The Death of the Author: Fan Fiction and the Creative Process

This was the first essay submitted for my MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing at Cardiff University. Now that the essay has been marked and returned, I figured I would be okay to post it to a public forum.

I’d like to say thank you to everyone who’s talked to me about their fanfiction, everyone who’s allowed me to cite them in this essay (I hope you don’t feel that I’ve misrepresented you) and a huge thanks to bravenewcentury for taking a look at the first draft and providing me with valuable suggestions. I’m leaving this as friends only for the time being, as the essay is due in tomorrow and I don’t want this version to be broadcast on the internet until the hard copy has been marked, but I thought some of you might be interested in reading, and I would appreciate any comments, criticism or feedback you might have.

The Death of the Author: Fan Fiction and the Creative Process

    She has divided their time together into before and after. It makes it easier, somehow, to quantify their time this way; to separate their lives into then and now.Then, they were FBI; now they are fugitives. Then they were scientist and believer; now they are players in a government conspiracy. Then they were partners; now they are something she no longer knows how to describe.Before and after; then and now. Words used to disguise just how much her world has shifted.[1]

The above quote is from the opening section of my short story about two former FBI agents on the run from the bureau they used to work for. Embroiled in a web of government conspiracies, alien abductions and the supernatural, they began a relationship, and became fugitives, accused of murder. My story tells of their experiences on the run, the strain it puts on their relationship, and the differences between their life now and their life investigating ‘The X Files’. The characters’ names are Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. They were created by Chris Carter, and my story is a piece of fan fiction.

Writers and academics have tried to define fan fiction (or ‘fanfic’) since its inception in the 1960s. Parrish has called it ‘writing by amateur fans of a particular media text or texts […]; commencing from (but not limited to) some of the characters and sometimes premises of that text or those texts; explicitly calling attention to itself as fan fiction; and published on the internet.’[2] Jenkins writes that ‘[f]an writing builds upon the interpretive practices of the fan community, taking the collective meta-text as the base from which to generate a wide range of media-related stories.’[3] The definition which I shall use in the course of this essay, however, comes from Sheenagh Pugh who suggests that fanfic ‘can be defined as fiction based on a situation and characters originally created by someone else.’[4]

So, if fan fiction involves writing about the characters and situations invented by another writer, where is the creativity? To answer that question I feel have to talk about my fanfic and the reasons for writing it.

My experience with fanfic began in earnest in August 2008. The second X Files movie had been released in July and in the run up to the premiere I’d made a lot of new friends. Many of those new friends had LiveJournal (LJ) accounts and wrote X Files fanfic. While I hadn’t thought about writing fanfic, I wanted a space which would allow me to write more, and so I set up an LJ of my own. The trouble was I had nothing to write about; I hadn’t written anything in months, lacking both inspiration and inclination. I started my LJ by uploading old stories and essays, and then joined a few X Files communities. Those few turned into a few more, and then I stumbled across xf_drabble[5], a writing community dedicated to X Files fanfic in the form of drabbles, short stories of 100 to 1000 words. The stories I read on there were good. They were well written snippets capturing a moment or a feeling, and they were stories about characters I had known since the age of 12. I found my inspiration.

The first piece I wrote for xf_drabble was inspired by a prompt posted by the community moderator – in this case, anniversaries. And this is where the attraction of fanfic to many writers comes in. When writing original fiction the world of the story has to be created from scratch. The writer may have an idea of who the characters are, what the landscape looks like, where the story will go, but the reader doesn’t. It’s up to the writer to entice them into that world, to build characters they want to invest time in, to promise them that the story is worth reading. That can be a lot of hard work. In fanfic, however, the world and the characters already exist. The reader has a wealth of knowledge about the world, which the writer can tap into. Writing a story about an original character celebrating an anniversary can be hard. Feedback from readers will be minimal, and struggling with the characters and the universe time-consuming and difficult. Writing a story about characters from a successful TV series, film or book which has readers ready and willing to give feedback, and a world which the readers are already familiar with and invested in, takes a lot of that difficulty out of writing.

