Two trends have been going on recently. They’re similar, yet not so similar. The title may have given away the first trend: there’s been much talk and discussion lately about how to deal with fanfiction, its perks, its pitfalls, how authors should react to them, if at all, etc. The other trend you may not be aware of so much, because it has to do with a certain art website I’m a part of. For the past month (if not longer), there has been something of a “witch hunt” going around over finding and pointing out artists who trace or paint over photographs who, all the while, claim that their final art piece was an original drawn with talent. Sometimes their work includes not even crediting their reference photos.
These are my thoughts.
- Tracing in and of itself is not wrong. Every artist begins somewhere, and while some may get more out of it than others, it is a typical method of beginner (and mediocre, and even professional!) artists to trace any or all subjects for practice. There are other means of working on skill, I won’t get into them, but tracing is one way.
- Tracing a stock photo is not wrong, dependent on the stock photographer’s wishes with his stock images. Tracing an artwork is not wrong, either. After tracing, then claiming that they did not trace and that the artwork is an original thought and creation, then that is wrong.
- Making money off of something traced is where it gets a little more complicated. Like point #2, tracing another person’s artwork and claiming it as their own is wrong, and therefore making money off of said traced artwork is wrong. Tracing a stock photo and painting it in (which can possibly be likened to trying to sell a paint-by-numbers piece) and making money off of it — technically, the stock photographer will determine that right. Is it wrong? It’s misleading and possibly touting false talent and effort, so to me, this is morally wrong and a dishonest practice. Some may not think so, some may actually not care at all, and some may get their panties up in a super-tight bunch over it.
- Painting over a photo does not require much effort. Painting over a piece of artwork does not require much effort, either. Both hardly require talent or skill. I have seen both done, both poorly and well. Either of these, in my most humble of opinions, I frown upon.
- I use references for my paintings. Sometimes I like to capture exactly what I see, and sometimes I like to use a reference photo as a guide for something I want to capture in my mind. Is this wrong? No: I am a realism artist, bordering on hyper-realism, and oftentimes I need that stock photo or pose to achieve that realism. Real life is my guide for creating art, so I take and transform things to create something my own.
Now replace artwork with book or story, and you see where I’m going with this? Painting over a photo or artwork is likened to plagiarism. You don’t do it. And you won’t get away with it. Tracing a photo or piece of art is likened to taking the same elements of a story and mimicking its style, elements, subject, etc., or in the case of writing: characters, setting, backstory, etc. The practice is questionable, but it achieves the same effect: you’re using a crutch to hone your craft.
I don’t feel that there is anything wrong per se about fanfiction. I used to write fanfiction, and I’m certainly not alone in that department. It helped me develop my writing skills, explore different genres, and generally ease myself into writing my own original stories. In the writing world, there is hardly any opportunity at all to generate any kind of income for writing fanfiction. It’s a violation of copyright laws, and no publishing company wants to deal with that.
Now that I’ve moved on from writing fanfiction (though sometimes I fancy doing it again in my leisure time), I see it as a means of a creative expression of how much one loves the story/game/movie/show. However, one must consider what it would be like to be in that author’s position. Would you be flattered? Would you be insulted that fans are skewing their characters or world, or whatever else? I think it has to do with how the author approaches their work. Some may be possessive of their creations, and thereby wish to deny any fanfiction whatsoever. Anne Rice and others have denied places like fanfiction.net to publish fanfictions of their work. I understand, and to be honest, I think I share her sentiments for my current work. It is not an easy task to create a world, its creatures, its politics, its magic, and everything else. Writing a story using someone else’s creation saves them a whole lot of work, sweat, aggravation, brain-racking, and tears that go into creating a world.
But others don’t have a problem with it. They love that others do more with what they’ve created, that they’ve found their work so inspirational. However, like the incident with Marion Zimmer Bradley, I don’t think that authors should delve into fanfiction until they’re definitively finished with the book or series. In Bradley’s case, she interacted with her fanfiction fans and read their work while still writing in her book, and at one point, seeing that a plot line was similar to something a fan writer wrote, requested her permission to use that idea, while giving her some credit and some money. The fan writer wished for more than just that, and in the end, Bradley was unable to publish her story. The moral of that story for my fellow authors, in my opinion, is: don’t read fanfiction. It will give you ideas, turn you off, or worse, disable your story for you altogether.
Whether or not you allow fanfiction of your work is up to you. Ultimately, of course, you could never prevent it if it happened, but there are steps that can be taken to prevent fanfiction from surfacing. As for writing fanfiction, I would give this challenge: change things around. Make it your story. You can start with initial ideas, concepts, and general characters from another, but with love and dedication, your work will blossom and transform into something completely different. And potentially offer a decent monetary bonus!