Many years ago, I was a writer-producer on Steven Spielberg’s science fiction TV series SeaQuest, which featured Roy Scheider and a crew that included a talking dolphin patrolling the oceans of the future in an unbelievably phallic submarine. I joined the show in its third and, as it turned out, final season.
Because I was new to SeaQuest, I didn’t know anything about the show’s small, but very passionate, fan following. I soon found out. I was assailed by fans for writing scripts without consulting “the fanfic” first. Fanfic is short for fan fiction — unauthorized stories, books, scripts and comics written by fans using TV characters they didn’t create and don’t own.
The fans were upset that the lives of the characters depicted in my scripts deviated from the histories and relationships “firmly established in the fanfic.” They actually had the gall to chastize me, a writer/producer on the show, for daring to make creative decisions and tell stories without clearing everything with them first. Their argument was that I was writing for money, they were writing out of love, so their “fanfic” should be considered “the true history” of the characters.
I thought, at the time, that this kind of insanity was a phenomenon unique to science fiction shows. I ended up writing a comic novel about my SeaQuest experience called “Beyond the Beyond” and, afterward, figured I’d never encounter that kind of fanaticsm again unless I worked on another scifi show.
I was wrong.
Weekly, episodic, television series… actually, television characters… have the amazing power to inspire passionate devotion from an audience in a way that novels… and literary characters…do not. And all it takes is just one or two episodes.
I’m not exaggerating.
A few seasons back there was a science fiction show called Mercy Point, sort of an E.R.-in-space, that was cancelled after three episodes. Within weeks, devoted fans of Mercy Point spent thousands of dollars on a full-page advertisement in Daily Variety, the industry trade magazine, pleading for the show’s immediate return to the airwaves. Fans of Prey, an X-Files-esque series that lasted half-a-season over five years ago, are still clamoring for its return to this day.
Again, I’ve cited two scifi show as examples, but I was surprised to discover that all TV shows, whether they are dramas or sitcoms, have passionate fan followings. I’ve encountered it on every series I’ve worked on since…even Diagnosis Murder.
Yes, that’s right, a show most people think of as strictly for the elderly had, and still has, an avid following. Try running a Google search on Diagnosis Murder some time…. you will be astounded by the number of websites around the world devoted to the show and to “fanfic” about the characters. In fact, you can Google just about any TV series and find the same thing.
That kind of fan devotion is both a blessing and a curse. The fans can keep a show alive… especially if it’s “on the bubble” ratings-wise…and be enormously supportive and inspiring to the writers, cast and crew. But with any show, there’s always a loud minority of fans who, at some point, begin to feel as if the show and the characters belong to them… that writer/producers are obligated to seek their approval or input before making any creative decisions. And yet, as strange as it may seem, this minority of fiercely devoted fans don’t actually want writer/producers participating in “fandom” — because it undermines the authority of the self-proclaimed leaders of the fan community.
This kind of fanaticism, this sense of audience ownership of the characters, doesn’t seem to happen with authors and their literary series characters… at least not with the intensity that it does with TV characters. With one exception… if you’re writing books based on a TV show.
I was the executive producer of Diagnosis Murder, and now I’m writing original novels based on the show, which starred Dick Van Dyke as a doctor who solves crimes with the help of his homicide detective son, played by his real-life son Barry Van Dyke. The vast majority of Diagnosis Murder fans are wonderful, kind, intelligent people. I love meeting them and hearing what they have to say, good and bad, about the books and the characters. It’s important to me that they are happy with what I’m writing.
But there is a tiny, very aggressive, group of fans who openly resent the control I have over “their characters” and see me as a threat to their personal vision of the series. Often, these fans are also fiercely devoted to an individual character, or rather to the particular actor who played the character, confusing the two and thinking of them as one. Then again, so have many actors I’ve worked with.
“I’ve never been to Cleveland,” an actor once told me, arguing against a line of dialogue he was supposed to say.
“Yes,” I said, “but your character has.”
The actor looked at me, confused. “How could he if I’ve never been there?”
But I digress…
I think what makes TV characters so powerful, and the reason some people latch on to them so strongly, is that they come right into your living room, almost as flesh and blood. Characters in books exist purely in your mind, they are imaginary and you know it. No matter how brilliant the author is, it’s impossible for any two fans to have a shared vision of exactly what the character looks and sounds like, how he or she smiles. But once an actor assumes the part, it makes the character all too real for some people. And on those rare occasions when TV characters are recreated in books, for a minority of fervent fans it’s as if the novelist is writing about real people instead of fictional characters.
Which might explain the handful of bizarre and angry emails I’ve received, amidst many more kind and enthusiastic notes, since Diagnosis Murder: The Silent Partner was published in September…
“Have you shown Barry Van Dyke his scenes in the book so he can fix them? Does he know what you have him saying?”
“Sorry, Lee, but here’s one person who will not be reading your book. In my mind and my fanfics, Steve is happily married with children.”
“You shouldn’t be writing books about DM. The success of DM had nothing to do with you. It had EVERYTHING to do with the WONDERFUL actors.”
“There aren’t any hurt/comfort scenes between Mark and Steve in this book and that’s a big mistake. There should be at least one hurt/comfort scene in each book. One with Steve/Jesse would be good, too.”
“They should be publishing the fanfic instead of your books but you won’t let them because you are so selfish and egotistical and all you want to do is make money and see your name. Who made you the boss of DM? It belongs to the fans, NOT you!!”
“You ABANDONED the show in 1999 to do another show so who do you think you are writing books about DM now? You should be FORBIDDEN from doing it.”
“Once again you are forcing your view of DM on the fans and asking them to accept it. I refuse and I won’t read your books!”
“I love coming up with new ways to hurt Steve and I just love to read one of my ideas come to life. I don’t care for stories that have Steve hurting because someone close to him is hurt. But I will support those that do. I’m strictly a Steve hurt/comfort fan.”
“You don’t care about DM. We write for a hobby, not for $$$$. Our stories are pure. You just want to buy a big house.”
“Jesse shouldn’t be dating Susan. We told you we don’t like her and yet you refuse to listen. You should read my story XYZ at FanficHQ — that’s who he really loves. You can use her if you want.”
Can you imagine Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Nevada Barr, James Patterson, Janet Evanovich or anybody else with a mystery book series getting mail like this (not that I’m putting myself in their league, of course)?
No one questions a novelist’s ownership of his or her characters, to do with them as he or she pleases. Yes, we might wish that Spenser finally got rid of Susan, but we’d never presume to demand that Robert Parker do it, or take issue with him personally over what he was doing with “our” characters. Not that readers don’t have influence over the choices an author makes (take Sherlock Holmes’ premature death and forced resurrection, for example). But fans of books, even the most passionate, seem to recognize the line between reality and fiction, between their loyalty to the books and the author’s creative right to do as he or she pleases with the characters.
Not so with TV. And, it seems, not so with books based on TV shows.
Tod Goldberg’s Column on Fanfic