Barthes says, in Death of the Author:

    We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture… a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation[6]

This is exactly what the fanfic writers take part in – creating new pieces of writing from a text which, itself, is a combination of urban legend, previous TV shows and newspaper articles run in tabloid presses.[7] The X Files, drawing on the myths and legends of the culture it appeared in, becomes part of the myths and legends of the culture in which fanfic writers emerge. The death of the original authors, the shows writers, gives birth to a new wave of fanfic writers, moulding, adapting and building on the traditions and cultures born within The X Files’ universe.

Fanfic writers traditionally fall into two camps: those who want more of the canon[8], and those who want more from it. Writers wanting ‘more of’ the canon will write within the confines of the show. X Files writers, for example, may write case-files where Mulder and Scully investigate paranormal activity. Writers wanting ‘more from’ the canon, however, will take inspiration from elsewhere. Missing scenes, alternate universes, character vignettes: all of these are examples of ‘more from’. The original writers may not have concluded a storyline in the manner the writer desired – or may not have concluded a storyline at all – and so the writer decides to write their version of what did – or could have – happened. Verasteine, in a post on the X Files LJ community, concurs:

    I often get an idea by watching the show and continuing on from where the credits roll. This is how I start to engage a show. Then I get to know the characters, which requires frequent rewatching of critical scenes and note taking on what I believe motivates a character. Often, from that motivation I get my fiction ideas. […] Once I know characters well, a little more plot will seep into my writing and I’ll write more things independent from episodes or the current timeframe of the narrative.[9]

Her writing process reflects that of many fanfic writers; there is an initial engagement with the original text – the canon – and the characters. From that engagement comes a desire to be involved in the canon, to take part in the writing of the myths that form that world. Often this takes the form of ‘more of’ – a way of learning more about the characters as well as ensuring the continuation of the canon that the fanfic writer has become invested in. ‘More from’ comes when the writer has exhausted canonical possibilities or has become more attuned to the characters they are writing about. Character motivations and relationships become more important, taking over from the desire to have more of the canon. Foucault, in What is an Author, says:

    I seem to call for a form of culture in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the author. It would be pure romanticism, however, to imagine a culture in which the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state, in which fiction would be put at the disposal of everyone and would develop without passing through something like a necessary or constraining figure.[10]

While Foucault believed that fiction not limited by the constraints of an author was impossible, fanfiction seems to fit this notion. Fanfic writers aren’t limited by canon, original writers or creators; each writer sees something in the characters that others don’t and writes about their versions of those characters. Notions of authorship, indeed, are complicated further by the use of nom-de-plumes. Not only do these serve to anonymise the ‘real’ person behind the pen-name, allowing the author far more freedom than writing under their real name would,[11] they remove the fanfic writer totally from their everyday lives, pushing them into the universe of the show, which they can then do with as they want.

Taking this notion further, Jenkins writes that ‘fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk’[12] and that opinion is reinforced by many fanfic writers I have spoken to. Seasons 8 and 9 of The X Files were, for many fans, poor relations of the earlier episodes: the universe that fans had come to know and love had been damaged by the corporation; the myth had been spoiled. Fanfic was a way of reclaiming those earlier myths, repairing the damage to the characters and the show.

It is in this rewriting of the myth that I want to talk about the creative process. In my own fanfic I have written far more ‘more from’ than ‘more of’. This is, in part, because I am less interested in case files than I am with character relationships, but it is also – I feel – because I was an original fiction writer before I was a fanfic writer. I am used to creating my own characters and my own worlds; I enjoy puzzling over how the story will continue and which way the plot will take me, and I enjoy how my characters become real to me. Writing fanfic incorporates some elements of that; the characters are real to me because I’ve known them for 15 years, and the story often takes me in unexpected directions. But I am working with a world which has been created by someone else, a world which has boundaries and rules and a canon that I have to follow – at least while I am writing to that canon.  One of the ways I find myself able to make the characters mine while retaining their ‘reality’ is to use what I know of them as a starting point to delve into their histories. Scully, for example, is portrayed as a cool-headed, rational, almost cold figure in the show. I wouldn’t be able to write a story depicting her as a ditzy blonde if I wanted to keep her in character, but I would be able to write a story about an incident in her childhood – an argument with her brother – which turns her into the woman she becomes.

