Batman Meets Rainbow Brite: the beauty and horror of internet fan fiction

I spent a few hours the other day reading Transformers fan fiction.
I know some of you are shaking your heads and thinking, “I always knew he would come to this point… but I hoped he wouldn’t.” And for the rest of you, yes: I am talking about fan-written fiction based on the world of the Reagan-era transforming Robots In Disguise–Optimus Prime, Megatron, and the whole crew. But I’d like to think aloud a bit about this topic, because I have a dark confession to make: fan fiction, whether it’s about Voltron or G.I. Joe or the X-Files, fascinates me.

It doesn’t fascinate me in the sense that I particularly love reading it, although I’ve read some pieces of fan fiction that were enjoyable. Some fan fiction is, of course, quite wretched, for various reasons; much of it is badly written, and some of it exposes you to sanity-shattering ideas and images that will remain seared into your psyche until the merciful hand of Death finally ends the horror. (You know what I’m talking about; and if you don’t… cherish your innocence while it lasts. It is, alas, too late for me.)

But I don’t want to talk about the really bad stuff. The sort of fan fiction that interests me is the serious kind: the reasonably well-written, often lengthy, often surprisingly entertaining stories that people write in an earnest effort to explore and add depth to the characters and places of imaginary worlds not their own.
The question that always springs to my mind upon coming across fan art–whether it’s a story, a piece of artwork, or a song–is: Why didn’t this obviously talented person put their skills to use creating art that is their own?

Why are they pouring time and energy into writing stories set in, say, the Star Wars universe, when they have no real ownership of (and certainly no legal right to) that universe? Why spend hours sketching elaborate pictures of He-Man characters, when you could be drawing up fantastic images of your own creation? Why write long, introspective essays about the effects of war on the Decepticon Soundwave’s relationship with his family, when the same story with the names changed would be a perfectly respectable novella that isn’t tied to a cheesy (and copyrighted) ’80s cartoon universe? (Wait—Transformers can have children? But how do they *EMERGENCY BRAIN SHUTDOWN*)

My usual reaction–and I think the standard reaction–to fan fiction (and art, and music, etc.) is to see it as the result of stunted or broken creativity. These fans have trapped their own considerable creative potential in a box built by somebody else. They lack “true” creativity that would inspire them to create their own characters and worlds, and so they squander what artistic vision they have on other people’s work. This is an especially frustrating observation because some of the fan fiction/art out there is really, genuinely, good. A lot of it is written or drawn by people who, judging by the quality of their fan art, really could make a go of it in “real” art or literature, if they would only try. (Somehow, I don’t picture most fan fiction authors also writing a lot of original material at the same time, although this could be a false impression.)

But I find this reaction unsatisfying (and unduly harsh). For one thing, it’s fairly strict and demanding in its definition of “true creativity.” Over the years, I’ve come to suspect that there are different kinds of creativity out there, and that some people are extremely creative but would simply rather put that creativity to use refining others’ works, rather than “reinventing the wheel.” This creative eye spots (or invents) depth and nuance in characters and places that the rest of us casually dismiss. I don’t know why somebody would look at Soundwave (the Decepticon who transforms into a cassette player–admit it, you remember it well) and think “I’d really love to explore the emotional havoc the Transformers war is wreaking on his family life.” But hey, the end result is a story that’s strangely interesting and certainly adds depth to a cartoon character otherwise saddled with a completely one-dimensional personality. That might be a bit weird, but it’s not a bad thing, and if it’s either Soundwave fan fiction or no creative output at all from this amateur writer, I’ll take the fan fiction.

One of the reasons I’ve come to appreciate the odd creative value of fan fiction is that I see a lot of this type of creativity in myself, specifically as it’s evidenced in the way I play roleplaying games. I love to run roleplaying games, and as any gamer will tell you, it takes at least a modicum of creativity and storytelling ability to run a successful roleplaying game. But I have the hardest time in the world coming up with my own game and adventure ideas from scratch–I almost just can’t do it. After 15ish years of gaming, if I were given a blank notebook and instructions to write a cool game adventure, I would probably just stare blankly at the pages for a while before finally producing a stale and unoriginal variation of something I’d seen or read before.

