Fanfiction about real people is flourishing

In early January, fanfiction website Archive Of Our Own experienced some temporary downtime. Rumor had it that it was caused by a single fanfic releasing a new chapter, one that had become so popular that the sudden influx of readers had overwhelmed the site’s servers. And though AO3 clarified that this was not the case, the idea didn’t come from nowhere.

“It was like everyone was suddenly admitting to everyone else that they were reading and enjoying [real person fanfiction],” says Aenqa, a writer who asked to be referred to by their pen name.

Every day on the internet, new micro-trends emerge, only to become old news five minutes later. In Polygon’s new series The Next Generation of Everything, we’re looking at what’s blowing up in the worlds and fandoms we follow, and what the latest shifts say about where Extremely Online life is going next.

While real person fanfic (or RPF) has been around for decades, it’s typically been a contested niche. In 2001 it was banned from then-popular archive FanFiction.net due to the ethical concerns of writing characters who are extrapolated from human beings with their own lives. And though it always persisted, it was often perceived as particularly “cringey and poorly written,” Aenqa says.

But in the past few months, that’s changed completely ⁠— at least in one particular fandom.

“All of a sudden, everyone was reading Heat Waves,” says Aenqa. A twelve-chapter RPF published between October 2020 and January 2021, Heat Waves suddenly became the highest-rated fic on the site. (At least, the highest-rated serious fic; the true title goes to a Guardians of the Galaxy joke fic in which every line is “I am Groot.”) Heat Waves stars two particular Minecraft YouTubers who often play together: Dream and GeorgeNotFound. In real life, the pair are the cofounders of the Dream SMP, a role-playing server that has its own internal fiction. In Heat Waves, they mostly navigate their complicated romantic feelings for one another.

Fan artist Carbon created this comic featuring Dream and GeorgeNotFound quoting a popular line from Heat Waves
Illustration: Carbon

“I think this fic basically introduced a whole demographic of people, especially younger people, to the idea that fanfiction can be genuinely well-written, that it can take itself seriously as an interesting piece of writing, that it can be crafted with intention and care, and that it can be enjoyable to read,” Aenqa says.

Another writer, Molly, describes how the popularity of the fic also allowed people to admit that they enjoyed “shipping” the YouTubers, or imagining them in a relationship together. “Before [it had] been something that people would talk about on the down low, and no one would really admit to liking or shipping them,” she says. “They would read and write fanfics and make fanart as a ‘joke,’ but then once Heat Waves gained its popularity, [the ship] became very normal.”

The key, Aenqa says, is that the YouTubers have explicitly endorsed this kind of fan activity. “Unlike, I think, most creators who have RPF written about them, Dream and George have not only explicitly said that they’re okay with RPF being written about them, but have even gone so far as to openly encourage it. I’ve never really seen that happen in any other fan space before, and I think it really normalizes that whole area of fic.” In a December video, Dream said that he’s “been on the record saying I’m fine with fans drawing or writing whatever they want. That includes graphic stuff about me and George or something, as an example, together.” (Heat Waves isn’t explicit, but those fics certainly exist.)

Despite having the YouTubers’ endorsements, members of the fandom are still discussing where respectful boundaries should be drawn, for both YouTubers and fic writers. Heat Waves and a lot of other fanfics in the genre ask readers not to share them with the creators in question, which sometimes happens in Twitch donations and similar live situations. Dr. Judith Fathallah, scholar and author of Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Cultural Texts, says that this two-way engagement is an interesting development when it comes to online influencers and fanfic.

“I recall seeing YouTube influencers Dan and Phil acting out fanfiction about their media personas… but it was very clearly played for laughs and designed to induce ‘cringe-humor’ in the audience,” she tells Polygon. “It’s an interesting question what the object of mockery is: the fanfiction, the creators’ personas, their fans, the concept of an unmediated reality, the collapsed borders between fandoms and influencers, or any combination of the above.”

In this way, fanfic authors asking for their work not to be shared with creators are navigating both a respect for their subjects and the risk of their own mockery. That’s why, says Aenqa, it’s so important that Dream has “actively gone to bat for real-person shippers.” Whether other creators might be able to encourage the same acceptance and subsequent explosion in their own fandoms remains to be seen. It might be worthwhile. “Dream has also said that he thinks fanfiction ultimately helps his career, because it means there are more people talking about him and engaging with his content.”

But whether or not something like Heat Waves and the associated mainstreaming of RPF can spread outside of this fandom, it’s already having an impact on those in the community. Molly explains that she originally got into writing Minecraft YouTube fic because she had prior experience and “after discovering that [Dream and George] didn’t have a lot of fics, I wanted to be the one to give it to the fandom.” But once the ship and associated fic writing became more popular, “it was even more fun to write and talk about their dynamic with other people and writers.”

“I sense it’s just going to keep growing in popularity,” she says. “RPF has been somewhat normalized when it stays within creators’ boundaries and it isn’t looked at as weird and creepy as much as it used to be, [so it’s] going to keep getting that traction.”

“I’ve never personally experienced the kind of writing communities that have popped up because of this,” Aenqa says. “Fic writing in the Minecraft YouTube/Dream SMP space is incredibly communal and supportive. Writers plug their stuff openly on Twitter, retweet and signal-boost each other, and talk really openly about the writing process. Fic writing, for me, has always been a very lonely enterprise. That couldn’t be less true for this fan space.”