Friendship Comes First: What (Good) Fanfiction Can Teach Us About the Romantic Subplot.
I love all forms of storytelling: television, books, movies, you name it. As long as it’s quality, its ripe for the picking.
It’s so easy for me to become engrossed in the lives and psychologies of fictitious characters, to care for them as though they’re people I really know. Which, on some metaphysical level, I suppose is true, but that’s a topic for another essay.
However, in the midst of all my possibly Asperger’s-fueled hyper-fixation and nerdery, there’s one inevitable aspect of seemingly every plot to which I will almost always role my eyes and click the fast-forward button: the goddamned romantic subplot.
So many times have I seen the exact same variation of romantic love between fifty homogeneous couples, and each time, I failed to see the appeal: in books, the smirking, obnoxious male love interest will woo the object of his desire through flagrant disrespect, the same toned bodies will copulate furiously on my television screens (typically at the exact same moment my parents or small siblings will walk into the room), the same vapid, flirtatious stares and generic dialogue will be exchanged.
But where’s the basis for it? Yes, these people are stressed to be attracted to one another to the point of obnoxiousness, but do they even like each other as individuals? Are they even friends? Is there any three-dimensionality to their relationship besides sizing each other up and deciding to bump uglies?
Simply and also sadly, the answer is very rarely. And so, it
seemed to me that romance was not my cup of tea, both in the
fictitious world and out of it. Or so it seemed.
Because it was then, at approximately seventeen, that I discovered
a remarkable phenomenon that would change my life forever:
Never before had I been so enraptured in the relationships of
fictional characters, and I was baffled as to why. Yes, I’ve
read a tremendous deal of fanfiction that is, in fact, book quality,
but as an avid bibliophile, I was perplexed as to why I’d never
been so captivated by the romantic endeavors of a published author as
I was by the passion-projects of writers not much older than I was.
After a lot of time, careful consideration, and the illuminating
words of some of my fellow bloggers, however, I believe I can finally
put words as to why.
1. Give your characters a narrative purpose (besides being The Love Interest.)
Do you ever wonder what inspires Supernatural fans
to tirelessly churn out fics about their favorite human-on-angel
pairing? I have, and this is someone who’s a proud proponent
of the stuff.
The sheer magnitude of free literature available, constantly repositing the
pair in all manor of situations and walks of life, is absolutely
baffling, and undeniably impressive. Indeed, some of the best works of romantic literature – and yes, I do consider fanfiction to be a form of literature – I have ever come across were starring none other than this specific pairing: from the infamous Twist and Shout (which I don’t recommend if you ever want to listen to Elvis Presley music, visit a beach, or feel joy ever again) to the charming Have Love, Will Travel (probably my personal favorite), some truly beautiful love stories have blossomed from a pairing that has never even been confirmed onscreen to have romantic connotations.
Perhaps just as baffling is the other end of the spectrum: Lisa Braeden. Lisa, for those unfamiliar, is basically posited as the love of Dean’s life, with whom he lived for a year before being forced to give up his dream of a family life and return to full-time demon busting. They’ve canonically kissed, had sex, shared a bed, and everything typically associated with an onscreen couple.
Yet comparatively no fanworks exist about them. When Lisa does appear in a fic, she is usual Castiel’s rival for Dean’s affections, or simply a hapless bystander.
Why is this? Well, a disillusioned observer might point to straight women’s apparent predilection towards fetishizing male homosexuality (I, for the record, am not straight myself; I’m a proud bisexual who, thus far, has only dated women.) I’m inclined to retort that this isn’t giving female fans nearly enough credit.
For starters, remove all context from each relationship and examine them with a critical eye: on the one hand, you have Castiel, Dean’s angelic savior from forty years in perdition. Castiel is clearly fascinated with Dean, appearing in his bedroom, somewhat suggestively (advertently or otherwise) inquiring about his dreams, watching him sleep, routinely invading his personal space, and ultimately rebelling against heaven in accordance with Dean’s wishes.
On the other hand, you have Lisa, a perfectly nice character who’s introduced as “the bendiest weekend of (Dean’s) life” and…well, that’s about it. She’s later shown as a sort of amalgamation of Dean’s subconscious desire for a mother figure and normal life, but she, as a character, remains somewhat underdeveloped and hollow.
