Fan fiction, also called fanfiction or fanfic, are stories based on the characters or settings from an original work of fiction, created by fans of that work rather than by its creator. Fan fiction is generally only posted on the internet. It is rarely authorized by the original work’s creator or publisher.

How have authors and copyright owners reacted to fan fiction? Most find it flattering and have been encouraging, but a few have threatened legal action. Fan fiction is legal only if those who write such creations never make any money off them. Fan fiction is strictly a hobby, like collecting coins or flying model airplanes. People do it because they enjoy it, not because it is profitable.

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Most fan fiction writers assume that their work is read primarily by other fans, and therefore presume that their readers have knowledge of the world in which their works are based. So, for instance, a person who really enjoys Star Trek may decide to write a story set in the Star Trek universe, using the characters from the Star Trek universe, but putting them in new settings and making up entirely new stories. Some of the more popular forms of fan fiction are romances, where the hobbyist authors imagine that their favorite characters fall in love with each other. So, for instance, they will imagine that the communications officer Uhuru starts dating Captian Kirk.


Sometimes those who pen fan fiction decide to branch out and begin writing their own works; the now award winning author, Sarah A. Hoyt, for instance, penned several Jane Austin based works of fan fiction, but now only writes her own fantasy and science fiction stories. E. L. James wrote fan fiction based on the Twilight series of vampire stories, then altered one of her Twilight-based creations to make the now best-selling work, Fifty Shade of Gray.

I was recently pointed in the direction of a bit of fan fiction based on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The science fiction devoted website, iO9.com had an article on the work and I later found David Brin, a well-known science fiction author, praising it on his blog. As with all fan fiction, it was free, so I decided to give it a chance. I was pleased to discover that it was available both as a PDF as well as in an e-book format compatible with my Kindle.

It is entitled Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality and was written by Eliezer Yudkowsky. In Yudkowsky’s take on the story, Harry’s Aunt Petunia married a biochemist and Oxford professor, rather than Vernon Dursley. Petunia is thus a different person than in J.K. Rowling’s universe. When Harry is orphaned, he is placed with his aunt and uncle, same as in Rowling’s story, but Harry grows up very differently since his aunt and uncle are now very different people. Rather than being neglected and mistreated, with a cupboard under the stairs for his bedroom, Harry is loved, he is an only child, and he spends his time reading science and science fiction, while receiving the best education possible in school.

When the Hogwarts letter arrives, a world of intriguing new possibilities opens up to him. Harry brings his knowledge of science and the scientific method with him to Hogwarts, where he ends up sorted into Ravenclaw rather than Gryffindor. He befriends Malfoy (his nemesis in Rowling’s story), and is determined to turn him to the light side away from his dark upbringing. Harry wants to understand magic and to integrate it with his scientific view of the universe. He runs experiments and discovers new things about magic and how it functions.

It is an interesting take on Harry’s story, but radically different from the seven novels penned by J.K. Rowling. Yudkowsky’s fan fiction is a single book, more than six hundred thousand words long (the equivalent of about half of the real Harry Potter series). The characters have different personalities than they do in Rowling’s books, which I found disconcerting, and so the story is nothing much like that in Rowling’s series. It is also less sophisticated, less well-imagined, and less well-written, in my opinion. Nevertheless, I’ve found it an intriguing twist on things and valuable as an instruction on the use of science and the scientific method. Frankly, I think that the author of this fan fiction work should take these ideas and develop them into his own story.

One of the things that the aforementioned Sarah A. Hoyt pointed out is that it is not so hard to transform a work of fan fiction into an original work. After all, many authors “steal” ideas from other authors and make them their own. Shakespeare, as an example, used a lot of pre-existing stories for his plays, and yet what Shakespeare did with them is masterful and uniquely his own.

There are, after all, only so many plots. Many of them, in fact, are simply the “Hero’s Journey” as so well-explained by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in his classic work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The first Star Wars Movie, Shrek, Lord of the Rings and Legally Blonde all follow the same hero’s journey plot. And yet they all seem—and are—entirely different stories. Just as the novels Ender’s Game, The Hobbit, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe seem nothing alike, and yet have exactly that same plot.

Some fan fiction is frightfully bad; perhaps most. But occasionally, as with Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, it can be worth spending some time with. And for a person wanting to become a writer, practicing the craft by creating fan fiction can be any easy way to learn. Think of fan fiction as training wheels for authors.
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