The Most Popular Ships in Fan Fiction History
Content Warning: This post discusses fan fiction based on characters from noted transphobic author J.K. Rowling’s wizard series.
In this day and age, the concept of fan fiction certainly needs no introduction. Authors frequently publish thinly veiled derivatives of existing works; meanwhile, already published authors freely admit to writing fan fiction of others’ books.
Perhaps the biggest catalyst for producing fan fiction, however, is the opportunity it provides for indulging in various ships. ‘Ships’ – short for ‘relationships’ – refers to the character pairings in a fandom which fans might promote. They could be canon (i.e. already existent within the universe of the work) or, more frequently, non-canonical, meaning a couple which fans believe should be together but isn’t. The word ‘ship’ with this meaning dates back to around 1995, when some viewers of The X-Files decided they wanted protagonists Fox and Dana to be in a relationship. They called themselves ‘relationshippers’, a slightly clunky word which evolved into ‘shipper’. And from thence, of course, we have ‘ship’ – the noun and the verb.
Though The X-Files might have given us the main terminology of shipping, its relationship to fan fiction dates back to many years before that. In fact, it goes back to the original fandom, which by virtue of its age qualifies as one of the most popular ships in fan fiction history: Kirk and Spock in Star Trek.
The First Ship: Star Trek
In her article on the history of fan fiction, Rachel Rosenberg calls 1960s television show Star Trek ‘the OG fan fiction fandom’. Within a show apparently bereft of engaging female characters, fans soon began exploring romance by pairing together its male protagonists Kirk and Spock in fanzines – that is, fan-produced magazines, a crucial mode of dissemination in the pre-internet era.
This ship (though its early adherents wouldn’t, of course, have called it that) was verbalised as ‘Kirk slash Spock’, giving rise to the coinage of ‘slash’ for gay fan fiction. It’s considered by Henry Jenkins to potentially be the first slash pairing in what’s already the earliest written fan fiction, giving it an influential position amongst the history of fan fiction’s greatest ships. The extreme popularity of Kirk/Spock can perhaps best be encapsulated by the fact that Gene Roddenberry himself commented on its existence in a 1979 interview, responding positively to the suggestion that Kirk/Spock might reflect elements of the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion. For the creator to comment extensively on non-canonical ships is a relative rarity in fandoms, and reinforces Kirk/Spock’s extreme popularity.
Part of this ties into the historical moment during which it reached its zenith. Fanfiction.net, the world’s biggest online repository of fan fiction, would not be founded until 1998. Its closest rival, Archive of Our Own (AO3), would be born a decade later. Fan fiction which could be freely, easily, and anonymously uploaded online was still a distant dream on the horizon. Since slash violated the obscenity laws in England at the time, some fans even feared arrest. Yet Kirk/Spock left an indelible impression upon fan fiction writing. Not only has the word ‘slash’ become ubiquitous in fandoms, but in terms of sheer numbers – over 13,000 fics on AO3, and at least that many on FF.Net – Kirk and Spock have proved their popularity, and become iconic of late 20th century fandom.
The Popularity Overview: Then to Now
Slash vs. Straight
In the intervening decades, of course, a number of other ships and fandoms have come to the forefront. The top four fandoms on AO3 are Marvel, Supernatural, Sherlock, and Harry Potter – in that order; meanwhile, the corresponding data for FF.Net reveals that its writers gravitate towards Harry Potter, Naruto, Twilight, and Supernatural.
Looking more closely at the most popular fandoms (and thus ships) for both websites reveals interesting information about the kinds of ships fans might culturally prefer. Of the 20 most popular fandoms on FF.Net, almost half are anime, while the offerings on AO3 tend to constitute more western media. Not coincidentally, slash pairings are far more prevalent on AO3. This discrepancy has been attributed to the nature of the fandoms themselves. In the words of Charles Bhepin, a hugely popular FF.net author with stories in multiple anime fandoms, the goal is to “Burn the emo. Cleanse the yaoi. Kill the Mary Sue.“
The possible reluctance of many anime fans to engage in yaoi (i.e. gay) ships, as compared to fans of western shows, has filtered over into the fan fiction itself. As this quick study shows, though Snarry (Snape/Harry) dominates on FF.Net, it’s followed by the straight ship Dramione (Draco/Hermione). On AO3, however, Snarry, Drarry (Draco/Harry) and Remus/Sirius – all slash ships – are far more popular than Dramione. The latter has only circa 15,000 fics, compared to almost 52,000 for Drarry.
