Have you heard the latest dish from Hollywood? On Friends, Monica and Rachel are both pregnant! Dr. Susan Lewis is returning to ER, and she's going to marry Mark Greene. (You always knew they belonged together.) Speaking of ER, Dr. John Carter has a new love interest too: He's dating Walter Skinner from The X-Files, who has just broken off his three-way affair with Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.
Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, Luke Skywalker has gone over to the Dark Side—and I'm not talking about his infatuation with Han Solo, though that's as hot as ever. "Han turned his head, tipped my palm up, pressed his lips to the center of it. … His kiss connected with the core of me."
Sadly, we'll never see Luke and Han smooching on the big screen. Their torrid romance is occurring only in the fevered imagination of one pseudonymous Destina Fortunato, an acolyte of one of the oddest and most delightful subcultures on the Web: fan fiction. In "fanfic," as practitioners call it, devotees of a TV show, movie, or (less often) book write stories about its characters. They chronicle the alternative adventures of Xena, warrior princess; open the X files that Mulder and Scully don't dare touch; and fill in the back story to Star Wars Episode I.
Fanfic, like so much weirdness in American culture, is rooted in the '60s, though it has older antecedents. When Arthur Conan Doyle stopped publishing Sherlock Holmes stories, his readers wrote their own. Star Trek: The Original Series (or "TOS," in fanspeak) kick-started the fanfic vogue in the late '60s. Within a year of the show's debut, Trekkers were scribbling their own tales of Kirk and Spock, binding them in mimeographed zines, and handing them out at conventions. Fanfic communities rewrote Star Wars and TV shows such as Starsky and Hutch.
Fanfic used to be confined to fanatics who attended conventions and mailed their zines to several dozen (or, in rare cases, several hundred) subscribers. That zine industry still exists, but most fanfic has decamped to the Web. The Web has taken fanfic public, massively increasing the number of writers and readers. Today there are fanfic sites devoted to every TV show you have heard of and many you haven't. Star Trek's "fandom"—the show's fans—maintains hundreds of fanfic archives in every possible category: TOS, Deep Space 9, Ensign Chekov, Data, etc. Each archive may contain hundreds of stories. The Star Wars and X-Files fandoms are nearly as prolific. The X-Files fandom even issues annual literary awards—"The Spookys." Dozens of fanfic archives pay homage to Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Highlander, and ER. Blake's 7, an old British sci-fi series, enthralls writers. Due South, which concerns a Canadian Mountie, has a fanfic cult. So do The A-Team and Miami Vice.
David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.
M ost fanfic authors write short stories, but novels, screenplays, poems, and even songs (called "filks") are popular as well. (A "fan film" industry thrives, too: Click to learn more about it.) The quality of the writing varies. Some fics brim with misspellings, grammatical lapses, and risible dialogue. But many are surprisingly good, with excellent character sketches and vivid descriptions. Fanfic writers tend to be highly educated, and several fanfic writers have graduated to careers as science fiction novelists.
Some fanfics fill in plot holes left by lazy producers: A Spock half-brother appeared out of the blue in a late Star Trek movie. Fanfic writers responded by inventing a credible past for him. Other writers simply deliver extra episodes to junkies: When Millennium was canceled, loyal fans posted a whole new season of episodes. Still others explore alternate universes. What would happen if Luke joined the Dark Side? Fanfics frequently resurrect popular characters whom producers had rudely killed off.
Fanfics often celebrate peripheral characters who don't get the screen time they deserve: Writers have lavished millions of words on Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who cameos in the Star Wars series. Skinner, the minor boss on the X-Files, has won a rabid fanfic audience. "Crossover" fanfics drop characters from one show into another's universe. Mulder and Scully visit Buffy to investigate vampires. Benton Fraser, the Due South Mountie, teams with U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard—Tommy Lee Jones' character in The Fugitive—to hunt Canadian villains. In some fics reviled by veteran authors, fans act out their fantasies—seducing Obi-Wan Kenobi, for example—by inserting themselves into their stories. These stories are called "Mary Sues."
