The Myth of Total Fanfic

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Title: The Myth of Total Fanfic
Creator: Sister Magpie
Date(s): May 5, 2006 (between Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows)
Medium: online
Fandom: Harry Potter
External Links: The Myth of Total Fanfic
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The Myth of Total Fanfic is a 2006 Harry Potter essay by Sister Magpie.

It was one of fifty essays posted to HPInkPot, a section of FictionAlley.


A look at the ways authors strive to make fanfiction "real" so that readers can feel a fic actually "happened" on some level of reality.


When I was in school I remember learning about the myth of total cinema. The idea, as I remember it (hopefully at least somewhat accurately), was that certain inventions have always existed in theory. Man has always dreamed of flying and tried to fly, long before we had airplanes. Where as something like the telephone or computers or electric lamps weren't as familiar. Sure people might wish they could talk to their friend in the next town, but they couldn't imagine it as clearly.

Photography is more like flying in that people are more instinctively driven to do it. Not to take pictures, but to "capture" reality--a moment, a time, a feeling--and be able to experience it again. I suppose it's connected to a battle against death or time at heart, but the point is that photography is one step, and it also leads to movies, which are a bit more like "reality." The ultimate idea would be virtual reality. You're trying to recreate reality, erase all difference between this and the real thing.

I think that there's a strain of this in fanfic. Probably the highest praise you can give a fanfic writer is that s/he writes "in character." On one hand it's obvious why somebody would say that--you don't look for a story about Hermione to read about a prom queen with highlights calling people "dude." But I think it goes beyond that--why else would someone, for instance, rant about wanting to read stuff that's like canon and then write Dumbledore/Harry, for instance? Obviously they don't really mean they want to be reading the books themselves, because that's one thing we can be pretty sure isn't going to happen there. It seems to me what they want--what I want at least, maybe--is the illusion that this thing that will never happen, but that I might like to happen, has actually happened.

It's a twisted thing to think about because...happened where? The books themselves haven't "happened" at all--they're fiction just like the fanfic is. But as fans I think we all recognize something "real" about the actual canon, even if it's a reality we have a hand in creating ourselves by suspending our disbelief. We together all lift it above our own fiction. On some level it is a reality, because for all the casual, "If you don't like canon you should just write fic!" that, I think, is very hard to do. Many people find themselves unable to do that because canon has a weight and fanfic is all about pushing against that weight. Sometimes we're surprised just what things we can't overlook. Sure we can stretch things to pretend that Snape and Harry are really attracted to each other--but we have to find new ways to do it with each book as the canon changes.

I feel like behind it all there's this drive to create something like virtual canon, fanfic that becomes "real"--only real=canon. Sometimes this takes the shape of arguing for a logic beyond the words in the books. For instance, imagine three Dogstar Shippers faced with Remus/Tonks. One Remus/Sirius shipper might not see any problem--their idea of canon easily fits Remus/Sirius into the timeline of the books that include Remus/Tonks. The second perhaps has always set her Remus/Sirius in an AU anyway, so the idea that Remus isn't actually gay is not new information (I use this ship because there was a lot of open discussion about whether it could be canon, if unstated). A third person might feel far more stung by the revelation and argue that Remus/Tonks feels forced, it was stuck on to appease homophobes, it came out of nowhere, etc. Remus/Sirius makes more sense, feels more real than Remus happening to date a character with few ties to the storyline etc. That's what I mean about arguing for logic beyond the canon. The fan basically feels the author did something artificial or even wrong.

I will admit here that on the question of whether an author can write his/her characters out of character, I think that hypothetically they can, absolutely. Authors are people, they change. George Lucas deciding years later that Greedo should shoot first, in my opinion, does not make Greedo shooting first canon. If JKR became a Scientologist tomorrow and Book VII started with Harry having been converted too, I'd say that was out of character. I thought much of the last days of The X-Files demonstrated this as well. So I don't think that the mere fact that people are arguing for a logic beyond what the author creates is wrong. Fans aren't just passive viewers without any voice about logic if they've read the story. Storytelling depends on this fact, depends on the audience being able to do this, even if sometimes it's inconvenient for the storyteller. I'm not saying the fan is always right of course--fans can have agendas of their own, or bad ideas, and not all listeners are as good at following stories as others. But, for instance, with Star Wars, fans in general I think accept Hayden Christensen showing up at the end of Return of the Jedi much more than they accept Greedo shooting first in A New Hope.

But that's not the only way for fans to push towards virtual fanfic. They can do it from the other direction too. That path starts with the fan wanting to stick to canon closely, seeing "this is so in character!" or "this sounds exactly like the Original Author!" as a high compliment. I sometimes feel like this kind of presumption flies more under the radar when it comes to accusations of arrogance or entitlement, because the fanfic author starts with this attitude of respect and never puts his/her own preferences over another fan's, just, allegedly, the author's. But just as the fans arguing from logic are sometimes reasonable and sometimes deluded, so can these fans be the same way. "This could happen within the framework of canon" can slip into "my readers should consider this as having happened within the framework of canon" or "I'm a little bit more like the original author than another fanfic author is." They also sometimes wind up saying "well, I'm right and the author's wrong!" a different way.