You can’t expect fans to hold the two relationships to the same caliber and then cry internalized misogyny and fetishization of gay and bisexual men when they don’t.
The fact of the matter is, onscreen “friendships” are typically much more developed, much more three-dimensional, and much more ideal of what a truly epic romantic plot should be. A character with a clear place in the narrative and three dimensional characterization all their own will almost always be more charismatic than a character who’s introduced as exclusively The Love Interest.
This is not to say that what makes fanfiction so great is that it sexualizes or romanticizes friendship. In fact, I’m inclined to believe it’s the other way around.
Which brings me to my next point…
2. Make sure your characters are friends.
It’s a romance for the ages. A love like no other. They’re soulmates, yin and yang, a match made in the stars.
But do they enjoy each other’s company? Laugh at each other’s jokes? Take part in each other’s interests? Are they even friends?
The sad fact of the matter is, romance and erotica are, as a whole, starved for values of friendship and camaraderie.
This is something I realized only after my love of fanfiction took root, when I tried to return to my normal sources of adult entertainment (romance, erotica, and porn) and found them, by comparison, almost bafflingly lacking in warmth and camaraderie.
What I think makes fanfiction so addictive is the fact that it’s built upon the established relationships of two or more characters (the Onceler and company notwithstanding) who, typically, care for one another as friends and compatriots.
Look at some of the internet’s favorite pairings: Dean Winchester and Castiel remain a classic. Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers are always crowd-pleasers. Kara Denvers and Lena Luthor are seeing a rise in popularity. We all know Sherlock has somewhat fallen from grace, but the union of its two main characters still retains a devoted following.
This is no accident: despite lacking onscreen confirmation, these characters have proven themselves to care for one another as more than objects of their sexual desire. They’re friends, with relationships based in loyalty and warmth that are, unfortunately, sorely lacking in typical fictional romances.
Once you get a taste of this brand of friendship-infused romance, in fanfiction or otherwise, it’s hard to go back.
This isn’t just limited to quote-unquote “fanon” couples, either: couples such as Mulder and Scully, Bones and Booth, Yuuri and Victor, and Ladybug and Chat Noir can all attribute their popularity to this strong basis in friendship, camaraderie, and mutual respect.
This is also the leading cause as to why the formerly booming 50 Shades franchise, and other arguably sexist, abusive dynamics, are struggling at the box office.
Which reminds me…
3. Make sure your characters are equals.
Unless you’re writing a Lolita-esque social commentary, it’s probably your best bet to keep your characters on fairly equal ground.
I mean this in every sense of the word, too: I have a difficult time getting invested in a romance when there’s a pretty blatant power imbalance, which oftentimes occurs due to the implicit sexism of the entertainment industry.
Disproportionately young actresses are assigned as love interests to much older men, such as Emma Watson’s twenty-something-year-old character lusting over a man almost twenty years her senior in Irrational Man.
Physically mediocre or average-looking male characters are frequently pared with stunningly beautiful women who like them because they’re “nice,” fueling the existing mentality of all self-proclaimed “nice guys” who think society owes them a hot girl.
I love Splash and the Fifth Element as much as anybody, but both films incorporate all these tropes in ample proportions, and it’s frankly ridiculous. (On the topic of Splash, however, I’m greatly looking forward to a subversion of this trope in its remake, starring Channing Tatum as the titular merman and Julianne Belle as his human love interest.)
On the other hand, you have fanfiction. I’ve read numerous essays professing that fanfiction is becoming increasingly popular due to the fact that same-sex relationships tend to be implicitly devoid of these sex-based imbalances, and I’m inclined to agree.
However, I’ve read others stating that male-male pairings tend to be so popular because male characters are typically more well-developed by writers, making it perfectly understandable that fans would be more invested in a possible romance between two characters of equal multidimensionality (see point 1) than one that is sorrowfully underdeveloped. I’m inclined to think that this theory is even more on point.
Because look at some of the successful onscreen relationships I listed prior: we root for Bones and Booth’s inevitable union the same way we swoon over slowburn fanfiction, delighting in Mulder and Scully’s banter and craving their interaction.