One surprising aspect of fanfic is its indifference to plot. The vast majority of its writers are women, and Deborah Tannenism pervades it. Most stories are much more attuned to emotional dynamics than narrative. MIT professor Henry Jenkins, the leading scholar of fanfic, notes that fans usually choose shows with a pair of closely bonded leads: Kirk and Spock, Mulder and Scully, Xena and Gabrielle, Starsky and Hutch. Fanfic writers pore over the relationship between the pair. One popular subgenre is "hurt-comfort," which explores what happens when one lead gets hurt and the other has to help him. Some X-Files fans write only " MSR" fics, their acronym for "Mulder-Scully Relationship."
The obsession with emotional intensity has spawned "slash," the most flamboyant genre and perhaps the weirdest prose in America today. "Slash" fanfic describes, in vivid detail, homosexual relationships between characters such as Starsky and Hutch or Kirk and Spock. (Click for a history and discussion of "slash."Definitely click.)
Fanfic writers are not nutters or losers or lowlifes. A slash fanfic writer whose pseudonym is WPAdmirer (for "Walker Percy Admirer") told me that her circle of writers includes a lawyer, a linguist, a computer specialist, an insurance executive, and a mystery novelist. She, like most of the 20 other writers I interviewed, is well-employed. Many have spouses and children.
So why on earth do normal people spend their lives writing fantasies about TV characters? Almost all fanfic writers hide behind pseudonyms. They rightly fear ridicule, because fanfic invites mockery. Though the United States admires sports fans, it treats TV and movie junkies derisively. America's most famous movie fan: John Hinckley. Pop culture fans are pinned by caricature: Spock-eared Trekkers or loon-bird stalkers. Fanfic seems to confirm every stereotype about fans: They are obsessive. They can't separate fantasy from reality. Their lives are so empty that they fixate on banal TV shows. (What kind of loser writes story after story about Quantum Leap or The A-Team?) They don't even have the imagination to make up their own characters.
But this condescension misses the point. In his superb Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, MIT's Jenkins argues that fanfic represents a flowering of modern folk culture. For thousands of years, we have shared stories about mythical popular heroes, from Prometheus to Paul Bunyan to Brer Rabbit. Each storyteller embellished the tale, inventing characters, adding details, rewriting the ending. In the 20th century, however, folk culture has been privatized. The characters we share today are TV icons and movie heroes. Paul Bunyan has been supplanted by Xena. These characters don't belong to the public. They are literally owned by studios and producers, who run the character's "life" and expect us to accept their decisions gratefully.
Fan fiction rebels against the private folk culture, Jenkins argues. Writers reclaim folk heroes by creating new stories about them. They embellish the myth. Viewed through Jenkins' lens, a fanfic writer keen on Capt. Jean Luc Picard is no different from a 19th-century folksinger who paid tribute to John Henry. Fanfic writers assert control over a pop culture designed to be passively consumed. "I wanted to make the show mine," explains Kat of her Friends fanfics, echoing the battle cry of fan writers. By writing fics about Monica and Chandler, Kat is insisting that they belong to her as much as to NBC. Fan fiction puts the pop back in popular culture.
Writing fanfic, Jenkins argues, is an act of "fascination and frustration." Writers are fascinated by the characters but frustrated at the cavalier way producers treat them. Fanfic is a "way of repairing the damage done to the core mythology by producers who mess up. The fanfic folk culture pulls it back into realignment." When producers make a beloved character disappear or end a love affair that should continue, fanfic restores the mythology. "Even though I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there are times when the show doesn't go my way. So I use fanfic to create the outcome I want," says Buffy fanfic writer Carrie Cook. The actor George Clooney has left ER for a movie career, but fanfic writers adore his character, Doug Ross. They also know that Doug and Nurse Carol Hathaway belong together. So they write story after story about the characters' continuing romance. (The Clooney/Ross split highlights the first commandment of fanfic: Thou shalt not write about real people. Click here for.)
