How postmortem series finales affect the debate about who owns characters

How postmortem series finales affect the debate about who owns characters

In the final books of The Wheel Of Time series, a few of the characters seemed to behave a bit differently than they had in the previous entries. Some fans responded that they were happy to see emotional complexity added and flowery descriptions give way to salient plot. Others felt that the books were cruder and found the strange behavior in characters they’d been following for decades too jarring.

The reason for the difference was an author change: Robert Jordan died in 2007, and his wife turned his notes over to Brandon Sanderson, another fantasy author and a self-proclaimed fan of Jordan’s work. While Sanderson had a lot of information about Jordan’s intent to work from, he was still using the existing elements and characters in the original author’s fantasy world to write a new work, producing what was essentially an officially endorsed, New York Times-bestselling work of fan-fiction.

Brian Herbert, son of Dune author Frank Herbert, also made his way to The New York Times bestseller list working from notes for sequels for his father’s beloved series, but he has long since gone beyond those materials to dream up a host of novels and short stories set in the same world. It’s telling that one of the most common complaints leveraged against him in comment sections and fan forums is that his work is “poorly written fan-fiction.”

Both Sanderson and Herbert are well within their legal rights to write, publish, and make money on stories based on original worlds they did not create—a situation that makes them very different from most fan-fiction, most of which has to be couched in disclaimers and relegated to corners of the Internet, rather than the front of bookstores. But these works from Sanderson and Herbert, along with other authors in similar situations, are complicating the question of who owns a character or a setting once a work is published.

That question got even more complicated with the creation of Kindle Worlds, a forum where fan-fiction writers can submit works using characters from a few licensed properties such as The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, and Pretty Little Liars, and make money when their stories are downloaded. Amazon also reserved the right to use any plots or characters these authors might come up with for future television episodes, movies, or games. The world of fiction has become a lot more collaborative, and the boundary between canonical and fan ideas has gotten a lot fuzzier. As more properties are added to this experiment—even if Amazon is keeping the hardcore pornography out—there will inevitably be stories using characters in ways that the original creators never dreamed.

That will create a glut of new content for fans to sift through and decide whether it’s worthwhile, but that’s always been true to some extent for genre classics. Star Wars and Star Trek spawned huge collections of novels and comics of varying quality, providing supplemental entertainment to those who wanted more from their favorite shows and movies. Because they’re in a different medium and don’t share the same writers as the original works, it’s easier to treat them separately from series canon than, say, the Star Wars prequels, as much as fans might wish those were just awful fan videos.

Genre fans have gradually been adapting to hearing the same story told in different voices. Kindle Worlds has the potential to make its properties something akin to public domain, allowing many reinterpretations from many people with differing agendas. The results are bound to be as different as the BBC’s Sherlock television series, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and stories. All three offer tales about London’s “consulting detective,” and it’s up to fans to decide which they consider worthy or legitimate, just as they decide whether to finish reading the newer Wheel Of Time books, or to read any Dune books that follow Chapterhouse: Dune.

There’s plenty of awful fan-fiction already on the Internet, and a lot of it’s sure to receive even more attention if it’s available on Amazon. But Kindle Worlds still seems to be as an overall win for writers and readers. Fans are not only being given more choices, but writer-fans are given the chance to win acknowledgement for their fan-fiction. Both Sanderson and Herbert had published works before they helped publish these posthumous novels, but it was those works that catapulted them to fame. Stella Gemmell finished the Troy series after her husband, David Gemmell, died and has gone on to pen her own fantasy work, The City, using many of the same themes. 

But death is no longer the only way a fan-fiction author can earn credit for his or her ideas. When the original author is still alive, the question is how they’ll react to having their characters taken over by others. J.K. Rowling and Larry Niven are fine with it, so long as the sex is kept out. Alternately, literary phenomenon Fifty Shades Of Grey started as an erotic re-imagining of Twilight, which Stephenie Meyer did not legally protest (though Grey author E.L. James essentially stripped the Internet of previous iterations of the fan-fic to avoid copyright conflict). 

On the other hand, there have always been authors that aggressively opposed fan-fiction. There is next to no chance that any Interview With A Vampire- or A Game Of Thrones-based fiction will be joining Kindle Worlds because Anne Rice and George R.R. Martin feel very strongly that their characters belong to them alone. But even Martin told the creators of the HBO’s Game Of Thrones the biggest plot points of the end of his series, just in case he should die before completing the novels—a concern for a lot of Jordan’s fans after his death. Should that happen, maybe HBO can get Sanderson to write an episode. I’m sure he’s got some great ideas.

Filed Under: Books

More For Our Consideration