The Ethics of Real Person Fiction

The controversial genre and its ethical debates have a long history in fandom.

Fotolia.com | © natbasil

Fotolia.com | © natbasil

“Here’s my opinion on people writing sexually oriented fanfiction about real people. It’s WRONG, CREEPY, VERY EXTREMELY ICKY, and should be ILLEGAL.”

This impassioned statement by Nightrunner author Lynn Flewelling in a 2004 response to fans is a clear indictment of Real Person Fiction or RPF. A lot is made in fan culture about the ethics behind RPF, a branch of fan writing defined by Fanlore as “fanfiction written about actual people, rather than fictional characters.” Both the controversial genre and its ethical debates have a long history in fandom. The first purported RPF, a story named “Visit to a Weird Planet,” was published in a 1968 edition of Spocknalia, a popular Star Trek zine. In the fic, Kirk, Spock and Bones are sent back to the set of the original Star Trek television series where they are swapped with their real-life counterparts and meet the Great Bird of the Galaxy himself, creator Gene Roddenberry. Likewise, an early fan critique of RPF in the Professionals fandom was published in the 7th issue of The Hatstand Express letterzine in 1985. Regarding the depiction of slash relationships between real people, the fan wrote:

It’s not only dangerous, but it’s the height of bad manners and bad taste as well. Consider: how would you feel if you found out that people you thought were friendly were telling stories (true or not) about your sex life? Stories that could get back to your friends and families? We may own the characters we write about, but we do not own the actors who created them. Friends, this is libel!

This reaction creates a false dichotomy that suggests fans can “own” characters but not real life actors. Celebrities make a conscious choice to enter into the public eye. And star personas are as constructed as any fictional character. Hollywood itself is almost otherworldly and foreign to those not inside the system. The glitz and glamour of Tinseltown, with its shimmering stars and their celestial bodies, mirrors even the most bizarre of supernatural worlds. A 2004 meta post by angstslashhope makes a compelling case for viewing celebrities as fictional characters:

It could be argued that celebrity is the contemporary (or postmodern, heh) ‘fictional character.’ Just as boybands are generally (obviously) comprised of a group of created personalities, so too are any celebrity [sic] you see reported in the papers – Jennifer Lopez, Tom & Nicole, Elijah Wood. These celebrities are creating a character – performing a fictional character in a way, to (and via) the media and general public. […] So in a way, celebrities are just as fictional as any fictional character (who may or may not have aspects of their fictional personality influenced by ‘real’ events). The difference with (most) celebrities, however, is that their fiction is often masquerading as ‘truth.’

To return for a moment to the impassioned position taken by author Lynn Flewelling, part of her issue with RPF is its potential to take an emotional toll on celebrities: “If I were an actress or other public figure and found myself the subject of such ‘fanfiction’ I would feel raped.” This hyperbolic statement implies that, in such a situation, fan writers might have some degree of power over their RPF victims. In reality, however, it is the exact opposite: fan writers by nature have little to no agency in textual production.

If we’re honest for a moment, for the most part, fan works are not taken seriously by the general public, let alone high-profile celebrities churned out by Hollywood’s dream factory. With talk show hosts occasionally assaulting their celebrity guests with explicit fanart of themselves and their co-stars in compromising positions, fan works are always the butt of the joke. Other than these brief encounters with fan works that are always played for laughs (or groans), celebrities are unlikely to be affected by fan works. Cultural hegemony, the top-down system of production and consumption that regulates images in mass media, ensures that powerful and wealthy celebs cannot be touched by bottom-up cultural production — the modus operandi of fandom.

That being said, for me personally, the ethics of RPF become more of a grey area when celebrities’ family members, including spouses or children, are brought into the mix. These are people who have not chosen to be in the public eye. During a transitory period of Thorki shipping, I remember reading a Chris Hemsworth/Tom Hiddleston RPF and cringing when Hemsworth’s spouse and daughter were brought into the narrative for dramatic effect. Perhaps a way to combat the non-consensual inclusion of family members would be to change the names of these characters. Then again, whether this actually solves any sort of ethical dilemma is debatable.

In today’s digital world, where the most intimate stories, photographs, or sex tapes are easily leaked to the public, it is understandable and even reasonable to sympathize with public figures who have their privacy stripped away. However, RPFs are not “real” photographs of “real” peoples’ bodies (Daniel Radcliffe’s head photoshopped onto a muscular torso doesn’t count) nor are they “real” stories about “real” sex lives. RPFs are fictional narratives that feature characters (or, perhaps more accurately, caricatures) based on highly constructed, performed, and regulated personalities.

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About Malory Beazley (36 Articles)
Malory has taken her interest in fandom to the academy, penning a Master's thesis entitled "Out of the Cupboards and Into the Streets!: Harry Potter Genderfuck Fan Fiction and Fan Activism." You can find her in Nova Scotia, sipping coffee, writing fiction, and reading slash.

2 Comments on The Ethics of Real Person Fiction

  1. I mean, I think the fourth wall comes into this too. There have always been designated fan-fiction spaces – zines, livejournal, fanfiction.net, archiveofourown, wattpad – and no one has to read anything they don’t seek out. I do have a problem with people breaking the fourth wall and tweeting celebrities or their families links to explicit photo manips or fan-fiction. Fan fiction has always been about creating for ourselves and other fans – we make no money out of it – despite spending an ordinate amount of time and effort creating it. We do it because we love the characters or people we write about and we love the sense of community writing it brings. And this isn’t a new concept – I mean Shakespeare wrote fan-fiction – taking other people’s stories and expanding them into his own works.

    It has long been the butt of jokes if it is brought up by celebrities or talk show hosts, but making art using someone else’s characters has a very real function. It helps us become better writers and artists. Just as Van Gogh found his style by copying the style of great Parisian masters. Writing fan-fiction or making fan-art helps us find our own voice within the safety and comfort of a world we know. And some of the fan-fiction I’ve read is better than published books! Plus, it’s long been a safe space for queer writers or artists to be represented.

    I think celebrities shutting down fan-fiction actually hurts fan engagement and the fan communities that form around them. It’s not really about the celebrities themselves – it’s about the characters we create from them – and share within a community space.

    • Great point and very well said!

      I completely agree. Fanworks should stay in fan spaces. When creators and late-night talk show hosts rip fanfiction and fanart from fansites, it almost feels like an assault. And I don’t like the argument of, “Well, if you write fanfics based on other peoples’ characters and/or real people then you can’t expect them to be happy about it.” No. There are different power dynamics at play here.

      In general, fans have little to no agency when it comes to media texts (although this is changing with social media and hashtag activism), which is why fanworks have been so important for representation of marginalized communities. Moreover, when creators co-opt fanfiction and fanart it is usually with the explicit intention to mock, berate, or disavow. This is why I love Martin Freeman’s reaction to being shown slash fanart on The Graham Norton Show because, unlike other actors, he immediately shuts the conversation down by saying, “That’s fine.” Freeman also said in an interview that he makes it a point to not condemn or mock gay fanart because he is aware of the wider implications that, say, laughing at an image of two men kissing has. Hopefully more actors will behave this way in the future, despite how uncomfortable it must be to have NSFW images thrust into their faces.

      I wrote two more articles about how LGBT fanart is shamed on late-night talk shows (here and here), if you’re interested! Anyway, thank you so much for reading and for sharing your wonderful comment. 🙂

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