One of the other pleasures in fanfic is the alternate universe, the ‘what if…’ made real. In The X Files, Mulder’s sister was abducted by aliens; Scully was given cancer; the Lone Gunmen were killed. These are all part of canon – accepted events which the fans know happened. But in my alternate universe Fox Mulder could have been abducted instead of Samantha; Scully could have died of cancer; the Lone Gunmen could have been working for the Syndicate. Sheenagh Pugh writes:

    For what it is worth, the characteristic that most strikes me in the fanfic writers (and readers) I know is a highly developed imagination. Though they live and work, often very successfully, in the “real” world, they cannot get enough of imagined worlds, fantasy worlds, and even within the fantasy they are always looking for alternative possibilities, other ways the story might have gone.[13]

And that is the appeal, for me: creating something original from something borrowed; using existing characters and universe in new ways. The characters are not mine but the stories that I tell with them are. I can take the characters I know, take their experiences and histories, and create something new. The only limitation I have is that the characters remain in character. Everything else goes.

I started writing AU soon after I began writing fanfic.[14] I began with drabbles, short snippets of missing scenes – things that could have been. And then I wrote longer pieces, including the story which starts this essay. One of my most popular fanfics so far is an AU where Detective Inspector Mulder and Dana Scully, prostitute, investigate the Ripper murders of 18th century Whitechapel[15]. Initially written to a prompt (Mulder/Scully, Victorian England AU) it is now a work in progress, telling the story of Mulder’s search for his sister and the government conspiracy he becomes embroiled in against the backdrop of Victorian London and the myth of Spring-Heeled Jack. The challenge for me in this story is in keeping all of the canonical elements in place, in a setting totally removed from the canonical setting. The characters have to be in character: Scully has to retain the scientific detachment she does in the series; Mulder has to be misunderstood by those he works with; the Cigarette-Smoking Man has to be a shadowy figure in the background. But while this is going on I also have to build a realistic picture of Whitechapel in the 1880s and the conditions in which the prostitutes lived. I have to create and maintain a believable plot which will allow the readers to become invested in this new universe. It is in this tension between canon and AU that the creative process takes place: it is the line between canonical characters and original storytelling; the need to imitate the writing style that makes the characters who they are, while developing and maintaining my own, unique authorial voice. This is why I write fanfiction.

Amal Nahurriyeh, for the X Files Big Bang challenge[16], wrote a post-series novel about colonisation, canonically intended to take place in 2012. In her author’s notes she explains why she chose to tell this story, and how she did it:

    Second, canonicity and transformation. I’m a writer who wants to get as close to canon as possible in order to see what can be done to it; at the same time, I’m interested in doing transformative things to it… What I wanted to do in writing this was write a story that was almost–almost–something you could imagine being filmed as the third X-Files movie; a story that seemed to capture the spirit of the series, that seemed as if it could be canon, except not quite.[17]

The idea of transformation in fanfic is not new, but it is powerful, and another area where the creative process applies. The fun, for me, in fanfic lies in taking the established canon, turning it on its head and making other fans and readers question the show in the light of my take on it. Taking characters like Cigarette Smoking Man and Diana Fowley and making them likeable and believable, with their own history, is a challenge – they are little more than stereotypes in the show and are vilified by many fans – but it is an enjoyable challenge and can imbue the series itself with that little bit more. The idea that Fowley was abused as a child – even if gleaned only from my pre-series drabble – could be enough to make the viewer rethink her adult actions. That’s the power of transformation.

