We are all familiar with the elements of fiction: plot, character, theme, setting, point of view.

When a writer decides to set a story in San Francisco in 1980, or in Bonn in 1950, or in her home town the year she was twenty, there’s research involved. What did the place look like? What were the landmarks? What was the weather like? What was under construction? What blooms in which seasons?

The more familiarity the writer has with the place, the better and more vivid the story.

And, no one thinks it’s cheating if a writer uses a real place for the setting of a story. Quite the reverse.

No one thinks it’s “better” or “more creative” to make up a setting from scratch instead of using an already existing city or countryside. (In fact, the genres where making up a setting from scratch is normally necessary, like SF or fantasy, are often dissed by lovers of literary fiction.)

A large part of the joy of reading, say, Robert Parker’s Spenser novels is enjoying Boston through his eyes. The entire genre of travel literature lets us all explore, fictionally and nonfictionally, places we already know and love.

Fan fiction does exactly this same thing, but with character instead of setting.

The last go-round, this spring, regarding the legitimacy and definitions of fan fiction (and this is a topic that comes around a lot on the guitar) seemed to be very focused on copyright restrictions and authorial control. The fantasy author Diana Gabaldon, in blog posts that were mostly, alas, deleted afterward, took serious offense at fan fiction and was soundly and elegantly rebutted by another author at Bookshop, Livejournal.com, May 3, 2010.

Then, in related developments, the well-known blog BoingBoing listed a bunch of Pulitzer Prize winning works that can be defined as fan fiction, prompting cofax7 to offer a definition of the genre (Dreamwidth.org, cofax7, May 28, 2010). If you read her post, do read the comments too, for more nuances and discussion. On the other hand, the BoingBoing comments are pretty funny! In the “oh no” sort of way.

(As a tangent: Bookshop also links to one of her own comments where she addresses succinctly what is one of the biggest misunderstandings in this perennial discussion: Many people seem to keep going all bzuh at the idea — central to fan fiction — of writing something and sharing it with a community, with no intention or desire to sell said piece of writing for money.)

Like Bookshop, I’m kind of bemused every time I have to have the conversation about why fan fiction is way okay. Aren’t we there yet? So maybe I can offer yet another way of making the argument: Any writing textbook lists those five elements of fiction. Why are the anti-fan fiction critics so hung up on the presumed necessity for original characters in the best-quality fiction, but see no necessity whatsoever for original settings?

[META] Existing settings, existing characters
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14 thoughts on “[META] Existing settings, existing characters

  • 16/07/2010 at 04:06

    Excellent point! I would even go so far say to say the more familiarity the reader has with a place, the better, as well. For example, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is a non-stop paean to San Francisco in the early 1980s, and particularly delightful to those of us who lived there. For those who didn’t, well they might just fall in love with the City from his descriptions.

    Similarly, a good fanfic writer delights those who love the canon characters. Really good fanfic writers have been known to pimp me into becoming a fan of shows or movies I’d never seen before, simply on the quality of their depiction of the characters.

    • 16/07/2010 at 14:06

      Glad it makes sense! And I adored those books — another great example of how setting really made the story.

  • 16/07/2010 at 07:45

    Good argument!

    Many people seem to keep going all bzuh at the idea — central to fan fiction — of writing something and sharing it with a community, with no intention or desire to sell said piece of writing for money.

    This. Fanfiction is my hobby. I don’t care how creative or valuable professional writers think it is, and I’ve rarely heard people discussing the value of other hobbies in a similar fashion.

    • 16/07/2010 at 14:08

      I’ve pondered that numerous times — how music or cooking or baseball is seen as a reasonable amateur hobby, but writers are assumed to want to be published for money, period.

      I mean, no one assumes you HAVE to want to be Bonnie Raitt or Julia Child or Barry Bonds if you purse those hobbies, you know? There’s more room for the literal amateur — the doing of it for love alone.

      Writing is so like that too.

  • 16/07/2010 at 12:30

    I’m curious why you didn’t provide actual links to the LiveJournal and Dreamwidth posts you mention. You clearly want people to go look them up, and you make it sort of easy by giving dates. Did you have a reason to not provide live links to make reading those posts much easier?

    Thanks for a very interesting and enjoyable post, too!

    • 16/07/2010 at 14:11

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Our inaugural post explained our policy of not linking to fannish blogs on LJ or DW directly — it’s a nod to fannish etiquette that these are quasi-public spaces, rather unlike the rest of the web in terms of community practices. This blog follows the Transformative Words and Culture journal’s practice of giving a reader enough information to find the post in question without hotlinking.

      There’s a great deal of wariness inside fandom about being studied by academics. So this, and the checking for permission before citing there, is one way of observing that etiquette.

      Even inside fandom it’s not totally an agreed on thing — some fans are all, “If you post it publicly, it’s public, full stop,” but there’s enough of a gray area here that the TWC felt this policy was best.

      • 17/07/2010 at 11:24

        I didn’t know that. Thanks for the explanation!

        • 20/07/2010 at 12:50

          And I also should have said that if a fannish journaler prefers that we link directly, we can of course do that in this blog, but the baseline policy is the TWC’s approach.

          Thanks for asking! It’s a sticky point to some.

  • 17/07/2010 at 21:42

    Why are the anti-fan fiction critics so hung up on the presumed necessity for original characters in the best-quality fiction, but see no necessity whatsoever for original settings?

    I think this has to do less with the distinction between characters and settings, and more with the issue of originality and unoriginality. An “un-original” or real-world setting is, by definition, not owned by any particular creator – and thus, is common property for all creators. An invented character or setting cannot exist but by the grace of and thanks to its creator. Use of that character or setting by anyone else, without express permission (…and even with permission) is still appropriating a specific, particular product of another person’s work.

    • 18/07/2010 at 16:03

      Right, that’s where the authorial control thing and the copyright control thing come in.

      But those issues aside, I’ve heard people say it’s somehow “cheating” or “less creative” to write about Robin Hood, or Romeo and Juliet, than to make up a character entirely from scratch.

      • 18/07/2010 at 22:45


        From a purely quantitative point of view (and yes, of course, the creative process does not yield itself easily to quantification of any kind), it is “less creative.” Creating an original character inevitably takes less time and demands fewer resources than creating a sequel or spin-off. In fact, I think the same basic issue can be seen in the general disdain movie critics have for sequels and franchises.

        • 19/07/2010 at 13:14

          I really have to disagree! (I’m assuming you meant to say that an original character takes more time and demands more resources.) For example, West Side Story was no less creative than Romeo and Juliet, which itself was based on an earlier play.

          Polishing, building upon and deeply exploring an existing character has its own set of challenges, different from but no less demanding than thinking of a character “from scratch.”

          I’m no expert on movies, but it seems to me that critics are disdainful of sequels because they usually suck — not because of character failure, but because of plot or script failure. With some exceptions, of course. The last movie sequel I was majorly disappointed by was Transformers II. On the other hand, I thought Iron Man II worked very well. In the case of the Transformer movie I thought it suffered totally from plot failure. But again, I’m totally an amateur movie critic! So my opinion and a nickel will get you less than a cup of coffee there. :). ETA: clarified that only one of the movies I mention had plot failure.

  • 18/07/2010 at 18:19

    Wonderful! So glad you’re writing here.

    • 20/07/2010 at 15:40

      Thank you, Kyle! And thanks for reading!

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