These are, in my opinion, some examples of straight couples done right, because they’re portrayed as friends (see the previous point), and just as importantly, as equals.
Last, but certainly not least, the male characters in both pairings are depicted as having nothing but respect for their female compatriots, depending on their intellectual know how and not being ashamed to say so.
A more contemporary example that gets this wrong? Well, not to offend any fans of the pairing, but Mon-El and Kara, a la Supergirl. Mon-El was, at the beginnings of his arc, consistently disrespectful towards Kara, putting her down and insulting her in the very same episodes in which her female compatriot – Lena Luthor – is shown vocally admiring and praising her.
Mon-El has since improved on his behavior, but the damage is done: I still have a difficult time seeing him as a likeable character, much less a suitable love interest for my beloved Kara.
These are just a few recommendations, based on the ways in which my somewhat obsessive love of transformative literature (i.e. good fanfiction) have helped me as a writer and helped me view the implicit problems with mainstream romance with a more discerning and critical eye.
Here, I could provide a counterpoint with the recurring problems I’ve noticed in fanfiction, or I could go into some recomendations for writing explicitly gay and lesbian relationships. Both of these, however, are topics worthy of another essay.
Disclaimer: I am assuming that any and all readers are trying for an enjoyable, healthy romantic subplot with equally charismatic, consenting, and likable characters. Dysfunctionality can be just as interesting from a literary standpoint, but again, this is a topic for another essay.
There will be essays like this published at least once every other week, so be sure to follow my blog and stay tuned for future writing advice and observations!
Adrien Agreste has had it up to his eyeballs with Marinette Dupain-Cheng. He wants to catapult her across Paris, serenade her on piano, and kiss her so hard that neither of them can breathe.
At first, his wild, racing brain seems completely unreasonable until he lands on the third thought. Because firstly, Marinette is wonderful and sweet and gentle and he’s been so oblivious to her feelings all this time and now he can’t even take his eyes off of her. Secondly, he’s been wildly in love with her since the first time they met and he doesn’t mean the time where she saw him trying to remove gum from her seat.
He’s talking about crashing into each other headlong at full speed and subsequently becoming tied up in her yo-yo. Because Marinette Dupain-Cheng is Ladybug and he’s not sure how he has missed it for so long.
A Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir fanfic Summary: In which Marinette nurses a concussed Chat back to health. Unabashed MariChat fluff. Snippet: Marinette observed him briefly as he reclined on the couch, eyes closed with a look of self-satisfied contentment on his features. She was tempted to snap at him and tell him not to get too comfortable – she wasn’t going to wait on him hand and foot indefinitely – his cockiness definitely didn’t need any bolstering. But he just looked so peaceful, like he was right at home and this was the most natural place in the world for him to be. ‘I wonder how mom and dad would feel about taking in a stray cat…’
Pinks and yellows, frills and lace, sparkles and glitter – these were the things cherished most by the merry toddler as she twirled about the room in her favorite dress-up tutu. Today she was Princess Belle, beloved by all her plush animal subjects in the kingdom of her living room. An elaborate spread lay in front of her as she danced, so she was careful to avoid the delicate plastic teacups and the croissant Maman and given her for her afternoon snack. Her world of make-believe was full of sunshine and rainbows, despite the grey and wet atmosphere that hung around her ‘castle’.
Rain began to patter against the windows, but she fancied it to be the sound of the court minstrel striking up a jolly jig for the beloved princess to dance to. As her pace quickened, she became lost in her performance, her adoring subjects cheering for their beautiful leader to dance faster and faster. It was in her fervor that she forgot to carefully check each step before she made it, so when a flash of bright light shone in her peripheral, her distraction cost her an unfortunate misstep and she found herself tumbling headfirst into her tea party. The clap of thunder that followed rattled her nerves even farther, and soon the shock of her fall gave way to the realization that she was in pain, and scary loud monsters were coming to storm the castle.
