The recently released medical report on accused Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a graphic litany of the injuries he sustained during the bloody manhunt: skull fracture, multiple gunshot wounds to the face, pharynx, ear, spine and extremities. These details about the teen-next-door gone wrong may be riveting to those still horrified by the tragedy. But for some aspiring authors, the revelations are also fodder for a virtual world in which Tsarnaev has a parallel identity as a flawed romantic leading man ripe for saving.
Thousands of young writers are playing god with the real lives of the famous and the notorious in an outgrowth of fan fiction called real person fiction (RPF). Most stories build complex plots around actors or pop stars, including the members of One Direction, Chris Brown and Selena Gomez, and can attract tens of millions of readers to a new genre that melds fan fiction with tabloid news. And while fan-fiction writers rework hit novels — extending Harry Potter’s wizarding long after the books ended, or uprooting Alice from Wonderland and introducing her to Dorothy in Oz — RPF reinterprets the escapades of celebrities, culling inspiration and plotlines from Twitter, rumor and news. This fictional frontier is exploding online, boosted by the massive growth of user-friendly blogging platforms over the past three years.
In previous decades, sexual fantasies about leading men, like David Cassidy or Kirk Cameron, were relegated to private diaries, racy fan mail or intimate whispers among friends. Now young women can live out sex, dating and rejection scenarios online and draw instant comments. These authors cast themselves as Taylor Swift’s bestie or Justin Bieber’s girlfriend, reimagine the volatile Brown as a gentle hero and transform the accused murderer Tsarnaev into a paramour. Their works live on sites like Tumblr, Wattpad and Archive of Our Own, which dissolve traditional barriers to publishing and enable real-time, ongoing dialogue between reader and writer. Once a serial catches on, writers can rely on their community to help shape future installments. And those readers can become a rabid fan base that elevates young authors, who often use pseudonyms, to a kind of stardom in association with the celebrities they adore.
Some RPF writers are aspiring MFA candidates; others are simply bored teenagers. And while the demographic makeup of specific celebrity fandoms is tough to discern Internet-wide, Wattpad marketing manager Amy Martin says the majority of the story-sharing platform’s 16 million monthly users are under 18 and a “significant number” are 18 to 25. More than half of users are female. Stories on Wattpad, which launched in 2006, range from 10 pages to more than 70 and have anywhere from a few hundred “reads” — a page click and linger, which Martin likens to a YouTube “view” — to several million for the more popular subjects, like One Direction and Zac Efron. The rise of the genre isn’t surprising in an era that worships celebrity, but scholars would argue that RPF is at least as old as Shakespeare (Julius Cesar, Henry V). Early digital versions were often shared on listservs and sites like LiveJournal and focused on specific celebs, like members of ‘N Sync.
In this parallel world, members of a generation accused of preferring tweets to long-form writing and YouTube clips to books are not only reading hundreds of pages but also critiquing one another’s work and wrestling with the culture around them in their written dramas. Sometimes parents don’t even know that their child is a star author online. One such writer is high school senior Adriana Brooks, whose RPF novella Oh My Love (A Chris Brown Love Story) boasted nearly 273,000 reads at last count.
Seventeen-year-old Brooks rewrites tabloid history from her Beaufort, S.C., bedroom. She recasted Brown — who pled guilty in 2009 to a felony assault of his then girlfriend and fellow pop star, Rihanna — as a savior who rescues Audri (Brooks’ fictional stand-in) from her abusive boyfriend Kyle. Audri “looks like me but is different personality-wise,” Brooks says.
Many of the 2,000-plus serials featuring Brown reinvent him as a hero or lover, as opposed to a batterer. Expunging Brown’s violent past may be a young girl’s attempt to make it more palatable and to justify her crush while working through her confusion in a safe space, explains Alice Marwick, an assistant professor in media studies at Fordham University. “Coming up with an alternate narrative is a healthy way to deal with it,” she says. These writers employ creativity to tame bad boys on the page. It’s a kind of freedom that is difficult to replicate and unique to the narrative form.
To be sure, the fact that some teens ignore Brown’s abuses even in fiction could signal a dangerous trend, but experts say teens aren’t to blame. Marwick points to celebrities who “get a free pass” for doing wrong, from Charlie Sheen to Brown, and remain glorified by Hollywood, the music industry and droves of adult fans. “There’s a lot of ambivalence with how we deal with domestic violence,” she says. “It’s not like these kids are feminist theorists. They’re just young people trying to come to terms with things.” And of course, glamorizing complicated antiheroes is a very old trope, especially in a nation that invented romantic gangster movies like Bonnie and Clyde, for which Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway found stardom in their portrayal of a real couple’s murderous rampage across the country.
