I recently watched Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and it prompted me to consider a few things about the way fiction works, including what we call ‘fan fiction’ — i.e. that type of fictional text written by fans of any work of fiction where the author uses copyrighted characters, settings, or other intellectual properties from an original creator as a basis for their own writing. This can range from a couple of sentences to an entire novel or movie screenplay, and can interweave others’ creations with original characters, plots and settings.
Fiction, that form of writing which describes imaginary events and people, has its own set of laws which run parallel to our own world’s basic tenets. I describe some of the fundamentals in my book How Stories Really Work, but the subject is a vast one.
Ursula Le Guin said somewhere that as soon as a writer puts pen to paper (or these days, finger to keyboard) he or she begins creating a world which immediately establishes its own rules — the author is then bound by those rules and must follow them through in order to retain any kind of inner credibility, or what Tolkien called an ‘inner consistency of reality’. You can of course experiment: start writing a Regency romance, stick to the protocols demanded by such a story, and then introduce a spaceship or ghosts, for example. But, if you want to keep the reader on board, you’d better then build a world in which Regency romance protocols and spaceships or ghosts can co-exist believably. Often, the result is comedy — comedy being based on the juxtaposition of the unexpected. More often, the result is failure: the author didn’t succeed in convincing the reader that the created universe could hold together whatever it was he or she had juxtaposed.
But regardless of the kind or genre or length or style of a tale, its world comes together in much the same kind of way as a planet forms in empty space (as far as we know): particles and pieces collide and gather to form a core, which then exerts a gravitational pull on other pieces, and so on. Gradually or rapidly, a story takes shape. If it uses other fundamentals (described in my book) it will triumph in capturing reader attention and emotional commitment and become a successful piece of fiction.
Then something interesting can happen. It doesn’t always happen, but in the sphere of fan fiction into which we are looking, it happens a lot: a piece attracts so much attention and emotional commitment that these prompt something else to occur — contribution. The audience or readership feels inspired by the original piece to create something of its own, to try to add to the original. To stretch our analogy, we could say that the planet’s gravitational field extends to the point where it draws in satellites. Mini-versions of the original crop up with many similarities and a few differences. These things go into orbit around the original creation and are occasionally absorbed into them.
Lines between the original and the fan-created works can blur. One example is what happened with Doctor Who and the Big Finish Studios in the 1990s: Doctor Who was off the television screens for 15 years, and during that time, admirers of the show wrote various adventures which were then recorded as audio shows by Big Finish, which had obtained permission from the BBC to use the characters and devices and so forth from the original series. Then things got even more complicated: the BBC relaunched the series on television and the Big Finish work was relegated to ‘fan fiction’ or ‘non-canonical stories’ — until recently, when, through the mention of some Big Finish characters in the TV show, the ‘satellite’ work of the audio studio became absorbed into the ‘canonical’ original fiction.
But this isn’t just a side issue about what happens between original creations and those put together by fans — what it all reveals is something fascinating and fundamental about the way fiction itself works.
It seems, from close observation, that a created work has a kind of ‘critical mass’, beyond which something fascinating sometimes occurs.
Take, for example, the Star Wars films. The first released film, simply called Star Wars at the time but later revised as part of this process to be known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, came up with a fresh take on some universally accepted archetypes: the young orphan protagonist, the old man with the stick, the rescued princess, the street-wise older warrior figure and so on, all engaged in a long-term battle with an evil Empire. Due partly to its production values and partly to the zeitgeist of the time, it captured the imagination and produced what’s commonly accepted as an even better sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. The second film took the exciting imaginative ideas of the first — the Force, light sabers, sinister hooded figures and characters with Oedipean inner conflicts — and went deeper into them, producing a true classic.
But it’s what happened next that I wanted to draw your attention to in particular: by the time the second film had done its rounds of cinemas, Star Wars had become a cultural phenomena; there was a huge amount of hype surrounding it and its characters, merchandising had boomed, audiences around the world were craving more — and so the ‘critical mass’ phenomenon kicked in.
The result was that the third film, Return of the Jedi, was slightly different to the other two: it was subtly more ‘audience aware’. When the film opens, there is a faint sense in which the characters have become caricaturised — slightly, just slightly, simplified versions of themselves. In other words, the film was consciously ‘playing up’ to an existing audience. You can see this most clearly, perhaps, in the introduction of the Ewoks: clearly they were intended for the younger children in the filmgoing audience. It’s hard to imagine them appearing in the earlier two films — their slightly non-serious portrayal would have jarred with the heavier and darker themes, in particular, of Empire.
There was a big gap between Return of the Jedi and George Lucas’s controversial prequels. But the same principle is at work on a grander scale: with The Phantom Menace, you can see Lucas (even though he is the original creator of the whole Star Wars phenomenon) writing towards a child audience, playing up to their expectations, partly to try to keep to a set of already ground-in expectations, but partly also with an eye to merchandise sales. Phantom Menace is at least to a degree a work of fan fiction.
Unfortunately, the trend then continues on an even grander scale with the more recent film trilogy. Years have gone by, generations have grown up soaked in the Star Wars mythos, and now along comes Disney with a bottomless budget to create what turns out to be — or is intended to be — a fan-pleasing extravaganza, designed to ‘tick all the boxes’ of its vast awaiting audience: a fresh new heroine, familiar spacecraft, cameos from beloved characters, with tribute paid to the themes which made the earlier films great — spiritual family conflict, mysterious powers and good versus evil.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who would conclude that just about everything from about halfway through Return of the Jedi to the final scene of The Rise of Skywalker comes across as ‘fan fiction’: stories largely composed by fans of the original, designed to appeal to a pre-existing audience, cultivated to make sure that they ticked boxes, and shaped so as to ensure that they sufficiently reminded everyone watching of the greatnesses of the first two films. Of course you can like them still — you can love them, adore them. Fiction appreciation is a free world. But for myself, all that seems likeable about them is likeable because it resonates with the real power of the first two movies. It’s like listening to a piece of music which affects you emotionally in the first few minutes and then draws the rest of its power from reminding you of those first few bars.
This doesn’t just happen with Star Wars: it tends to happen with any ‘franchise’ fiction, any work of ongoing stories which builds a world over time. Sometimes it happens quickly, sometimes more slowly.
Doctor Who is another example: way back in 1963, the programme hit TV screens full of originality. Nothing like it had ever been seen before: an elderly, somewhat villainous lead character, a time/space vehicle which defied the laws of physics, a mysterious background which wasn’t touched by the writers for years, and the scope to have adventures anywhere and anywhen. But as early as its second story, ‘The Daleks’, it established such an audience fever around itself that from then on there was an element of ‘self-referencing’ about it: future stories consciously played on the popularity of the Daleks, and even the role of the lead character was swiftly modelled around their evil so that he became no longer sinister himself but a true hero, opposing them.
There’s much to explore here. What seems to happen is that a fictional world, created in isolation from any audience, grows in strength and appeal until audience expectations are somehow incorporated into its development and it begins to be written by and for a 'fan' element. From that point onwards, the fiction is no longer the same kind of thing: it changes in nature from being solely projected by an author into a kind of group projection. Audience expectations contribute something to the whole; the action ‘on stage’ plays to its audience consciously.
More on this in the future.