My senior year in college, my best friend and hetero-lifemate TOK and I decided that instead of taking our annual Thanksgiving trip to New York City together, we’d just hole up in our apartment while all the other suckers went “home” to see their “families.”
Sixty hours in to our cookie-dough-and-television binge, I paused "Merlin" and pointed my spoon at the screen.
“See that?” I told TOK. “I want a love that’s mostly a friendship, but that also kind of sneaks up on you, and maybe there are grand alien-drug-induced declarations and misunderstandings and shouty makeouts, and I don’t know, one of you temporarily turns into a toddler through wizardry and the other one is a secret tortured dragon rider and maybe you and your bandmates have a threesome before you slow dance at prom together. Right?!”
“And you have to get accidentally married,” she said, nodding sagely and spraying tortilla chip crumbs everywhere. “Like, twice.”
I’m kiiind of exaggerating, but mostly I am not at all.
I’ve been reading fan fiction, usually of the romantic adventure variety, since I was about 12. These weren’t gentle, YA-style stories about cafeteria politics and intense crushes ending in the defeat of Voldemort. These were intense, sweep-you-off-your-feet kind of stories, where characters sacrificed themselves to save each other and projectile vomited promptly and dramatically after having surprise!gay makeouts. Also, it was usually rated R, but that’s neither here nor there.
Compared to my own teenage romantic life, which consisted largely of tasting pizza remnants in my then-boyfriend’s braces, these stories just seemed so much better.
Maybe this is what all those Internet alarmists were going on about when “Twilight” came out. Only instead of expecting men to swoop in and save me from my pointy-faced Washingtonian drivel-existence, I was eagerly awaiting the day when I and my as-yet-unknown antagonistic partner in crime would be forced back to medieval times by a series of strange events and subsequently find thatched-roof cottage love.
I was doing a lot of emotion-driven masturbating in those days. Not sure if that’s a correlation or causation kind of deal.
The whole situation got better in college, but not by a whole lot. I still found myself occasionally carried away by fantasies, this time about forming a band with my best friends and having a lot of sexy adventures together. “Forget school!” my friend Jane would say. “You can be lead singer and I’ll play the keytar and TOK can play bass!” She even drew me a picture to that effect for Christmas one year.
Real life was boring and full of theses and espresso; as far as we were concerned, you hadn’t made it until someone was writing a ship-manifesto about your personal life.
Meanwhile, I occasionally found myself sublimating my actual, real-life romantic dalliances into bastardizations of my fictional ideals. It wasn’t so much that I was dissatisfied if things didn’t go exactly as “planned” -- I am actually capable of parsing truth from fiction, despite what this article might be starting to sound like.
It was more that when things went poorly -- when I acted like an asshole, when I distanced myself from partners for daring to express any romantic interest in me, or just when we’d do normal things like neglect each other in favor of homework or Mexican food –- I’d rationalize it based on the love stories I’d grown up with.
“These are just the hard times,” I’d think as I grumpily not-texted my girlfriend. “You can disagree with things and still totally be made for each other. Like Kirk and McCoy!”
Even now, when I go through a little heartache, I find myself thinking, “At least this will make really compelling fiction,” instead of taking action to fix the problem. When you start casting your life as a plot line, it’s awfully easy to become emotionally detached from it. Hence every writer ever, I guess.
According to this study reported by Live Science, fantasizing to this degree about TV or movie romances can result in a less happy love life. To which I can only say, a-duh. Obviously, some people are capable of reading fic or watching rom-coms or whatever without getting too bound up in their own material-inspired fantasy world. I am just not one of those people.
My bros and I may have extended the fangirling to books (and comics, and video games, and people who were in real life pop-punk bands), but we’d still clap our hands and coo fondly over completely implausible scenarios. To this day, if a dude with a sword belted around his waist invited me off to be his accidental space girlfriend demon-hunting partner, I am not confident that I could say no.
Particularly if he promised that we’d each have at least one daring rescue/choked declaration of near-deathbed love. That’s what kissing is for!
The problem here is that fictional characters (or the fan-rendered fictional versions of real people) rarely have to be responsible for their actions. In fan fic, it is perfectly reasonable to hide your true emotions behind a thick curtain of angst and bangs until your laddy-love bites his lip manfully and tells you his side first.
I’m not sure if I picked up the habit of doing this from fan fiction, but I definitely didn’t ever get the message that it can cause issues. Because, obviously, real people aren’t going to be patient enough to wait around for you before they grab you by the hand and embark on a great smooch-campaign. They just won’t. No matter how much shit Sookie Stackhouse gets away with in True Blood fan fiction, being the main character does not guarantee you unmitigated assholery without consequences. It’s a hard lesson to learn.
A lot of this is my age, too. I’m still pretty young and I recognize that I’m definitely still pretty immature. That sort of long-lasting, across-the-universe, sci-fi-style love is the stuff of legends, and in your late teens and early twenties, isn’t that what everyone believes they’ll be?
The mortal trappings of ordinary relationship problems can seem so dull by comparison. It’s the relationship equivalent of listening to the “My Best Friend’s Wedding” soundtrack for sexy fun on road trips.
On the bright side, I think this fic-inspired idealism is a curable disease. Maybe it’s because I’m officially over a year out of college (egads), but I’m actually electing to talk to people honestly about my feelings when I have them instead of springing away into the underbrush like a startled deer every time someone brings up the girlfriend word. And it’s not like I’ve kicked the fic habit, either!
It’s just that I’m finally starting to see the appeal of proceeding through real-life relationships like they’re not without consequence. Shockingly, the whole “dating” thing seems to be about 3 frillion times easier when I'm not constantly watching over my partner’s shoulder for the next obstacle, metaphorically or literally speaking.
I can save all the manufactured, tormented angst and high-stakes situations for the fiction I produce, original or otherwise. Even if that does lessen my chances of getting to ride on the TARDIS someday.
Kate is having a lot of emotions, largely fan related but also broccoli related, at @katchatters.