The process of writing fanfic requires an engagement not only with the original text, but with other interpretations of it, and my fanfic is inspired by both of these; a drabble written about the events following Small Potatoes[18]may make me want to write a vignette about Mulder and Scully’s relationship. A novel about colonisation may inspire me to write my own story set in that universe. Fandom, and fanfic’s part in that, is very much a community effort. The prevalence and popularity of challenge communities, prompt communities and fiction exchanges on Live Journal alone shows how they contribute to finding inspiration and engaging in the creative process. Among the communities of which I am a member are the drabble files, xf-santa, xf-is love and xf-bigbang[19], and from these I gain inspiration and, more importantly, feedback. Fanfic readers, on the whole, are discerning readers. The biggest crime in writing fanfic is to write out of character and readers will pick up on any slight they feel their characters have endured. If you’re good you’ll get feedback telling you that you’re good. You’ll get recommended to other readers, who in turn will leave feedback. If you’re bad, however, you’ll be told that as well – even if only through lack of feedback. Barthes expands on this futher:

    there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of…we know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.[20]

And fanfic epitomises that. Fanfiction is possibly the only genre where the motives of both readers and writers overlap. Both want to see the continuation of the universe they know and love. Both want to see their characters written well, but want something new to be brought to the universe as well. In fanfic the readers became the producers of new work, not simply because the reader is the space where the citations of writing are inscribed, but because – having the text play out upon them – they wanted to add to it. They wanted to fix what was wrong, to explore ambiguities, to get something more.

I began writing fanfiction because my own, original, writing was struggling. I couldn’t find ideas anywhere and when I could I didn’t know how to write them down, or at least write them down to a standard that I was satisfied with. Engaging with a world I knew, with characters I had seen develop, with fans who loved that universe as much as I did, gave me back that inspiration. Writing fanfic allowed me to write original fiction again, and to want to delve into worlds of my own creation. Writing fanfic gave me the feedback that I needed from readers who thought that I was good, who enjoyed what I wrote and wanted to read more. By taking part in the death of the author – the original author – by engaging in the text as a reader, and bringing my own experiences and beliefs to The X Files’ table I found myself as the author: rediscovered, reincarnated, reborn.

References:

[1] See appendix one

[2] Parrish, Juli, “Inventing a universe: Reading and writing Internet fan fiction,” 2007 Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, at http://etd.library.pitt.edu/ETD/available/etd–08072007–170133/unrestricted/Parrish2007.pdf, accessed 4 November 2009

[3] Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers Television Fans & Participatory Culture, Routledge, 1992, p.156

[4] Sheenagh Pugh, The Democratic Genre Fan Fiction in a Literary Context, Seren, 2005, p.9

[5] http://community.livejournal.com/xf_drabble/

[6] Barthes, Roland, “The Death of the Author”, Aspen no. 5+6, 1967 http://www.ubu.com/aspen/aspen5and6/threeEssays.html#barthes (accessed on 21/10/09)

[7] For example, in a 1994 interview with Sci-Fi Entertainment, Chris Carter, the creator of The X Files, cited Kolchak: Night Stalker as one of his main influences; the opening scene of the pilot episode of the show contained the notice ‘the following story is inspired by actual documented accounts’.

[8] Material produced by the creator of a series; the ‘official’ story.

[9] http://community.livejournal.com/xfiles/2399055.html?thread=23072079#t23072079

[10] Foucault, Michel: “What is an author”, 1969, The Essential Foucault, at http://www.scribd.com/doc/10268982/Foucault-What-is-an-Author (accessed 21/10/09)

[11] For example, instead of writing under the name Bethan, implying a gender and nationality, I write under the name memories_child, implying only a knowledge of The X Files through the title of a song used in the last film.

