Friday, December 1, 2017

The Joys of Fan Fiction

In this article, game writer Sande Chen looks at the fascinating depth of fan fiction and wonders what this means for the fan/creator relationship.

At a StoryForward NYC event, "The Business of Collaborative Storytelling" speaker Steele Filipek noted the interplay between fans and creators.  With the popularity of crowdfunding sites, storytellers just like game makers need to consider this closer relationship with customers, also known as the fandom. There are tricky legal issues when fans decide to go further, writing their own fictional works, or for developers, making mods.  Some famous authors, like George R.R. Martin, are strongly against this practice.  Others are OK with letting fans play with their characters as long as it's not for profit and comes from a hobbyist spirit.  As story creators, we want our customers to engage and became enthusiastic fans, but how do we balance the needs of the audience with our own control over the material?  Academics, unperturbed, study fan fiction for its way of twisting norms, its exploration of gender and sexuality, and because like glimpsing parallel worlds, fan fiction provides insight into all the pathways not taken.

The relationship between fans and author can be contentious, as evidenced by what happened with the aftermath of the Southern Vampire Mysteries series by Charlaine Harris. Harris' supernatural characters had been traveling on different story trajectories since the books had been picked up for adaptation into HBO's TV drama, "True Blood"  Harris herself was influenced or inspired to change aspects of her writing based on the show.  For instance, the vampire Bill in the book series ends up as King of Louisiana as a nod to his TV counterpart and was not killed off as intended.  Harris even sanctioned other writers to extrapolate her characters' stories in the book, Dead But Not Forgotten: Stories From the World of Sookie Stackhouse.  However, there was large-scale anger within the fandom over the ending of the series, which had become more paranormal romance than mystery, over a number of issues.  This led to a multitude of interesting "fix-it" fictions.

Harris contended that these fans were upset over not getting what they wanted: a Happily Ever After (HEA) for Eric and Sookie.  While to some fans, the Eric/Sookie OTP (One True Pairing) had been telegraphed, as one Reddit fan indicated with the following chart, and her marriage to Sam seemed forced, as was discussed in The Love Triangle, the reasoning for this anger was multifaceted. Subsequent post-series fanfictions paired Sookie not only with Eric, but with Sam, Bill, Alcide, Quinn, Felipe, Victor, Eric's human descendant, a wendigo, some random werewolf, and with no one, as Sookie can be an empowered woman, proud to be single and unattached.  In many stories, Sookie grows into her fae bad ass self, embracing her supernatural power, and orchestrates Eric's rescue and/or her revenge.  One fansite owner felt betrayed to find out book Sookie would end up spurning her supernatural ties, despite her fae heritage, her demon godfather, her werepanther brother, shifter husband and other supe exes, to exult in small-town normalcy (or hypocrisy, as Sookie herself had suffered greatly from their ostracism).  The fansite owner had seen an allegory in the making about tolerance and minority rights, and now was very bitter.

Another source of anger, which is more understandable in the current climate and #MeToo revelations, is Sookie's dismissal of her brutal rape by Bill. In the book, she never acknowledges the rape and even continues to have a soft spot for Bill.  Fanfiction authors corrected that oversight and wanted badly to rescue Eric, who had already endured 300 years of sexual servitude and sacrificed his wealth, station, and friends to protect Sookie, from another 200 years as a not-so-willing sex slave.  Sometimes, Sookie is punished for being so uncaring such as in one story, where her telepathic son commits suicide due to his mother's close-mindedness, her eldest daugher dies from domestic violence, and her youngest runs off to become a vampire and Eric's eventual lover.  In another, Eric finds a more suitable and caring half-fae lover while Sookie boils with jealousy.  Even within Eric/Sookie OTP, they may not get a HEA but a lot of times, they do.  Or they find an uneasy continuance, such as in the story where Eric has an online relationship with Sookie using a pseudonym. There are simply so many different fictional avenues.

Other fans exacted a more demanding cost to the magic that brought Sam back from the dead other than Eric's heartbreak.  Sam came back changed, with scary results.  The wish cleaved Sookie into 2 people with 2 separate lives since the magic was not used properly.  A sacrifice of a life for a life was required.  Sookie suffers an additional "curse" of eternal life.

In a transmedia mindset, all of these stories with different outcomes and pathways are interesting, but what do they do to the brand?  From a business standpoint, we do want this continual interaction with fans, but eventually, we will need to clarify a stance.  Do you have any stories or advice on how to manage this relationship?  Do tell.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


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