Anyone who knows me will most likely be surprised that I read fan fiction. More specifically, Game of Thrones / Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth fan fiction. But perhaps I should explain how I became a reader of fan fiction in the first place. The nature of the things I usually read ranges from literary fiction, to horror, to the classics, to selected non-fiction. Sci-fi and fantasy are not my go-to genres, but when a former co-worker insisted I take a stab at George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, I was instantly hooked inside the world of the Seven Kingdoms, which closely resembled Medieval England and mostly happened in a land called Westeros.
By the time I reached the third book, A Storm of Swords, I was particularly besotted with the characters of Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth. The former, a knight with a lousy reputation not only for having an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, but also for having committed regicide,which earned him the nickname “Kingslayer”, the latter a woman whose height and muscular build make her the laughingstock of everyone, while she desperately tries to prove herself worthy of being a knight despite her gender.
Enticed with the initial hostile liaison between these two unconventional characters, which develops into an uneasy friendship, and something else that I judged to be an interesting bout of sexual tension, I devoured these books in no time. In April 2011, to further cement my newfound literary addiction, HBO launched Game of Thrones based on Martin’s books and extracting the name from the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones.
I was less than thrilled however, when I realized that the fifth book was not the final one in the series, and that the next installment apparently had no real release date, beyond a curtain of rumors and hearsay. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine, she looked at me and said: “Have you looked online for Game of Thrones fan fiction?” “I don’t know what that is,” I told her. I firmly believed that she was referring to a cluster of fans who had nothing to do in their spare time than to sit around and write stuff about characters based on certain novels that were corny and silly at best, badly written and pathetic at worst. After all, we’ve all endured the Fifty Shades of Grey bout of lousy writing and bizarre rise to fame.
Out of curiosity, however, I took my friend’s advice. I googled “Game of Thrones” fan fiction. The first site that came up was Archive of Our Own (known as Ao3 to fans), which boasted an approximate 30,000 works that were Game of Thrones TV show and A Song of Ice and Fire related. At first I cursed myself for stupidly looking through what I thought was a collective file of nonsense. But I thought, “I’m already here, I might as well see if there’s some Jaime Lannister-Brienne of Tarth-related stuff.” And yes, there was. A lot.
I found approximately 2,000 registered Jaime/Brienne works; stories related solely to the show, or to the books, or a combination of both. So, what started out as a reason to laugh at the expense of fans thinking themselves writers, quickly turned into a fast obsession that in turn developed into admiration the more I combed through the fiction stories. At first, I only stuck to “canon stories,” in other words, the ones that followed closely the original story-line and setting of Martin’s books, refusing to witness Brienne and Jaime as spies, lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs, as opposed to the Medieval-inspired setting where they actually belong.
But curiosity got the better of me, and I eventually fell into a story called Westeros Central Agency, in which Brienne Tarth is a badass spy for the government of Westeros and Jaime Lannister is a scientist who, under duress, is forced to create a powerful but dangerous substance called Wildfyre. I was forty-five chapters into this story when I realized it was unfinished, and to add to my horror, the author had the gall to end the last chapter in a nail-biting cliffhanger.
I didn’t know whether to be blatantly depressed or just plain furious. I mean, if I wanted an unfinished story I would have stuck to Martin’s books and ended it there. But instead of deterring me from reading more, I began to dive into other stories that took place in “alternate universes” (or AU), and I was incredibly surprised to see that this fandom had incredibly talented writers, many with a narrative so powerful and captivating that it would give any published or well-known writer pause. I thought of the unfairness that these writers would perhaps never have the chance to show the world what they could do; the only thing readily open to them was a platform for readers of fan fiction by writers of fan fiction.
But perhaps I should give more detail regarding terminology. If you’re not really familiar with the term “fan fiction” or don’t really know what it refers to as many people don’t, Google defines it as: Fiction written by a fan, and featuring characters from a particular TV series, movie, etc. I found this to be a bit simplistic, so personally I would add that fan fiction also includes works derived from books, book series, comic books, manga, drama series and countless other genres. I have added a brief fan fiction glossary of terms at the end of this article for better understanding of common terms.
