The Graffiti of Literature – Fan Fiction and Power

Fan fiction is one of the most important forms in modern literature.

I say this is an outsider, not someone with skin in the fanfic game. The last time I wrote fanfic I was seven years old and mis-spelling the name of Superted’s nemesis (or maybe inventing a new one in the form of Texas Qete). But as an active part of the science fiction and fantasy community, I’ve become increasingly aware of how prevalent, how beloved, and how important fanfic is.

Because while it might just look like people having fun, fanfic is very much about the assertion of power.

No, not like that, you filthy-minded, E L James reading monsters. I mean, if that’s your bag, by all means chain up the heroes and bring on the lube. But what I’m talking about is cultural power.

Before I disappear down some postmodern, Marxist-flavoured rabbit hole of post-Foucault sociological bullshit, let’s start with the basics. What am I talking about when I say fan fiction?

Fan fiction is playing with other people’s imaginary toys. It happens whenever somebody takes characters created by another writer, whether from a book, a film, or a TV show and makes up their own stories just for fun. Maybe they take one character or property and tell the stories they’d like to see. Maybe they mash several together, wanting to explore how Fievel from An American Tail would cope on the mean streets of The Wire. Maybe they throw in some extra characters of their own. It’s something that people do for pleasure, and for many it’s their first foray into fiction writing.

This is distinctly different from hired writing on a licensed property. Sure, that also involves playing with someone else’s imaginary toys. But it’s done with a permission which can be withdrawn, it’s done professionally, and the results are officially recognized by the owner of the original work. Fanfic, on the other hand, is unofficial, unendorsed, and done just for the love of creation.

So what does this have to do with power?

To make that case, let’s start by talking about graffiti. When an advertiser pays to put an image up on the side of a building, that image is officially allowed. The advertiser uses their power and wealth to gain access to that space. They might or might not care about the product, the place, or the people who live there. The results may or may not be beautiful, but they can put that picture up because they already have power.

When a graffiti artist puts their image up on the building, they do so without permission. They probably live in the area, but outsiders like multinational companies have far more power over their lived environment than they do. For better or for worse, graffiti becomes a way of asserting some power over that space, of making it theirs in the face of greater forces. The results may or may not be beautiful, but in putting that picture up, they fight back against the power.

Fanfic is a lot like that. We all live in cultural environments shaped by big corporations and the properties they own. Most people have little power to shape that cultural landscape, including elements that are hugely important to them. But by using those properties without permission they can gain some control over their cultural environment. For a few pages at a time, they can make it theirs.

Fanfic is the graffiti of literature.

While I say this as a positive, I want to be clear – every piece of graffiti and fanfic isn’t by definition good. Both can end in ugly, misshapen messes that no-one but the artist should have to see. Either can be turned into a petty assault on cultural monuments that matter to others. But they can both be empowering, and in a world where we feel increasingly disempowered and disenfranchised by the big business and unresponsive governments, that’s a good thing.

We are constantly told that big cultural institutions like Star Wars and the Marvel universe should matter to us, while also being reminded that we have no control over them. Fanfic flips that around. It gives us power over the things that matter to us. It’s a way of asserting power and transforming your environment, instead of letting big businesses have their way. That’s awesome.

Does this mean I’m going to run off and write fanfic now?

No. I have my own toys I’d rather play with. But I have huge respect for the people who get other people’s toys out, scuff them up, and leave them doing things we’ve been told they shouldn’t. They’re challenging the power dynamics of our culture, and that’s a great thing.

The Emotional Puzzle of a Shared Universe

A lot of the most powerful storytelling happens in the moments between scenes, the pieces we put together to fill the gaps. If someone has died and then we see a relative rebuilding in the aftermath, we fill in the trauma of loss. When the happy couple ride off into the sunset, we feel happy for their future life together.

In a shared creative universe, there are even more of those gaps.

There are lots of shared creative universes out there. From the half-dozen interlinked Star Trek shows to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the insane sprawl of DC Comics, they’re something most people are exposed to. Maybe you just dip in and enjoy a little of what they offer, but for the hardcore fan, they’re a rich treasure trove. The more you consume of a single universe, the more of those gaps and connections you see. You fill them in through imagination, conversations, and fanfic, exponentially expanding that universe.

I used to think that the satisfaction in this was comparable with referencing in other parts of our culture. Looked at this way, recognising a Captain America character’s cameo in Ant-Man is like spotting a reference to Shakespeare in Stoppard – the satisfaction is all about feeling smart. You’re in on the reference. You’re part of the game.

