Yulia Nidbalskaya

For The Love Of Shipping: How Fan Fiction Cultivates Community And Creativity

By writing or reading fic, fans connect with their favorite characters, a like-minded audience and, ultimately, themselves

Steve Rogers doesn't drink coffee, but he's come to realize that there's nothing he wouldn't do — or drink — to make the cute barista at his neighborhood cafe smile. If Bucky, the barista, notices how Steve always sips his Americano with an obvious grimace, he never says anything.

You may be wondering what Steve Rogers, First Avenger and America's Ass, is doing at a cafe when he should be out saving the world from aliens or Hydra; or why Bucky Barnes, with his not-so-affable disposition, is steaming milk and making lattes behind the counter. But for those who frequent the "coffee shop" or "Stucky" tags online, this is just your average fanfic prompt.

"Stucky" is the fan-appointed ship name for childhood friends-turned-Avengers Steve and Bucky, one of the most popular pairings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe on Twitter feeds and Tumblr dashboards alike. "Shipping," derived from the word "relationship," is the desire for two or more people, real or fictional, to be in a romantic relationship. Sometimes, one of those people is even you (thanks to the rise of the "Y/N" genre on platforms like Wattpad in which writers insert the reader directly into the story), or an original character ("OC," "Mary Sue").

There are tens of thousands of "Stucky" stories online — one-shots, multi-chapter epics, and social media odysseys that unfold over hundreds of tweets. On Archive of Our Own (AO3), the internet's most beloved fan fiction archive that houses more than 5 million fan works, the "Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes" tag has more than 45,000 pieces, and the Avengers coupling was the No. 10 ship on Tumblr in 2018. (They're still the No. 10 ship on the platform, which updates its "Fandometrics" data weekly, at the time of publication; Richie Tozier and Eddie Kaspbrak from IT: Chapter Two are No. 1.) But there's nothing canon about Stucky. In other words, you didn't sleep through a key confession in Avengers: Endgame. In the MCU, Steve and Bucky are just friends — best friends, even — and superhero colleagues, but in the world of shipping, canon doesn't matter.

Yulia Nidbalskaya

Fan fiction is a lawless land unbound by space and time, where anyone or anything can get together across franchises, fictional universes and platforms. There's an entire fandom dedicated to "Jelsa," the pairing of Frozen's ice princess Elsa and Rise of the Guardians's Jack Frost. Fans created the universe Rise of the Frozen Guardians to support the crossover pairing; some also signed petitions to Disney and Dreamworks to get an actual movie made. Meanwhile, if you're looking for an angsty enemies-to-lovers saga, then look no further than Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, or "Drarry." Regardless of the setting — a coffee shop, a college classroom, an apartment, or the corridors of Hogwarts — Drarry fics all have one thing in common: simmering tension. Similarly, there's "SquidBob TentaclePants," the romantic pairing of SpongeBob SquarePants and his cantankerous neighbor, Squidward Tentacles.

Whether they're OTP ("one true pairing") material, or a midnight curiosity piqued, the limit does not exist when it comes to ships. And while there's nothing like the feeling of diving into a good fic, penning one is another level of emotional investment. For fan fiction writers, writing fic is a creative outlet for their shipping, a way to hone their storytelling skills while analyzing the media they're consuming.

"I think shipping gets a bad rap as something that younger — or, let’s be honest, female — fans do because they just want to fantasize over hot characters. And, I mean, more power to them if they do. We’ve all been there," 26-year-old writer Cate (her online pseudonym) tells MTV News. Cate's first ship was Will and Elizabeth from Pirates of the Caribbean in 2005, but it wasn't until 2012 that she started consuming fan fiction regularly on Tumblr. The first story she published herself was a Newsies fic that examined the "future when the main characters were coming back from fighting in WWI," before penning stories for the significantly larger Doctor Who and Torchwood fandoms. ("Ten/Rose and Jack/Ianto ships, for the record.")

It's part of the overall process of consuming media in a more active way.

"Shipping doesn’t have to mean an obsession with a romance or a fixation on the romantic storylines to the exclusion of all else. It’s part of the overall process of consuming media in a more active way," she says. While we may think of shipping as a contemporary phenomenon, it's actually a way we’ve engaged with stories and people for centuries. "It’s always been around,” Cate says. “Fan mags in the 1970s, angry letters about Jo/Laurie to Louisa May Alcott in the 1800s, ancient Greek philosophers like Plato having lengthy debates about whether Achilles or Patroclus were a thing — and if they were, who topped."