Fanfic also can be a political act, a way to elevate marginalized minority characters. Fanfic writers worship Lt. Uhura, the neglected black woman on the original Star Trek. In fanfic, she has been promoted, given her own starship, and made the mistress of a torrid threesome with Lt. Sulu and Ensign Chekov. ER's producers overlook crippled, irritable Dr. Kerry Weaver. Other characters lead glamorous, romantic lives. She goes home alone. But fic writers have corrected that with stories about her love life.
Fanfic seems odd in part because it defies modern convention about what writers do. In the individualistic United States, the author is supposed to be an untethered brain: Her ideas and characters and plots are her own. By this standard, fan fiction looks like a cop-out. Writers too lazy to invent their own characters rip off plot, dialogue, and ideas from the boob tube.
B ut fanfic turns writing into a communal art, as folk culture has always done. Writing and reading become collaborative. We share the characters and work together to make them interesting and funny and sexy. Write a short story about your crazy uncle and post it on the Web, and no one will read it. Write a short story about Dr. Who, and hundreds of folks will flock to your site. Fanfic writers meet at conventions ("cons"). Thanks to the Internet, writers communicate constantly on e-mail listservs. They invite e-mail responses and crave feedback. MedianCat, who writes Buffy fanfic, says he has heard from more than 400 people about his stories. Of the two-dozen-odd fanfic writers I e-mailed about their work, only one did not respond. (The Internet is also changing fanfic by opening it to kids. Click for how the Backstreet Boys became literary heroes.)
Having juiced fanfic, the Internet may now cripple it. Studios own the characters and shows that fanfic borrows, a fact that is never lost on writers. Every fanfic opens with a disclaimer noting Paramount or Fox or whoever's copyright and renouncing any intent to profit from the story. (All fanfic writers are amateurs by necessity.) But since fan activity has migrated to the Web, studios have grown anxious about trademark and copyright protection. (Trademark law requires holders to police their trademarks by preventing unauthorized use.) Sites hosting fanfics also usually have transcripts, audio and video clips, screen captures, and logos. Studios don't like this. Fox recently sent cease-and-desist letters to Buffy sites ordering them to remove show transcripts. Fox also warned Millennium sites to remove logos and clips. Lucasfilm cracked down on audio clips and logos from Star Wars, and Paramount has been similarly protective of Star Trek.
The studios have treated fanfic more gently, so far. No court has ever addressed the legality of fanfic but, unlike transcripts or clips, it could be protected as "fair use." A 1997 article by Rebecca Tushnet in Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Journal concludes that fanfic constitutes fair use because it is noncommercial—(no writers try to profit from their work)—because it sufficiently transforms the original work, and because it does not damage the market for the original work. (On the contrary, fanfic keeps viewers engaged during the six days a week the X-Files is not on.) Perhaps mindful of their dubious legal standing, studios tend to leave fanfic alone. Lucasfilm has suppressed Skywalker slash on the grounds that it harms the Star Wars image, but it allows PG-rated fanfic. Fox ignored fanfic when it went after the Buffy sites.
But fear is mounting among fans that the studios are getting too pushy. Lucasfilm lit a brushfire last month when it offered fans free pages on its cherished www.starwars.com site. Fans would be allowed to post all their Star Wars hagiography there, including stories, songs, messages to other fans, and essays. But the small print says that Lucasfilm retains all copyright to anything placed on the site. If I were to write a great story about how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader and post it on my starwars.com fan page, George Lucas would own my idea.
Lucasfilm is flexing this muscle for obvious reasons. It fears a lawsuit by some fan claiming that Lucas stole her plot for his next movie. But fans believe Lucas has gone too far and have launched an online rebellion. Their complaints resonate. They adore Lucas and his movies. But Star Wars is theirs, too. After all, they think about it, write about it, talk about it, and care about it as much as Lucas does. "Legally, it's theirs. But emotionally we feel we have a right to participate in the story," says Elizabeth Durack, a fanfic writer who is leading the starwars.com protest. Lucas jury-rigged Star Wars from a hundred myths that he heisted from Joseph Campbell. Fanfic writers are borrowing it back. They don't want a dime in return. They just want to be left alone to write their own, very modern myths.