Fan fiction libraries

Today’s analogy: a fan fiction writer sets their story in a world created by someone else, and thus has the opportunity to use both characters and world/story elements that were originally created by others. Especially for novice writers, this can be a boon, as they can focus on some sub-area of fiction writing without needing to create everything from scratch. That experience will help them later understand how to create their own elements and how such elements need to fit together with everything else.

But even experienced writers might prefer to just focus on telling some particular kind of story, without needing to design the whole world and characters from the ground up. In that case, using an existing world can make things much easier. Of course, often a writer will want to tell a story which isn’t quite a perfect fit for an existing world. If that’s the case, the borrowed elements will need to be tweaked, with the creator replacing them with altered versions which inherit most of the elements’ original properties but change some things. If this would require too many changes, it can be simpler to just create an entirely new world, instead of spending a lot of effort forcing existing elements into a purpose they’re not really a good match for.

Still, there are advantages with using existing elements. If the writer doesn’t modify them, and the elements behave as others expect them to behave, the story becomes compatible with a vastly larger set of stories, all taking place in the same universe. Other stories can in turn easily build on the contributions that this story made. It also becomes easier for others to read the story, as those others will already be familiar with the expected behavior and properties of the reused elements and can take advantage of their existing knowledge.

In other words, a writer who’s writing fan fiction is like a programmer who’s using existing libraries.

(And although I’ve only spoken about fan fiction so far, obviously the real world is the biggest standard library of them all. Fanfic writers sometimes get flak for being uncreative and just playing in someone else’s world: but at the same time mainstream writers have no shame in recycling the ideas of others, such as when they brazenly use concepts like “people” and “cars” without bothering to come up with their own objects.)


  1. To point out the obvious, a programmer who writes with libraries produces both more and better quality than one who doesn’t. (Libraries embody a ton of carefully debugged code and domain-specific knowledge. Trying to cope with clocks and calendars in any critical application would be a terrifying prospect for me.) It seems reasonable that the better quantity claim would hold (a fanfiction writer can outproduce an original writer), but the better quality *doesn’t* seem to hold. The best fanfictions I’ve read are pretty good, but none of the fantasy or SF fanfictions I’ve read have ever made me think “this could win a Hugo or Nebula” (see my bet against Eliezer that his _Methods of Rationality_ has any chance of winning a Hugo).

    Points of disanalogy are as interesting and important as analogous points, so let’s pursue this quality question further. Here one worthwhile tack would be to bite the bullet and say that someone working in another universe *can* produce superior works, pointin to things like Shakespeare reworking existing stories and the slow evolution of high quality folklore and oral tales, and argue that the reason that fanfic *is* so bad in practice (even at the top end) is that the best authors simply graduate to original fiction and go commercial.

    Wwhy do they graduate to original fiction if they can write better stuff in fanfiction? Well, there we’d have to go to an economic explanation like ‘it doesn’t sell’; and why doesn’t it sell? Economics suggests either copyright (anything selling enough to live off of will attract lawsuits) or perhaps sociology (derivative works are popular online but just don’t sell?). I don’t see any compelling theoretical reason to choose, and the latter has the burden of explaining why fanfiction can be exceedingly popular online but not be worth selling to any significant degree.

    One could add empirical data by pointing out the commonness of ‘fanfics’ in pre-copyright eras or alternately point out the commercial success of authorized books indicating pentup demand. Personally, I remember reading asides about all sorts of unauthorized sequels in the 18th century, and in China these days (there’s a bunch of unauthorized _Harry Potter_ books released there; see or ) and _Star Wars_ Expanded Universe or the authorized _Dune_ sequels & prequel books sell very well and making SF/Fantasy bestseller lists all the times (despite the former often being fairly mediocre, and the latter books being truly wretched), so I think the copyright explanation is best: no highly skilled writer puts much effort into fanfiction, even though they would write better books, because they cannot make money off it and being a highly skilled writer already pays poorly.

    This line of thought has many implications. For example, it seems like copyright is badly hurting fiction consumers since very few franchises will license out an optimal number of ‘fanfictions’ (due to overhead and transaction costs, personal preferences about “artistic integrity”, imperfect information about writer quality and sales, split rights and other versions of the etc). But at the same time, this market distortion is pressuring people to come up with original universes to set their works in… and it’s not obvious that people would be making the globally optimal tradeoff between original and fanfiction works. Would _Star Wars_ have been successful and made so many billions if George Lucas had been able to write it in the _Flash Gordon_ universe?

    This global question brings up Japan, as well: they have a industry wide culture of tolerating doujin works, which leads to probably hundreds of thousands of pretty polished ‘fanfics’ of all sorts a year (games, music, nonfiction compendiums or essays, comics: – to bring up again, just my first dataset, for one subgroup of doujin music, yields ~44000 pieces of music over a decade). In general, they seem to vastly outperform comparable Western outputs (there may be millions of fanfictions on, but how many _Harry Potter_ albums are there?) despite being output by a much smaller aging population, suggesting that American copyright is badly damaging fanfic output. Yet, it’s American original universes which sell countless billions overseas and is globally popular. While Japanese works… not so much. Certainly Japan managed to sell a fair bit overseas in the ’90s, but that was a long time ago. What was the last _Pokemon_ or _Power Rangers_ or _Sailor Moon_? _Naruto_ is popular, but not *that* popular. And there’s pessimism about the future of Nintendo and Sony, which will reduce overseas sales of ‘original’ works even more.

    • (A patch: why do we care about original vs fanfiction? If there’s deadweight loss to copyright enforcement, as there obviously is, then it’s just rentseeking by transferring utility from the large community of fanfiction producers & consumers to a few original-universe lottery winners like George Lucas and there’s no reason to support it. Here we might appeal to the original justification of copyright and patents: building up the common stock or ‘capital’ of science and technology and literature, trading short-term losses for long-term gains. Every new original universe which gains a following has added to the options available to a fanfiction writer, so they can choose the right universe for a story. The problem here, as with IP in general, is that we have a pretty pathological existing system: for an original universe to be truly valuable, it needs to enter the public domain, and pretty much nothing enters the public domain these days…)

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