A couple of discussions recently have centered around fanfiction writers who’ve moved into the original publishing world. That in itself isn’t frowned upon—unless they bring any stories along with them. Taking a story that was originally written as fanfiction and converting it into a story that stands on its own is… cheating, I guess?
I say “I guess” because I don’t get it. I understand it if the resulting story doesn’t stand alone. When copyrighted source material is reused, that’s not okay. The vast majority of fanfiction, assuming it’s well done at all, is much too closely tied to the source material for the author to have any prayer of prying it loose completely. It’s a bad idea to even try. And if you do, you piss people off, and you make other fanfiction authors look bad. And that’s also not okay.
But if the source material is completely left behind, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with converting a fanfiction story into original fiction. If you take only the original parts of the story, parts that did not come from the source material, and rebuild the rest of it from scratch, then you can end up with something that’s totally original and completely yours. (And if the original source isn’t copyrighted, you’ve got even more latitude. Derivative fiction is a time-honored literary tradition. How many different variations on Romeo and Juliet are floating around out there by now?)
The disclaimer here, of course, is that I’ve converted fanfiction into original fiction. The fanfiction stories in question were “alternate universe,” so they had little in common with the source material to start with. I stripped out the parts that came from the original source and used the remaining shell to rebuild a completely original story. And trust me: that involved a hell of a lot more than just changing names. Imagine those house-flipping shows where they tear a house down to the bare frame and rebuild it from there. That’s what it’s like.
To be perfectly clear: everything I’ve published is my original work, and I stand by it. If admitting that I’ve reused parts of a few of my fanfiction stories loses me readers, well, so be it. You can’t please everyone.
I know plenty of authors who’ve done this. Some who have done it based on fanfic of some of my very favorite books or movies and I didn’t recognize the source, because as you mentioned, it’s derivative, which isn’t the same thing at all as fanfic any more. If I write a dragon shifter romance story based on Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, well, by the time I figure how to make it so my intelligent dragon can become a man and take a human lover, I’m pretty sure there’s going to be little recognizable from Miss Novik’s stories left. I’ve derived my own material from the inspiration I got reading some magnificent stories by a talented author, and that isn’t illegal or immoral. That’s inspiration and creative commons. It’s what we do.
Is that a thing, to be outraged at converting fanfic to original fic? If so, I don’t get it, either. I haven’t done that yet (possibly only because I haven’t had a novel published yet), but I’ll admit to having had original-fic plot bunnies based on fanfic characters. I don’t think we can help it. If we love the characters, they’re going to show up here and there.