Dramatizing real crimes and honeying suspected perpetrators during ongoing investigations can be fraught. Last month, critics skewered Rolling Stone for using a flattering cover image of Tsarnaev to illustrate its profile of a “sweet,” “super chill” guy accused of a horrific crime that left three people dead and more than 260 injured. But online, young writers were already examining the handsome teen in their own stories.
One racy tale in which a female character removes Tsarnaev’s bullet with tweezers before they sleep together parallels the Tsarnaev fangirl collective that was documented by the New York Post. Adherents trumpet the Cambridge man’s innocence, quoting his Twitter platitudes and tweeting support using the hashtag #FreeJahar (which refers to his nickname). One person even planned to tattoo his words on her arm. Other Tsarnaev RPF aspires to humanize the “monster” on the magazine cover. Sarah, a 25-year-old Australian business student who insisted on using her middle name to protect herself, read the Tsarnaev sex-fantasy story and thought she could do better, so she attempted a fictional treatment more literary than bodice ripper.
Since the Melbourne resident (pen name: stringcheesekitteh) published her serial, Tsarnaev, on Wattpad, the opening of the seven-page story has earned more than 15,000 reads. In her tale, a female medical resident tends to the wounded accused bomber, an experience that causes her troubled past to resurface. Sarah says the news of the manhunt in Boston made her nervous, even though she was a continent away, but that after reading Tsarnaev’s tweets she felt that she could relate to him and how “laid-back and carefree he is.”
Wattpad readers have offered Sarah support with statements like “Keep up your wonderful work” and “This story deserves a million chapters,” but commenters on Tumblr, where she also posted the serial, were “disgusted” and accused her of disrespecting the Boston victims and their families. She understands the backlash but says she’ll continue to update the story. “It’s probably one of the weirder things I’ve done, but hey, welcome to the Internets,” she says.
Shock factor is key to nabbing attention in crowded fan-fiction communities, says Judith Donath, who studies online social interaction as a Berkman fellow at Harvard. “To garner more attention, I have to do something more extreme. Being a fan of the marathon bomber is a bigger extreme of daring and risk,” she says. Shocking, edgy subjects can entice more readers, which is the goal of many fan-fiction authors.
Like many online sharing behaviors, posting fan fiction is in part performance and feeds off an audience. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle puts it, RPF is “an acting out of ‘I share therefore I am’ as the psychological aesthetic of a generation.”
Checking compulsively to see who approves of new work can produce tremendous anxiety, says Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University Dominguez Hills. He found that the average young adult checks a smartphone at least every 15 minutes. The “squirt of endorphins” he says the brain ingests when checking a device is something users chase, regardless of the content of the messages they receive. Some 80% of Wattpad users read and write on the platform via smartphone.
The rapid response on popular fan-fiction sites compels writers to produce more pages, lest they lose followers. When 16-year-old Brianna Spears’ Chris Brown: A True Love Story began to climb to tens of thousands of reads, commenters messaged her to “hurry up and update” the story to satiate them. “I felt like I had to, like I’d let them down if I didn’t continue,” Spears says. When her summer job threatened to reduce the frequency of new installments, Spears wrote to her followers: “Be patient with me please.”
Adolescents are particularly susceptible to the allure of online recognition and the popularity that devoted fan-fiction authors can achieve. Teens “are obsessed with being seen,” says Scyatta Wallace, an associate professor of psychology at St. Johns University. In the RPF environment, “they get to make stuff up, but they also get to live.” So seductive is this feeling that adolescents begin to believe their online personas are a measurement of self-worth, she says.
Searching for identity is not new, says Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, but “what is new is the desire, and the possibility, to be ‘famous’ for these adolescent identifications.” This fame-seeking is fed by the feasibility that stars with active Twitter accounts might actually read what teens pen about them. “I think about whether [Brown] might read it and not like it, but I guess as a celebrity you have to get used to people writing about you regardless of whether it’s fan fiction or not,” says Spears.
Expressing identity and building community online through RPF is a natural extension of what kids have always done, but now it’s catalyzed by technology, says Peter Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. “Having a life outside of parents’ lives is the point of adolescence,” he says.
Brooks’ parents didn’t know her writing had a big fan base. Now, two years after she began her volume, she finds that she’s been writing about Brown long enough to get over her crush on him. Turned off by the performer’s violent outbursts — he is under investigation after a skirmish with singer Frank Ocean — she says, “Now that I don’t really like him anymore, it’s just me keeping the story going. Now I think of him as just a character in my story.”
Yarrow is a TIME contributing writer and journalist living in Brooklyn. @aliyarrow