The world of fan fiction is a fascinating universe, albeit a mysterious one. No one goes by his or her real name in Ao3 or Fanfiction.net, another popular site for fan fiction. As a matter of fact, neither do readers. I go by SeleneU in Ao3, although I have no problem in disclosing my real name if anyone asks. Fan fiction writers seem to prefer anonymity, writing for their own pleasure and for the people within the fandom who faithfully follow their stories.
I contacted a few of them on Tumblr with the help of a Jaime-Brienne writer whose work I admire, but whose name I won’t disclose here at her request (when I say name, I mean her ID on Ao3; I don’t know her real name, or the actual names of the writers I interviewed). My request for an interview was only answered by five writers and heartily declined by most of them, including the person who helped me put the word out to the others. A lot of them know each other and are certainly privy to the real identity of some of the writers in the fandom, but to all extent and purposes, I was a stranger wanting them to reveal the very personal reasons of what drove them to write fan fiction in the first place, so I understand why they were wary of me. And of course, there’s the Caitlin Moran fiasco.
In 2015, British columnist Caitlin Moran baited BBC Sherlock stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman into reading a fragment of what is referred to in the BBC version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock, as “Johnlock fiction.” Moran asked Cumberbatch and Freeman to read from an explicit slash fan fiction story. Slash fiction is a specific genre of fan fiction, which focuses on relationships between characters of the same sex. The reason why people felt that Moran baited the actors was because she kept insisting that the fragment in question was perfectly innocent to read aloud.
The story that Moran drew on, was a fiction titled Tea, found on Archive of Our Own and written by Mildredandbobbin. According to the site The Daily Dot, Cumberbatch and Freeman grew increasingly uncomfortable with the detailed erotic scenes between the characters that they play on the show, and stopped just before the scene got uncomfortably explicit. The Daily Dot speculates that perhaps Moran believed that fans of the story and perhaps the writer would be thrilled to hear the story read by the very actors that their fiction personifies. But the reaction from the fan-fiction community and Mildredandbobbin made it quite clear that what they felt was humiliation at having the work made subject to very public scrutiny and the objects of attention that they weren’t seeking.
Rage was felt not only within Archive of Our Own. According to The Daily Dot, fans also “took to the Tumblr streets in rage,” angrily voicing the blatant disrespect that Moran showed for the writer of this work and the fans of this type of derivative work. And as for the writer, Mildredandbobbin, stating that “the one bit of contact I have with them (Cumberbatch and Freeman), and it was about humiliation and mockery.” In an interview with The Daily Dot, Mildredandbobbin said she was “appalled” that her work had been used “for cheap laughs.” She also said, “It was terrifying for a lot of other writers in (the) fandom to think it could have been their work being paraded around for ridicule and criticism.”
But it’s not just Moran that has ridiculed and belittled fan-fiction writers. George R.R. Martin himself and Diana Gabaldon, author of the bestselling series Outlander, have been very vocal about their distaste regarding fan fiction and fan-fiction writers. Gabaldon even had this disclaimer posted on her website:
You know, I’m very flattered that some of you enjoy the books so much that you feel inspired to engage with the writing in a more personal way than most readers do. Both for legal and personal reasons, though, I’m not comfortable with fan-fiction based on any of my work, and request that you do not write it, do not send it to me, and do not publish it, whether in print or on the web. Thank you very much for your consideration.
