Things You Learn As A Real Person Fanfic Writer
Recently, I have been writing poetry and I made a commitment to publish one piece of writing to Instagram every week. This year, I noticed that an option had appeared where with one click of a button, my post could automatically be shared to a number of platforms, including Tumblr, which was the hub of all fan-related activities about 10 years ago but has since fallen from grace. In the early 2010s, people gathered on Tumblr to share photos, videos, opinions on every topic imaginable and, above all, make friends. My account, or ‘blog’ if we are to adopt the (somewhat misleading) terminology used by the platform itself, was focused on a fairly well-known British band.
When I think of a ‘blog’, what comes to mind is content made up mostly of writing, perhaps with a picture or two for illustrative purposes. The reality on Tumblr is quite different: as a platform, it is strongly visual, a very quick action-based environment in which photos, artwork, and other media are often reshared without much commentary. When people make text-only posts, they are often short and punchy; anything longer usually gets cut off with a “Read more” link in order not to clutter the feeds of users expecting more pictures, less effort.
Maybe, if anyone was still following my blog, they might be interested in reading my more recent writing? Up until then, my Tumblr had sat abandoned for about 5 years and, although it was one of many dedicated fan accounts for the band, this wasn’t what it was most known for. Its unique selling point was that I also wrote and shared RPF (real person fanfiction), which was popular in the band’s fandom for a few years. This is the story of how, before Tumblr’s merger with Yahoo and subsequent decline, I enjoyed a brief few years of being a Big Name Fan for something for the first time in my life.
I first became aware of RPF in 2006, when the majority of online socialising took place on Livejournal. Myspace was also rising to prominence at the same time, but it didn’t lend itself to long, text-only posts as well as Livejournal did. The fandom I was most active in at the time was musical theatre, and some of the people I met in dedicated communities would share slash (fanfiction centering same-sex relationships) they wrote about Broadway actresses: not the characters they played, but the actual human beings playing those characters, and what they did when they were not on stage. My mutuals (Livejournal liked to make a distinction between people who had friended each other one-sidedly, and mutual friends. Suggesting, I suppose, that there is a different level of trust involved when two people both agree to give each other mutual access to their innermost thoughts) all felt varying degrees of shame for doing so. The spectrum of shame ranged from “I know it’s a bit weird, so I’m restricting access to these posts” to “I met one of the actresses in person and I immediately deleted all of my stories as I was overwhelmed by guilt.”
Most, if not all, of these actresses, were read as straight. Although I hardly considered myself a fan of most of them, I found it easier to read and follow these fics than ones featuring fictional characters from tv shows I didn’t watch. I tried many times to read my mutuals’ fics for shows I wasn’t familiar with, but often felt I couldn’t relate, picture the characters in my head, or spot obscure references. On the other hand, the only background information required to enjoy the RPF stories was that they were about women whose job was performing. I couldn’t resist a bit of closeted pining, sex in dressing rooms, or angst. It was enough to know what the actresses looked like, so I fulfilled my duty as a good mutual to read and comment.
I, myself, had written fanfiction since I was 12, when I had no knowledge that there was a term for this practice that had been in use for a few decades already. I didn’t find out until many years later that fanfiction was a thriving universe and not something I’d just invented when I was bored during my summer holidays. However, I had always written about fictional characters in shows, and the one time I’d actually had the courage to post any of my work to the infamous ff.net (fanfiction.net, the main directory to upload and categorise fanworks in the late 90s-early 00s), it was criticised so harshly by fans of a particular character that I was essentially chased off that website, and never posted the third and final chapter to that story. Or anything else, for that matter: my fics stayed firmly put in a documents folder on my laptop, for my eyes only.
I never thought it would be for me to actually write RPF until many years later, when someone pointed out to me that they noticed a particular connection between a singer and a musician in the same band. I think that I was told, in no uncertain terms, “look at them, they’ve definitely slept together at least once.” A few weeks later, I saw the band play live from the front row and paid special attention to the dynamics between those two people and I had to admit I saw something as well. I can’t remember if at the time it was just a feeling, or if it was the time that I flat out saw them share the tiniest of kisses on stage (I went to many other gigs after that first one, so my memories often blend together into one). I was intrigued and decided to look into it further.
