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What the fic? Plots thicken as fan-written stories proliferate on the Internet

Cheryl Truman and Heather Chapman
Lexington Herald-Leader (MCT)

LEXINGTON, Ky.--If you don't know what "fan fiction" is, allow us to introduce you to the genre with a quick summary of a story, based extremely loosely on the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation:

An impossibly beautiful, brave, talented young woman who just happens to be named after the story's author insinuates herself into the life of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. They stage a footrace. The heroine twists her ankle. And then she commits ritual suicide using a fingernail scrap and an eyelash.

We didn't say fan fiction is uniformly pretty -- or logical.

Simply put, fan fiction is writing in which the author spins off a new storyline based on established characters. Although it has roots that go back decades, it is largely a phenomenon spawned by the Internet and "fanzines," magazines aimed at fans of a specific cultural phenomenon, such as the original Star Trek. Much of fan fiction -- or "fanfic" or "fic," as it's often called -- appears to be based on characters from television, but it can be written about anything that accumulates a loyal following -- from books to anime, movies to video games, Broadway musicals to professional wrestling.

In fact, fans of every pop-culture vehicle from The Matrix to World Wrestling Entertainment endlessly dissect and reimagine story lines: shifted alliances, tortured plot twists, couples of all sexual persuasions, and character development that runs the gamut from excellent to non-existent.

Just do a simple Internet search of a favorite fictional character, and you're bound to find at least a couple of examples of fan fiction.

Consider the fanfic story, found at www.godawful.net, of The Lord of the Rings hero Legolas, in which he goes on a romantic Hawaiian vacation with his teenybopper girlfriend. To cap the day, they visit Wal-Mart.

Not everything in the fan fiction universe is bad. Despite an unending supply of smutty fantasies with bizarre misspellings, tortured grammar and no character development (note to parents: Do not let your young children peruse fan-fiction Web sites unsupervised), there's well-regarded stuff out there. For instance, some of it uses the Harry Potter novels -- by far the most popular subject, with nearly 262,000 stories on the Internet fic hub www.Fanfiction.net -- as a jumping-off point to examine relationship dilemmas and moral quandaries.

At its essence, fan fiction nurtures our need to hear stories -- .especially those in which we think we know the characters.

"Fan fiction means that even when the favorite book, film, TV series or game comes to an end, the story does not necessarily have to stop there," writes Alison Evans, who wrote her 2006 dissertation at England's Roehampton University on the largely anonymous field of fanfic, calling it The Global Playground: Fan Fiction in Cyberspace. "There is a hunger to find out more about the characters; to explore the dynamics between them, and to discover how they might react given a different situation."

Barbara Walton, 36, a fan-fiction writer from Massachusetts, says, "Fan fiction is just a way I naturally interact with stories I read or watch. There are always missing moments, questionable moments, theoretical questions to be asked.

"I write fan fiction because I love these imaginary worlds and want to spend more time in them than the canon provides for," she says, referring to what fanfic fans call the established storylines of a character.

Fanfic loves those alternative realities. The dominant question in fanfic is, What if?

For example, what if the cast of Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace met up with the cast of the musical Cats? Would hilarity ensue, or just really stilted fanfic? (For an answer, go to www.fanfiction.net, and read Fur Wars by the writer called Chapeau.)

In the fanfic alternative reality, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, the at-each-other's-throat judges on American Idol, are a huggems couple. The guys from Brokeback Mountain are cabaret dancers in Nazi Germany. Elizabeth and Jane from Pride and Prejudice are college freshmen, with Darcy and Bingley as the guys next door and the girls' parents as resident advisers.

"A lot of people, when they like a story of a TV show or something, they would either like it to continue when it's over or they would like other things to happen," says Patricia Correll, who works in the science-fiction and fantasy section of a book store in Lexington, Ky. "So they put their stories out there, usually on the Internet, so that other people can take a look at it and maybe get a thrill out of it."

Because of its base on the Internet, fan fiction is a field of soaring anonymity in which writers use online screen names and their fiction (or song lyrics, poetry or plays) is free to anybody who has an Internet connection.

The stereotypical image of a fan.fic reader is that of a tubby, balding man living in his parents' basement and surfing the Web all day while eating Cheetos.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that most fic readers are women, and they come from all walks of life, from teenagers who dig Sailor Moon to senior citizens who still carry a torch for Dr. Who.

In the book Convergence Culture, MIT professor Harry Jenkins notes the changing profile of fan-fiction authors during the past decade: In a field once dominated by older women writing about relationship woes, fan fiction has more recently seen a rush of younger writers.

"A decade ago, published fan fiction mostly came from women in their 20s, 30s and beyond," he writes. "Today, these older writers have been joined by a generation of new contributors, who found fan .fiction (while) surfing the Internet and decided to see what they could produce."

Fanfic has a long history.

In the 19th century, the Bronte sisters wrote fan fiction about the Duke of Wellington, a popular figure in their time.

