All’s Fair in Love and Fanfic: On Monomyth, Storytelling, and Neuobiology

“The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand…ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make  us modest. But nothing can do that.”
— Mark Twain to Helen Keller, 1903 (read the rest here)

Once upon a time, a human told the very first story, or drew the very first cave painting, and their work was completely original. And then the rest of human history happened.

In her book The First Word, journalist and linguist Christine Keanally argues that abstract communication– that is, the ability to convey concepts to others based not just on shared words but on shared stories and symbolic thinking– is one of the core pieces of what makes humans and human intelligence unique. From this standpoint, adopting and adapting existing narratives is human nature, as deeply ingrained into our brains by evolution as our urge to groom or our interest in shiny objects. If this is true, asking us to collectively stop writing fanfic is as ridiculous as asking us to stop scratching itches or touching our faces when we’re nervous.

Even if we don’t buy the neurobiology argument, we are still left with the story of human stories, traced by our constantly diverging and evolving and reconverging collective mythology. In his Masks of God series, Joseph Campbell makes a compelling case for human mythology, in all its diversity, evolving from a single source, as people adapted the core story motifs to their culture and environment. In this model, no story can be truly original, but rather stylistic variation on key underlying themes that occur across times and cultures. 

Furthermore, storytelling is a participatory act, a transaction between the storyteller and the audience. While the storyteller has an intent, the audience can’t read their mind, and will inevitably bring their own perceptions and experiences to bear as they interpret the tale. Retellings are by necessity flavored by the reteller– their interpretation, their favorite parts, their personal biases and agendas, their personal symbolic touchstones.

I’d argue that fanfiction is not merely acceptable but an inevitable part of the storytelling process. From one angle, they are retelling favorite stories with their own spin, the way humans have done for millennia. From another, they are creating new stories off the back of the original, using it as a catalyst for fresh creative endeavors, much like ancient storytellers recycled the well-known gods and heroes of their time into new adventures. Indeed, many celebrated works of fiction– theater, film, poetry, novels– are retellings or ‘fanfiction’-style riffs on existing works or well-known stories. There are plenty of published authors and playwrights and filmmakers and other storytellers who started off writing or reading fanfiction and using it as a place to build their storytelling skills.

To authors who complain loudly about fanfic writers, I’d like to make a suggestion: if you don’t want people interacting with your work, don’t publish it. Because once it’s out there, it’s no longer just your vision. It exists in the context of history, of current events, of other pop culture, in the unique experiences of the individuals taking in your story (For example: I was an adult by the time I learned that I’m not the only one who saw Hermione Granger’s gravity-defying hair as telegraphing an African Diaspora identity. We of Team Textured Hair superimposed our experiences onto that description and assumed ‘black girl’ or ‘mixed girl’ when we imagined the character. Which is pretty cool.). To put your story out there is to invite your audience to interact with it, and fanfiction merely proves that you have entered the great hivemind of social storytelling. Take it as a compliment.

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