For many writers — and readers — of fan fiction, it's also a healthy way to explore and express their own feelings, emotions, and, for some, kinks. The detailed categorization on AO3 makes it easy to scan the tags for hundreds of sexual fantasies, from "bondage" to "voyeurism."

Yulia Nidbalskaya

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the fluffier “coffee shop” tag, which currently exceeds 21,000 stories on AO3. Here, a story might center a florist around the corner or the tattoo artist who works in the parlor next door. The setup is straightforward: The tattooist saunters into the cafe, inked up in all-black, and orders the sweetest drink on the menu (extra whip) — a handsome contradiction — making eyes with our sweet, awkward protagonist across the counter. Like the drink, the intention of a coffee shop AU (or alternative universe, a fic set outside of an established canon) is sweet and simple, void of the angst you'd find in the "hurt/comfort" genre or the primal sexuality of the "omega verse." In many ways, it's a wholesome retreat.

Shipping “is a way for the imagination to run in ways that real life can’t, a way to build relationships and lives that are fascinating, that sometimes you wish you could be part of," says 23-year-old Ryan (their online pseudonym). "It’s honestly relaxing, like a wonderful escape from daily life." Ryan started consuming fan fiction at 15; a Directioner with a soft spot for the friends-to-lovers genre, their starter ship was Harry and Louis from One Direction.

"I like writing wholesome, mostly happy stories with a dose of realism sprinkled in," they say. "I really like writing characters who react in healthy ways to difficult situations or in places where, in real life, most people are likely to react in less helpful ways. It feels awesome to see characters just having a good time, loving each other, [and] being successful."

And while shipping real-life celebrities will ignite the occasional heated debate within fandom — though, the popularity of "Larry Stylinson" quelled much of the stigma around RPF (real-person fiction) —  for Ryan and for others, it's about the fantasy of what if. "It’s a way for us queer folk to imagine what it would be like if some of the people we look up to were also queer," Ryan says. "It’s an imagined representation in industries where there often is none, and it feels good."

Fanfic has long been a place to represent the underrepresented and explore aspects of one’s identity and sexuality. In the 1970s, fans of Star Trek: The Original Series — many of whom were women — wrote stories in the pages of fanzines that envisioned a romantic, sometimes sexual, relationship between Kirk and Spock. This was the birth of slash (or same-sex) fiction, named after the way fans would label these stories in zines and among one another as "K/S." Though the term is seen as rather archaic today — in part because ships are now categorized as portmanteaus (thanks, Brangelina), but also because shipping, like sexuality, is more fluid than ever — slash fulfilled a need for diverse stories. Now, LGBTQ+ narratives, or works that reimagine characters or people as such, are commonplace online.

A lot of fandoms are safe spaces, or have safe spaces within them for people like myself, who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, to express themselves.

"In fan fiction, the LGBTQ+ community has a place to express itself," 18-year-old Robin tells MTV News. "A lot of people write off fan fiction as being the product of teenage girls projecting their gay fantasies onto various celebrities and characters, but that overlooks the hundreds of male fanfic writers and the many members of the LGBTQ+ community that set out to write their own representation, since mainstream media has failed them. A lot of fandoms are safe spaces, or have safe spaces within them for people like myself, who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, to express themselves."

Robin started writing short stories about their favorite characters in eighth grade before being introduced to Wattpad. Now they write and share RPF on AO3, where they regularly connect with readers and fellow writers from around the world. "My online friends have been a huge motivation for me when I'm stuck on a scene or when I feel down or uncreative. With their help, I've recently written my best work to date."

That connection is what shipping is all about. Born from a desire to interact with one’s favorite characters or people on a personal level, shipping — whether actively writing fic or simply consuming it — ultimately helps you connect with others and, more importantly, yourself.

Nothing says love like staying up until 3 a.m., churning out a fic for a community of less than 300 people.

"The active participation of writing a fanfic is an intimate venture, exploring the internal conflicts and motivations of characters you only know from an outside perspective," says 28-year-old Erica, a longtime writer and consumer of fanfic with a keen interest in AUs and RarePair stories ("lately, it's been regency and Pacific Rim AUs"). Her interest in writing fic all boils down to one thing: love. Love for the source material, and love for the community it inspires.

"Nothing says love like staying up until 3 a.m., churning out a fic,” she says, “for a community of less than 300 people."

Welcome to VOL.UME: Love Now, a new series of stories chronicling how we find and experience romantic connections in the digital age. For the full experience, head to volume.mtv.com.