But I now think that there’s more to it than that. Because these references exist within a continuity, there’s an extra layer of emotional meaning that those Shakespeare references don’t have. We’re not just recognising Agent Carter as a character from another film. We’re seeing how she’s aged, learning some of what she’s been through over the years, filling in gaps in her story. We feel for her. High culture references, with their focus on intellectual satisfaction, don’t do that.

Marvel’s Infinity War is full of this. It pulls in characters from so many other films, while leaving their familiar families and friends out. By the end, it only takes the slightest drift of imagination to start filling gaps elsewhere in this world, with tragic results. I’ve seen reviews that say the film is accessible to a Marvel outsider, but for someone who has been following these films, its impact stretches on and on.

I’m not arguing for the superiority of shared universes. Like any form of culture, they have advantages and disadvantages, can be good or bad. But their references have an extra layer of meaning that some others don’t. They don’t just hit you in the thoughts. They hit you in the feels.

Braveheart All Over Again

Last week I was all excited for upcoming historical films. This week though, I learned about Outlaw King

Maybe I’m still hurting from Braveheart. Maybe I’m hyper-sensitive to depictions of periods I’ve studied in depth. Or maybe, just maybe, this is lining up to be something awful.

What are the danger signs?

First, they’re referring to one of the most famous stories in British history as “untold”. Robert the Bruce’s war against the English is one of the most famous incidents in British history. He’s Scotland’s biggest national hero. The only way your version of this story is “untold” is if you’re making it up instead of trying to tell the truth.

Then there’s the version of Bruce they seem to be going for – the struggling hero. Bruce was many things – successful soldier, political manipulator, a man who freed Scotland so that he could rule it. If we want to tell a real story of nationhood and liberation then we should acknowledge that it often happens for selfish ends. Accuracy means not idolising a man who murdered his rival in a church.

That more nuanced story would be more interesting as well as more accurate. We’ve seen plenty of un-nuanced stories of historical heroism. Let’s having something more sophisticated. Let’s trust readers to follow a flawed man achieving great things.

Of course, I’m prejudging. This film could turn out to be fantastic.

But it won’t.

And worst of all, because I love this period of history, I’ll still end up watching it.

Some Upcoming History Films

I love historical films. I blame my dad for that. He raised me on a diet of westerns and World War Two movies, in between the sci-fi. It’s part of why I do what I do today, including writing scripts for Commando comics and articles for War History Online.

But there’s a bit of a problem with historical film-making. A lot of the time, it covers stories people already know well. Like superhero remakes, those stories are safer box office options, as the studios know that people will be interested. It’s great that we had a movie about Dunkirk, but that’s an incident that’s already gone down in legend. What about the important stories we forget?

That’s why I’m excited about a couple of upcoming films.

First, there’s Hurricane, the story of Polish pilots flying for the RAF during the Second World War. It’s a reminder that no nation ever stands alone, and therefore important to busting some jingoistic myths. Even without that, I’d want to see the story of men who crossed a continent to keep fighting against the Nazis, who faced prejudice and confusion in a strange land, and who were part of one of history’s greatest conflicts.

The second trailer makes it look a lot better than the first one did, which is a relief. Plus it’s got Iwan Rheon, who was fantastic in Misfits and Game of Thrones.

Then there’s Peterloo, an incredibly timely piece of film-making from Mike Leigh. It’s about the Peterloo Massacre of  1819, in which peaceful protestors were attacked and killed in Manchester.

The Peterloo Massacre has incredible symbolic importance as a reminder of the power of protest and how the powerful treat dissent. It highlights the connections between social, political, and economic factors in reinforcing existing power structures. And sadly most people aren’t aware of it even in the UK. At a time of growing inequality, protest, and political turmoil, it’s a story we could all do with learning again.

Historical films have power. They keep the past alive in our imaginations and so help us understand the present. I can’t wait to see these less familiar stories on the big screen.

Infinity War: Spectacle Through Character

Like around 90% of western civilization, I recently went to see Avengers: Infinity War. And like most fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I loved the sheer spectacle of it. Creating something this huge with so many big-name stars is a staggering achievement. That the Russo brothers created something so entertaining just adds to the joy of the moment.

Thinking back on this film, and on the others that have led up to it, I realised how basic the secret to their success is. The heart fo this franchise, the thing that keeps me coming back time after time, is one of the most basic elements of storytelling.

