Approximately, the definition of "fan fiction" is that which is written based on characters, settings, and/or subplots that already exist in published works.
Example: E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy was fan fiction based on the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer.
Don't ask me how James got her BDSM adult erotica out of the vampires-and-werewolves paranormal novels Meyer wrote.
What's the deal with fan fiction? Good idea or bad idea?
A Growing Trend
In an article from the Washington Post, titled "From 'Fifty Shades' to 'After': Why Publishers Want Fan Fiction to Go Mainstream," reporter Jessica Contrera explains the rise of fan fiction to popularity, even with established and formerly skeptical publishers, and cites the upcoming development of another fan fiction spin-off as an example.
"After" is a story based loosely on the members of the boy band, One Direction, and it represents a "special kind of fan fiction: 'real person fiction,'" Contrera reports. With the names of the band members lightly edited to preserve their true identities (or something) and their connection adjusted (in the story, they're friends from college, not a band), publishers predict that it will take off in popularity.
Pros and Cons
Is fan fiction a good idea?
On the plus side for writers, fan fiction begins with already established characters or even actual people, and perhaps the same settings and themes as in their original publications. There's no need to spend time developing characters from scratch; just write a new plot and perhaps tweak the genre just a little, and you're in business.
On the plus side for readers, fan fiction is peopled with characters, situations, themes, and settings that are already familiar, so you don't have to get used to a whole new crop of people. You already know their ticks, quirks, personalities, and priorities; you just get to see them handled by a different writer. (Think the "Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries" by Carrie Bebris, based on the main characters from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.)
On the minus side for writers, fan fiction strikes me as building off another author's success rather than establishing your own credibility through the hard work it takes to start from scratch and build yourself a platform, a following, and a unique voice. If you use an already famous or well-known author as a jumping-off point, isn't that a short cut that might deprive you of crucial learning experiences and the opportunity to develop your own work?
On the minus side for readers, if the new author doesn't handle the original characters according to already established expectations, the work could end up being a disappointment and a total flop, the kind of book that a reader throws against the wall rather than suffering through.
The Best Intentions
Perhaps the best way to frame the situation is with this question:
What is the ultimate purpose of writing fan fiction?
Is it to give readers more of the familiar characters they love by other authors?
To satisfy readers' hopes for a sequel or a longer series long after another author has either passed away or stopped writing about those particular characters?
To practice developing a unique writing voice by mimicking the established style of another author, in much the same way that visual artists learn pointillism and techniques from van Gogh long before they paint their own masterpieces?
Or is it something far more avaricious?
Perhaps the goal of writing fan fiction is to sell thousands or millions of copies of books and make as much money as the bestselling authors who wrote and published the original books in the first place.
Now, of course, making money isn't necessarily a bad or unworthy goal.
But is it fair to use established authors' success as a starting point for your own so you can begin to make money far sooner than they did by using their content as your own?
Such a motive requires almost no creative effort on your part. In fact, with that kind of an attitude, the situation reads to me just short of plagiarism ... and, indeed, one of the stickier issues facing writers of fan fiction is whether or not they have to or can obtain permission to use non-original characters and settings in their own, "new" works.
What are your thoughts?
Should established, bestselling authors be flattered or offended, even angered, if new authors "borrow" their original content on which to build new works?
What do you think is the typical motive for writing fan fiction?
Do you read fan fiction yourself? Why or why not?