Pulling a Fifty Shades of Grey.

Many people by now have heard of the piece of fanfiction turned bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey, and I know that currently many people are hating on E.L.James, either for her success, the fact that her writing is terrible, or that she got successful by using someone else’s characters.

I want to touch upon the last point actually. To begin with, there should be no shame in writing fanfiction. I know it receives a lot of negativity, but there’s nothing wrong with writing these stories. As long as the original author’s wishes are respected, there should be no legal issue. A number of famous writers (Cassandra Claire, for example) wrote fanfiction at one point; it’s a great tool that helps you develop your writing skills and receive feedback from people. I often reflect upon my earliest fanfics and compare them with my writing style now, and I feel proud that I’ve managed to come so far.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about some fanfiction ethics. Just because we’re using characters that do not belong to us doesn’t mean we’re doing something wrong. Fanfiction writers always include disclaimers at the beginning of their stories/chapters saying that the characters do not belong to them. They all acknowledge that in no way are they allowed to use their fanfics to generate profit. It’s all done for fun.

Recently, one author broke this code of ethics by taking down her Twilight fanfic, simply changing the names and a few details, and publishing it under the title of Fifty Shades of Grey. While it can’t be denied that this book had garnered a lot of attention and acquired a huge fan base, it still made the majority of the fanfiction community quite angry, because E.L.James broke the unspoken code of ethics. I haven’t read the book myself and I don’t plan to, but I read enough snippets and comparisons to see how this might be considered a ripoff.

Personally I see legal issues here, but it’s not my place to speak. I’m no lawyer, and I guess Stephenie Meyer’s lawyers would sue the living daylights out of E.L.James had they found any copyright infringement, but I still don’t think what this author did was right.

When I still wrote fanfiction, I would occasionally get someone telling me to change the names in my stories and publish them under my own name. Sure, I could do that, but I wouldn’t feel right about it. The stories were written with certain fandom characters in mind, so a simple find and replace would not do the trick. I’d still be borrowing characters that aren’t mine, and I’d be crossing the ethical line.

However, I do think one can simply take the general idea of a fanfiction they wrote and employ it in a new, completely rewritten plot of their own. Even if the characters don’t belong to them, they still do own the plot, and I see nothing wrong with using a fanfiction plot to create a fully developed novel. I’ve seen many writers out there who created fanfiction that could easily pass as a great and engaging novel, and I would definitely encourage them to start working on their own stories.

Personally I’m not sure I would do it. My head is already buzzing with new plots, and I think some stories are best suited to be fanfiction. Though maybe if the plot well dries up, I might consider it, haha.

What about you? What’s your take on this whole fanfiction conversion?

35 thoughts on “Pulling a Fifty Shades of Grey.

  1. Legally speaking, it’s hard to really control something like that. For example, I’ve seen a ton of movies that are blatant ripoffs of others and they get away with it just fine. For example, this little gem. Look familiar? http://www.amazon.com/Whats-Up-Artist-Not-Provided/dp/B002A58ZR8

    The issue is mostly that ideas can’t be copyrighted in a general sense, just in the specific interpretations of them. So what the author of 50 Shades did could be considered kind of a jerk move, but not illegal (also not a lawyer, but I read up on all the drama surrounding this, and people who /were/ lawyers offered some good feedback).

    The line between ‘blatant ripoff’ and ‘unique story inspired by something else’ can be hard to find. Personally I wouldn’t like writing something that I felt pretty much came from something else, but if it was a good plot and a good idea, I could go with it and turn it into something new. If it was just inspired by the story, that’d be fine. But if it was pulling a bunch of the original author’s actual ideas and just changed a bit, I wouldn’t feel right about that at all.

    1. Jeez. Now that is what can be called a blatant ripoff. “What’s Up?” Seriously? Who were they even kidding? xD
      And yeah, I figured 50 Shades wasn’t breaking any law when Meyer’s lawyers didn’t jump on her case. I thought for sure that they would, though, seeing how much profit is being made of this fanfic.
      I agree! If there was a really good plot, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be used as an original story, provided that the writer changes the names, settings and personalities… and anything else that ties to the original source.

