“It goes like this: you see a movie or read a book or even play a game, something you really love, but when you’re done the first thing that pops into your head is “But what if they had done—” or “And then what happened?” or “Gee if there had been a character like this—”
–Bestselling SF/F author Mercedes Lackey
As a fan of television, I always wonder what happens to various characters I’ve developed a fondness for. Especially when you deal with limited-run series like the ones found on this site, certain characters cry out for more adventures, or at the very least some type of resolution to dangling plot threads or unfinished cliffhanger endings. But the concept still holds true for those shows with lengthy runs, because fans still have ideas for stories that will never see the light of a television screen.
I’ve always said that everyone has at least one good story, one good song, one good poem inside them, waiting for that creative spark to ignite and to be shared with the world. And you may (or may not) be surprised to find that a great many other people have been inspired in various ways by the shows we all watch and the characters that we’ve invited into our living rooms day after day, year after year. Such familiarity almost demands consideration.
The more professional version of such consideration usually takes the form of spin-off series, containing certain (but not all) characters from the original source show. Some wanted M*A*S*H to continue, while others were satisfied with the many years they’d already created, so the series AfterM*A*S*H was born. It lasted only a season, because it wasn’t the original. Television is littered with these kinds of shows, from The Sanford Arms to the various Stargate sequels, because the bean counters want “more of the same”… except they weren’t really the same.
Fans know the difference. They want their characters, not replacements, and they want to re-capture the drama and feelings they felt when watching the show. So, for many of them, it’s a different kind of consideration they indulge themselves in, and that consideration often takes the form of “fan fiction”.
Ever ask yourself “Wouldn’t it be great if” such-and-such a character found themselves in a certain situation? Or a deadly nemesis from the past would come back to threaten our heroes? Or perhaps it’s a certain combination of characters which have created sparks of the romantic kind, yet the show never followed through on-screen with what you were certain was there, under the radar. These are the things which find their way into the basics of fan fiction, no matter what show, no matter what era.
Fan Fiction started almost as early as mass fiction did. There are reports of fan parodies and unauthorized versions of Alice in Wonderland and the Sherlock Holmes novels, and H.G. Wells and his fantastic fiction inspired many similar works. The romances of Jane Austen had their own devotees, some of whom wrote in a similar style (and their legacy continues today). You could even call some of the shows later developed from these properties another version of “professional” fan fiction, like what was done on television with The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne.
But true fan fiction can probably be traced back to the mid-sixties and the advent of the original Star Trek. The imaginative stories and “anything can happen” settings of science fiction, available with continuing characters, was a playground for inventive (and not so inventive) authors to insert their own tales into the ongoing narrative.
The first “fanzines” of this era were almost crude by today’s standards; typewritten and mimeographed, and sales breaking one hundred were considered successful. Fans were eager to read any “new” adventures with their heroes, and even more were encouraged to write their own when they saw that the “writers” were simply fans like themselves. In those days, the “dandelion” effect of one fan telling another, and those fans telling others, etc., etc., led to an underground network of such groups, each with their own focus and style of stories. Those who actually OWNED the characters were often completely unaware of their existence.
When the first pure Trek conventions started popping up in the early and mid-seventies, knowledge of these stories, no matter how amateurish or professional, became more widespread. Book publishing houses took notice as well, and started doing more licensed tie-in work with various projects, instead of just novelizations of existing stories. These featured everything from the aforementioned Star Trek to original novels based on children’s shows like The Bugaloos. For a short while, almost every show on television got a novel or adaptation, but because of necessary lead time for publishing, books sometimes didn’t appear until the shows were canceled.
Fans, however, weren’t concerned with making a profit, or character ownership. They simply wanted to get their ideas out there, for others to enjoy and for them to express. Especially with now “dead” series, adventures were only going to continue if the fans did the hard work and wrote the “episodes” themselves. Various types of stories became prevalent, especially amongst those who had lots of enthusiasm… but not nearly as much talent.
