Why people love to write stories about public figures | Sunday Observer

Why people love to write stories about public figures

29 August, 2021

Right now, one of the most-read stories on popular fanfiction site ’Archive of Our Own’ is an RPF story about Minecraft YouTubers Dream and GeorgeNotFound. “Heat Waves,” has garnered over two million hits.

The story has brought these fandoms into the mainstream and reawakened conversations about RPF — especially when it comes to the celebrity-characters signing off on fans creating content about them. In 2021, almost anyone can be a public figure, and that raises complicated issues about what it means to write fanfiction about real people, whether or not they’re actual celebrities.

Fanlore defines Real Person Fiction (RPF) as “fanfiction written about people, rather than fictional characters.” The concept itself is older than modern fandom.

Shakespeare’s historical dramas are technically an early form of this trend in fiction. Even the Bible has been argued by some to feature tenets of what we call fanfiction today.

In today’s internet landscape, no public figure is off the table when it comes to reimagining them as characters in fanworks. Back when I was a tadpole in fandom, people wrote stories about the cast of ’Lord of the Rings’.

Then came Bandom and its fanworks that primarily revolved around groups such as Panic at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and My Chemical Romance. Sports fandoms like hockey and figure skating have their own RPF fandoms dating back years.

Why do people get so interested in RPF? “Fanfic based on boy band fandom started with fans’ hope that they would know more about and feel closer to their favourite stars,” Jungmin Kwon points out in ’Straight Korean Female Fans and their Gay Fantasies’.

K is a writer who started in the early days of LOTR RPF and has written widely for different RPF fandoms, and currently writes about BTS.

“Most of my stories would genuinely be very easy to file the serial numbers off of and publish as original queer erotica — because other than likenesses and those high point sketches of personality they are entirely original works. But part of the fun for me as a writer is maintaining that legibility of character across these really extreme differences of setting, so I doubt I’ll ever do so,” K tells ’Teen Vogue’.

The reasons for creating and consuming RPF vary from person to person, and they change over time. Why I read RPF as teenager obsessed with the cast of Lord of the Rings and why I read (and occasionally write) it now are vastly different experiences.

As with many other fandoms, content creators and consumers bring different aspects of themselves to the RPF table and there’s no “one size fits all” approach to RPF as a whole.

Some people write and read stories about their favourite celebrities in situations that mimic their real lives, like the behind-the-scenes moments of a film or set during the afterparty of an awards show. Many others take these celebrities out of their world entirely, writing them in epic fantasy stories or dropping them into college campuses. Just as the reasons behind creating and consuming RPF differ depending on the needs and wants of the fan, so do the settings that fans and fan-creators gravitate towards.

Now, there are limits to RPF that contribute to why this form of fandom has been so controversial across fandoms for decades. The main issue that many people in and out of the different RPF communities raise involve the “ethics” of real person fiction.

Turning real people into fictional characters seems like murky territory to many people across multiple fandoms because of concerns about public figures’ privacy. While some celebrities might approve of, benefit from, or even simply ignore fanworks, some don’t want strangers to write, request, or consume stories about them, especially erotic works.

Just as not all fans want to write or read RPF, not all public figures want to know it exists. As a result, RPF pushes up against boundaries even within otherwise permissive fandom spaces where “anything goes.”

This is because people become uncomfortable with the idea of fictionalizing real people who, increasingly, are able to find out what people are writing and drawing about them thanks to the magic of Google — and some fans who actually share fanworks with public figures themselves.

For some who become subjects of RPF, the distance between fans and who they’re writing about can help smooth over some of the rough spots there. For example: while ’The Social Network’ fandom had people writing fanfiction about Mark Zuckerberg and his former friends and associates like Eduardo Saverin, the film already fictionalized these men’s lives, so those shippers weren’t reading into their real lives for their fan content. A story about Zuckerberg and his friends following ’The Social Network’sn’t so much about them, but about the characters that actors like Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield played. (And about the actors themselves.) For a “regular” person that has lucked into the public view — such as a content creator on YouTube or TikTok or a journalist — the distance is so much smaller.

Many people are concerned with the idea of RPF “dehumanizing” real people by turning them into characters. It’s a hot topic among both people who like RPF and those who hate it — especially when it comes to celebrities of colour like different Korean idols.

But much of this comes down to who’s doing the writing, how they’re writing a celebrity, and why. To call it dehumanization doesn’t quite work, since the very act of reading a fanfiction makes readers put themselves into that celebrity’s shoes, rather than simply viewing them as an untouchable figure on a pedestal.

For me, writing fic in my notebook about Halsey in some outlandish but fun scenario is a way that I can express my feelings about them beyond screaming whenever they post a selfie or tweet. For most RPF writers, the act of creating this kind of content is a way to dig deeper into why they like a particular public figure— and thirst isn’t always the main fuel!

Despite the valid concerns people have about it, real person fiction isn’t automatically good or bad. It’s simply a generations-long form of fandom and literature that has deep roots in celebrity cultures worldwide. And now, as celebrity culture has evolved to include everyday people who’ve become the center of their own fandoms thanks to videos on social media or even their own fanworks, the conversations we have around RPF have to shift as well.

Because at the root of RPF isn’t dehumanization or exploitation, though those things are certainly up for discussion in individual works. It’s the simple, evergreen enjoyment of settling in for a good story about people you love in situations that are just outside of the norm — theirs and yours.