“Marinette! What’s the matter?” her most loyal knight hastened to her side, leaving his post in the kitchen, where he had been working on preparing that night’s royal feast. Through sniffles and sobs, the child fell into “Her royal knight, Sir Papa!”’s consoling embrace and first chastised him for getting her title wrong – again. “I’m not Marinette; I’m the princess!” With a soft chuckle, Papa argued, “Every daughter is a princess, so even if I don’t always call you my princess, you always will be, mon petite Marinette.” Rubbing her nose affectionately with his own until she giggled, he then repeated, “Now tell me, Princess Marinette, what seems to be the trouble?”
Some angsty MariChat in case you had a need: Midnight in Paris
They lay in a secluded section of the park, far enough
off the main pathways that they were swathed more in moonlight than the distant
glow of the streetlights. Marinette was curled around Chat Noir, resting her
head on his chest; his lay on her right leg, his left arm draped around her
waist. It would have been uncomfortable, both the tight position and the hard,
dew-dampened ground, were she not so focused on his heartbeat thrumming through
her skull, the rise and fall of his chest, or the warmth of his body.
It almost felt strange to be with him here as Marinette
rather than as Ladybug, but it wouldn’t for long.
The time for secrets between them had passed, at least on
She caught the slight change in his breathing and wasn’t
surprised when he blinked open his eyes. He stared at her for a moment before
the word emerged from his lips. “Purr-incess?”
“Shh, kitty. You don’t need to talk.” She found his hand
and squeezed it. “I’m here. That’s enough for now.”
Fortunately, he seemed to take her at her word and lapsed
into silence, closing his eyes again. She wondered what he was thinking, if he
was at all surprised. He had left on patrol with Ladybug but had ended up with
Marinette. She hoped he didn’t feel betrayed. She’d begun to wonder if his
feelings for her had begun shifting quite some time ago, and she wasn’t sure if
that made it worse.
It’s not that he had stopped trying to flirt with
Ladybug, not exactly, but he had stopped forcing it. They had become better
friends in its absence, enough so that she occasionally deigned to speak a pun
in his hearing. They’d become closer, close enough that she’d begun to believe that
Alya’s crazy theories about Chat Noir and Ladybug secretly dating could
actually become a possibility, when she began finding the little gifts.
It hadn’t started as much. The first one had simply been
a bundle of scrap material left on her balcony, carefully wrapped to them clean
and dry, and she’d wondered for a wild moment if Nathanaël had managed to leave
it for her. It had seemed like a thoughtful thing he would do, and the idea hadn’t
been entirely dissuaded when the flowers had arrived for her the next night,
sent without a note. Telling her parents she thought they might be from one of
her classmates had resulted in them tossing out names to judge her reaction, so
she’d quickly ended up barricading herself in her room so she had time to
It was then that she had heard the knock on her window,
and her heart had jumped into her throat because she could only remember the
Evillustrator. Except it hadn’t been him. It had been Chat Noir. Come to ‘check
up on her’, he’d said. To ‘make sure her day was purr-fectly bright’. Because he
had ‘been in the neighbourhood’.
She’d shrieked at him to get away before Alya caught wind
of this. He’d gone, and she’d felt awful, but his departure had briefly quelled
the rising panic in her gut. She’d told herself, in the weeks that followed,
that it had only been because Alya was coming over, and she didn’t want to
stand up to Alya’s interrogation when she had no answers.