There’s the “Mary Sue” story, so named because our more well-known heroes suddenly develop romantic feelings for the new “Mary Sue” character created especially for the story. These are wish-fulfillment type stories, written for the authors to “put themselves” into a scenario where they can win the heart of their favorite TV personality. Mary Sue stories are derided by most who read fan fiction, and yet, almost every writer has one somewhere, just as a starting point.
Others see characters on-screen and creating pairings where they may (or may not) exist. “Shippers” (as in “relationship” fans) tend to want the romantic fulfillment of various character pairings, whether or not they’re actually couples on-screen. They write stories to satisfy their impatience with the seeming lack of televised progression between the characters in question. Since much of dramatic television also depends on sexual tension (and the obstacles keeping people apart), some fan fiction just “cuts to the chase” and lets the principals finally get past that televised friction (and into the hot and steamy romance).
The more obscure version of “shipper” fiction is “slash” fiction, usually bringing together two characters in more erotic and explicit ways. These also posit more homoerotic stories (as well as hetero-type encounters), creating a much more adult version of the normal televised adventures of our heroes and heroines. Kirk and Spock from the original Star Trek were written as lovers (the “slash” moniker coming from the abbreviation K/S, for Kirk/Spock), but the lesbian angle was also seen in a large number of Xena: Princess Warrior stories with her constant companion Gabrielle.
Star Trek fans also created entirely new ships, populating them with their own creations but still using the framework shown in the original series (and its sequels). There are probably well over a hundred or more ships in the Star Trek universe you may have never heard of, but their adventures are available in written, audio, or visual form. Star Trek fan fiction has taken amazing forms, up to and including Star Trek: Phase II, an almost complete re-creation of the original series. Phase II has even used actors and props from the franchise, and tells many stories written (but unused) for the original characters.
There are some excellent stories out there, by fans who just wanted to share their love of shows and characters (and who also happen to be possessed of talent to spare). Some professionals got their starts as “fan” writers, advancing up the ladder with their craft into more original stories and characters. And some stories found their way into print thanks to book companies who didn’t even know (or politely ignored) the fact that the story they were buying was based on a different property.
“When Pocket Books got the licensing to do Star Trek books, the first editor of the line, David Hartwell, phoned all his agent friends asking who among their clients had old Trek tales in their bottom drawers–knowing we all did. I dug out Ishmael (which I hadn’t touched since I was seventeen and which was only about half written), and wrote David a letter. (…) … I was really rather surprised when it actually saw print.”
–author Barbara Hambly
Published in 1985 (more than fifteen years after the original series ended), Hambly’s Ishmael concerns Spock being tossed back in time to Seattle in 1867. Spock is suffering from amnesia, and gets named “Ishmael” by the locals (as in the first line of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.”) He soon meets a group of logging brothers and their prospective brides (while also fighting off a Klingon time travel plot). The brothers and their brides happen to be, verbatim, the characters from Here Come the Brides, an adventure comedy show on ABC in 1968, featuring the same actor, Mark Lenard, that had played Spock’s father on the original Star Trek a season earlier. Not only was this a Star Trek story, but it gave a conclusion to the central plot of Here Come the Brides over a decade after its series run. This idea of crossover for characters from multiple shows is also a feature of fan fiction, as different studios and production schedules often preclude such events (something fans don’t have to worry about in the least.)
The point of all this is, fan fiction is now a much more pervasive part of any group of zealous fans, eager to provide their own views on the shows they love. The advent of the internet has made these fans not only easier for each other to find, but it provides a repository for a multitude of stories of almost every modern television series possible, obscure or otherwise. Mass media has spread from the television screen to the computer screen in more ways than just video.
“”Fan fiction’ — or whatever you want to call it — has been around for a long time, but never like now. The internet has changed everything. Whereas before the fanfic might be published in obscure fanzines with a circulation of a hundred, now tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, can read these… well, let’s just call them ‘unauthorized derivative works.'”
–George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series
Want to find stories about Buffy, the Vampire Slayer in the ’90’s? Done. Firefly in the 2000’s? Easy. Beauty and the Beast in the ’80’s? There’s now a library full of them. I can even point you towards stories from classic shows like Gilligan’s Island. Fans of certain stars will follow them to projects as unknown as Rex is Not Your Lawyer, a show that only had an unaired pilot for 2010 that didn’t make it to series… yet new stories were written and published online by devoted fans.
