This is an attempt at an informal essay on fan fiction, by a middle-aged woman who reads and enjoys fan fiction. It won’t really be a balanced argument—I will be concentrating more on what I see as the positive aspects of the genre. I’ll be using mainly examples from the Sherlock fandom, that being the fandom I’m most familiar with. (There will be some spoilers, especially for series 3, so if you haven’t seen the series yet and you intend to, it might be wise to give this essay a miss.)
Why do I read fan fiction? The basic reason is exactly the same reason I read anything—some of it is of astounding quality. I think fan fiction is often saddled with the image of being written solely by beginners and being uniformly terrible. But it’s like any other kind of fiction. You have beginners, you have the competent, you have the talented and experienced. The very best fan fiction writers write at a professional standard; the very best stories surpass their source material. When I first started digging a little deeper into fan fiction I was taken aback at the quality of work that people were generously making available for free. That they were writing just for the fun of it.
What is fan fiction? I’ll start with what it’s not. The BBC series Sherlock is, obviously, based on the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. The creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have also acknowledged being influenced by Billy Wilder’s film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Moffat and Gatiss are huge fans of Sherlock Holmes and were inspired to make this new version out of love for the character. Is Sherlock fan fiction? I would say no. Not because the writers are being paid and the finished production is being shown on national television, but because there is a complete separation between Conan Doyle’s stories and Sherlock. Yes, the series is based on Conan Doyle’s work and that has to be acknowledged, but someone who has never heard of Sherlock Holmes before can sit down with episode one and completely follow it. There is no extra information that they need.
Fan fiction doesn’t have this complete separation—you have to be familiar with the source material to get the most out of it. But this lack of separation is deliberate. The very best fan fiction writers are not people incapable of coming up with their own characters—they write fan fiction because it is fun. Because it is pleasurable to see characters that you already love in new stories.
Is fan fiction about writing fantasies? I think fan fiction is about being indulgent without, hopefully, being self-indulgent. And in fan fiction, this very often does mean sex. (Sex and romance certainly aren’t an essential part of fanfics. They’re just very, very, very popular.) But reading a wide variety of fan fiction has brought home to me exactly what is the difference between writing literature and merely indulging a fantasy. A lot of fan fiction writers cheerfully refer to stories with sex in them as “porn”, which makes me flinch. It’s an entirely negative term for me, and I think in a lot of cases it isn’t an accurate one. Having a mature or explicit sex scene in a story doesn’t make it inherently pornographic. Pornography is about taking a fantasy and imposing it on the characters—making them act it out. In an erotic story, the sex comes out of the plot and is appropriate for the characters.
This does lead into whether it’s appropriate to write about sexual relationships between characters who aren’t in that kind of relationship in canon. This is a personal preference I suppose. All I can say is that it doesn’t offend me—in fact, I see it is a positive and enjoyable thing. Stories are occasionally labelled “alternate universe” (AU) if the setting of the story is significantly different from canon. I just consider all fanfics to be AUs of canon. And to be honest, “altering” people’s sexuality does irritate me, but extending people’s sexuality doesn’t. I’m not a great one for labels in real life either—sometimes “heterosexual” people fall in love with members of their own sex, sometimes “homosexual” people fall in love with members of the opposite sex. (And, yes, I know it’s more complicated than this. This is why I don’t like labels: people’s sexuality and gender identity is more of an essay answer.)
Writing a romance between characters who aren’t in a romance in canon illustrates an important skill in fan fiction. The writer must rewrite the characters slightly to make them suitable for the story. Get the characters right on the nose and it can be an uncomfortable read: “But they wouldn’t do that.” Move the characters too far away from their canon personas and they become grotesque—you recognise them but there’s something slightly off about them. Whatever the story, all fan fiction writers do this to some extent: rewrite the characters and make them their own.
In the novel Some of Our Thursdays are Missing by Jasper Fforde, there is a place called Fan Fiction, which is visited by the official written version of the series’ main character Thursday Next. She meets some of the fanfic Thursdays:
“Why is everyone so flat?” I asked.
“It’s a natural consequence of being borrowed from somewhere else,” explained the Thursday, who was, I noted, less than half an inch thick but apparently normal in every other way. “It doesn’t make us any less real or lacking in quality. But being written by someone who might not quite understand the subconscious nuance of the character leaves us in varying degrees of flatness.”
This is a little bit patronising and not, I think, accurate. If you were to meet all the fanfic Sherlock Holmeses from Sherlock, some of them would be flat because they’ve been written by beginners who don’t yet have the experience to make a character three dimensional. But there would be an awful lot of Sherlocks that would be rounded and have depth. And none of the Sherlocks would look exactly like one another. It would be like looking at cousins, not clones. You would see the family resemblance but there would be subtle differences.
What about originality? The formal term for fan works is “transformative works”. Originally I completely rejected that—it seemed that the one thing fan works didn’t do was transform the original. As I’ve said, you don’t have a complete separation between the source and the fan work. But I’ve changed my mind now. A good piece of fan fiction should give you something you can’t get from the original. A fresh view, a new angle.
This is my brief review for my favourite Sherlock fanfic:
Leaves me breathless with laughter. My absolute favourite Sherlock story.
It's perhaps ironic that the author begins with the disclaimer that they don't own this world, because they really, really do. This version of Sherlock allows us access to a childlike view of a world in which, though terrible things can and do happen, there is always colour, hope and love. (And quite a lot of grown-up sex.)
