If you’re familiar with the cartoon Bob’s Burgers, you may be aware of the oldest child’s obsession with writing “FriendFiction” because she ran out of fanfiction topics to write on. Tina Belcher has binders filled with stories starring her friends and classmates in elaborate fictional stories in which she often plays a key role. This isn’t just a figment of the show writers’ imaginations, real-person fiction is a real thing (I touched on the implications of real-person shipping in this previous article.)
Real-Person Fiction is a broadening genre of fanfiction in which real-life stars, athletes and even historical figures, are written into fictional situations much the same way many of us write about our favorite characters. Overwhelmingly, the main stars are often celebrities and athletes. One Direction is a popular topic in this genre among their fans, for example. In order to get a bit more of a handle on this genre I even went in and explored Archive of Our Own’s expansive selection, coming across all kinds of stories. This got me thinking, what makes people want to write about actual real-life celebs? Is it the same thing that makes me write my fanfiction?
I chose to do some research on the topic, from a psychological perspective, and found that there is no overarching reason. However, there are a few possible explanations as suggested by recent psychological research stemming from the early 2000s to last year when studies have been conducted analyzing what is called Celebrity Worship Syndrome, which is not an official disorder but is associated with certain mental health concerns if it is in the most disordered and severe state.
Celebrity Worship Syndrome has three defining dimensions ranking from benign to disordered according to research recapped in this article by Dr. J. Grohol, of PsychCentral. The first dimension and the most benign is Entertainment-Social. That is, people who are attentive to celebrities because they are the center of attention. These people follow celebrity news because it’s interesting, and likely because other’s show an interest in them. There are no significant implications from this dimension. This group shows no issues with self-esteem related to their following of celebs and they have a regular attributional style. That is, they know when to accept blame for their mistakes and when to pass it on. People from this group might be more likely to write tabloid-esque stories about celebrities based on something they know to be true.
The second dimension, Intensive-Personal, is moderate. This group tends to display intensive and compulsive feelings about celebrities. They have a positive level of self-esteem and are more likely to attribute mistakes to external causes and not because they did anything wrong.
The third dimension, and the most disordered, is Borderline-Pathological. This group displays uncontrollable behaviors and fantasies when it comes to their famous obsessions. They tend to have lower self-esteem and are much more likely to attribute external causes for anything that goes wrong in their lives. This group is also far more likely to have mental health concerns, get plastic surgery and display disordered thinking.
Now, obviously Real-Person Fiction isn’t just one of these groups of people. Neither is fanfiction. These are just possible groups they may fall into. The psychology behind the two is probably fairly similar. From my experience, fanfiction (and likely RPF) is just a way to express how much you love a show or character. However, like all things it can take an obsessive unhealthy turn if the conditions are just right. I personally feel like fiction writing is a healthy way to explore yourself and the world around you. It’s a way to reflect and get some minor wish fulfillment when you need it the most, as long as it’s remembered that fiction is fiction. Like for myself, who has on more than one occasion gotten a little too interested in an anime or show and obsessed over it, I have had to pull back.
It may also be that RPF offers a way to explore the aspects of celebrities that resonate with the writer. That particular thing that makes the writer adore their celebrity crush. This is a perfectly healthy and reasonable behavior. It’s also necessary. When we relate to someone and maybe start to align our identity with theirs, we should know what it is that is drawing us in. I feel like boredom may also contribute to this for some writers. Celebrities are easy to speculate about. They are in the public eye with a wealth of information available about their lives. It is very easy to get lost wondering how they are behind closed doors, what they like to eat, how they hang out with their friends.
There is of course the small percentage of people who may be actually obsessed to an unhealthy degree and write RPF as a way to fetishize and fanaticize about their favorite celebs as an extension of the reality that doesn’t allow for that contact.