OPINION: We Need to Stop Calling Everything Derivative
Updated: Oct 21
As consistently as the moon cycles through its phases, the online book community loves to make and rehash the argument of whether fanfiction is a valid literary medium. Personally, I believe that all art in any form is important and that fanfiction serves a crucial role in how audiences interact with and interpret a given piece of work. But that's not the dog I have in this fight.
Every time the argument crops back up, I see people trying to defend fanfiction on the basis that "Oh x published work is just fanfiction of y published work, it's all just fanfiction!" This take gets under my skin because I believe it inherently misunderstands the evolution of art, the role of fanfiction, and the nature of copyright to a harmful degree. So, for today's Deep Dive, I want to explain why fanfiction is excellent, but we need to be mindful of what we apply that label to.
First, let's talk about derivative works and their relationship to art. We can debate all day on what art itself is, but I like to think that art is the representation of an idea. Like all ideas, art functions a bit like a living thing, a parasite that seeks a host, mutating and twists to fit the current trends. Every artist has put an idea to page, screen, or cave wall has been inspired or informed by the reinterpreted fettered remains of something they once saw, read, heard, or felt. But, some art is more directly derivative than others, being directly based on or set in the worlds created by someone else.
We have a few different words for describing different degrees of separation between an original creator and a derived piece, where each progressive term speaks to more creative distance than the previous: fanfiction, expanded universes, parody, retelling, allusion. It's nitpicky and pedantic, but these are not interchangeable terms as they each communicate a different relationship between content.
Fanfiction is the most closely related form of derivative work. Fanfiction, by definition, is when a creator writes a piece that is set fully within the setting, characters, and plot of another creator. This style cleverly takes advantage of pre-existing characterizations and canon to cut straight to the fluff, angst, and hurt/comfort scenes because it assumes the audience is already familiar with the original piece that did the work of introductions and building the dynamics fanfiction writers toy with. Because of this, fanfiction most commonly reads like a sequel, prequel, or set of deleted scenes because the work largely cannot stand alone without the original. For this reason, fanfiction is the most closely tied form of derivative work and why it is frequently at the centre of copyright battles that prevent fanfiction writers from selling or profiting from their work.
Simply put, I would argue that if a work can stand alone or be sold, it is inherently not fanfiction by all standard definitions.
Next are Expanded Universes. Largely, Expanded Universe works are set in the world conceived by the original creator but deal with original plots and original characters. This term is most commonly used when derivative works by a creator other than the original are accepted into the canon, such as in fanzines or companion novels, comics, or audiobooks. We see these most commonly in sprawling stories with lots of worlds and side characters such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, or Marvel.
Parody and Retelling both offer challenges of an original work. Parody sees another creator's work broken down for the point of critiquing it or offering satire. A popular example of this are some of the Musicals created by Team Starkid, such as A Very Potter Musical, Ani, and Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier. Each of these shows takes a famous story (respectively Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Aladdin) and spoofs them to point out plot holes or ridiculous elements of the original.
Retellings take another creator's work and ask "What If?" changing one element to get a new story as a result. Popular examples include the musicals Wicked, which asks, "what if the Wicked Witch of the West from Wizard of Oz was justified in her actions?" and And Juliet, which asks, "What if Juliet didn't die at the end of Romeo and Juliet?" Both parody and retellings are derivative of existing work but offer greater creative distance than fanfiction or expanded universes because they alter or challenge the original story.
Literary Allusion is a form of semi-derivative work that has the greatest creative distance between creators. It refers most commonly to a description or naming convention that pays homage to another work that largely inspired but did not directly inform the piece. You can consider it a love-letter or a tipping of the hat. A famous example of this is the French series Arsene Lupin by Maurice Leblanc. The title character is a criminal mastermind who, in several issues, goes head-to-head with detective Herlock Sholmes. Undoubtedly a reference to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Maurice Leblanc's character is still only a reference to, not a copy or reproduction of the original. Herlock Sholmes does not fit into Doyle's canon, nor is he meant to.
The trouble for me comes when either creators claim original content is derivative to piggyback off of another artist's success or when audiences claim one work is a copy of another without the consent of either creator.
