Real Person Fiction (Fanfic Symposium essay)

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Title: Real Person Fiction
Creator: Kristina Busse
Date(s): October 30, 2005
Medium: online
Topic: Fanfiction, Slash, Real Person Fiction
External Links: Real People Fiction, Archived version
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Real Person Fiction is a very long essay by Kristina Busse.

It is part of the Fanfic Symposium series.


  • History
  • Ethical and Legal Objections
  • Fiction, Reality, and Collaborative Fantasy Spaces
  • Canon and Its Consensual Creation
  • Bodies--Virtual, Real, Imaginary
  • Alternate Universes, Casting Fic, and Playing Roles
  • LJ, Slashing the Slasher, and Performing Identities


Ethical and Legal Objections

With its increased visibility, passionate debates have sprung up, condemning as well as defending RPF. Detractors usually focus on moral and ethical objections as they accuse RPF of being: (1) open to libel in its disrespectful invasion of the celebrity’s privacy; (2) disgusting in its sharing of one’s (especially sexual) fantasies about real people; and (3) deeply immoral in its potential to hurt or disturb the celebrity or—even worse—their friends or families who may not have chosen the spotlight (see, for example, gloriana, unanon, damned_colonial, lexin, and neadods). While regularly debated, RPF’s legality is still uncertain. Both RPS and FPF have a tenuous legal hold (for libel and copyright infringement respectively) and mostly seem to function in a grey zone. Without a legal precedent, however, and given the international character of the internet and the pronounced differences among the legal systems and procedures of different countries, predicting the outcome of a potential lawsuit is impossible.

{{Quotation2|Fiction, Reality, and Collaborative Fantasy Spaces

For most RPF [[ficwriter|writers] and readers, it is pretty clear that what we are dealing with is a performance, that the source text from which we draw is similarly created (albeit by concert footage or interviews or other media events) to the way movies, books, and TV shows are. Some, of course, will clearly declare that they are not interested in the characters and only write their own fantasies, thus creating something similar to mediafic writers who take the characters (or simply their bodies) and tell their own stories--canon be damned. Not only is the canon broader and more contradictory to allow for more varied portrayals, just like mediafic, writers choose to comply with canon or not, try to extrapolate character and behavior from the material provided--or spin their own stories regardless of canon. Almostnever describes such an approach to RPF and suggests that the term casting fic would be more appropriate (kind of like some FPF moves into bodyfic):

I kind of like the idea of calling it "casting"... "casting fiction", "casting slash". We're not really writing about Orlando, or Viggo or Ian or Billy or Dom or Elijah. We're casting them in roles in our stories. We just use their names to evoke the appearance and presence of the actor we're casting in the story. [source]

The problem I see with such an approach is that it willfully ignores the ethical issues inherent in RPF by simply ignoring its reality aspect (however codified or fictionalized they may be). It is similar to the defense some popslash fans started with by perceiving boybands as artificially constructed and therefore less "real" than normal people, so that it would be OK to fictionalize them but not others. Whether the repeatedly voiced reproach of boy bands’ fakeness is true or relevant, the bands’ success in large parts relies on their ability to satisfy clearly defined—and manufactured—desires by enacting certain roles that may or may not be who they “really” are. This is where RPF picks up. Acknowledging the artificiality of their construction, the fanfic writers buy into this construction to a certain extent at the same time as they try to move beyond it. In other words, while we have to believe in the media representations, because they, in effect, constitute canon, we simultaneously want to extrapolate the persona we are given to create a complex and real human being beyond the media spectacle. This duality is what RPF thrives on: the writer and reader must simultaneously believe and disavow the “reality” presented by the media. In other words, we purposefully 'buy' the image we are given as real yet, at the same time, are constantly looking for the gaps in the performance in order to glimpse the 'real' person underneath.

Most RPFers thus work under a certain cognitive dissonance where we simultaneously know footage to possibly be false yet have it be true for the basis of our canon, where we simultaneously deconstruct this very canon in order to create and "prove" relationships that we very well know not to be true. Marythefan calls this fannish space where we collectively agree to pretend to see reality through our particular lenses all the while knowing that this is not reality, the "collaborative fantasy space." She describes:

I've talked about a "transparent veil" that separates fantasy from reality in SDB fandom [[[Sparkly Dancing Boys]]] - it's transparent, but it's still a veil, and it's tacitly understood to be there by the people who are playing together. It means there's not the need for constant disclaimers that "Joey and Lance are SO doing it, and I mean that in a fantasy, in-my-head way." The default mode of discussion is "through the veil" and if I'm going to talk about, gun to my head, what I ACTUALLY think is going on between Joey and Lance, generally I'm going to explicitly state, somehow, that I've shifted over into talking about "reality." [source]


