If you’ve spent more than a day in my company in the past 9 months, you know I’ve become attached to a particular television show. Go on. Judge me all you want:
My experience of fandom tends to center around fanfiction–I wrote my thesis on it, so that makes sense. I like gifs (see: above), engage in meta (meta-criticism i.e. fangirling with media theory), and I, of course, watch the shows. But I spend much more time reading fanfiction.
I’ve read dozens of novels in this particular fandom, some of the best of which are AUs. Alternate Universes have their play on television: that one episode where everyone sings, or there are zeppelins everywhere, or the plane never crashed. But in fanfic, they find full flower.
I think, in many AUs, the characters at their centers become less teleportations of a character from one world to another, and more a branched exploration of a core archetype. Below is an example from, yes, that particular show (Spoilers are whited out for your protection):
|Dean: Working-class older brother, protective of his family, struggling with his relationship with his father and his past, smarter than he pretends.||Cas: Loner friend from a strict religious family, struggling to exercise his free will, often virtuosic in a narrow field and always without social skills.
||Sam: White-collar(-aspiring) younger brother whose efforts to break with tradition sometimes have disastrous consequences.|
|May be a:
||May be a:||May be a:|
Some of the novels linked to above may be nearly 100,000 words and at the end the characters rarely look the way they do in the show. Their faces wrinkles, their weight, even the light in their eyes changes based on their experiences in the story. As is right and appropriate.
That AUs tend to rely on the cores of characters rather than their fetching features gets to the purpose of AUs: to test out how characters we know well in one scenario would behave in another, to see what aspects of their characters and personalities translate. There is also something to be said for the fun of imagining a serious canonical-Angel as an office secretary or pre-med student.
I think the reason why this argument means to much to me is this quote from Learned Hand’s 1930 opinion in the case of Nichols v. Universal (pdf), where that esteemed judge is bench-slapping the plaintiff for claiming copyright infringement when Universal Studios made a movie about the conflict between Irish and Jewish families whose children married in secret, when she had written a play about Irish and Jewish families whose children married in secret. Hand explains she could not claim infringement because the characters in her plays were based on stock characters:
It is indeed scarcely credible that she should not have been aware of those stock figures, the low comedy Jew and Irishman. The defendant has not taken from her more than their prototypes have contained for many decades. (emphasis added, obvs)
If this is true, and stock characters (i.e. those based on cultural archetypes) cannot be copyrighted, it gnaws at the base of the commercial content producer’s argument that fanfiction is an illegal derivative of their copyrighted material. If AUs don’t use characters as they came out of the oven, but go back to the dough those hot cookies came from, switching up some ingredients before baking, then both fanfic writers and litigious commercial content creators are, pulling from the same stock-pot, as Neil Gaiman might say (not that Neil Gaiman would ever get caught mixing culinary metaphors).
The very best AUs are transportive. They start with the stock character, the archetype, the dough of Dean, Cas, and Sam, and flambe them into totally different people. By the end I could pick them each out of a line-up but they wouldn’t look like copies or even brothers of the actors who play those characters on the TV show. The living experiences of the characters–as circus performers or soldiers or crime lords or students or mechanics–change them.
Because that’s what happens in good writing: characters change, moulding themselves around their characters.
“All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy. What right have we then to depreciate imagination.”– Carl Jung