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

17 thoughts on “Fanfic”

  1. Do you have Cervantes’ address? I’m pretty ticked off that the Don is doing things not in line with the fanfic…
    Seriously, thanks for the insight. I wonder if this is more common with TV since it is by definition a visual medium. Although I’ve heard, but mercifully not seen, there is a ton of fanfic related to Harry Potter…

  2. I have live most of my life around (not in) Hollywood. Grew up in Burbank and now live in weird Laguna Beach. But I have never know about all the weird people that are out there in TV land. And they call us crazy.
    Anyway I enjoy your thoughts and I hope you continue to enlighten us. Your stories help remind us that fact is stranger than fiction.
    PS. When inputing these comments the frame (the white background area) scrolls to the left and you can’t see the left portion of the comments panel.
    Keep up the good work.

  3. My sympathies. I’ve met fanatics myself, and the first thing that
    comes to mind when I do is, do they have medication for this?
    Now true, they are hopeless fools. But fanatics of any kind are
    Whether religious or over a bit of ephemeral entertainment. I hope you’re
    taking precautions, and keeping your eye out for escape routes when confronted
    by a ‘true believer’.
    The best thing to say about this is that most will grow out of it. The rest
    will end up recluses in some dingy studio apartment somewhere, reliving their
    glory days etc.
    In any case (he wrote in order to end this rambling bit of blather), I hope
    the books are going well, and the other projects are proceeding as they should.
    BTW, welcome to the blogosphere. Roger L. Simon showed me how to get here,
    so you can put the blame on him

  4. “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…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.”
    One corrollary to this: this phenomenon extends past even “real” actors and into animated ones. I remember reading an article in Slate or Salon a while back about the decline of The Simpsons, and how many of the writers got the same angry, infuriated, bizarre letters and e-mails like the ones you’ve received about the D:M novels. “Lisa would NEVER do x,y,z! How dare you compromise her integrity!”, etc. etc. These crazy fans were convinced they had a deeper understanding and cared more about the characters than the actual writers did. They were just as fanatical about pen & ink drawings as flesh & blood actors.
    I totally agree with your thesis, though, that TV characters feel far more “real” than literary ones. Me, I’m a fanatic for Buffy, Angel, Firefly, The Simpsons, South Park — your typical Aint-It-Cool-News type stuff. Those characters, and others like on Twin Peaks, X-Files, M*A*S*H, and Star Trek: TNG, at various times loomed much larger in my imagination than, say, Macbeth (a play which I loved) or the detectives in James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet novels (which I also love).
    As much as I love literature, for sheer immediacy, it can’t match a well-made movie or TV show.
    Bryan Castañeda
    West Covina, CA
    P.S. As a TV geek, I very much look forward to reading your blog regularly for some behind-the-scenes insight into the TV world. Maybe I can get a better understanding of why Undeclared & Wonderfalls were cancelled. My current theory is that network executives are a bunch of cowed and gutless morons who don’t have an iota of courage or the wherewithal to support quality shows. But that can’t be it, right? Right?

  5. I’m thrilled to report that Mr. Goldberg will be unable to confirm any theories about network exectutives being gutless morons because, as his partner, I have vowed to axe-murder him and his computer if he starts using this blog to sabotage our careers.
    The fact is, all network executives are warm, courageous, and brilliantly insightful. At least, all the ones who are working at this very moment.

  6. I did fanfic. If I’d have dropped out of it four years earlier, I’d have a career as a novelist by now instead of preparing for one.
    Suffice it to say that 90% of it is crap, and there were a lot of people involved that made even the most die-hard Star Trek fans scratch their heads and say, “Wow, I guess Shatner was right in the SNL sketch.”
    Here’s a scary thing. I really know a 40 year old man who lives in his mother’s basement and watches Star Trek all day. Well, used to know. I have this thing called a “job.” This “job” requires me to work days anymore. Nights I spend with my wife or writing, either for pay or for exposure. Go figure. I got a life.

