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The Grimorum Arcanorum

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Chapter Two: Sharing a Fanfic Universe

By Tara O'Shea

Okay kids, welcome to Shared Worlds and Fanfic Universes 101 -- and please don't be offended once you find out I'm teaching the class ... As one of the writers who's been here since the very beginning, I think I have a unique perspective on the subject as it stands here today. And as someone who came to online fan fiction fandom from print fan fiction fandom, I would like to take this opportunity to write down and explain some of those 'unwritten' rules for all you youngsters out there who wouldn't know MediaWest from the Ice Capades...

There is, among fan fiction writers -- and by extension, fandom itself -- an unwritten law:

You can steal from your betters, but never steal from your peers.

But what's stealing, and what's borrowing? And when is it okay to borrow without asking, and who decides what's 'okay'? And since when are there rules, anyway?

Why, some have said, is it perfectly acceptable -- morally, if not legally in the fanfic world -- to steal the show's characters for our stories, but the most heinous act imaginable to steal a fellow fan writer's characters without permission?

See, here's the thing ... 99% of the time, fanfic writers work alone. And when I say alone, I mean that while there is an extraordinary sense of community, and often a "writers' workshop" kind of atmosphere, were all involved read and critique each other's work with the eventual goal of each author perfecting her (or his) craft through the give-and-take, by and large writers wrote their stories all by themselves, each set in their own little universe that is affected only by the series continuity and their own personal extension of the show.

How odd, I can see some of you scratching your heads. Isn't this a shared universe?

Sorta. Kinda. In a way.

Think of it this way: ever read two or more Star Trek novels that agree with the show, but contradict one another? Or for that matter, have you ever seen a particular Star Trek author's original characters -- the best examples of which would be Diane Duane's Harb and Moira, or Peter David's Bernie the Klingon -- appear in a different Star Trek author's books without the author specifically saying "And thank you, Diane, for allowing me..." or "Bernie belongs to Peter ..." or the like?

And yet, in Gargoyles fan fiction, we have a multitude of walk-ons of authors' original characters wandering through stories not written by their creators.

The easiest example to examine would be "The Gargoyles Saga."

Using Greg Weisman's "master plan" as the basis for four spin-off fanfic series, this particular shared universe project is a mammoth undertaking that began in 1997. The staff consists of many fan favourite writers, with the ultimate goal of posting new 'episodes' to each of the four sagas:

"Gargoyles," a continuation of the story began by the television series.

"Pendragon," continuing on the adventures of King Arthur and Griff.

"Dark Ages," set in the years before the Viking raid of 994 CE that began the television series.

"Timedancer," spanning 40 years, as Brooklyn becomes a Dr. Sam Beckett-like time traveller thanks to the Phoenix Gate.

Each of these concepts was originated by Greg, and versions of his concepts have been realised by the TGS staff in fan fiction since September, 1997.

The series is populated by new, original characters to flesh out each of the scenarios, and each of these characters is introduced in an origin story, making TGS very close to the shared world novel collections like Borderland, Liavek, and Wildcards. Each original character and plot added to the whole belong not just to one author but -- once their origins are established -- to the group entire.

A more familiar -- assuming you're a gamer -- parallel can be drawn between the concept of "player characters" and "non-player characters" in a role-playing game. Each player/author has an original character they create within the world they've chosen -- be it the Chicago of Vampire the Masquerade, or the Manhattan of Disney's Gargoyles -- and while all the characters inhabit the same world, and meet and mingle with the same background characters, only the head honcho -- the game master -- and the player themselves have any control over their own particular character. In the world of role playing games -- and shared universes -- making any kind of permanent change to the character, like say, death, is off-limits to the other writers/gamers unless it's by the consent of the character's creator.

I can see I'm losing you -- but never fear, if you've never played an RPG, the concept should still be pretty to easy to grasp, even without the context of a role playing game.

Like a television series or a comic book, these kinds of shared-universes are collaborative efforts. Writers are assigned specific characters over whom they have control. Yet, at the same time, all the writers work together on the themes, plots, and direction of the series. They all work together to tell one story, and hopefully -- though intense planning and careful editing -- rather than a discordant chaos of disparate voices, what you get is one clear clean narrative voice. A piece of fiction -- or pieces of fiction -- that stands on its own two feet. Part of the appeal of shared universes is the opportunity to work with your peers to craft the best story possible. It is especially inviting to authors who have long worked in isolation, and want to experiment with collaboration. Or writers who cannot work alone, but prefer being a part of a team, having the structure and leadership that is involved in a shared world series to guide them as they write -- perhaps giving them the opportunity to put out quality work they might not have had the ability to put out on their own.

Another of the best -- and most prominent example -- of a long-standing Gargoyles fan fiction "shared universe" is the "Athena Saga" created by Ryan Stout and Scott Mercure. What began as two independent stories grew first into a partnership, and then into a dynasty. It began during second season, when Ryan and Scott collaborated on a re-written "Demona's Love Reborn." Ryan had written "Athena", a story involving an android duplicate of Elisa, who developed into a very popular original character among the fans, and fans clamoured for sequels...