The best location for many of these is FanFiction.Net., containing multiple thousands of stories featuring the characters and situations people came to love, from Japanese Anime to Broadway musicals. Television shows, of course, are what is focused on here, but even then, there are multiple sections that can be searched by show, by character, by length, by age appropriateness (for those who wish to avoid all “slash” and such), and by almost any search method desired. There’s also a section just for “crossover” fiction, where you can have Mulder and Scully from The X-Files finally meet up with the denizens of Picket Fences, even though the potential on-screen crossover didn’t happen thanks to the network suits.
“I think what TV/corporate media had wrong for a long time was how they understood the idea of a “water cooler show.” They saw it as making the audience talk about their show, on their terms. So any fan-created media is them losing control of their material. I see this more as the natural evolution of culture in a shared digital age. I will be blunt — other than the satisfaction of our own creative urges (and all that entails: the quest for perfection, artistry, craft, etc), our job in media is to give you stuff to talk about in your conversations, to integrate into your social circle in whatever way you see fit.”
–John Rogers, creator/producer of Leverage
Of course, some aren’t nearly as happy about this type of activity as others. You’ll note that almost every story online written by fans has a necessary disclaimer that the characters and situations aren’t actually owned by the author, and that no copyright infringement is intended. Some authors are very protective of their livelihood, not only by choice, but also because the rules of copyright in America say that all copyrights MUST be defended, or else the original holder “gives up” the right to continue holding it. In plain English, it is most possible that authors could lose the rights to certain characters (and their money-earning potential) if they ever allow others to “play in their sandbox”, so to speak.
Some authors don’t really care all that much, believing that the properties in question have outlived their usefulness (and profitability) to those who might gain monetarily, and simply ignore these stories. Other artists are flattered that the fans they try to reach are moved enough to apply pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). They simply stick their figurative fingers in their ears and sing “La, la, la”, ignoring these efforts for as long as fans aren’t making any kind of profit and endangering their copyrights. Still others are fiercely protective of their characters and plots, required (as the law reads) to actively defend them, even against those who simply want to indulge their wish-fulfillment fantasies and put themselves into a show they love.
The ways the laws are written, there are no good answers to these dilemmas, and yet, for our purposes, they can be ignored. If the focus is on shows that ended-too-soon, then the commercial capabilities of the franchises are usually spent, and the fan fiction is allowed to remain untethered by studios and creators The advent of the internet has allowed fan fiction, both good and bad, to flourish, and let the focus of these types of stories narrow to better serve their readers. With the search capabilities of FanFiction.net and other sites, I don’t have to even be aware of the backstories of some characters to indulge my fascination with others, even on the same show.
“…there are those of us professionals that still write fanfiction for fun (although I doubt there are very few who will be as up-front about it as I am). Sometimes it’s because someone else’s creation got us by the throat and our storytelling demon won’t let us go until we get our version down on paper or in pixels.”
–Bestselling author Mercedes Lackey
I write the articles on this site because I love the characters and situations from all these old shows, and I don’t want them lost to the fog of memory. Fan fictions writers do the same thing, with new fictional stories instead of factual descriptions. Ultimately, it’s the sheer love of these televised presentations which have made all of us become “fans” in the first place, and brought us to the point of writing. I’ve said before that “Passion breeds creativity”, and never is that more true than in the art of fan fiction. The best of such endeavors re-create a world we all long to continue, years (or even decades) after the unfortunate end of a show. Whatever spark we found in watching, we hope to re-live and share by allowing those characters to exist again, not only in our hearts and minds, but hopefully in the imagination of readers as well. Those readers may not be many, but they are just as passionate and just as eager to continue whatever the network and circumstances conspired to end prematurely.
Everyone has a story. Even if the characters aren’t yours originally, the story is still worth writing, and worth sharing. If the passion moves you to do so, then don’t let the world stop you. Go create….