Known Quantities in Fiction. Cheating?

Every once in a while, I write fan fiction. I’ve talked about it here before. I won’t say what I have written, or where (under my pseudonym) it can be found online, because strictly speaking, you’re not supposed to write it. Copyrights and such. But hundreds of thousands of people dabble in it.

I do so most often to get the creative gears moving when they have been slow, for practice, or because I just want to play around the the furniture without having to build an entire house myself. I build plenty of houses; sometimes I just want to play in the sandbox of writing.

There are also a few ideas floating around in my head for future writings that aren’t fan fiction, but that would feature, in the periphery, versions of actual historical people. Not historical fiction, probably alternate fiction best describes the ideas. But both those ideas, and actual historical fiction involving real people dovetail into the subject I want to address.

Anchoring what we write, as well as reading the result of someone else writing in the same fashion has near universal appeal. (Copyright issues notwithstanding.) There are all kinds of reasons for this I’m sure, but I think much of it has to do with both loving stories, and loving familiarity. The adventure of something new, but the comfort of something we know. It’s why series can be so popular to both read and write.

I read the book Jack 1939 by Francine Matthews a few years ago, and liked it quite a bit. Matthews tells the tale of John F. Kennedy working on a spy mission in, you guessed it, 1939 on behalf of Franklin Roosevelt. It was a fast paced and atmospheric spy novel. I don’t know, however, if I would have liked it as much if the protagonist has not been an imaginary JFK. I might have, but I have to tell you I picked up the book because of “JFK” being the main character. I’m a Kennedy fan, and hence I am familiar with him and his history. Having that incorporated into the spy scenario meant instant stakes. The mythical status of JFK before he was famous but still rich and well connected made me want to read this novel.

John Kennedy never did any of that stuff, of course. It’s a story. But is using him cheating? Does Matthews take a short cut by putting a well known historical figure at the center of her fiction, instead of inventing someone and making the reader invest in them? I don’t know for sure, but I’m not inclined to believe that. Kennedy being in living memory probably fogs things up a bit, and I don’t think as many objections would be raised by naysayers if the protagonist had been, say, King Richard the Lionheart, of England. In fact he has been a character in any number of stories, protected from criticism somewhat by the mist of centuries, as opposed to mere decades.

A book on my “to read” list is in similar territory as the Matthews work. This one involves a fictional trip taken by the late John Lennon. Again, it is the mystique and known quantity of Lennon that caught my attention in the first place, when the concept of the book itself may not have. Is this cheating? Is fan fiction? Is Stephen Moffet’s Sherlock? All are unique takes on known quantities from elsewhere, either real life or somebody else’s pen. In all cases I again say, it probably isn’t cheating.

People, historical and fictional, are all part of many stories anyway. Their lives, their influence on the world around them, the image they or the public cultivate around them. It all adds up to their own story, and the story of anyone their lives touch. It really isn’t that unusual to think that a fiction should arise around the depth of their lives.

Consider this; is it any different to base one’s story on a historical event than on a historical figure? Or to place Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz in any number of modern settings and places, (as has been done many, many times in various mediums)? If there is a difference with those distinctions, I don’t know what it is right now.

All by way of saying that all authors borrow, and reshape things that already exist. While one must look out for laws of slander, and of copyright, from an artistic standpoint, it seems fair enough game most of the time to me. Which is why I have done it, and will continue to do it in some of my potential future projects.

But if any of you write novel about me based on this blog, I will sue you.

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