Small Council: Is George R.R. Martin justified in being against fanfiction?

Last week, George R.R. Martin said that he doesn’t want anyone but himself writing in the Song of Ice and Fire universe, which brought up earlier comments that he was “against” fanfiction. He’s stated some of his reasons before: he thinks fanfiction opens the door to potential legal and financial problems, and he dislikes it when people take characters he created and make them do and say things they wouldn’t do or say. Does he have a point? The Small Council discusses.

DAN: I’m of a few minds when it comes to this question. On the one hand, I don’t see much harm in fanfiction so long as the people writing it aren’t doing it for profit. I don’t read fanfiction myself, but I’ve been a member of enough fan communities to know that the authors generally love the source material and have innocent intentions for doing what they do—maybe they want another way of interacting with the story, or maybe they do it as a writing exercise. So long as they don’t try to make money off their stories, I’m included to adapt a “live and let live” position.

On the other hand, George R.R. Martin makes some really good points in this 2010 Not a Blog post. Take, for example, a story involving Mists of Avalon author Marion Zimmer Bradley. In the days before the internet made fanfiction widely available, Bradley encouraged fans to write stories based on her Darkover series—she even critiqued a few of them. At one point, she read a piece of fanfiction that contained an idea similar to one she was using in a new, unfinished Darkover novel. Bradley explained the situation to the fan and offered her payment and acknowledgement in the upcoming book, but the fan replied that she wanted a co-authorship credit and half the money from book sales. The fan threatened to sue if Bradley didn’t do as she asked, and the author ended up scrapping the book entirely.

That’s an extreme situation, but Martin discusses other authors who have run into related problems, and I can imagine how the prospect of being backed into a corner by the odd opportunistic fanfiction writer (or unscrupulous publisher) might sour someone on the whole practice. This is, after all, how Martin and other authors make their living, and I can’t begrudge them their caution when it comes to their livelihoods.

The other argument Martin makes against fanfiction is more emotional. Here’s how he puts it:

My characters are my children, I have been heard to say. I don’t want people making off with them, thank you. Even people who say they love my children. I’m sure that’s true, I don’t doubt the sincerity of the affection, but still…

I can understand the instinct to protect something you’ve poured your heart and soul into, as Martin has with his writing. At the same time, I’m hesitant to tell a group of people who only want to have innocent fun playing in a fictional universe that they’re not allowed. Ideally, we’d live in a world where fanfiction writers are allowed to practice their hobby but where their work only got very limited exposure and where they all steadfastly guarded against the possibility of profiting off of it. We don’t live in that world, but I’m talking ideals here.

This issue gets me all turned around. What do you guys think?

KATIE: Total honesty time: I write fanfiction, and it saved me when I was at the lowest of the low in terms of writing. I’d started to hate writing, from the process of stringing a sentence together to whatever final product I ended up with. I wanted to quit, but instead I started writing fanfic—there was no pressure to succeed because it was just for fun, and nothing else could come from it. It was almost a relief to write, and interacting with my followers restored my own faith and self-worth in what I wanted to do with my life. I love fanfiction for that, and I know from that experience that it really has its merits. 

On the other side of the coin, though, I understand where GRRM is coming from. I get frustrated when I read something out-of-character when those characters aren’t even mine, so I can imagine how irksome it would be to read potentially unfounded interpretations of a character that I created. Not to mention the legal intricacies of it all. Take E.L. James, for instance—she’s making bank off her Twilight fanfiction (Fifty Shades of Grey), and meanwhile Stephenie Meyer is left in a cloud of dust (she’s by no means hurting financially, but the balance of power is sure off). 

I agree with Martin’s opinions on this matter but, as I said, I see fanfiction in a personally positive light. It did something for me that my own writing had failed to do, and now my original writing is thriving. Writing fanfic helped me to hone my skills, and listening to reader feedback helped to make my original stories more well-rounded. Most fanfic writers will say something similar about their experiences, but it only takes one bad egg to sully the whole thing, so I would understand any author’s trepidation on the subject.

As with most things, holding yourself accountable for your actions is key. If you’re writing fanfiction, respect the creator of that universewithout them, you wouldn’t be doing this in the first place. The author gave you the tools to make yourself better, so go on and be better.

RICHARD: I don’t have a dog in this fight because I don’t write fanfiction, but I think it should be the author’s call. If the author wants to officially sanction fanfiction then that’s fine, though they should probably be finished with the book/series so they don’t run into the problem of their ideas overlapping with those of fanfiction authors. Sure, fans have always written non-sanctioned fanfiction for each other for years, but the work was for fun, extremely local, and obviously non-profit. But now, with powerhouses like Amazon Publishing opening up authorized fanfiction programs, its become a more popular form of writing.

I guess my main issue here is the protection of the original author and the world they alone have created. The power of the internet allows a lot of room for theft and plagiarism, as many authors have discovered, so protecting popular works which make a profit is already a battle. If the author agrees to fanfiction, great. If the author refuses, well, that’s fine, too. It’s the author’s call. I have to say that I find the opening up of a deceased author’s work to fanfiction to be somewhat distasteful, obviously because the author has no say.  But even GRRM suspects that such a thing might be allowed by someone who controls his estate in the future. I wonder if GRRM can write “no fanfiction for eternity” into his will.

