Action Figures, the Internet and Being Tired: Towards a Psychosocial
Theory of the Origin of Fan Fiction
by Chris Davies
"It's amazing how much mature wisdom resembles being tired."
-- Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

The "classical" explanation of an author's decision to write stories
about characters created by another -- the sudden realization that he 
or she is able to write a scenario equal to or better than a scenario 
written by those who are currently writing about those characters -- 
has always seemed simplistic to me. I propose that the roots of that 
decision lay farther back in the background of the prospective author.
In this view of matters, there are three stages of development
through which an individual who might become a fan fiction author will 
pass, identifiable with the phases of childhood, adolescence and maturity. 
It could be argued that sub-stages exist within these stages which are 
deserving of study, but I leave such refinements to others.
The initial stage -- "childhood" -- is one which is experienced by
the majority of humans in developed countries, regardless of any later
career as a fanfiction author. Within these countries, children of almost
all economic classes are exposed to audio-visual entertainment from infancy
onward. Indeed, there are well-documented complaints that the economic
requirements of lower and middle class families transform the television 
into a "subsitute parent" or "electronic baby-sitter".
Regardless of the validity of such complaints, it cannot be denied
that television has become the primary medium of children's entertainment.
Furthermore, because of the economic realities of the production of
such programs, there are uniformly supported by merchandising, even
ostensibly non-commercial and educational programming such as "Sesame 
Street". From toys and clothing bearing licensed images or insignia 
from the programs to books and games which deal with new scenarios not 
shown on television to (in my view most significantly) dolls representing 
the characters from the programs, merchandise based on children's 
entertainment always sells as long as the programs themselves remain 
popular. In many cases, the programs themselves are created for the sole 
purpose of advertising the existence of such merchandise. The most classic 
Western example would be the "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" cartoons of the 
mid 1980s, but there are many earlier and later examples. In Japan, this 
is even more clearly the case, since there are no laws which in the West 
prohibit the advertisement of merchandise relating to the program.
Let us consider now the child whose parents have been persuaded to
purchase a doll (or, in the case of a "doll" for boys, an "action figure")
based on a character from his or her current favorite program. Unlike a
teenaged or adult toy collector, the child will not place the doll on a
shelf and never touch it again for fear of destroying its resale value. 
He or she will play with it. The child will use the toy to create scenarios
involving the program of which the character is a part, especially if
the child possesses several dolls or other toys ("accessories") involving 
the program. Perhaps the scenarios will only be representations of the scenarios 
which the child watched on television, but I suspect that in many cases they 
will be quite original.
These children are engaging in fan fiction authorship, whether or not
they realize it. In fact, I suggest that just as almost everyone creates
an "alternate history" whenever they imagine how an event in their
personal life might have gone differently, so too does everyone who envisions
a scenario involving a meeting between two or more fictional characters
writing a crossover story.[1] The stories created in this stage are
boundless in their creativity, but rarely possess internal consistency or 
adequate plot or characterization.
Eventually, the "child" will encounter another "child" who shares his
or her interest in a specific program or character. Since no two people ever
perceive the same event in the exact same way, there will be
differences between the perceptions that the children have of the programs. 
In discussing their views, those differences may be revealed, and the
revelation might be viewed as a challenge to either or both of the
children's viewpoints.
The outcome of the challenge has a number of probable outcomes. The
new viewpoint could be rejected, and the original viewpoint reinforced 
by the experience; the new viewpoint could be accepted, and the original
modified to incorporate the new information.
Regardless of the outcome of the challenge, however, the "adolescent"
now realizes that other viewpoints on characters and scenarios exist, 
and may be inclined to communicate his or her point of view to others.  
It is therefore most likely that in this stage a prospective fan fiction 
author will begin to record the scenarios.[2] It is during this period 
that skills at story-telling are acquired, allowing the creation of better 
plots and more accurate characterization. Needless to say, not all 
"children" become "adolescents" -- some simply never care that much.
The Internet has facilitated the development of many authors to the
"adolescent" stage of authorship in the same way that it has aided
the formation of many groups of fans -- by allowing communication 
between "children" who might otherwise never have encountered each 
other. In this way the computer network takes the role once filled by 
Amateur Press Organizations and "'zines". Whether this substitution, 
which may ultimately place fan fiction exclusively in the hands of 
those wealthy enough to own a computer and Internet connection, is a 
more-or-less positive development remains to be seen.
To return to the study of the development itself, however, I must
reiterate that the fiction produced in the "adolescent" phase is 
ultimately reactionary. Hence the explanation usually given: "I thought
that I could do better than the people who were already doing it". 
Whether consciously or unconsciously, the author is expressing his or 
her ideas of character and scenario in reaction to the opinions of others.
Ultimately, this limits the potential stories which he or she can
create. In many cases, this results in an author losing interest as 
every new story only provokes violent dispute from those who disagree 
with the underlying opinion (sometimes called "theme"), slavish 
agreement from those who concur with it, or overwhelming apathy from 
those who do not care. Or the author may learn to live on dispute, 
feeding on the anger and vituperation of those who read their work; 
a "troll", in UseNet parliance.[3] Or the author may find or create an 
audience completely converted to his or her views, and spend all efforts 
to preach to them. In all of the above cases, the author has not reached 
the next level, "maturity".
This final step -- something of a misnomer, as will be seen shortly --
is actually a synthesis, combining the storytelling skills honed during
"adolescence" with a self-confidence recovered from "childhood". The
stories that a "mature" author of fan fiction tells come from within 
him or her, rather than from reaction against or towards another viewpoint.
Ironically, work produced at this stage sometimes ceases to resemble fan 
fiction. It may seem more like stories written about characters who resemble 
the characters whose names and images they bear in some respects, but who 
have been allowed to develop beyond the bounds of the characterization laid 
out by the original stories.
I should emphasize that when I speak of "maturity" as a writer, I do
not necessarily speak of the quality of the story, but of the author, 
and the way that the story is told. A story told by a mature storyteller
will not always recieve universal acclaim, but the author will be unaffected
by criticism based on other opinions of character and scenario, since 
he or she is now secure in his or her own interpretations.
While I have attached labels based on physical age to these stages of
development, they do not necessarily indicate that an author will
fall within such age groups when he or she goes though the stage. In 
fact, I would hypothesize that an author goes through the cycle whenever
encountering a story which piques his or her interest. At first the
author has no knowledge that other viewpoints exist, then is challenged
by them, and ultimately becomes secure in opinions that he or she formed.
One might even view this as a metaphor for other forms of decision
making.

Footnotes:
[1] And anyone who has a sexual fantasy about a fictional character
is clearly creating an erotic fiction. (And as Steven King points out 
in The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, a person's conception of a celebrity
is almost always fictional in some respect.)
[2] Not always, though. Many "precocious" authors begin to record
their new scenarios before they encounter other examples. Speaking for 
myself, I know that I literally recorded (on audio-tape) certain stories
composed extemporaneously during my childhood. Furthermore, my first
Internet-published story was written before I had almost any
familiarity with the opinions of others on its subject matter.
[3] Practitioners of Transactional Analysis will recognize much of
their behavior for what it really is.