Researching these people was difficult, on one hand, because there were at least 10 articles and interviews with the singer for every one article or interview with the musician. But also because, where previously I had always been able to google two character names together and find fanfiction, I realised that it didn’t quite work the same way with real people. It appeared that only one other person in all of the internet had picked up on anything at all: someone in France, whose name/URL I can’t even remember. It’s been a long time since I heard anyone use the term ‘gaydar’, but it really transpired that no one had any when it came to these two.
I want to specify, before anything else, that the people I was writing about were two women, as those who are familiar with this type of fanfiction will know that most of the time, these stories feature two men, particularly in the genres of emo/pop-punk, or boybands, One Direction being a prime example. As my pairing didn’t fit either criterion, the fandom was a really, really niche environment, and stayed that way throughout the years. By that point, we had lived through the rise of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and at the time it seemed that most fandom-related activities were taking place on a new platform called Tumblr, so I made an account, reminiscing about my old Livejournal mutuals and how they had been dealing with the ethics of writing about real people.
The first rule I set myself was that I was going to be anonymous. If I was too open about who I was and where I worked, there could be repercussions. Years prior, in what was basically a different life, a very dangerous person had written to a mutual’s workplace, trying to get her fired over the cardinal sin of using the work internet for fandom-related activities (I know this sounds ridiculous, but it was the 90s – we didn’t have smartphones, and we paid per usage). This was because they did not agree on which two characters from a tv show should be together! I was very aware that if anyone took a particular dislike to me and my work, my actual livelihood could be on the line. So I made my Twitter account private and created another one just for fandom activities, and I made sure that my name or place of work was never mentioned.
In 2018, I made an Instagram account to post other kinds of writing, and I used the same alias as my Tumblr, as I was extremely attached to it and believed it to somewhat be part of my “brand.” I started using my initials to submit to DIY zines and so far, that is as much as I’ve ever divulged. Every time that I want to associate my writing with my full name, I still feel restrained that it could somehow all be linked back to the RPF, even though eight years on, that fandom is mostly dead. To be fair, even at its peak, I was one of only 4 consistent fanfic writers for that ship. This doesn’t mean that there were only four writers in total, but rather that others would often test the waters by posting one chapter, a half-page of something, only to never be seen again. As a reader, this was incredibly frustrating. I was producing content that other people enjoyed, but my own cravings for well-written fanfiction relating to these two people were, for the most part, unfulfilled. Nor could I put all my expectations on the other 3 writers to keep producing at a pace and level which would satisfy my needs.
We’re often told if we’re not happy with the media and the representation that we get, that we should write our own. But there’s only so much “writing the queer stories you want to see” that one can do. Sometimes it’s nice to be transported into another world by someone else’s writing and to enjoy the feeling of not actually knowing what happens next. This is a very different process from being in the driver’s seat and having to make all the decisions about what, in fact, is going to happen next. I felt what I can only describe as ‘storyteller’s fatigue’, providing most of the available entertainment to a small fandom of a few dozen people. I was also, notably, older than the average fandom population, being just on the cusp of turning 30 when everybody else would have been in their late teens. I had some advantage in that I’d already experienced relationships and heartbreak and had contacts in the music industry, something that the younger writers were lacking and that was sometimes evident in their plotting.
There were also some recurring themes in these one-time writers’ work, which I found incredibly curious: was this just an absence of original ideas, or was there something deeper at play? When I was a child before I understood that there were other options for human beings than just being straight and cisgender, the stories I composed in my head were heavily informed by the environment I was brought up in. As a result, they were entirely formulaic: they always involved a boy and a girl, and a heteronormative “damsel in distress” type of scenario.