LEXI: While I’ve never written A Song of Ice and Fire fanfiction, I am guilty of reading it. As a kid I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books, an interactive series where the reader determines the outcome of the story. For me, indulging in ASOIAF fanfiction is all about exploring the alternate routes the story could have taken. What if Rhaegar defeated Robert on the Trident? What if Ned never got his head snipped off? There’s a fanfic for that. I do believe it’s a genuine form of flattery that people are so passionate about the story and characters that they’re willing to spend time writing about them.

That being said, I do understand why George R. R. Martin feels so protective of the vast universe and characters he’s created. He’s dedicated decades of his life to the series so I’m sure seeing others use his work so casually is more than irritating. I definitely agree that no one should attempt to profit off of fanfiction starring characters created by another author. In general, I’m clearly biased since I read fanfiction, but I think the majority are harmless drabbles that serve as nothing more than an homage to ASOIAF.

RAZOR: In my opinion, the only reason George R.R. Martin should be upset about fanfiction is when or if someone profits off the world(s) and characters that he created. Most fanfic is relegated to message boards and other online communities. In fact, I would argue that the lengthy period of time between the release of each Song of Ice and Fire novel actually inspires the kind of insane creativity we see from members of Martin’s fanbase, some of whom write their own versions of his story and share it with others.

What do you think all these crazy fan theories about Martin’s characters are? When you boil them down, those theories—especially the more elaborate ones—are actually fanfiction. A Song of Ice and Fire is a vast and beautifully detailed world, and while I have personally never written fanfiction myself, I have definitely theorized quite obsessively over it. So, I say as long as you aren’t actually turning a profit from Martin’s work, then have at it. And, no, I don’t think the Bearded Bard should get upset over that kind of harmless message board fanfic…especially when it only serves to keep his fans on the hook while waiting the five or so long years until his next masterpiece.

ANI: Personally, I’m pro-fanfiction. Some of the most moving short stories I’ve read were set in the world of Harry Potter. (And no, I’m not just saying that because I’m now running a Harry Potter site.) But here’s the thing. I’ve read excellent Potter fanfiction. But I’ve never seen good Westeros based fic. Why is that? Am I just looking in the wrong places?

I think it’s a combination of things. Potter catches kids when they are teenagers, just trying on different hats for the first time, and who have been inspired to try their hand at writing by Rowling, which means that the community gets many of those who are talented at a young age. Martin’s work is for an older set,who might not be as easily inspired to try new things. (Not everyone sits down at the age of 33 and decides they want to become an internet writer.) But more importantly, Rowling’s world is one that’s relatable. Though the original series is set in the 1990s, we’re currently living “19 years later.” It’s easy to imagine Harry with a refurbished iPhone 4 that Dudley gave him in order to “keep in touch with the normal side of the family,” or Hermione confounding Ron by using the internet with that little silver laptop her dentist parents gave them. (He still doesn’t understand why it has a light up apple on it either.)

Westeros, on the other hand, doesn’t even have electricity. Moreover, how can you fantasize about being a character in Westeros? It’s one thing to MarySue yourself in as one of Hermione’s BFFs. But Sansa’s BFF? You wind up married to Bolton as fake Arya, or worse, you wind up cut completely, so Sansa can wind up married to him instead. Want to be the fourth Lannister child? Gold will be your crown and gold will be your shroud. Wanna hang out with Arya? The Hound will run you through. Dany’s Dothraki girlfriend/handmaiden? Yep, you died in the waste, or in Quarth or on the way to Meereen, and if you made it as far as Meereen, you were probably killed by Harpies. Brienne’s badass partner? You were probably hung from a tree.

And don’t try making yourself a completely new character, some low class girl who grabs a ride to King’s Landing and uses her wiles and her smarts to work her way into the Red Keep playing one spymaster off another. The show did that character for you. Four crossbolts, short range, while tied to Joffrey’s bedpost. See a pattern here? Life in Westeros is nasty, brutish and short. And who wants to fantasize, to the point of writing it down on the internet, about that? Personally, I don’t think Mr. Martin has anything to worry about.

CAMERON: On the one hand, I understand where Martin is coming from in terms of the world he grew up in, where fanfiction wasn’t so easily accessible or shareable. It makes a certain degree of sense to ensure that people know who the original author of something is, and goodness knows the internet is terrible at citing original sources.

On the other hand, this is no longer the world where Martin grew up. Today, it is possible for an author to be open to sharing the experience of reading their books without shutting out alternate opinions or mistaking a desire to share what you’ve written with the world at no cost with a desire to horn in on someone else’s intellectual property.

Perhaps the best example of this today is J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series. Some days, she’s throwing some of the world-building she did while working on the series out into the ether. Other days, she’s openly encouraging queer or racially-diverse interpretations of the characters she created. Another good example is the Sherlock Holmes fandom, who even in the Victorian era treated the fictitious detective as if he were a real person. (And you thought YOU were a dedicated fan.) Fanfiction about Holmes has been written since Conan Doyle was still alive, and if you take a strict reading of what “original source material” is, what are BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary if not magnified fanfiction?

And that’s really the more important aspect about writing fanfiction: it’s an interpretation of a work, capable of the same depth and quality of criticism as a plain old essay about, say, “Representations of Women in A Song of Ice and Fire” or “Theories of Power and Game of Thrones.” Both sound like excellent essays, sure, but you can also voice your own pleasure or displeasure about something by writing fanfic that either addresses or fixes the issue. (Never have I felt this need more than when I was reading Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight.) And people are always going to want to do this, no matter what the original author’s wishes, so while Martin is perfectly entitled to his own ideas about fanfiction, the simple truth is that he can’t stop it from happening.

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