world, somebody is going to do something with them. I really think it’s more flattering than anything else."

Lingo according to The Powers That Be

Fan fiction is a huge, fluid subculture with its own language and modus operandi.

A quick primer:

Canon. The officially aired or distributed form of the original concept the fanfic expands on, as created/approved by The Powers That Be (TPTB).

Gen. "General" fan fiction stories, which tend to hue close to canon in terms of behavior and taste. Can signify nonromantic content when used alongside "ships" or "shippers" (meaning relationships).

Alt or AU. Alternate Universe tales stray from canon in any number of ways: time frame, setting, diverging.

Crossover. Stories that mix separate series. "Charmed" witches show up at the "M*A*S*H" camp. Xena patronizes the "Seinfeld" coffee shop. The "Beverly Hills 90210" kids meet "Kung Fu’s" Caine. The "South Park" boys party with the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" folks.

Slash. Named for the slash punctuation between names, this indicates (mainly) male/male sexual pairings that violate series canon. Can mean female/female pairings, sometimes marked f/f. "Het" denotes heterosexual activity. Adult in nature, usually explicit, often emotionally charged.

PWP. Plot, What Plot? Here, sex is pretty much the only point.

Ratings. Fanfics may be categorized online by their adult content. Some sites apply familiar movie ratings (PG) or TV ratings (MA). Others use labels such as "adult" or "teen" to indicate appropriate readership.

Drabble. Brief scene lasting exactly 100 words.

Challenge. Soliciting stories to be shaped around a suggested theme, character, dialogue.

To explore fan fiction

Learn about fanfic at en.wikipe dia.org/wiki/Fan_fic tion.

Read stories at www.fanfic tion.net.

Follow links at www.fan ficweb.net/directory.

Peruse the amusing "Dr. Merlin’s Guide to Fan Fiction" at missy.reimer.com/library


See what not to do at www.godawful.net

Browse thoughtful essays at www.trickster.org/symposium and web.mit.edu/21fms

/www/facul ty/henry3

Many more links


(access to fanfic archives, series sites, writing resources)