It’s good characters.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the spectacle and the humour. I enjoy seeing a universe emerge through a web of interconnected films. The all-star casts really help. But what sucks me in is how well the characters are depicted. Each one is interesting and unique in their own right. Their relationships with each other are rich and believable. Some of them having cracking character arcs, especially Steve Rogers, whose journey of growth has been truly compelling.

Sure, I have an interest in superheroes, but as DC have proved, that’s not enough to drag me to the cinema. What Marvel is doing right, and what we can all learn from as storytellers, is a focus on the fundamentals.

I don’t go to Marvel movies for the spectacle anymore. I go for the characters. The spectacle has become the bonus feature.

Good Bye Lenin and the Nature of History

On the surface, the 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin! seems like a simple piece of absurdity. During the late days of the Cold War, East German Christiane falls into a coma, only to awake after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her son Alex, believing that the shock of the fall of communism will kill her, decides to hide the truth. He creates a fiction around her, an imaginary Germany in which communism has triumphed. To protect his mother, he reinvents history. So far, so ridiculous.

But as I watched the film, I was struck by the commentary this offers on real history. History isn’t a straightforward view of reality. It’s something we create with a purpose. Part of that purpose is to understand the past, but we usually have other motives too. Whether we’re seeking entertainment, making a political argument, or trying to keep mum from slipping back into a coma, our reasons for exploring history give it form. Most of the time, we don’t deliberately try to deceive, but our motives and interests filter what we see. If you want to be entertained, you see the action and daring of war, not the civilian casualties. If you want to prove that Britain is a standalone powerhouse, you see the British RAF and not the Eastern European pilots who were part of its squadrons in the Second World War.

Like Alex, we create a history that suits us.

Sure, some people are more blatant about this than others. The way Donald Trump constantly reinvents the recent past, starkly filtering out his own inconvenient statements, is particularly glaring.  But there’s a spectrum of behaviour here, from Alex’s deliberate deception to Trump’s narcissistic denial to more mundane bias.

I know I bang on about this a lot, but history isn’t a window into the past. It’s our relationship with it. Like Alex, we can go to extraordinary lengths to see the past we want to see. But unlike him, we’re seldom aware of the deceptions we create. And sometimes, other people’s deceptions catch up with us.

Try to remember that, next time you cite history to make a point. How far has your purpose shaped what you’re seeing? And what have you left out in the rush to see a history that suits you?

“Why We Fight” – Getting a Story’s Name Just Right

One of the hardest parts of writing a story is finding a good name. It should evoke atmosphere, draw attention, maybe even add something more to the meaning of the tale. I don’t find a title I like even half the times I write. So when a story does it really well, that’s worth looking at.

“Why We Fight”, the ninth episode of historical drama miniseries Band of Brothers, has one of the most perfectly chosen titles I’ve ever found. It evokes the tone of the episode, draws the audience into the characters’ minds, and adds nuance to the uncomfortable issues present.

Like all of Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight” follows Easy Company, an American paratroop unit taking part in the Second World WarThis episode focuses on Captain Lewis Nixon, while also showing the experiences of other characters.

It’s late in the war. The company are fighting their way across Germany. They’ve lost a lot of people and they’ve seen a lot of destruction. Most of them look battered and weary.

Nixon might be one of the weariest. He’s missed out on fighting thanks to a command liaison job, but has still seen the hellish side of war. Now he’s battling with the bottle and been booted back to a combat post. His wife writes to say that she’s leaving him. Nixon, who we first met as someone bright and charming, is falling apart. He fights with others because of the toll the war has taken on him.

Meanwhile, a new man joins the squad. He’s never seen combat. He’s eager to do his part and to see action while he still can. He wants to fight because it seems noble and heroic, while the men around him fight on because that’s their job. The innocence was long ago knocked out of them.

During the first half of the episode, this is how the question of “Why We Fight” is addressed. It’s all about individual motives and personalities.

Then comes the moment that changes everything, both for Easy Company and for the viewer. A group of soldiers stumble across a sight of such horror that they don’t have words for it. We seem them standing stunned, unable to comprehend what lies before them. A few minutes later, the truth is revealed to viewers, most of whom must already have guessed.

Easy Company have found a concentration camp.

Suddenly, the meaning of the episode is turned on its head. Now, when we ask “Why We Fight”, we’re talking about why these nations have gone to war, why the horrors of the Nazi regime had to be faced. “Aha!” thinks the viewer, myself included the first time around. “This is why they fight. To stop the Holocaust.”