So there were sequels. All told, Ryan penned seven "Athena" adventures, incorporating characters and situations -- an entire history that binds the universe together that is called 'canon' -- from other stories written by authors who requested to use the events and characters of his stories as canon for their own. In turn, Ryan asked permission of his favourite authors to cameo alternate-universe versions of their fan-created original characters in the "Athena" universe stories -- among them characters created by Jewel Faulkner, Christine Morgan, Dave Warren, and myself.

And so the "Nameless Universe" as Ryan called it, was born. At last count, there were over twenty five stories listed as either specifically taking place in Ryan and Scott's universe, or contain references to events that took place there. In the introductions to his stories (which got longer, and longer, and longer) Ryan gave extensive reading lists, and named the authors whose works he felt "took place" in his universe -- or rather, that he considered a part of the shared history of the "Athenaverse".

However, it created a bit of confusion.

Warning: you are now entering a frightening place known as the "Tara does Peter David doing Harlan Ellison rant" section of this essay. Yes, I'm going to tell an anecdote. Yes, it may resemble a long, rambling story that only actually applies to a handful of writers out there. BUT I hope that you'll stick with me through to the end...

I had a nasty experience a while back. It didn't have to be nasty, but in the end it caused no end of heartache, frustration, and tears on both sides, or so I am told. And that's why I decided to take on this topic this month: in an effort to explain the concept of "sharing" a universe to those who may not understand the fine lines in this nebulous world of fan fiction, so like yet unlike every other kind of fiction out there.

Okay, here's the deal. Many years ago, while second season was underway, I wrote a story about Owen Burnett, and created a former lover -- an original character partially based on a Japanese anime vampire, partially based on an Immortal trouble-making thief, with a pinch of Trickster mythology thrown in for good measure -- to harass poor Mr. Burnett. This in itself was -- now cast your minds back to 1995 and remember how little we knew about Owen -- revolutionary. The very notion of Owen as a sexual being was utterly new.

And the idea, as the story posited, that Owen was in fact one of Oberon's Children? Ludicrous.

So there was this story. And it was fun. And people liked it. And as I mentioned a few paragraphs up there, Ryan asked if he could have Rowan wander through a scene in his story that he was working on, as a sort of nod to fans of my fiction. I was tickled, thrilled, and once I had his assurances that if I didn't like the Rowan bits they would no longer be extant, I said yes.

Rowan was unique back then. She is just one of many fictional lovers, fay or otherwise, filling up the archive now. But back then, she was one of only a handful of original characters populating Gargoyles fanfic. And after writing the third Rowan/Owen story, I got a piece of email one day from an ardent 13 year old fan -- who shall remain nameless -- asking if he could use my characters in his story.

Unfortunately, his request was couched in a request that I change what I had written -- because the story he was writing wouldn't work if I was going to continue in the direction I was heading. He wanted me to change my plot points to facilitate his story.

I reacted badly, to say the least.

I gently explained that he could not use my characters in this plotline, since it would contradict what I was planning in a future story. But thank you for asking -- why don't you create your own original characters instead of using mine?

Thus began a two year long argument that never successfully concluded to either of our satisfactions, I'm sure. The young man had already written his story -- and started work on a sequel--assuming my original copyrighted characters were, because of the walk-on in one of the Athena tales -- fair game. In fact, he had written to ask my permission to use them only as a courtesy, never once expecting that he would get turned down.

He was -- to put it mildly -- upset that once I heard what he was planning, I would not allow my characters to be a part of his story. He cited what he believed to be solid examples of why I was wrong and he was right -- Ryan's use of them ("With my permission" I said "And with the understanding that she was a walk-on and not involved in the plot") being the crux of his argument.

Little did I know that this poor confused young writer was referring to two quotes, the first from the introduction of Ryan's "Mutandis Mutatis."

"Also, by using references to "Dark Places" and "Games" in "Mutatis Mutandis" I would like to think that the stories of Dave Warren and Tara O'Shea (two of my favorite Net authors) also take place 'here.'"

Followed by another quote in the introduction of "Fall From Grace"

"...Athens Incorporated is only one aspect of the Nameless Universe. There's also the stories of Jewel Faulkner (who has incorporated her universe into the one Scott and I share -- woo hoo!), Dave Warren, Tara O'Shea... "

Obviously, Ryan and I had differing opinions regarding the matter. And, from what I hear, so did Jewel and Dave. Not to slam Ryan, who obviously is a big fan of his fellow writers and only meant to honour them by these references. But it created one hell of a mess.

And of course, this poor kid had assumed -- because he knew no better, and he was going off of the only examples he had so far responded to, other archived online fanfic -- that all fanfic was one big shared world story, and that my plots and characters were there for him to continue, just as we had as fan writers chosen to flesh out and continue the stories told on the show itself.