The truth was, she’d been afraid of more than just the
“Good evening, M’lady.” Came the familiar voice, though it lacked the usual cheery tone. Ladybug turned her body to face him, watching her partner force a smile for her sake. A frown graced her lips, tugging her the corners of her mouth down. She eyed him warily, crossing her arms over her chest. “What’s wrong, minou?” She asked, cocking her head to the left. His eyes seemed dull, no longer holding that shine that she had fallen in love with. “What makes you think something is wrong?” Another forced smile. He was holding back, something he hadn’t done for two years. She stepped closer, a light sigh escaping her as a hand made its way to his cheek. “Chat, we’ve been partners and friends for almost five years now, I know when something is on your mind…” Her brows pulled together, her eyes searching his for any indication as to what had been on his mind. He merely shook his head, pulling himself away from her touch. The warmth from her hand lingered, though he couldn’t say for sure if it was that or the light blush that painted the skin beneath his mask. “It’s nothing to concern yourself with, Ladybug. Really, I will be fine. I just need time.” His eyes shifted, allowing him to take in the city beneath them. He knew that if he held her gaze, he would give in and tell her. He would break and confess what he has been hiding for a year now. He knew who she was, under that mask that he adored. He knew what she was really like. And after his discovery, he had started to visit her. He got to know her, and before he could stop himself fell in love with her a second time. As Adrien, he made more of an effort than he already had to get closer with her. He would make stupid excuses to hang out, and even started cutting his college classes short here and there just to be by her. He wasn’t, however, blind to her emotions. She had someone else. So, for the last six months, he had been trying to distance himself as both Chat Noir and Adrien. “If it’s hurting you, then it is reason to be concerned. Come on, Chaton, is it that bad?” He only clenched a fist, his vision blurring as soft booms began to echo in the distance. Damnit Adrien, don’t cry in front of her! He scolded himself mentally, claws digging into his palms as he tightened his fists. “Please, M’lady, drop the subject.” Chat’s words held an edge, sharp enough to cut through the false façade he had put on for her. Ladybug stared, mouth falling open in light surprise at his tone. It was rare he was like this with her, and when he was, she knew he was really hurting. Steeling herself, she pulled him by his tail and drew him close to her body, sliding her arms over his chest and encasing him in a hug. “Please talk to me, Chat. I’m your partner.” Adrien clenched his jaw, silent tears falling to the metal beams beneath them. He twisted and writhed himself free from her, his resolve cracking and chipping away. Marinette was beginning to panic on the inside, unaccustomed to the blonde forcefully keeping distance between them. “Just stop, Ladybug!” He shouted, turning to face her. The dam holding back his emotions was splitting, breaking apart and letting the flood dominate what little control he had tried to keep. She gasped, taken aback by the outburst. “You can’t help this time damnit! Just leave it alone!” Ladybug blinked, clenching her fists as the pain from his words stabbed through her chest. “I can’t help because you’re not letting me, Chat! You’re shutting me out!” Her own words were full of spite, a bad habit of hers to cover pain. “You can’t help because you’re the problem, Marinette!!” Silence. She gawked at him, fury making its way into her eyes. Seconds had passed before Chat realized what exactly he had said. With a defeated sigh, he turned away from her, bracing himself for the fight to come. “So that’s it… how long have you known?” Rather than the anger he was prepared for, he was hit with a solemn tone. He had expected anger, screaming, hitting. Not… this. Not the saddened, brokenhearted girl he knew was behind him now. Adrien tensed, feeling a dainty hand rest on his shoulder. “How long, Chat…” She repeated, voice cracking. With hesitation, turned his head to glance at her. “I’ve… known for a year now.” He cringed inwardly, feeling her hand tighten slightly before trailing down over his shoulder blade and falling free of his body. “I see… this is why I didn’t want to tell you, Chaton. I knew this is what would happen. I tried to tell you. Under the mask, I’m just this clumsy, stupid girl that can hardly do anything right. I have no confidence in myself without Tikki’s help, without the suit or the mask. I’m not this grand, dazzling girl that you thought I was. I knew you’d react this way…” Tears dripped down her cheeks as she closed her eyes, fists clenched as her head dropped. “I knew I would be just some big disappointment to you, I knew it would do this to us! But no, you couldn’t let it go… despite how desperate I was to keep you in my life because you give me the confidence to be stronger than what I really am! Because regardless of what I’ve said, you’re my best friend! And you…” She paused, drawing in a shaky breath as colors lit up the sky behind her, followed by thundering booms and echoes from the amusement park beginning their widely known fireworks display. “And the worst thing you’ve done in this… is make me fall for you, after everything… I gave up on Adrien for you, Chat! And now I’m