So Robin the Boy Wonder and Professor Minerva McGonagall walk into a bar ...
Hey, it could happen. Not in any official capacity from DC Comics or J.K. Rowling. But in the imagination and online fan-fiction posts of 43-year-old mother of two Erica Frank, of Oakland, these characters move beyond their original constraints and, well, do whatever the heck she wants them to do.
"In this crossover, Lucius Malfoy has escaped after the war and is heading to America, and McGonagall has come to warn Batman and Robin," Frank said. "There is no way these characters would meet in anything authorized, but you can do it in fanfic."
Indeed fan fiction, or fanfic, is the fantasy football of the literary world. It's produced by people who so thoroughly enjoy the characters and universes of their favorite media genres that they want more. Much more.
So they make their own picks, move the players around in "what if" scenarios, plop them in different settings and expand on storylines where anything goes: Harry Potter might have married Hermione instead of Ginny. Captain Kirk might have secretly yearned to be a pharmacist. What was Doctor Who like as a child? Maybe Dorothy's ruby slippers backfired and sent her no place near home.
Fan fiction writing has been around for ages -- generally starting in the 1920s with Sherlock Holmes and Jane Austen clubs, expanding to fan "zines" in the '60s with TV shows such as "Star Trek," then exploding in the '90s on the Internet with hundreds of virtual communities to follow.
But many outside the community only heard the term for the first time this past summer with the mainstream emergence of the E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" series, which was modified from James' fan fiction writings about the characters from "Twilight." She originally posted on the website www.FanFiction.net.
Exploring music, TV
And though "Shades" was a stunning commercial success, that was just one maneuver in a very large playing field. The online communities -- fandoms -- are vast and develop their own guidelines, techniques and even vocabularies. People write about, talk about, have mini conventions about, make videos about and even edit each other's stories about everything from favorite novels, TV shows and comic books to Japanese anime and mangas, poems, video games or popular songs.
In one small fandom, a few people even expanded on the '80s Rick Springfield hit "Jessie's Girl" -- who was Jessie, and how did he meet this girl?
"It's really big, it's really diverse, and if you've only seen one little slice of it, you haven't seen anything," said Frank, who reads more fanfic than she writes. She admits that she doesn't even understand the rules of the fanfic sites used by her two teen daughters, ages 14 and 17. "They write fanfic about Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokemon -- not the cartoon, but the video games -- and it's done in styles of stories that only exist on the sites they use. So I have no idea what's going on there."
By far, the majority of fanfic writers are women, according to archival sites. Writers are famously anonymous, usually using online pseudonyms. (E.L. James once wrote under the name Snowqueens Icedragon.) There's admittedly a nerd factor going on. There's a lot of erotica out there. And levels of quality vary widely.
Even so, most writers support each other, says Betsy Rosenblatt of the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit run by and for fans to provide access to and preserve the history of fanworks and fan cultures. The organization maintains a wiki called Fanlore, an archive of fandom history and terminology, and hosts www.ArchiveOfOurOwn.org with more than 430,000 works from roughly 65,000 writers.
"Fandom is deeply community-based," Rosenblatt said. "A lot of people thought they invented fan fiction in their bedrooms when they were 11, then they got on the Internet and discovered all this stuff was going on."
People often don't know each other's real names in many fan communities, she said, "but when someone gets sick, people send money for medical expenses. Very dedicated bonds of friendship form in this virtual world."
And sometimes they spill over into real life. Frank will be attending a "slash fans" tea party this weekend in Hayward. "Slash" is where writers take traditionally straight characters and put them in gay relationships. The term originated with Kirk/Spock. (Kirk "slash" Spock).
"It can be a really supportive group. A good chunk of my friends I've met through fanfic," said Andrea Horbinski, 27, a grad student at UC Berkeley, whose most recent writings played off the Robert Downey Jr. version of Sherlock Holmes -- she loved the Irene Adler character and expanded her storyline "to make her awesome," she said.
"There can also be fandom fights," Horbinski added. "People get very invested in some characters being with other characters or not, and there are disagreements."
Overall, the whole thing's mostly for fun -- a fact that preserves the practice under the "fair use" provision in copyright law.
Rosenblatt, a professor at Whittier Law School in Southern California (and a long time Sherlockian), leads the Organization for Transformative Works' legal team, providing support for writers and educating the public.
"A surprising number of people think it's copyright infringement to use characters from someone else's work," she said. "But the law is pretty clear. Fan fiction is a transformative work that fits confidently under fair use.
Not all on board
"There are some publishers and authors who don't take the same view, who don't want someone playing in their sandbox," she said. Indeed, author Anne Rice has made it clear that she will not tolerate fan fiction of her work.
"But that's a minority view," Rosenblatt said. "I think most authors are flattered and pleased."
Even so, many fanfic writers include disclaimers saying they are only adding their own twist to the work and are not getting paid. Then again, some do hope to be published, but they likely would rework their stories should that occur. Even James revamped her fanfiction of "Twilight" so much you'd never know vampires had once been involved.
Still, one might ask, why? With such prolific imagination and creativity out there, why not come up with one's own original characters and stories?
"For one thing, the world, the universe of the particular tale, is already established -- as is the audience," said Dan Melia, an associate professor of rhetoric at UC Berkeley, with a focus in folklore. "The parameters are already set up. Especially in magical worlds, you don't have to come up with huge backstories. Everyone already knows that this spell will turn people into an umbrella, so you already have those kinds of things to work with."
Also, he said, telling stories comes naturally. "People have the narrative impulse," he said. "It used to be in the oral tradition. But the impulse is still here and has really been democratized on the Internet."