The Dubious Ethics of "Real-Person Fiction"

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News Media Commentary
Title: The Dubious Ethics of "Real-Person Fiction"
Commentator: Tonya Riley
Date(s): January 12, 2018
Venue: online
Fandom: RPF
External Links: The Dubious Ethics of "Real-Person Fiction"
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The Dubious Ethics of "Real-Person Fiction" is a 2018 essay by Tonya Riley, a tech journalist[1]. Subtitle: "When fanfic writers start putting real celebrities in steamy situations, what’s the law to do?"

The article's topic is the ethics, history, and popularity of RPF.

The article quotes a fic on Archive of Our Own by a fan named Chloe about an "encounter between Jonathan Scott, co-host of HGTV’s real estate show Property Brothers, and AJ Styles, the WWE wrestler," but does not name the fic, nor does it link to it.

Some Topics Discussed

  • the long history of RPF: Shakespeare to Bronte sisters, to Napoleonic War role-playing games and that "even before the first internet chat rooms and listservs, fanfiction existed in notebooks and between friends"
  •'s ban of RPF in 2002
  • claims RPF was mainly underground until 2012 "with the advent of 'Larry Stylinson,' a trend in which writers began romantically paring One Direction band members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. 'The whole ecosystem of Larry shipping, it kind of opened a floodgate,' says Amanda Brennan, senior content insights manager at Tumblr." (Larry shipping started in 2010.)
  • Mark Zuckerberg and The Social Network
  • quotes Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World but gets the title wrong
  • Anna Todd's One Direction fic After
  • the minor oft-quoted strawman example of the 2003 case where " received a cease-and-desist order from baseball player Andy Pettitte’s legal team asking that a story about him be taken down"
  • Wattpad is sanctioning RPF for profit
  • aside from the choice of the word "dubious," the article, in classic clueless journalism, cherry picks and highlights an off-beat pairing: "while pairing Pikachu with Lord Voldemort is one thing, the genre gets more dubious when you start" writing RPF
  • it's not the storytelling, it's the amount of sexual explicitness that people don't like
  • "The question is no longer whether RPF is okay — it’s whether we’re ready to admit that this is already how we view celebrities."


This passage might seem like a typical selection of steamy erotica (and trust me, it gets steamier) except for one thing: Jonathan and AJ are real people. This story is about an encounter between Jonathan Scott, co-host of HGTV’s real estate show Property Brothers, and AJ Styles, the WWE wrestler. The author is Chloe, a 19-year-old from Houston, and her piece is just one of hundreds on the site that puts Jonathan Scott — or his brother Drew, or sometimes both of them, together — in sexual, bizarre, or very clearly unrealistic situations.
Thanks to sites like Tumblr and books like 50 Shades of Grey, fanfiction is now a mainstream phenomenon that is tolerated, if not embraced, by many creators. But while pairing Pikachu with Lord Voldemort is one thing, the genre gets more dubious when you start “shipping” (a convention where fans pair characters that are not canonically dating or sometimes even in the same universe) real-life people. So what does it mean that stories like Chloe’s, a genre called real-person fiction (RPF), can take someone like Jonathan and put him in situations he’s never even imagined consenting to? The murky questions of consent and ownership of public identity raised by RPF have made it both a scourge of the fanfiction world and a surprising stand-in for fandom at large in the internet age.
Popularity aside, though, plenty of fans and writers can’t stand the genre. “RPF — and by that I mean explicit stories about currently living celebs — is the lowest trash possible to me,” says fanfiction writer Sergey, 30. While he has no issue with historical RPF, he expressed disapproval of writers “who use ‘But they are famous, they have to deal with it!’ as an excuse for being creepy.”
If the law is the same for a writer like Aaron Sorkin and the average Harry Styles RPF writer, why is the latter considered so much worse? “I mean, frankly, what people think is gross is a lot of it is about sex,” says Anne Jamison, author of Fic: Why Fan Fiction Is Taking Over the World. “If they were just writing about sending Chris Evans to Hogwarts to teach Harry Potter about being a superhero, it wouldn’t cause the same reaction. It raises issues of consent to people.”
Literary and legal debates aside, RPF is probably most disturbing in what it says about the rest of us: Often, we’re just as obsessed as the writers. Given our celebrity-driven culture, it’s almost unavoidable not to be guilty of stanning (being a stalker and a fan) too hard for someone or peering a bit too deeply into a private life we haven’t been granted permission to access.


  1. ^ According to her Medium blurb: "Tech writer reporting on the future for the rest of us. You can read my other work at Slate, Wired, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Science Mag"