      1. Oh, there are lots more. Just check the related products down below. They rip off Kung Fu Panda and more. =x

  2. Great post! My only question; Don’t these people have creative ideas of their own, why use someone else’s? I want to be known for what I write and the characters I create, not someone else’s.

    1. Well, from personal experience, I know I wasn’t confident enough to create my own characters at the beginning, so borrowing characters from a book/show really helped me develop my abilities until I was able to create something of my own. =]

  3. The old adage is true, there are no new stories.

    But I agree with you, there is an unspoken ethics about fan fic and I would hate to think how ripping like that would feel. And there is a certain way to go about reinventing characters or the same old plots. There are ways to be creative within confines.

    And yes, Meyers could probably soak in a solid gold vat of baby oil at this point but that isn’t the point. We create and are vulnerable when we do so. I respect fans loving that creativity and vulnerability but hodgepodging it together and calling it their own is a bit much.

    Meh, hype always dies down and the true GOOD books last through.

    Who knows if either Twilight or 50 Shades will?

    1. Yep! Even if there are truly no new stories, one can never run out of way to use the old plots in a different manner… and there is never a shortage of different personalities for that matter. So there is no excuse for all that hodgepodging, as you put it.
      And I really hope it dies down. I’ve heard enough about both Twilight and 50 Shades to last me a lifetime!

        1. Well, at least HP hypes tend to be a bit more tame, haha. And I don’t think I know what HG is…

  4. I love writing fanfiction and you’re right, it’s a great way to work on your writing skills. It’s easy to dip in and out of too, and I’ve even written a fanfic about characters from one of my original novels meeting characters from a TV show. But I think you’re right – there’s a difference in being inspired by someone else’s work, and simply changing names. From the little I know of the books (frankly, I try to avoid both Twilight and 50 Shades) the characters sound exactly the same. It’s disappointing, to me, that it’s been lapped up so easily.

    1. Inspiration can be found almost anywhere, and nobody is going to give you a hard time if you were inspired by a certain show/book, but changing names and calling it your own is crossing the lines. I try to avoid both books too, but I’ve come across posts comparing both books and you wouldn’t believe the number of similarities between them!

      1. I did read Twilight years ago; finished it and thought “well, that’s the last I’ll hear of that”. Proved wrong a few months later when it all kicked off. But yeah, when I heard of the plot in 50 Shades, I did think “sounds like Twilight,” and then found out it was a fanfic. Not surprising at all. At least rip off a decent book if you absolutly have to go down that route.

        My mum keeps being told to read it. She’s refusing, too.

        1. Haha, agreed. If you’re going to try to pull something like this, then please go for a good book so we don’t have to endure these hypes and fads all over again.
          And good on your mum for refusing to read it! The more people refuse it, the quicker it dies out.

  5. My friend texted me in the middle of the night telling me that I HAD to read 50 Shades. Of course I’d already heard about it and read all the hype and both sides of the argument. Personally, I agree with you. Don’t rip off someone else’s work. My friend that texted me had heard none of the discussions over this book and her first way of describing it to me was that it was like Twilight. If a random reader who doesn’t even read that often can figure that out – the author shouldn’t have gotten away with that.
    Alas, I’ve been wondering if I should read it just so that when someone freaks out on me about it I can have an educated opinion. Now that my friend texted me and she’s bringing it by, I’m kinda stuck. I’ll be interested to see just what I see.

    1. Yeah, I’ve come across comparisons between the two, and there are quite a lot of similarities. If you don’t wish to read the books, you can always find a blog that runs a chapter by chapter commentary. Those are always a lot more amusing!

  6. Thank you for telling people that fanfiction is just fine! I wrote fanfiction for about 6 months, just because I couldn’t think of anything else. But now I have come up with stories of my own. 🙂 Though I have never shared my fanfiction with anyone, I am still proud that I did that. And I read fanfiction still!

    1. No problem! There’s a lot of stigma against fanfiction and its writers, so I wanted to clarify that I support it and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Besides, everyone has to start somewhere, right?

