For Oldwestmom: Writing Fanfiction

>> Sunday, April 5, 2009

Oldwestmom asked: What are your thoughts about “fan fiction?” Is it legitimate to write a story Title page from Pride and Prejudiceusing someone else’s characters? Do I assume Austen’s voice (which is no easy feat), or find one all my own? How do I pay proper homage to such a pinnacle author? Is that even possible?

Good questions and my response is equally complex.

First, if you're looking for an exercise in learning to write fiction, if you want to play with characters you've fallen in love with, fanfiction using characters you're interested in is a great exercise. They're not the only self-teaching writing exercise out there and learning how to make them speak in keeping with their existing voices, keeping true to the original is good practice for an original character that you must make consistently genuine. Everyone has done it to an extent, whether they've changed the characters names, kept them or just used aspects of a character that appealed. Sometimes the changes are so drastic, they've been morphed into something truly new. Sometimes the similarities are uncanny.

Secondly, if you want to make something of this more than just a learning exercise, and the character is from a copyrighted work (Jane Austen's work is now in the public domain), ideally you should obtain permission from the author. Many authors are uncomfortable with this, but many others welcome fanfiction and artwork and interest. This isn't applicable to your specific needs, of course, but it goes with the question. There are tons of Star Wars fanfiction carryovers sanctioned and some science fiction groups have even started series with a set of characters everyone can use, but, in my opinion, these things often have a limited appeal. If your heart was set on becoming a notable novelist, I would not plan on fan fiction as my future, though it might get one's foot in the door and, as noted, be a good starting point. It might also flavor how someone saw your later work.

However, using a character from a classic is often seen as something different than "normal" fanfiction. People have written plays and books leveraging Shakespearean characters and it has considerably less stigma. I personally think, if you have an idea for playing off on the largely unnoticed Mary from Pride and Prejudice, I'd say it might be taken as a very serious and appealing concept.

As for voice, I don't think that you would do ill to find your own voice. Trying to keep the vocabulary contemporary and the settings and social mores the same would be best (I feel that way about all historical novels), but Mary did not think like Elizabeth (who was clearly the focus of Pride and Prejudice); given that, I think it would make sense that Mary's story would be told in a different voice.

Bear in mind, I'm not a legal expert and it might behoove you, before you committed yourself to this idea as a real serious effort, to speak with a copyright lawyer or look up specifics on writing resources. But I do believe it's legal. I would, of course, encourage you to acknowledge your source.

Sounds fun to me.

  1. attygnorrison 14 Mar 2009 at 3:20 pm edit this

    I’d never heard of something called “fanfiction”, but I can see how we all use it from time-to-time. Sorry, I don’t have any legal advice for copyrighting. I usually have to research each particular issue that comes up with my own writing (with either the Library of Congress directly or with my old Entertainment Law Professor). I usually just make sure I quote my source on EVERYTHING and file my own works with the LOC Copyright Office, when there’s something I want to protect. I think in general, “ideas” are not protected, but the methods (patents), descriptive factors (trademarks), and works of art (copyright) themselves are. Seems like many areas of fanfiction might fall under “ideas”.

    I’ll have to think of a question or two for you, Stephanie, and come back.


  2. oldwestmomon 16 Mar 2009 at 3:31 pm edit this

    Thanks for your sage advice!

    I struggle sometimes when I feel the urge to write more about Mary. But I need to remember 2 things. First, if I enjoy it, then that’s what is most important. Second, what better way can I honor Austen’s memory and work? I would like to think that if she could see the cult following she has, and all the spin-offs and rewrites that have sprung from her novels, that she would be flattered.


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