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: fanfiction.
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.
Furthermore, @popculturedetective just released an amazing video explaining the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope, in which hopelessly naive, beautiful women are seen swooning over their more savvy male lovers. (Found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=0thpEyEwi80)
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!