It's hard to explain the delicate laws of fan fiction that stretch back to the first fanzines back in Fandom History (that's the 1960s to you confused folks in the back where weren't alive to see Star Wars in theatres until the re- release) to a new generation of teens and college students who have never seen a fanzine -- nor are they like to, but discovered fanfic alone, apart from the fannish community, online.

But it can be distilled into a simple axiom:

You can steal from your betters, but never steal from your peers.

Think of it this way: if I had asked Greg Weisman point blank "Hey, can I write this story?" when I had first gotten the idea for "The Butler's Tale" he would have said -- flat out -- "No." or even, just as firmly as I had, "But thank you for asking -- why don't you create your own original characters instead of using mine?"

So I didn't ask him.

Here's why he would have said no: Not only did it contradict -- before I re- wrote it, anyway -- a story he told at a later date, the fact of the matter is, authors are protective of their creations. They want control over how they are depicted. Greg's no different from me in this respect.

But Greg loosed his creations upon the world, and thus a second-generation of stories began, spawned from this first generation. Gargoyles fanfic is the direct child of the series itself. Yes, we stole from our betters, and now the characters have lives of their own, through our stories.

But should these children have children of their own? Should there be fanfic based on fanfic?

Fanfic is already one generation away from the series -- the source material remains the same for all of us, but each author takes away something different, constructs a parallel universe inside their own minds with the same histories, the same plots and people, but coloured by how they perceived them.

Sometimes it can be like a fun-house mirror, showing grossly distorted characters bearing just enough resemblance to the people we love and know to recognise them. Other times, it cam be like a perfect silver mirror reflecting back exactly what was presented, maybe a little faded -- a few tarnished spots here and there -- the closer the author's vision of the show is to both the show and their reader's. Oftentimes, that's all that designates one story as "good" or even "great" -- how closely it matches a particular readers personal vision of the characters and show. The best stories are told in the spirit of the series, and blend seamlessly into the series, while telling something new, or fleshing out a character in a way that isn't awkward or forced, but is a logical progression of the character introduced to us through this series.

Sharing a universe means we all have the same source material. We reinterpret it through fanfic, make it our own. It's like a photocopy of a photograph. To have someone else then make a copy of a copy can mean -- unless their skill is great -- an imperfect image. Multiply that -- duplicates of duplicates of duplicates -- and down the line, you have a watered down, grey, blurred image so far removed form the original as to be unrecognisable, were it not for a few familiar names and faces.

I know exactly how far my stories have finally -- when all is said and done -- strayed from Greg's vision. And while I'm sure Greg would be vaguely annoyed in the way that all authors are by some of the choices I have made, I do not try and compete with him in his own arena -- he's a professional and I stick to fanfic. Because that would be WRONG. And I'm not just talking about legally -- since fanfic already treads on thin ice in the legal department, which is to say, it really isn't legal at all but graciously tolerated by most -- I'm talking about morals. About one author respecting another and his (or her) creations -- about mutual respect between peers. If I were to enter his arena -- try and write animated television or comic books myself, why, I would have to create my own characters. I cannot use his. That's a given.

Which is why some of us fan writers expect that, if one of their peers -- someone who writes in the same arena that they do -- asks for permission to use an original plot or character, that her (or his) wishes in the matter would be respected if she chooses to deny a request.

And why it is so utterly baffling, and upsetting when they are not.

"Sharing" means playing nice. And while it is always easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, don't expect a community to happily welcome a thief into their midst. What makes fandom so desirable a place to be is the fans' tendency to accept everyone. To be more understanding than the mundane world. To be more open to new ideas, more nurturing, more close-knit and even, at times, incestuously so.

But we expect you to understand the rules -- once the unwritten ones are written down and made clear (which eventually, they were -- in the matter of the Ten Fanfic Commandments. Thanks to the incident I described above.). Because we expect better of you -- after all, you're one of us.

So, whose world is it, anyway? Ultimately, Greg's. But there are shadow worlds -- Otherworlds just a little paler and changed from the world we know -- lying close to the globe that you can see and touch through fanfic. I have one. It's mine. And Ryan's got one too. So does Missy. And Christine. And Christi. And every writer whose ever set a Gargoyles story down on paper -- virtual or otherwise. but here's the trick --

The question isn't whose "world", its "which of the worlds."

Sometimes, through a group agreement, those worlds meet and converge. And we get some damn good stories out of them. By mutual consent. You can't storm the borders and expect a warm welcome.

If you're going to play in one of your friends' backyard, you've got to be ready for them to ask you nicely to stop -- or get a big stick and whack you upside the head a few times -- if they don't like what you've been doing back there.

Ed's. Note The official policy of The Gargoyles Saga regarding fanfic based on TGS is as follows: all characters and situations used in already-published TGS episodes are free to be used in the public domain, so long as acknowledgment is given to the TGS Staff in the disclaimer. The TGS Staff do not read independent fanfics based on TGS, nor will characters developed in independent fanfics be considered for introduction into TGS canon. For more information, see

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