I found that sometimes when younger writers produced RPF for this pairing, they fell into a very similar trap of assigning clear-cut roles. The singer was always given the “weaker” role: she always had a violent boyfriend, misused drugs and alcohol, or got in harm’s way. For some reason, the musician was associated with the figure of rescuer instead, despite also being stereotypically feminine (therefore not “strong” according to strict gender roles) in both appearance and behavior. This may be due to her being older, but I suppose that less was known about her personal life in general and, as a result, writers struggled to imagine inciting incidents centering on the musician. Hurt/comfort is a common trope in fanfiction, whereby one character experiences something painful (this is intended broadly: it can be physical pain but it more often is emotional pain or trauma), and the other character provides relief from this experience (again, this could be in any number of ways, from words of affirmation to sex and everything in between). I wonder – and I cannot determine – whether the choice of these specific themes was influenced by these fans also growing up with heteronormative relationship models, or perhaps they had first-hand experience of dealing with violence and addiction, and they themselves felt a desire to have someone rescue them from those situations.
I was also intrigued by how most younger writers were reading the dynamics between the two band members. As the interest towards a band tends to always focus on the front person, their narrative was in turn frequently from the musician’s point of view, standing on the outside looking in, projecting their own attraction to the singer as the central figure to the band. Writers often chose a dichotomy presenting one person who was assured in her sexuality and another questioning: the musician was more frequently assumed confidently gay in other people’s fics, even though there was far less supporting evidence of her not being straight than the singer (and, on an important side note, there was always supporting evidence for both). Perhaps, just like in the hurt/comfort dynamic, she was expected to be more experienced and to know herself better, due to being the older one. But age isn’t really an indicator of comfort with one’s sexuality. There are teenagers who know exactly where they sit on the gender and sexuality spectrums, and adults whose first opportunity to reflect on this doesn’t come until later in life.
Personally, I preferred having the singer as the initiator in my narrative. I would go as far as saying that I always did – I’m spot-checking various fics as I write this, and I am yet to find a scenario in which the musician is the first one to initiate a kiss or a talk or a declaration of love. No, for me the singer was the one who came across as reckless, act-now-think-later, and completely enamored with the musician, to the point of constantly mentioning her in interviews when it wasn’t relevant at all. I also found that the other reliable and consistent writers for this pairing seemed to share this view of things. When you’re writing about a real person, things get tricky. It’s not as easy as watching an established character on television and having several seasons of material to draw upon. Fictional characters become almost predictable, to the point that if somebody acts in a way that seems inconsistent with how they were fleshed out, it’s usually so apparent that it gets discussed and called into question. But with real people, nobody can really know what their true personality is. All you have is a projection, which you may have studied from countless interviews and videos, and there are different levels of getting close to the truth, but hard to completely “nail.” Even so, I did find that stories that presented the musician as the initiator did not feel as realistic as the ones in which it was the other way around.
For me, part of what compelled me to write about these people was that I felt a kinship with the singer. I was no stranger to relating to fictional characters, but this was different. I really identified with her, we had very similar thought processes, fascinations, triggers, anxieties (a joke developed that people had never seen the two of us in the same room together!) I could entirely see why she would have feelings for her musician and how it fit in with her personality, but I could see the opposite too. I felt that I could easily switch between points of view and make my two characters distinct people, not just an imprint of the same personality with different physical features. The musician required a lot more research to get her history right, something that wasn’t necessarily seen as important by first-time writers, and information about her wasn’t as readily available. An unofficial biography of the singer was published around this time, and even that contained incorrect information about the musician’s background. No one in the band addressed the inaccuracies in this publication, but we fans knew that we somehow had better sources than this unofficial biographer.
I, for my part, fact-checked everything I put in my stories, but I had the huge advantage of already being familiar with the parts of town both women had lived and worked in. When I discovered that a club the singer used to frequent when she was a teenager was on the exact same road my voice teacher lived on, it was like all my stars aligned. I walked past that place several times a month and I didn’t even know! I was armed with the confidence that my stories were grounded in real places.
The supporting evidence I mentioned earlier was also part of the reason I felt confident in my writing: a feeling that I wasn’t imagining things, I wasn’t delusional. Speculation about musicians and other celebrities on social media is still commonplace, and today, when I don’t know the artist in question, I always wonder: is this speculation coming from fact, or wishful thinking?
There is no denying that queer people are always looking for representation and have a basic human need to see themselves reflected in others, but personally, I can’t be sure that I would have gained an interest in this couple if they’d barely looked at each other on stage. In fact, on the very rare occasions, someone wrote fanfiction involving the singer and a different band member, I remember thinking, why would anyone do that?