George R.R. Martin’s own views toward fan fiction and any derivative work based on his books is a bit more subdued, but his stance centers more on copyright law and the risk of allowing his work or the work of any writer be subject to fan fiction. In 2010, he posted in his blog, grrm.livejournal.com, his support of Diana Gabaldon’s rejection of fan fiction, but also his additional concern that the practice of fan fiction could very well lead to copyright law infringement:
There was a lot of talk about copyright, and whether or not fan fiction was illegal, whether it was fair use (it is NOT fair use, by the way, not as I understand the term, and I have a certain familiarity with what is and isn’t fair use thanks to my own experiences with THE ARMAGEDDON RAG), but no one mentioned one crucial aspect of copyright law — a copyright MUST BE DEFENDED. If someone infringes on your copyright, and you are aware of the infringement, and you do not defend your copyright, the law assumes that you have abandoned it. Once you have done that, anyone can do whatever the hell they want with your stuff. If I let Peter and Paul and Nancy publish their Ice & Fire fanfics, and say nothing, then I have no ground to stand on when Bill B. Hack and Ripoff Publishing decide they will publish an Ice & Fire novel and make some bucks. Peter and Paul and Nancy may be the nicest people in the world, motivated only by sincere love of my world and characters, but Bill B. Hack and Ripoff don’t give a damn. They just want the bucks.
Martin further referred to a writer whose livelihood was damaged by people stealing his work. The writer in question is H.P. Lovecraft, creator of dark fantasy and gothic fiction works such as The Call of Cthulhu and The Dunwich Horror, who died in a state of extreme financial poverty. Martin alleges that Lovecraft’s generosity in allowing other writers to borrow elements from The Call of Cthulhu and thus gain profit by it, eventually contributed to Lovecraft’s living his last days in what Martin refers to as “genteel poverty.” He then compared Lovecraft’s case to Edgar Rice Burroughs — the creator of Tarzan and John Carter — who Martin claims died “a millionaire many times over” because of how wholeheartedly Burroughs, his estate and his lawyers protected his fictional creations.
Martin’s fear is indeed justified. It’s nearly impossible to control individuals that may sidestep copyright law in order to profit from a writer’s work, and it definitely can happen. It’s difficult to determine which fan fiction writers will act with mens rea or a definite intent to plagiarize. But here’s the thing: Most of them do not want their derivative works even mentioned outside the fandom, which is why they take care of covering their real identities.
Take the example of Mildredandbobbin. Was she thrilled that two actors that she admired read from her work? No, she was mortified and humiliated because she wasn’t writing her fiction for publication; it was for the enjoyment of a specific group of people with very specific tastes. Copyright law violation is a very real threat to any writer; in fact, I would not be surprised if even fan-fiction writers themselves were being plagiarized and, in their case, it’s even worse because most of their works are not copyright-protected. Regarding this, fan fiction J/B writer Quizzical Quinnia (Quinn) states that perhaps it is the very nature of copyright law that produces mistrust upon derivative works. “I see no widespread criticism of crafting derivative music,” Quinn said. “It’s simply labeled as a “remix” and branded as cool when a talented musician or mixer puts a personal spin on someone else’s original composition.“
She then elaborates a bit more on the fact that derivative works have existed for a long time and that it was hardly a reason for extreme concern:
Pre-copyright, derivative works held tremendous value when they presented innovation and emotional exploration the original did not present,” she said. “For instance, Shakespeare’s derivative works, King Lear is one example, are held in no lesser regard than his original plots such as The Tempest. Someone who paints can create a beautiful cityscape and then a reworking of the Mona Lisa with Britney Spears’ face because that’s fun and cool and a good way to practice skill. The same is true of writers. There are two different means of exercising talent and interest, and are not mutually exclusive.
Quinn presents a valid point. It’s a tricky fine line between accusing fan fiction writers of violating copyright law, while allowing other works based on existing novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is nothing more than an alternate version of Jane Austen’s novel to be written, marketed, and adapted to a feature film. I have to mention that on a side note, I was curious to know if Martin’s opinion on fan fiction remained the same since the particular blog entry that I mentioned here was written six years ago. His publicist at Random House told me that Martin was not granting any interviews, but he could tell me that “it is definitely safe to assume that George Martin’s views on fan fiction have not changed.”
