Dec 24, 2012

Retellings vs. fanfiction -- where do you draw the line?

On the 12th, Enna from Squeaky Books asked a follow-up question to my friend Katherine's post on fanfiction and her post on fanfiction:

Now, I didn't have to think too long about it before I answered. A lot of retellings are books and fairy tales that have been around for a long time - Hamlet, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice. It's just a matter of copyright. Those books don't have copyright, while works that are fanfiction are based on copyrighted material.

But what happens when you take the copyright out of the equation? Shakespeare's Hamlet is based off of another work at that time, but I'm not irritated at him for that. So why does published fanfiction annoy me?

Until later, I didn't really think about that answer - we got into the realm of fairy tale retellings and such, which I'll discuss later. But then I started talking about it with my boyfriend and what the difference is.

Obviously, there's a time difference - more time has passed since Jane Eyre than since Twilight. But it's not just a fancy fanfiction, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; retellings need to be a retelling. Take Jane by April Lidner. The base of the story remains the same, but the characters and plot are adapted to a new time period. The heart of the story remains the same.

But in that case, what about fanfiction AUs? Fifty Shades of Grey does the same thing Jane does, if on a much more terrible level. Where's the line?

Of course, the copyright issue is the biggest one. But if that's all there is to it, than what's the issue with publishing it - besides it being terrible?

I think it may be that Fifty Shades of Grey and other similar stories try to shake off their fanfiction feel, where retellings acknowledge their roots. Whether that's because of the copyright issue or because they want to stand on their own. In which case - why write the fanfiction to begin with? Standing on your own isn't the point of it; the point is to add to canon.

It's a weird line, one gets increasingly fuzzier when you take the copyright issue out of it. But I think Diana Peterfreund hit it right on the head:

Fanfiction uses characters and not plot. More often than not, they manipulate the characters to break canon and act out of their norm. Retellings use plot and the base of characters, keeping them in character while adapting them to the new setting and time.

Of course, retellings aren't so problematic when it comes to fairy tales and not stories.

Fairy tales have never been complete stories, and there are many different versions of them; it's something that's always been adapted. Fairy tale retellings take only the skeleton of the story and give them characters and a real plot and a real story. In this case, there's no canon to borrow from and no author to worry about copyright.

Our conversation inspired Enna to go create a series of posts where she talks to authors about this sort of thing and where they stand; I'm really excited to see it and if they touched on points that I haven't even thought about! I'll be sure to link it to you guys when it goes live.

What do you think differentiates fanfiction and retellings?


  1. For me, the reason published fanfiction (of late) bothers me is because it's capitalizing off of the current fame/popularity of the original author/series. Would 50 Shades have blown up this large if it had been written 15 years after the Twilight hype died down? I doubt it.

    While the same logic can be applied to retellings, as many fans of Austen might pick up Jane because they loved Jane Eyre (for example), that level of hype surrounding the retelling and its publication isn't present.

    And while retellings use certain themes from the original works (the glass slipper, the prince, the evil stepmother/stepsisters from Cinderella all present in Cinder, for example) the characters using these staples are fresh and have their own voices; the author has had to bring them to life. The same can't be said for fanfic, where almost everything about the characters is borrowed from someone else.

  2. Pretty much what Kelly said - there's a vast difference in taking the theme of a novel or fairy tale and making it your own and taking the entire plot step by step and changing the location.

    to a certain a extent this is what Disney does with the Princess movies (especially in the last few decades). They take the bare bones of the story--The Princess and the Frog, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast--then give it a twist so that they end up in the same place (well except for the Little Mermaid I suppose), but the getting there was mostly different.

    Fanfic, or at least typical fanfic, skirts the character development (if you're reading fanfic then you must know the characters already), motivation (for the most part, unless they're breaking canon relationships) and will likely ignore the resolution to anything that doesn't forward their plot. The BEST kind of fanfic takes what is already known as pre-existing canon, and gives it a fresh twist.

    There's really good fanfic out there--stuff that if you changed the names of the characters you'd never know it had started out as fanfic even though the themes are the same and possibly the relationships are the same. Then there's stuff like 50 Shades where James obviously just hit 'search and find' on the text and changed the words. It doesn't give us a different understanding of Twilight, doesn't offer new insight into a theme Twilight had or discuss how this 'new version' could relate to the reader's life in a new way. James went plot point by plot point and just changed words.

    Reimaginings or retellings offer that to us--Ella Enchanted was a reimagining of Cinderella that gave readers the option of discussing how what Ella endured contrasted with what Cinderella endured--similar circumstances (no mother, greedy stepmother, horrid stepsisters), but how they reacted to those circumstances are what defined them. It was still OBVIOUSLY based on Cinderella, but Carson changed the dynamic.

  3. I don't. I think retellings are a type of fanfiction. I am against publishing serial-numbers-filed-off fic because the original work is still in copyright. But fanfiction is a huge, wildly varied thing. Some of it is excellent, some terrible, most mediocre.

    And I would like to point out that there is such a thing as worldbuilding fics. In other words, where the writer explores aspects of the world alluded to in canon, rarely using anything but original characters. So fanfic is not just about using the characters in a new plot.

    I might search for it later, but there's a great graphic explaining the major types of fanfic and how they relate to the original that might help your discussion.

    You might also take a look at the Yuletide fics when they go up tomorrow. Yuletide generally has a wealth of retellings (fairy tale and myth, mostly) that everyone involved definitely considers fanfic. Might be another perspective to look at.

    1. Re: world-building fics -- Founders fics in Harry Potter canon are a great examples of that. They're mentioned only in passing, with very little detail added on, yet there's a plethora of fics that are just based in the loosest of canons and in different time periods, etc., about them. It's fascinating to look at.

  4. I think the reason I'm okay with retellings is that they quite clearly acknowledge their roots - the authors aren't taking credit for any parts they didn't create. If I read a retelling of a story I know and love, then I notice the details that came from the original and it's a kind of, "Oh, I see what you did there!" kind of moment. And when I haven't read the original, it makes me want to just to see the parallels between them.

    While, with published fanfiction, they're name switching and not acknowledging that they were actually fanfics most of the time - they're trying to pass it off as entirely original, but seeing as it was fanfiction, they were definitely influenced by the story the fanfic was based on.

    And the permission thing, too. Stephenie Meyer didn't give her permission for Fifty Shades of Gray to be published. With retellings, as you said, the copyright has expired and that matters.

    One of the biggest issues I have with published fanfics like Fifty Shades of Gray is the fact that they build up a following using someone elses fan base, then sell it. I really don't think it would have been published if it hadn't gotten a Twilight following which attracted the attention of publishers.

    It just...doesn't feel like they earn their audience because people go into it wanting to read new stories about Edward and Bella, not wanting to read the writing of E.L. James or whichever author it happens to be.

    If you take a look at stories on then, you'll see how much of a difference the link to Twilight or Harry Potter can make to a stories popularity. Terribly written, cliche stories about Twilight can get thousands of reviews, while genuinely good original stories often get a few hundred, if they're really lucky.

    And this comment has gotten a bit long, sorry. =P

  5. Hm, we hadn't thought of something being both a retelling AND fanfiction... Thanks for the reminder that these buckets may not be exclusive, as well as all your other insightful thoughts (which we, as usual, pretty much just agree with).

    We agree with Kelly's comment too, btw.


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