The BBC series has humour in it but doesn’t concentrate on it in the same way this story does. But the fanfic isn’t a one note story—it has darkness and poignancy. The author is unbelievably talented, able to move from one aspect to another while always keeping an even tone. But the emphasis is on bringing out the ridiculousness of life. The basic characters are borrowed but it is an entirely original outlook and writing style. Every talented fan fiction writer brings something new and original to their work. Sherlock itself is based on another man’s work but I think it can still be described as original. It’s fresh and exciting. It’s more than just another dramatization of Sherlock Holmes. It’s just that fan fiction, unlike Sherlock, always deliberately keeps itself connected to its source.
Fan fiction can be used as a type of literary analysis, a way of commenting on the canon material. After I watched the first episode of series 3 of Sherlock, I was left bewildered by a lot of Sherlock’s behaviour. In between the showing of the first episode and the showing of the second, a writer I greatly admire wrote a story based on the first episode, in third person but from Sherlock’s point of view. It took a step back and looked at the bigger picture. The author gave their interpretation of what was going on in Sherlock's head during The Empty Hearse—they pulled everything together and gave a satisfying explanation for his behaviour.
Fan fiction can be used as a way of examining possibilities: what if this happened? Or: what if this had happened? It can be used as a way of magnifying certain aspects—looking more closely at a character. For example: Sherlock declares himself to be a sociopath. What if he really were an evil man, with no conscience? Or the writer can concentrate on his naughty little boy aspect. Or the way he can be calm, detached and in control, or the way he can sometimes be vulnerable and unsure of his place in the world.
You can go into the past and have Sherlock as a child, or as a young man. Or just before he met John Watson. Or go into the future and have Sherlock in middle-age or in old age. You can put the emphasis on humour, or on drama. When the source material is a TV programme or a film, the demands of the plot keep things zooming along. It can be nice in a fanfic to be able to just spend some time with the characters and listen to them talk to one other.
Fan fiction can expand a world. Harry Watson is a character who is mentioned but never appears in Sherlock. We know very little about her in canon. However, she appears in fan fiction in many different and rounded forms.
Fan fiction can sometimes give depth to the original work. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are, on the whole, simply adventure stories. (There are some that go a little deeper perhaps: The Cardboard Box for example.) There have been discussions about what is Holmes’ sexuality within these stories but personally I would argue that looking for any kind of sexuality for anyone (even though Watson gets married) is looking for a depth that simply isn’t there. There is a famous fan fiction writer who writes Sherlock Holmes stories that take a closer look at society and at homosexuality in Victorian times. Their Sherlock Holmes isn’t Conan Doyle’s Holmes—their characters are recognisable but original. If these stories were published in the physical world the writer would be getting rave reviews in all the literary sections of the broadsheets.
Can fan fiction be literature? Again, it’s like any other genre: some of it is; some of it isn’t. But what’s important is that it can be. Being literature is always a possibility for fan fiction. The stories I’ve mentioned so far I consider literature. I’ll mention another one here. At the end of Sherlock series 3, Sherlock is being sent off on a mission to his probable death but at the last minute he’s called back. This particular story asks: what if he hadn’t been told to return? What if he had gone?
I have absolutely no hesitation in describing this story as literature. It’s loosely based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. The writing is beautiful and masterly, and it’s a heartbreaking exploration of grief, the confusion and hope that’s associated with it. The story is fan fiction because it doesn’t have a complete separation from the source material and it’s literature because of what it does with that source material.
I have said that you have to be familiar with the source material to get the most out of fan fiction—in fact, it’s the necessity to be familiar with the source material that makes it fan fiction. But the lines can get a bit blurred with AU stories. I have read and enjoyed fanfics where I know very little about the source material. And there are Sherlock fanfics that are close to breaking away from being fan fiction. There is a well-known story in the fandom which is set in America, it’s set in the ‘50s, John and Sherlock are 17 and 18 and they are still at high school. They are still recognisable as Sherlock and John but a couple more steps and this wouldn’t be fan fiction any more.
Another story that I love is set in the next century. It uses a lot of Conan Doyle’s stories as basic material but what it does with them, and the fanfic’s overarching plot, are entirely original. My brief review:
The author has taken Sherlock's otherworldliness and run with it - creating this AU where everything is familiar but paradoxically entirely new.
We're constantly being surprised and I have no idea where the mystery is going.
Again, a few more steps, this wouldn’t be fan fiction, just something inspired by Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. It would be perfectly respectable in the literary world.
Looking at things the other way round: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. The play is based on Hamlet—though the play is not really “about” Hamlet. You have to be familiar with the source material to get the most out of the play. Is this fan fiction? No, I wouldn’t say so. Because the “source material” is something that has become an integral part of British culture, and probably the world’s culture. Hamlet is something that the average Briton could be expected to be familiar with. (You could perhaps argue that stories using the character of Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t be fan fiction then. This might be true for stories using the original Conan Doyle version but isn’t true for stories written about the Sherlock version. Sherlock is popular but isn’t an integral part of British culture.)
I suppose I should as my final point at least touch on what the writers of the canon might feel about fan fiction. If they don’t approve, it would be pompous to say to them: “You’re wrong, you don’t understand, you should be flattered”. I suppose the only thing I could say is that when a writer gets it right and brings their characters to life, people will automatically start writing “fan fiction” in their heads: they will carry the characters around with them. Characters ultimately belong to the reader. But it is understandable that the writers might feel uncomfortable that people are writing and posting stories using their characters without permission. I do have mixed feelings in this area—I don’t want anyone to be upset. However, I don’t believe that any disapproval takes anything away from the literary worth and originality of fan fiction.