Fan Fiction

George R R Martin writes an absolutely fascinating post on fan fiction.

Okay, it was one incident a long time ago, you may say. Fair enough. Let me bring up a couple other writers, then. Contemporaries of an earlier age, each of whom was known by a set of initials: ERB and HPL. ERB created Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. HPL created Cthulhu and his Mythos. ERB, and later his estate, was extremely protective of his creations. Try to use Tarzan, or even an ape man who was suspiciously similar to Tarzan, without his/ their permission, and their lawyers would famously descend on you like a ton of bricks. HPL was the complete opposite. The Cthulhu Mythos soon turned into one of our genres first shared worlds. HPL encouraged writer friends like Robert Bloch and Clark Ashton Smith to borrow elements from his Cuthulhu Mythos, and to add elements as well, which HPL himself would borrow in turn. And in time, other writers who were NOT friends of HPL also began to write Cthulhu Mythos stories, which continues to this day.

Fair enough. Two writers, two different decisions.

Thing is, ERB died a millionaire many times over, living on a gigantic ranch in a town that was named Tarzana after his creation. HPL lived and died in genteel poverty, and some biographers have suggested that poor diet brought on by poverty may have hastened his death. HPL was a far more beloved figure amongst other writers, but love will only get you so far. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to have a steak too. The Burroughs estate was paid handsomely for every Tarzan movie ever made, and collected plenty on the PRINCESS OF MARS movie I worked on during my Hollywood years, and no doubt is still collecting on the one currently in development… though the book is in the public domain by now. Did the Lovecraft estate make a penny off THE DUNWICH HORROR movie, the HERBERT WEST, REANIMATOR movie, the recent DAGON movie, the internet version of CALL OF CTHULHU? I don’t know. I rather doubt it. If they did, I’ll betcha it was just chump change. Meanwhile, new writers go right on mining the Cthulhu mythos, writing new stories and novels.

I’ve written before on the merits of tie-in fiction, and some people like to point out similarities between the two, but fan fiction is something completely different, as explained in his post. It’s all about the consequences. Martin presents a fascinating argument, and the more I think about it, the more I’m absolutely swayed.

Read the rest.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. Bit of an unfair comparison that, between ERB and HLP. Cthulhu never entered popular culture the way Tarzan did. According to Wikipedia, there 89 Tarzan films were made between 1819 and 2008. Compared to 5 Cthulhu-“ish” films. Besides, HLP’s poverty might just as well have been a result of his own financial ineptitude.

  2. I’m quite fond of the novice writer exercise where you take a minor or secondary character from a published novel and write their own short side adventure.

    It’s great writing practice that doesn’t require you go to all the effort of creating a character and world etc.

    That said, I would never try to publish said exercise piece or even give it to anyone else to read.

    Also, I should admit, that I first started writing in forum roleplaying posts. No dice or rules, simply write what your (unique) character is doing and saying etc. And I did this on the DragonLance fourms, using the world created by Weis and Hickman for TSR and later Wizards of the Coast.

    But I am against fanfic involving main characters of novels, or even important secondary characters.

    But would you really complain if someone was to turn Valljamur in to their homebrew game?

  3. Doh. I should read what I’ve written more carefully before clicking on “submit”. There were, of course, no Tarzan films made as early as 1819. That would have been one hell of an achievement. It should have been “89 Tarzan films were made between 1918 and 2008”.

  4. Interestingly, Diana Gabaldon has also written about fan fic on her blog – see link: http://voyagesoftheartemis.blogspot.com/2010/05/fan-fiction-and-moral-conundrums.html

    She is very scathing about it, and brings up some interesting points.

  5. I don’t really care either way for fan fiction, I think authors acting like it somehow makes them incur loss of earnings is absurd (no one in their right mind either said “I love this second rate Harry Potter fanfiction, now I don’t have to read the books”), but I do think if those people were fans of the author they would respect their wishes.

    Martin, on the other hand, creates an unconvincing straw man argument with EBR and HPL, as the circumstances of both men’s lives had a lot to do with. ERB made a lot more money anyway, as he wrote the in fashion adventure stories of the time and he sold a lot more novels which makes a huge difference, and as Ian rightly points out, Lovecraft has never been mainstream even if he is quite well known now.

  6. I find fan fiction a bit skin crawly; there’s something of the undead about: like reanimating a body with a stranger’s soul.

    OK, maybe a bit OTT, but I totally understand Diana Gabaldon’s point that there is something invasive about people doing things with your characters – your “intimate creations”. Of course it’s a little irrational to get emotionally attached to the imaginary people in your head, but if you didn’t love them like children, how could you write about them? Why would you write about them?

    And the point GRRM makes about copyright is an interesting (and scary) one. I didn’t know that could happen if you didn’t defend your copyright.

  7. Ian – possibly. But check out Martin’s post for the rest of the context.

    Daniel – interesting about the home brew RPG. If I allowed something to be written down, where might I stand legally if someone wanted to do one professionally without my permission?

    Amanda – I think that’s what Martin initially links to (I think he was defending her.) Apparently it’s quite the heated argument. Judging by her 600+ comments, I imagine it’s a pretty lively discussion too.

    Paul – it’s not the initial loss of earnings, it’s more the legal standpoint should someone else want to do something with your Intellectual Property in the future if you’ve permitted something initially. It’s the opening of the door that Martin highlights very well.

    Rachel – yes, copyright is an issue that worries a lot of creatives, since there’s quite a lot of grey areas (especially in the digital age, where copyright law has failed to adequately catch up with the times).

  8. I saw Gabaldon’s post and originally thought that she was being inconsiderate. Isn’t it an honor to have someone else create fanfic in your world or with your characters? But reading Martin’s post definitely sways me too. The internet changes everything, opens the risk of losing copyright. Of course, I’m miles away from having such a problem, will be lucky if I ever get there.

    Personally I’ve never understood fanfic. I have a long line of my own characters waiting–far too patiently–to get out of my head and onto the page. I also have at last count about a hundred books scattered about the house, ones by authors who created their own characters, waiting to be read.

  9. Ah, I see. So it’s not fan fiction when GRRM says it’s not. Otherwise it is. In which it is vile and pernicious.

    But. The Tarzan / Cthulhu comparison still doesn’t wash. And if ERB was a tight-arsed miser but HLP spent money like a man with no arms… well, that might explain the equity gap. GRRM doesn’t say, so we can only speculate.

    And, quite frankly, if a fan starts coming up with neat plots involving your worlds and characters before you do, isn’t it about time you came up with some new worlds and characters?

  10. Er, that’s like a generic all-encompassing super-generalising “you”, of course…

  11. Martin has no idea what the hell when he’s talking about when it comes to Lovecraft and copyrights.

  12. I was just about to say that even with that copywrite argument it doesn’t wash as Nick pointed out on his LJ, but there is the man himself. 🙂

  13. Copyright even, brain doesn’t work after midnight.

  14. That’s nonsense from GRRM, who should know better. If he needs something to read whilst busy not-writing his next book, I can suggest a number of Lovecraft biographies.

    But, even if one takes his historical accuracies at face value (which hurts to write), one could make the reverse argument: by allowing the Cthulhu mythos to “roam free”, Lovecraft’s gained a level of prestige, regard & legacy that he never had in life. And one that arguably outweighs that of Burroughs.

    I’m actually really upset by all this. Not that I give a shit about fan fiction, but I don’t like somehow-influential figures peddling utter bollocks. Had enough of that during the election.