But give me a pre-written adventure–where somebody else has sketched out an outline of the adventure and its characters–and I’m golden. I love taking adventures others have written and reworking them to fit my preferences and the interests of the friends with whom I’ll be gaming. I’ll often wind up practically rewriting the entire adventure–changing characters, locations, plotlines, dialogue, and everything else to fit my interests. Why, if I can competently rewrite and run somebody else’s adventure, don’t I just write my own from scratch? Because for some reason, I need a creative groundwork laid out for me before I can unleash my own creativity.

That’s why I’m hesitant to look down on fan art of any sort: it’s genuine creativity at work, and just because it’s using non-original ideas as a launching pad doesn’t lessen the value of the work put into it. It may be that this is an incomplete or underdeveloped creativity, but I suspect it’s more likely just a different creativity. It’s creativity that works best when the initial groundwork has been done, leaving the artist free to sketch out their own vision atop that foundation.

Let’s face it: your meticulously-written epic about the romantic tension between Storm Shadow and the Baroness isn’t going to launch you into the halls of literary fame, but if it’s the story your Muse demands of you… well, get out there and get writing.

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5 Comments

  1. Morgan says:

    Well up until now every time I’ve heard fan fiction mentioned, I’ve always rolled my eyes, but you’ve at least made it so I only roll one eye now. Maybe I’ll give some of it a shot. Maybe.

  2. Paul says:

    All this being said, when are we going to see some more on, “The Case of the Overdue Book?”

  3. Andy says:

    Morgan: please don’t feel obliged to actually try reading fan fiction. Most of it’s really awful. Just appreciate… somewhat… the effort behind it. Rolling just one eye sounds fair.
    Paul: I don’t know, but I have been playing around a bit with that story. I’ll share when it’s in better shape than it is currently. Thanks for the interest!

  4. alan says:

    Andy, I wonder if the fanfic phenom might be attributed at least in part to the paradox of constraints.
    If you grab the average person on the street and ask them if artists create their best works when hidebound by a bunch of rules about what they can and can’t do, I think they’d say, “Of course not! Let them be free to create.” Yet in practice, the opposite seems to be true: a few healthy rules or constraints take all that creative energy and focus it into a very small space. A lack of *any* constaints can bring on the paralysis you’ve described, while a few healthy constraints can unleash tremendous creativity.
    I hesitate to mention the Sistine Chapel in followup to an article about the Transformers, but take a look at the constraints involved. Michelangelo had some serious constraints with respect to where he had to create, what tools he could use, and you’d better believe about the subject matter. Yet look at the creative tour de force that emerged. Could that same image exist somewhere else besides the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Maybe, but I kinda doubt it.
    Constraints help bring a tiny bit of order and direction to the chaos of a completely blank page. They nudge us in the right direction and get the juices flowing. They protect us from having to invent ex nihilo and instead provide a few hints for where to start noodling around.
    That people write fan fiction in particular is just an expression of the impact someone else’s work has had on them. They feel a need to respond, and the constraints of the pre-created world give them a safe and familiar sandbox in which to do so.
    Or maybe this idea of constraints is all cr*p. I’ve seen the titles of some of the more edgy fan fiction, and that was enough to make me cry out for the soul of humanity. That comes from a different place than that’s not so safe, but definitely, uh, creative.

  5. Andy says:

    Alan, I think you’re absolutely right. Already-existing universes create a natural set of creative boundaries within which to play, and as you note, restrictions can be crucial in focusing one’s artistic energy. (Think of what happens to software projects that lack clearly-defined borders–they get bogged down by feature creep and exponentially rising design goals.)

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