your problem?!” She was all but screaming now, shaking visibly. He stared at her, unable to find his voice as everything hit him at once. She loved him? She gave up… him, for him? “Wait… you… you liked me… before you liked me?” He muttered, his heart swelling with a mixture of emotions beyond his comprehension. Ladybug paused, confusion molding her features as she stared hard at him. “What?” Chat Noir gave a weak, yet delighted smile. “It was me… I’m such an idiot…” He chuckled bitterly, then turned his attention to her entirely. “Do you really feel that way about yourself? Because if you do, it’s bullshit. You are strong, beautiful, talented and more confident then you believe. You’ve stood up to Gabriel Agreste to defend me! To give me a fair chance and a break from everything he had me doing… you are so much more than Ladybug. You’re Marinette, fashion designer on her way to the top, artist extraordinaire, not to mention one of the best bakers I’ve ever met next to your parents. You are nothing like you’ve described. A mask and a little touch of magic only does so much, the rest is all you. And I’ve fallen for you just being you.” He took her hands into his, pulling her closer as he laughed. “I can’t believe I’ve been this big of an idiot these past few months… Marinette, I love you. The reason I’ve been distant is… well… I thought you loved someone else. And I just wanted you to be happy. But I didn’t want to get hurt, so I… I ended up hurting you, instead. I’m so, so sorry Mari…” His ears flattened against the golden locks, emerald green eyes brimming once again with tears. She stared at him, more confused than she was before. As he went on, though, her anger dispersed, replaced with her heart thrumming against her ribcage at his view of her. Then the rest of his words hit her. “Wait, what do you mean I’ve stood up for you to Gabriel? I’ve on-“ Before she could finish her sentence, he silenced her by connecting his lips with hers. She tasted just as he’d imagined so many times before, sugary with hints of mint and cinnamon. He could get drunk off of her kisses, intoxicated by the softness of her lips, enticed by her taste, addicted to the warmth. One clawed glove caressed her cheek, the other sliding down her side and coming to a stop on her hip. Tilting his head, he deepened the kiss, the hand on her hip adjusting itself to the small of her back and tugging her closer. Marinette’s cheeks flushed brightly with a crimson hue, her eyes widening at the sudden kiss. Her mind went blank, void of what she had been on the verge of asking her companion. He tasted of wine, strawberries and what she could only guess to be vanilla. His lips were surprisingly soft, yet she could feel faint traces of cracks on the skin. She paid no mind, losing herself in what has plagued her thoughts for months. Her hands pressed against his chest, drifting upwards and entangling themselves in his hair. His teeth grazed her bottom lip, pulling away cautiously as he peered at her through half-lidded eyes. Releasing her, he gave that familiar flirtatious smirk. Dazed, she grabbed him by his bell and tugged him back into another kiss, this one more hungry and desperate than the last. Marinette held him against her, as if loosening her grip meant he would disappear. Adrien returned her affection, matching it with equal desperation and longing. Minutes passed before the two broke apart for air, gasping at the sensation of their burning lungs finally getting the necessary oxygen. They met each other’s gaze, the hunger evident in their eyes. “I love you, M’lady…” He whispered, lips brushing against her own as he spoke. “As both Chat…” He paused, taking a step back. “Plagg, claws in.” He spoke calmly, yet nervously as a green light danced its way down his body. “And Adrien.” Marinette gazed at him for several minutes, A slow smile tugging her lips upwards. “I had a feeling it was you… I just could never be sure… you’re always so different with me that I thought it was impossible, that maybe I was just crazy.” She giggled, kissing his cheeks as new tears slid down her own. “I’m so relieved that I didn’t have to choose after all. I’m so happy it’s you, mon minou…” Marinette released her transformation, taking his hand and carefully sitting on the edge of the metal beam. “Please be careful Princess, one slip from this tower and I’d be a lonely cat.” He slid an arm around her waist, keeping her close to ensure her safety. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Kitty.” Resting her head against his shoulder, Marinette thinks over the argument and frowns. “I’m sorry for what I said. I never should’ve snapped at you like I did.” Adrien chuckled, placing a kiss to the top of her head. “It’s my fault too, Marinette. Had I just told you in the first place, none of this would’ve happened. I should’ve just came clean.” A light sigh escaped him as he looked to the fireworks blooming across the horizon. “How did you find out anyway?” “Uh… well… it was by complete accident. I was in a hurry to get home, and as I was leaping over an alley, a bright flash blinded me momentarily. I hit a chimney, and when I looked to see what the hell it was, I saw you speaking with your Kwami. I never meant to see it, really. But… I’m glad it did. Because of it, I got to know so much more about you. And every bit of it was worth it.” This made Marinette smile, a new warmth spreading within her. “I think so too, Adrien.” Maybe secrets weren’t always a bad thing.