Some even argue that fanfic goes as far back as the biblical .Apocrypha, but fic as we know it came about in the 1930s, with amateur-written stories about popular pulp science-fiction heroes.

In the 1960s, Star Trek fans began cranking out underground fanzines, many of which were dedicated to an imagined love affair between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Those stories argue that the real romance on the Enterprise was between Kirk and Spock rather than Kirk and the cadre of one-episode stands who populated the series. (Since then, fanfic that explores same-sex relationships has been called "slash" because of how those Kirk and Spock stories were denoted by authors: Kirk/Spock.)

As the genre has grown in size and popularity, some of it even has been legitimized. Geraldine Brooks' March, the imagined adventures of the absent father in Little Women, took the National Book Award this year. And Jean Rhys' 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea is the back story of Rochester's mad wife from Jane Eyre. Author Gregory Maguire has made a career out of fanfic, basing books on the untold stories of The Wizard of Oz (his books Wicked and Son of a Witch), Cinderella (Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister) and Snow White (Mirror Mirror).

So how do authors and producers feel about fangirls dragging their characters off kicking and screaming?

Most fanfic sites pay at least cursory attention to copyright issues, but fic writers and the artists they adore are divided on the subject.

Some authors, including Anne Rice and Anne McCaffrey, actively seek out fanfic Web sites and try to get them shut down, but generally, legal brouhahas over fan fiction are limited.

Most writers, however -- including Potter author J.K. Rowling -- range from tolerant of to tickled by their mainstream Internet following.

That brings us back to the discussion of quality in fan fiction.

Beyond the spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors and questions of taste, many fics use tired plot devices. That includes use of a "Mary Sue" character, a device dreaded by fic fans. The Mary Sue archetype is gorgeous, modest and brilliant, and often a surrogate for the author.

Adjectives to describe a Mary Sue-type character might be uninspired, but they often make up in quantity what they lack in originality. Hair frequently requires a description of several sentences, and some authors can really lather it up when it comes to glossiness, highlighting and frizz-free curl. Many characters, particularly when they sub for the author, are remarked to be the most beautiful specimens ever seen.

That's why much of fanfic reads like an inside joke: We as readers know that much of humanity is composed of equal parts flab and bad choices. In fanfic, though, everybody gets a chance to live up to the impossibly well-groomed and immaculately costumed standards of their heroes. Frustrating plots are simplified and redeemed. Stammering becomes poetry. Loose ends become happy endings.

Fanfic is literary karaoke. Why resist that anonymous urge to sing along?

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Fan fiction on the Internet

Finding fan fiction on the Internet is not difficult, but here are some sites to peruse. A note to parents: Many sites carefully label adult-only material. Please review the sites before allowing your children to visit them.

www.Fanfiction.net: The granddaddy of fanfic sites, and still one of the best bets for literate fan fiction, although it has its share of howlingly bad efforts - and detractors across the Internet.

www.Godawful.net: The site for "Godawful Fan Fiction." The fanfic is a stitch in itself, but it's the snarky commentary that will keep you coming back. For mature readers only.

www.Fictionalley.org: All you ever wanted to read about Harry Potter & Co.

www.TheForce.net: All Star Wars, all the time.

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Fan fiction glossary

A beginner's fan fiction glossary:

Alternate universe (AU): Author plays around with or outright disregards "canon." (Good AU: What if Harry Potter's parents had lived? Bad AU: What if Spider-man, like, went to my school, and we were totally best friends?)

Canon: Original source material on which a fan fiction story is based.

Crossover: Fanfic in which two or more canons collide, as in when Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The X-Files' Mulder, and then they jet off to meet Captain Kirk.

Fanon: A "fact" that's unfounded in source material but widely accepted by fans. Savvy producers and authors sometimes adopt fanon as a tip of the hat to fans. Example: Lt. Uhura's first name, Nyota, on Star Trek.

Genfic: Fanfic in which romance is not the focus. Usually clean, but remember that R ratings don't always come from sexual .content.

Mary Sue: Most beloved (and hated) cliche in fanfic. You'll know Mary Sue by her impossible beauty, brilliance, bravery, tragic history, ability to flout authority and extensively described wardrobe from Hot Topic. Often stand-in for the author. Male Mary Sue is a "Gary Stu."

Mature readers only: We cannot stress this point enough: When fanfic is labeled for mature audiences, you absolutely do not want to let your kids anywhere near it. Some authors use the familiar movie system (PG, NC-17, etc.), but many (including Fanfiction.net) use the Fiction Rating system. For a guide to that system, visit www.fictionrating.com.

'Ship: Relationship.

Slash: Used to designate story that involves homosexual sex or same-sex romantic relationships. Lesbian slash may be called "femmeslash." Called "slash" because of the first Kirk/Spock love stories in the 1960s: Kirk-slash-Spock.

Suethor: Author (not necessarily of fan fiction) who cannot stop writing Mary Sues. Example: Jean M. Auel of the Clan of the Cave Bear series fame.

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© 2006, Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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