As a prime example of the phenomenon we're discussing, let's look at the case study of The Lion King and Hamlet. Everyone from High School English teachers to click-bait articles love to claim that Disney's animated classic The Lion King is a modern, child-friendly retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet. This is my hill to die on, to insist that these could not possibly be more distinct as separate and original works. Let's look at why:
First, the creators of The Lion King billet it as Disney's first animated feature film to tell an original story rather than being based on a pre-existing work. While the filmmakers have noted that they drew inspiration from the Bible and biblical figures such as Joseph and Moses, as well as from Shakespeare's works and themes, at no point was The Lion King intended to be a retelling, remake, or fanfiction of Hamlet. (Or of Kubo the White Lion for that matter).
This claim, in my opinion, fully holds up when you compare the works side-by-side. The characters do not neatly line up, and the plot beats do not match. I welcome argument on this point, but I would claim that there are three key themes that really make Hamlet the work it is:
1) The work is a tragedy, meaning that the karmatic balance of the universe has been disturbed, and the characters will perish trying to set it right. It also means that the characters each have a hamartia, or fatal flaw, that prevents their success. In the case of Hamlet, he is trying to avenge the death of his father, but his perfectionism and hesitation impair his ability to do so.
2) The play largely upholds Oscar Wilde's assertion that "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." In feigning madness, Hamlet speaks truer than any other character in the play (with an arguable exception in his interactions with Ophelia, depending on whether you believe that he loved her)
3) The play explores life, death, and the afterlife, rejecting the common comfort that there is sweet relief in death and that it is the living that suffer the loss. Instead, we see death presumed to be an existence more painful and wretched than life, hence why it is used as a vengeful punishment.
The Lion King does not address any of these three points. It is not a retelling. It is not derivative.
So why does this matter?
I posit that there is real harm done to the creators of both works and the audience when we make these claims.
First and foremost, I believe it stems from a false understanding of the process of art. No art has ever been created in a vacuum. Our own ideas, techniques, and understandings of the world are inherently informed and inspired by the things we have seen and experienced, whether that is other art or our daily interactions and sensations. If we follow John Locke's theory of Tabula Rasa, then we could suggest that our entire identities and systems of function and belief as humans are built on these influences. As such, any artist who claims their work is entirely original is lying to you. Like all art, their work has been inspired and informed by all the things that have experienced, including other people's creations. This does not, however, mean that they should be rejected as unoriginal. Just because a story may be built on the foundations of existing lore or ideas does not mean they haven't been ordered or combined in unique ways or original ways. To accuse artists of plagiarizing or copying work that has come before because they share basic tropes, themes, or characters is disingenuous to both the creators and the evolution of art itself.
Secondly, I believe it is harmful to audiences because it misrepresents the themes and content of various works. As with our example of The Lion King and Hamlet, I believe it is a disservice to fans to suggest that you will understand the other if you have seen one. As we showed above, they are distinct. They don't share plots, settings, characters, or themes. All they share is the base concept of a King being killed by his brother and the son needing to avenge it. That's all. Especially when we are dealing with older or more obscure works, it does no favours to the audience to suggest that they are linked, or that understanding one provides insight into the other.
We know that fanfiction and headcanons can dramatically impact people's interpretations and recollections of the original work. A prime example of this is in the Harry Potter fandom and the idea that "Hufflepuffs are particularly good finders." This characterization originated in the Starkid Parody, A Very Potter Musical, but became so widespread that fans who had never seen the parody started to believe that this fact was canon to the text. It's one thing when headcanons are based on fans' interpretations of textual evidence. It is another when textual interpretation is altered by a piece that was not originally created to be derivative and is unconnected to the original work. I would argue that the latter can often be actively harmful.
Finally, as with all opinion pieces, this argument is based on my own fears. As someone who makes art, I am terrified that someone could take my work and create something that they claim is derivative or is fanfiction and link their name to mine, when in reality, they have created something I would never endorse or support. We have seen it happen before where new or debut creators publically claim their work is a retelling of or fanfiction of the work of a more popular creator when the supposedly derivative piece discredits or stands in opposition to the original. We have also seen this phenomenon when fans make links between two pieces on an arbitrary basis, such as "they both have vampires" when the pieces are antithetical to each other. It is frightening to me that the claim of fanfiction could be used to tie my name and legacy to something I would never be in favour of.
So, at the end of the day, I love fanfiction. I love reading it, and I'm really proud of all the fans who want to interact with a piece to the point of creating their own versions and interpretations of it. But, I believe we need to be careful with our language. We need to know when to stop calling our work fanfiction and recognize that it has tipped over into being original content. We also need to stop applying the fanfiction label to two works that have never consented to be tied together.