[12] http://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/18/business/in-tv-s-dull-summer-days-plots-take-wing-on-the-net.html?scp=363&sq=henry+jenkins&st=nyt (accessed 21/11/09)

[13] Pugh, p.133

[14] http://memories-child.livejournal.com/16438.html

[15] See appendix two

[16] http://community.livejournal.com/xf_bigbang  A ‘big bang’ challenge is a fanfiction/art challenge that challenges authors to write new fanfics of 20,000 words or more, and challenges artists to create accompanying artwork. The end products are kept secret until a set date, at which time the fic and artwork is posted to the community.

[17] http://amalnahurriyeh.livejournal.com/38251.html

[18] The X Files. Chris Carter (creator), Vince Gilligan (writer). FOX. 20 April 1997

[19] http://community.livejournal.com/thedrabblefiles, http://community.livejournal.com/xf_santa, http://community.livejournal.com/xf_is_love and http://community.livejournal.com/xf_bigbang

[20] Barthes, http://www.ubu.com/aspen/aspen5and6/threeEssays.html#barthes (accessed on 21/10/09)

Bibliography:

Barthes, Roland: “The Death of the Author”, 1967, Aspen 5+6, at http://www.ubu.com/aspen/aspen5and6/threeEssays.html#barthes (accessed on 21/10/09)

Busse, Kristina & Karen Hellekson (eds): Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, McFarland, 2001

CGB, Christine: “Coming out as a fanfiction writer”, 2002, diaryland, at http://zendom.diaryland.com/020404_18.html (accessed 4/11/09)

Foucault, Michel: “What is an author”, 1969, The Essential Foucault, at http://www.scribd.com/doc/10268982/Foucault-What-is-an-Author (accessed 21/10/09)

Harmon, Amy: “In TV’s Dull Summer Days, Plot Takes Wing on the Net”, 1997, New York Times, at http://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/18/business/in-tv-s-dull-summer-days-plots-take-wing-on-the-net.html?scp=363&sq=henry+jenkins&st=nyt (accessed 21/11/09)

Jenkins, Henry: Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Studies in Culture and Communication), Routledge, 1992

Jones, Bethan: “Fan fiction and the creative process”, 2009, LiveJournal, at http://community.livejournal.com/xfiles/2399055.html (accessed 4/11/09)

Larsen, Kris: “In Defence of Slash”, 2005, manfromuncle, at http://www.manfromuncle.org/krisl.htm (accessed 21/10/09)

Maccarillo, Lisa: “A conversation with
The X-Files’ creator Chris Carter”, 1994, Mike Quigley’s Homepage, at  http://www.mjq.net/xfiles/sfechris.htm (accessed 21/11/09)

Melusina: “Sometimes Mondays are for meta – Writing against the tide of fannish assumptions”, 2009, Dreamwidth, at http://melusina.dreamwidth.org/756741.html?format=light  (accessed 21/10/09)

Mezzanine, The: “Why Challenge Communities Rock”, 2009, LiveJournal, at http://deird1.livejournal.com/173222.html?format=light (accessed 21/10/09)

Nahurriyeh, Amal: “Machines of Freedom: Author’s Notes”, 2009, LiveJournal, at http://amalnahurriyeh.livejournal.com/38251.html

Parrish, Juli: “Inventing a universe: Reading and writing Internet fan fiction,” 2007 Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, at http://etd.library.pitt.edu/ETD/available/etd–08072007–170133/unrestricted/Parrish2007.pdf (accessed 4 November 2009)

Pugh, Sheenagh: The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context, Seren, 2005

Urban, Madeleine: “About fan fic, trolls, original stories, and finding your way home”, 2009, LiveJournal, at http://madeleineurban.livejournal.com/50414.html?format=light (accessed 21/10/09)

Wills, Emily: “The Political Possibilities of Fandom: Transformational Discourses on Gender and Power in The X-Files Fandom”, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association 67th Annual National Conference, April 2002, 2009, All Academic Research, at http://www.allacademic.com//meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/3/6/2/9/2/pages362928/p362928-1.php (accessed 21/11/09)

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