  7. Lee,
    I feel your pain. I’ve posted over on the website message board a few times and soooo hoped I wouldn’t give you the impressiong that I’m from the “Realm of the Unrealistic” fan.
    Although I do run a website for an “actor” I do it as one to help in keeping the interest of his career going for his fans with nothing expected in return. I hardly have time to be obsessed!
    I’m a very busy mother of two teenagers (one that’s graduating from highschool in May), who happens upon a good show or book every once and a while and likes to express my appreciation to those who work hard to bring “quality” to the entertainment sector. Something that just doesn’t come along enough any more.
    I’ve visited some fan fiction sites and well, cringe at the belief of the “slasy” nature.
    I remember one actor during one Q&A at an event that point blank said that the two individual male’s relationship in a show was *not* “slashy”. He was actually growing tired of constantly being asked the same question regarding the relationship of the two male characters from a show that had been off the air for some time.
    Another actor during a Q&A at a convention(who loves to mess around with the “fan psyche”), went right along with them when asked if his character was “Gay” , “Oh yeah, sure, he’s Gay!” And left it at that. Can’t imagine what he had to say about that in the greenroom when all was done. :^)
    Although this isn’t quoting verbatium from my blog, I wanted to insert the following:
    “I’ve been volunteering for a charity event that revolves around the film and television industry since October 1998. I’ve had run in’s with fans both good and bad. The good? Those who are realistic. The bad? Those that think the world revolves around what they do for a show. .”
    Sometimes I just have to chuckle when I see the fan’s enthusiasm because they sometimes just don’t get it. Otherwise it’s just down right scary!
    In the years I’ve been involved I’ve seen the actor’s, writers, director’s and producers come and go. From my vantage point I see them as they are. They’re just as human as the rest. They have their own personal lives, family’s, dilema’s, work to get and bills to pay.
    The scary thing is is that there are fans out there, as someone else posted, that see the actor “as” the character they portray on any particular show. Or they think that an actor has this glorious life, living in a lavash, costly house with 4 pools, 12 bedrooms, 20 bathrooms…I think you get my drift.
    It’s not always like that! As I’m sure you know, most actors these days are relying on a role to pay the bills and care for their family’s. They’re not always out at party’s, award shows or galas and living it up!
    I have this vivid memory when I was a teen of coming home from high school one afternoon to the horror of my mother literally taking all of my teen magazines, albums and even the console stereo and tossing it all out of the window. She wanted me to literally “get out of the dreamworld” and start facing reality. It worked! As of today I’m thankful she did that! Maybe some others need to do the same thing.

  8. There are extremes in any genre, as you know well. For every West Wing there are three My Mother the Car.
    This is true of fanfic as well. A lot of it is bad, and then there are those subcommunities that you’ve run into who seem to be not quite balanced in their attachment. But there is some good fanfic out there, very thoughtful, well done stuff.
    I’ve got five novels in print and more under contract, so this is a topic of concern to me; I’ve had people ask me if it’s okay if they write fanfic about my characters. To which I gave a very conditional yes. There’s more about this:
    here and here.

  9. I’m very interested in reading “Beyond the Beyond” now. 🙂 I am a seaQuest fan (even so far as to have written some “fanfic” in my younger days), and I really, truly enjoyed the third season. Yeah, it was different than what the fans were used to or wanted, but it was still well-done and well-written.
    Personally, and as a writer, I would never presume to tell another writer what he should or should not do with characters I don’t have any claim to. As a fan, I understand the frustration when something happens on a show that I don’t think should have happened – but it wasn’t my choice, wasn’t my decision.
    I wouldn’t say that all fans are crazy or so fanatical, but some are, and they make it tough for the rest of us to get taken seriously (although those of us who aren’t crazy try not to take ourselves too seriously. I know I don’t).
    So, anyway, I just wanted to say I really appreciated your work on seaQuest, and your continued contributions to the entertainment industry.

  10. The fans you are making fun of were right. They wrote the **TRUE** history of the show not you and you should have read the fan fiction first before writing the episodes. They paid more attentionto canon than you did and created canon where none existed before. You did not read it becuase you were afraid your own incompetence would be exposed.

  11. Anonymous2,
    This is my favorite post of the week… but I have to believe, since you signed it “Anonymous2,” that it’s a joke. It is,right? You can’t possibly be for real. The alternative is just too frightening.

  12. I realize that you wrote this post a year and a half ago, however I would like to explain the other side of the coin. I write fanfics. And although I may consider myself somewhat of a fanatic, I have my own reasons for writing them. First of all, I find that in writing fanfictions, I can take what I DON’T like about the show, and change it. Secondly, sometimes it is easier to come up with original ideas about characters you watch on a weekly basis. Personally, I want to do anything I can to make myself a better writer. If that means taking characters from the shows I like to watch and spinning the story lines, then that’s what I’m going to do. Lastly, many fanfiction sites (like …which is what I use) allow other authors to leave you reviews. This is the most helpful part for me; many of them leave helpful advice- what they think I do well, what they think I need help on. When Ionly write 4 papers a semester, I like all the feedback I can get.

  13. *chuckles*
    Well, that kinda explains where the whole fanfic debate started for you. ^_^
    P.S.: Don’t always agree with you, but like your posts in general. Have fun!


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