Alternate Universes, Casting Fic, and Playing Roles

With the increased popularity of RPF has also come an increased interest in RPF AUs (Alternate Universes). Part of this might be versions of casting fic where the bodies of actors and celebrities become blueprints to create new and interesting characters with which to populate one's stories or Role Playing Games (RPGs). Ithiliana describes the way RPF can indeed move far away from any traditional (i.e., FPF) sense of canon and still interact with the Real People as characters: I think that in some ways at least some of the RPS I've read and written featuring the actors from LOTR at times has the actors' performances as characters (past and present) in it as well. So there's what I want to call a triangulation between the actors as "real" people and the roles they've created in the past (certainly in the FPS, a lot of the writers enjoy mixing characters from the various actors' pasts in some amazing ways). By triangulation, I mean a character can be based on many/multiple sources of inspiration: "factual" information about the actors, elements of their roles/characters as well as their characters in LOTR; and, also, many fics show the writers' own experiences and knowledge about some element of the story (easier to write what one knows, fun too). So most writers (I'd bet) are well aware they're not trying to create the "real" people. So it's a bummer that the name of the genre has "real people" in it. And that outsiders get all weirded out by it, some to the point of what I'd consider a different kind of insanity... [source] Similarly, many RPGs that use actual celebrities but cast them in clearly non-canonical settings seem to play with the fluid boundaries of actor in fictional role; actor in RL role; and fictional character created by the writer.

LJ, Slashing the Slasher, and Performing Identities

One of the repeated objections most RPFer have encountered is "What if someone did that to *you*?" Most will not care, of course, and to some of us it has happened before. At this point, however, the question becomes crucial as to whether the ficced object wants to or ought to hear about it, which is why most RPFers draw the line at confronting celebrities with their fantasies (both of their "real" and their fictional selves) [see idlerat].

Of course, there is a difference between celebrities in the public eye and everyday folks. While all of us create a variety of identities to present to the world, celebrities tend to do so more clearly. In his study Celebrity (2001), Chris Rojec argues that "celebrity status always implies a split between a private and a public self. . . . For the celebrity, the split . . . is often disturbing" (11). As such, we could argue that even though celebrities are just like us, their more clearly pronounced public persona makes them a particularly apt object to address questions of identity, which is a topic often explored in RPF. Moreover, in a way the more clearly defined public self is, of course, all fans ever get to use; the public persona is the entirety of RPF's canon.

Closing Paragraphs

In fact, I would argue that on some level, the way fans interact with one another closely resembles the way we imagine celebrities. Obviously, we do not and cannot ever know the true (veridical) self of any celebrity--in the very process of allowing the media into their private lives, the 'trueness' gets erased. So all we pretty much have to go by are the performances we are offered, the footage, the behind the scenes, etc. Some of that may be real; other parts may be consciously constructed and performed. We do not and cannot know how much of what we see is performed and how much is real--all we have is the public persona. When we write the celebrity, however, we imagine what the "true" version underneath could look like; in other words, we create a fictional real self, extrapolated from the public persona we see. That creation is not quite like the public persona (for one thing, if we slash him, we certainly have changed his "official" sexual orientation :-) and he may or may not be like the "real" person (depending on our ability to extrapolate and just pure chance).

Similarly, I would argue, we ourselves exist on multiple layers of identity so that a character who is defined by these layers of hiding and secrecy resonates with us. How many of us are "out" as slashers? How many are "out" as boyband (or whatever other celebrity) fans? How much of what we show to others is the "real" us (both in RL and online)? So it seems to me that much of the fannish online interaction is a modified version of RPF (mostly clearly visible in things like lust threads or challenges like ). In other words, just like there is real!celebrity; performance public!celebrity, and the extrapolated fictionallyreal!celebrity, there is real!me, LJ!me, and whatever "real" persona one might extrapolate from the information, tone, ethos, they have picked up in my LJ. So in Slashing the Slasher the writer doesn't necessarily take people she knows in RL and write them getting down and dirty...but takes personas and expands a fictional universe for them.

And while LJ and fandom offer a particularly perfect version of these personas, effectively we do this every time we interact. After all, while an online acquaintance is clearly a fictional product extrapolated from the source material of her LJ and/or other interactions, any real person I meet is similarly an extrapolation of the information she discloses and the face to meet the faces that she meets, a creation of their (fictionally "real") persona. We all play roles; we all interact with versions of our interlocutors. So, while RPF may work particularly well as an identificatory space for online fannish folks, it seems to move toward a much larger truth about who we are, who we think we are, how we present ourselves, and how others see us.