  7. I actually like fan fiction, and I agree that it helps hone your skills tremendously while at the same time not becoming so attached to your work, because well, it doesn’t belong to you. It bothers me that people suddenly decide that fan fiction is in someway bad because a writer decided to make some money off it. Great post!

    1. Thank you for commenting! And yeah, it’s sad that it has received so much stigma over one author who didn’t play by the rules. Hopefully more people come to realise that fanfiction is not all that bad.

  8. I agree with you in theory, but I can’t make myself get too upset with EL James, and here’s why: Ana and Christian seem like actual people to me. They have personalities. Ana talks back to Christian and actually leaves him at the end of the first book. I can’t see Bella doing any such thing.

    To be honest, though, I’ve only read the first in the 50 Shades series and the first two in the Twilight saga (to see what the hype was about in both, which I still don’t understand). Perhaps there are more similarities than I noticed, but all I got was that the MC was clumsy, lived in Washington, and was in love with a pale, rich, somewhat dangerous guy who was drawn to her for no real reason. So, okay, that sounds a lot like Twilight, but it also sounds a lot like a bunch of other novels I’ve read. It’s not really original, no, but neither is Twilight, at least in my opinion.

    There are lots of books that re-tell stories that we know. Paradise Lost is Bible fan fiction. Dante’s Inferno is self-inserted fan fiction. We read both of those in school. Cinder is a re-telling of Cinderella set in a futuristic setting. The main plot points are the same, but they’ve been changed and updated, and it’s now a completely different story. That’s sort of what happened with 50 Shades. I’m curious why it’s okay to write re-tellings like the first examples but it’s not okay in this case.

    And please don’t think that I’m trying to insult you or anyone who commented on this. I’m simply curious. This is what happens when I let myself think about things too long. 🙂 My first instinct is to agree that it’s wrong to sell fan fiction. I’d probably agree more if I cared at all about the original series and didn’t like the fan fiction version better (not a lot, of course, but at least more than Twilight).

    Again – I simply want to pose a discussion question, not sound like I’m trying to argue or anything. I’m just always worried that I sound angry over the Internet, and I’m trying to fix that. 🙂

    1. Hmmm. Well, maybe that part is not possible, but there are actually many similarities between the two books, and they make it apparent that James ripped off Twilight. Take a look at this thread to see some of the similarities: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/939720-the-many-shades-of-similarities-between-twilight-and-fifty-shades-of

      Those books you mentioned are okay because they didn’t really start out as fanfiction, did they? They were intended to be rewrites of past stories, and the authors include all sorts of twists to make them different from the original story. However, 50 Shades was intended to be rewritten as a Twilight fanfic. And it was a Twilight fanfic accessible to many before James took it down and did a simple “Find & Replace” trick. Now… if James had gone and rewritten the entire fanfic and presented it as a proper novel, that might’ve been a different story. But she didn’t even do that.

      And no worries! Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and you didn’t come off as angry or anything. =] I respect what you’re trying to say.

      1. Wow, there are a lot more similarities than I thought. Guess that’s what I get for not finishing either series. 😀 And you’re right: she should have rewritten more. That would have been the best idea.

  9. I agree thereʻs nothing wrong with writing using other peopleʻs characters, although I respect a writer more who can create her own, and really develop them. Thatʻs the writerʻs craft. Shakespeare took myths and developed the characters beyond the ur-story, using great language and greater sense of play and plotting, and he pandered to the masses at the same time!
    The biggest problem I have with 50 Shades is that itʻs written SO badly. And I donʻt think itʻs “hating” to comment on that. Her sentences have no life to them. The characters explain instead of talk, and the description is redundant and bland. Thatʻs just sad. I wonder if she has the ability to “rewrite more?” I hope so, if she plans to put together another story.

    1. I don’t think she rewrote anything to be honest. The publishing house did say James rewrote chunks of the book, but people who’ve read the fanfics claim that the novel and the fanfic are exactly alike. It’s annoying and sad to think that writing so badly can get you to the bestseller list and earn you a six-figure check. =/

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