There is also a point I’ve seen made, almost ten years after my fanfiction-writing days, that there is a much higher number of openly queer celebrities now. With role models to suit every sexuality and gender identity label, it may seem odd to focus on the ones who sit in a label-less grey area. You may be wondering how the fics were received if there was any backlash to our writing about these two people and talking about them on a public social network. Tumblr was particularly well known for allowing anonymous messaging on their platform, and the phenomenon of receiving anonymous hate through one’s inbox was widespread and potentially very damaging. Nevertheless, I cannot recall ever receiving messages which criticised my choice of writing for this pairing, and I don’t think this happened to any other fellow writers either – although I might just have forgotten as it’s been so long. What I do remember is that we all got fairly regular anonymous questions along the lines of “do you think they’re really gay?” or “do you think they’re really in a relationship?” which all of us dodged rather masterfully, too cautious of saying the wrong thing and alienating our readership.
Some of the wider criticism around RPF consists of considering it a form of harassment. Quite early on in my foray into this realm, I found an essay written by Tumblr user Appolsaucy, which provided me with great relief and validation that I wasn’t doing anything wrong in using real people for creative purposes. On rereading it now, this Tumblr post appears to be a response to popular teen author John Green’s declaration of disapproval of real person shipping. Appolsaucy, however, set a very clear priority: that writing RPF is only harassment when the celebrities written about are informed or asked to provide comments on the speculation around their love life.
Us writers often dealt with the risk that the newer, more naive fans would alert the celebrities to the fictional stories being written about them. I would begin every story disclaimer that nobody sent the band links and I opted to have my blog not indexed on Google. As a fandom, I think we were all in agreement about this one thing, and when one person tried to send the band members a link on Twitter, they were immediately asked to remove it as we patiently took turns explaining why it was wrong. Nevertheless, it still got back to the band members and this is how: through a close friend of the musicians, who was younger than all the band members and perhaps a little more familiar with the sociology of internet fandom. Whether they looked for the fic or stumbled upon it by accident or were alerted to it by a fan, we will never know, but they posted on their own Tumblr completely out of the blue, to say that they’d taken the two people involved out to dinner and had read out excerpts from our fics to them both. It was very much a scandal for a few days, as much as their post tried to reassure everyone that the two had found them “sweet”.
I felt humiliated and panicked and immediately locked my Tumblr under a password, which I did not share with anyone. I transferred several of my stories onto AO3 (Archive Of Our Own, the current principal fanfiction hub, which replaced ff.net in popularity). No one else in this fandom was using AO3 at the time, so it wouldn’t be the first place that came to mind if someone was looking for this pairing. It felt like it had been a good choice to remain anonymous, so that if I one day met these two people (and I did eventually meet the musician – as well as her friend who threw our tiny fandom under the bus!) I could still look them in the eye and they wouldn’t associate me with my writings. Weirdly, I cannot remember how this all eventually blew over, when, or why I reopened my Tumblr, but I did.
The second main point of criticism with RPF tends to be about labeling someone’s sexuality who is assumed to be straight. We know this happens enough when we are discussing fictional characters – and we know that it pisses off the straights to no end – so it’s even more exasperating when it comes to real people. While discussing someone else’s intellectual property does not hurt the characters’ feelings or reputation, it may well do when real people are involved.
As queer people, we have always picked up on coding in characters from books and television, even before the internet was a thing. However, when this happens with real people, there is very much a feeling that speculation is an invasion of privacy. You will have witnessed this every time a famous person comes out: if anyone hints at having figured it out long before it was made public, it is considered extremely disrespectful and like the celebrity isn’t being allowed to come out on their own terms. And yet, the aforementioned ‘gaydar’ is very much not a made-up phenomenon. It’s merely a word to indicate that like often recognizes like, because we know what to look for, and we know how to piece puzzles together. ‘Gaydar’ has very much been the way many people from my generation and older ended up in relationships before coming out, because somebody at some point acted on an impulse, an inkling.
There are fewer implications looking at queer coding in fictional characters because there are no real feelings that could potentially be harmed (feelings of the sometimes homophobic actors and showrunners excepted). When it comes to real people, what I found in terms of backlash was that the people who were most bothered by our RPF were the fans battling their own internalized homophobia, who still perceived that their favourites not being heterosexual was somehow offensive. Many of them, perhaps a majority, have accepted and labelled their sexuality since, but at the time, they did post that they found the fanfiction “gross” and “disgusting.”