But that reaction digs out a deeper, less comfortable truth.

The Holocaust was one of the defining features of the Second World War, a process of nearly unparalleled evil. Yet we’re on episode nine out of ten of Band of Brothers and it’s only just been mentioned. Why?

Because the Holocaust is not “Why We Fight”.

The Allies fought against Nazi Germany for many reasons. Out of self-interest. To protect friendly nations. To stop a relentlessly aggressive regime. But to stop the Holocaust? No.

When they entered the war, Allied leaders didn’t know how bad things were under the Nazis. They had no way of knowing how bad they would become as the war progressed. In 1942, when reports reached them through the Polish government in exile, they chose not to publicise the attrocities. They were afraid that no-one would believe them and that there would be a backlash against the extreme claims.

An argument can be made that the Allies fought to stop evil regimes. Their actions certainly had the effect of ending the Holocaust. But the death camps and the horrors they represented were not “Why We Fight”.

And so the name of this episode draws attention not just to the struggles of Easy Company, but to our own struggle with the past. The fact that the Allies ended something so evil lets us paint the Second World War in black and white. But just like the soldiers who stand stunned in the face of that concentration camp, our governments didn’t know what they were facing when they went to war. They didn’t fight to stop this. That they did so was a happy side effect, if the word “happy” can ever be used here.

This is why “Why We Fight” is the perfect name for this story. It gives us an angle from which to consider what the characters are going through. It provides a lever with which to open up our own perceptions, to face questions about the past and about how we view it.

Story titles don’t get more fitting than that.

Remembering What Something Once Stood For

I’ve been rewatching a lot of the sitcom Friends recently. It popped up on Netflix and, as a show that meant a lot to me at a key point in my life, it evokes a warm sense of nostalgia. So episode by episode I’ve been working my way through the adventures of a bunch of privileged 1990s New Yorkers.

Friends has gotten a lot of flack in recent years, and not unreasonably so. Half the humour is based on gender stereotypes. There’s some not very funny stuff about a character once being fat. Ross turns from a sympathetic nerd into a whiny tosspot whose scenes I regularly skip. There’s a lot here that hasn’t aged well.

But there are other things that were fantastic, given the context this show was made in. This was the show that put a lesbian wedding on primetime TV. It showed both men and women enjoying and talking about their sex lives without stigma. It tackled issues of infertility and divorce, not always maturely, but at least with sympathy. As someone coming of age in the 1990s, this was a huge deal. It helped set a more enlightened tone for the coming century.

I’m not holding up Friends as some kind of beacon of progress. But it had its moments, and it’s good to see them again.

Star Trek Discovery – Does the Payoff Justify the Buildup?

The new Star Trek show, Discovery, has been more than a little divisive. Some fans love it, some hate it. Its very different tone and storytelling from previous Treks either delights or appals, depending on your point of view. But one response has been near-universal – excitement at recent episodes.

These episodes have taken the show and its character in surprising and dramatic directions. Viewers who liked it are more excited than ever. Those who disliked it are being won around. It’s gone from something I was happy enough to watch to something I’m excited for every week. Story decisions that didn’t work before, like using the first two episodes as a prologue, are proving important.

Does this payoff justify the problems with the buildup? I’m not sure. I’ll certainly look at those earlier episodes in a more positive light. But seeing these recent episodes, I feel like the writers could have done better than they did from the start, while still providing the setup they wanted.

The Wire had a slow start, only becoming truly gripping halfway through the first season, and it’s now considered a groundbreaking TV classic. Will Discovery do the same thing within sf? I’m not convinced, but the payoff is still coming, and you never know

Gilmore Girls and Portraying Motivation

In my last blog post, I talked about character motivation in terms of pirates and economics. Today I want to look at it from a softer angle.

I’ve been watching a lot of Gilmore Girls, the early 2000s TV drama of fast dialogue, family angst, and failed romance. It’s cute and relaxing. It’s also very good at portraying the irrationality of human motives.

Pretty much every episode, a character will have several issues going on in their life. One thing will get them frustrated. They’ll carry this frustration into the next scene. They won’t deal with the issue there as well as they could have done because their emotions are already in knots.

It’s fantastic storytelling, because it makes sense on a human level and because it’s clear to the audience even though it isn’t explained. Anyone can join the dots from one incident to the next. It means that smart characters can act stupid, ensuring that conflict happens, without undermining the audience’s affection for these characters.

It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you like smartly written characters, or you want to study what drives human drama, I can’t recommend this one enough.