When reading Martin’s and Gabaldon’s opinions on fan fiction, I couldn’t help but wonder how fan fiction writers felt knowing that the person who had created the characters and the world they loved so much, officially opposed the stories based on their books. Luxevergreen, one of the Jaime/Brienne writers on Archive of Our Own said that if anything, Martin’s opinion perhaps had sort of “reverse psychology” effect. In her case, it inspired her even more to continue writing, but at the same time expressed that she was a bit hurt by Martin’s comments:
No one is paying me to do this,” Luxevergreen said. “Everything I’ve ever written is born out of love for the incredible world he creates. I’ve lost a lot of sleep just so I can outline, write and edit a story that, maybe, a couple of hundred people will read while I juggle a full-time job and manage all of the stressors of my personal life. He’s entitled to his feelings just as I’m entitled to mine.
She also said that as a writer of fan fiction, she has experienced her share of her work being dismissed or looked down on:
Between all of the jokes that are made online to the clichés perpetuated by (the) media, it feels like the sincere efforts of a fanfic writer is marginalized to the point where it’s the butt of jokes. It’s heartbreaking that I have to contend with (these) painful clichés; it makes the whole experience feel shameful for me — too embarrassing for me admit it to anyone — even to the people that I love and want to trust.
Luxevergreen hits the nail on the head of something important. Fan fiction writers are often made to feel unworthy and ashamed of what they write, and as Caitlin Moran proved, wary of being exposed to ridicule. “As a fanfic writer, I feel like I don’t get a say in what’s important or what’s valid in literature,” Luxevergreen said. “Never mind the fact that I’ve got a BA in English. As long as fanfic is looked down upon by the masses, we will be the underdogs.”
Like Luxevergreen, Quinn agrees that writing Jaime/Brienne fan fiction, is more often than not encased in stereotype: “I am not a gross basement dweller with a Warcraft addiction and sexual repression haunting my untouched loins, “ she said. “Believe it or not, I don’t care, but real world knowledge of fandom participation inevitably leads to awkwardness that isn’t worth it. My fandom friends know quite a lot about me, and I don’t really hide most of my actual life beyond my name and other sensitive personal information. I don’t show my face either, for pretty obvious reasons. My fandom identity is supposed to be a fun outlet, so allowing the incursion of the real world seriously diminishes that.”
Interestingly enough, the writers who I interviewed are divided on whether they would ever want to actually publish something of their own, although some admit to having their work out there under their own name. However some of the writers confess to being additionally intimidated from revealing who they really are because their fiction contains what is popularly known in the fandom (and other sites as well) as “schmex” which is another term for smut or high sexual content.
JustaGirl24 (JaG) is one such writer, with the notable aggregation that her “smutty” J/B fictions also have enticing plots, witty dialogues, and a poetic narrative that could put any published writer to shame. How difficult is it to tell people that she writes these kind of stories? “It’s impossible, honestly. If people already read fan fiction, they know. If they don’t know about fan fiction, or think about it disparagingly, I’m not going to waste my breath,” JaG said. “Also, given the mature nature of many of my stories, and the fact that someone I know in real life might try to find them, I just don’t talk about it. My husband is the only one who knows.”
Captain Tarthister, author of Westeros Central Agency, which I mentioned was the first fan fiction I ever read, who luckily later completed the work, professed a similar view. “There are some who know I write J/B fanfic, but they don’t know exactly what it is. I wouldn’t want them to. I’m not a prude, but the stuff I wrote made me blush! But sex has always figured in my fiction, the ones published under my name. My J/B fanfic WCA (was) my first foray into violence. I’m not telling anyone who’s really behind that. There are some really sick parts.“
Another writer, Downlookingup said she keeps a tight lid on revealing that she writes fan fiction: “It’s a little weird to tell someone, “Hey, I’ve written the equivalent of a short novel about the often saucy romantic adventures of someone else’s characters!” She mentioned the same stigma as many of her peers, the frequent view that fan fiction is not real writing. “There’s a stigma in the real world around being part of fandom: It’s a waste of time, it’s pathetic, it’s for losers. Some people are able to navigate that and not worry about what other people think, but in my community, it’s a weird thing still and it’s frowned upon, so I just don’t tell anyone.”
(Continued in Part 2)