Fictionalising these people as non-straight and writing about it, while it may gross some people out for their own personal reasons, is in no way a violation of privacy. In the same fandom, we had someone share a picture of the several band members’ official travel documents (without any of the information blacked out), we also had people following the singer around the area she lives in, and posting paparazzi-style pictures taken from these walks – isn’t that far more invasive and dangerous? The elements in our stories which drew on real events could not be a violation of privacy, as those events were common knowledge.
Speculating about their sexuality is equally not a violation of privacy – unless you’re one of those people who believe any non-straight sexuality should be expressed exclusively behind closed doors (the good old “I don’t care what you do in the bedroom as long as you don’t shove it in my face”). Appolsaucy reminds us that “We can think whatever we want about people without their consent. There’s no way to avoid this and so there’s nothing morally wrong with it.” They make the example of having opinions and assumptions about family members, family and coworkers. This includes thinking that somebody might be of specific sexuality. Everyone has had wrong assumptions made about them in their life, and everybody has a choice, when made aware of these wrong assumptions, of whether they want to ignore them or correct them. In the band members’ case, they chose to ignore them – we only ever had one second hand account of what they thought about our stories.
A third and minor form of backlash I received was mostly relating to my age. People recognised that my longer-lived experience brought something extra to my writing, but at the same time came at me with stereotypes that I should “act my age” and not partake in fandom at all. Weirdly, even though our queerness makes us inherently outsiders to societal expectations, some fellow queers believed that as a woman entering my 30s I should be boxed into an extremely regimented life: a partner or spouse, children and a serious job. The only difference to the heteronormative stereotype is that my partner could be of any gender, but I was definitely expected to have moved on from fandom once I reached a certain age (25 is usually the arbitrary line I have seen people draw again and again). This really does strike me as cognitive dissonance: every fangirl in her 30s was once a fangirl in her teens, is it not a natural evolution that the same will occur to (at least some of) today’s teenage fans? And yet, it was those same teenage fans who held beliefs of needing to “grow out of it,” of expecting people to wake up on the morning of their 25th birthday having finally become a stereotypical adult who is incapable of finding joy in creative hobbies.
My creative hobby has always been writing, ever since I was five years old. That for a period of my life my writing was oriented towards band members who may or may not have been in a relationship, doesn’t feel that significant in the grand scheme of things. It felt right at the time, and it gave me endless amounts of satisfaction to see other people enjoying my writing and making fan art of it. Although not every fanfic writer aims to become an author, for the first time in my life I knew that with the right motivation, I was absolutely able to produce over fifty thousand words of a single story and construct a plot that had a beginning, middle and end – something I had always doubted in the past. I had close, real life friends discuss plot developments with me and it was invaluable. I am not close with many of these people anymore, but the fact remains that I learned what kind of feedback I need while I’m writing and what kind of brainstorming helps me progress my stories and keep them internally consistent.
Writing in this fandom was a confidence boost, and coming out of that experience I could finally see myself writing original novels with my own characters. What is stopping me now is no longer confidence, but the lack of beta readers and the lack of pre-existing enthusiasm towards my characters. Working on any kind of fanfiction helps tell stories to an already established audience. You don’t have to work on making them warm up to your characters; they already love them. Our experience as writers, too, reflected this love – we gave back in the way that felt most natural, to a band who had been a comfort and a companion to us throughout the years.
Carter, Paige (appolsaucy.tumblr.com). 2012. “Why it is okay to ship real people with other real people” Tumblr, December 18,2012. https://appolsaucy.tumblr.com/post/38209037107/why-it-is-okay-to-ship-real-people-with-other-real
EMW (she/her) lives and works in London, UK. Despite a very un-artistic day job, she writes poetry and essays, collages, draws and is a retired singer. Recurring themes in her work are cultural displacement, sleep disorders, and trauma from enmeshed parenting. She was featured in Nerve, Loneliness in Lockdown, Your faves are problematic, and other physical zines. She dreams of one day being a published author of queer YA.