The preference of AO3 users for slash ships, as compared to FF.Net, can therefore broadly be corroborated by looking at a number of popular fandoms. Fan fiction overall, moreover, is dominated by slash, a fact which becomes even more apparent when we look at the annual stats for the most popular ships. Here are the top five ships on AO3 for every year from 2013 onwards, as compiled in a long-term study by Tumblr user centrumlumina.
- Sherlock Holmes/John Watson (Sherlock)
- Castiel/Dean Winchester (Supernatural)
- Derek Hale/Stiles Stilinski (Teen Wolf)
- Dean Winchester/Sam Winchester (Supernatural)
- Merlin/Arthur (Merlin)
- Harry Styles/Louis Tomlinson (One Direction)
- Bucky Barnes/Steve Rogers (The Avengers)
2019 (no data for 2018)
- Draco Malfoy/Harry Potter
Full statistics for these years can be found here.
So, What Does This Tell Us?
It’s pretty clear that the trend for most popular ships, per year, is unsurprisingly shaped by the media produced that year – or recently. 2014 saw the boy band One Direction ascend to new heights of popularity, perhaps propelled by the release of a film documenting recent concerts. Correspondingly, two of its members broke for the first time into the top five most popular ships on AO3. After their breakup in 2017, however, they slipped down the list. Bucky and Steve, too, were probably popularised in 2016 by the release of Captain America: Civil War.
There is an impressive amount of stasis in the list, with most of the ships continuously coming from the same fandoms. Older and longer-running shows, more integrated into society’s cultural consciousness, give rise to the most popular ships; Supernatural, for instance, ran from 2005 to 2020, and Sherlock from 2010 to 2017. They’re consequently consistently in the top five. Fans clearly tend to write fiction for the shows they know better. However, there is a little bit of leeway for some shifts to occur, as evidenced by Merlin‘s fall from popularity in favour of One Direction.
On top of that, fan fiction writers are overwhelmingly drawn to white male characters. For almost every year, all ships within the top ten most popular featured exclusively white male pairings. Of course, that’s at least partially because the media itself is saturated with these characters. Where POC characters do appear, they tend to originate not from western media but from anime. See here for an analysis of race as it relates to popular ships, written by the same user who compiles the statistics.
The Woman Question
Why, you might ask, are M/M ships so much more popular than F/F ships, or indeed than straight pairings? To answer this question, we have to delve into the demographics of who actually produces and consumes fan fiction. Since its early days, women have been at the forefront. Despite the perception that more men gravitate towards science fiction, studies have shown that a proportion as high as 90% of 1970s Star Trek fan fiction authors were female. They were the ones who produced fanzines and painstakingly distributed them via mailing lists. In 2010, 78% of new users who joined FF.Net identified themselves as women, and a decade later, the percentage of ‘female’ profiles still far outstrips the percentage of male ones. This gender disparity reflects the one visible in wider publishing: men only make up around 20% of the fiction market, and repeated surveys indicate that men in general read and write fewer books than women.
Although women make up the majority of fan fiction writers and readers, there tend to be far fewer well-rounded female characters in the source material for them to play with, perhaps accounting for the prevalence of M/M ships. To take Harry Potter as an example: Hermione – and, to a lesser extent, Ginny – constitute the only significant female characters. Meanwhile, Harry, Ron, Draco, and indeed many other males (Snape or Sirius, for instance) can be considered to have had sufficient page time and backstory devoted to them that a fulfilling fan fiction would be possible. It’s therefore unsurprising that fans would seek to match them together in interesting combinations. Another popular contemporary ship, Johnlock (John/Sherlock) similarly relies upon the nonexistence of major female characters as much as it does on the chemistry between the men themselves.
The ‘woman question’ of fan fiction can thus be summed up as: where are all the women? The disconnect between a hugely female authorship, and hugely male-dominated output, implies dire things about strong female representation on the page and screen – though recent years have seen advancement in this area. It’s also not simply a straightforward case of a misogynistic media that elides these characters. Many women themselves – usually, though not always, heterosexual – freely gravitate towards the production and consumption of gay fiction. In 2014, Jamie Fessenden observed that:
MM romance is original fiction and much of it is well-written and professional. But it descended from slashfic, and the gender demographics haven’t changed a lot. The majority of writers are still female, and the majority of readers are female.
Jamie Fessenden, Journal of Bisexuality, “What To Do If Your Inner Tomboy Is a Homo: Straight Women, Bisexuality, and Pleasure in M/M Gay Romance Fictions“
Even when writing original fiction, and therefore free to develop their own characters and pairings, many female authors choose to espouse the same dynamics as slash ships in fan fiction. They have faced criticism for this – being termed ‘fetishists’ and ‘appropriators’. Even while acknowledging the problem of limited female characters in mainstream media and how this influences fan fiction, it’s notable how many women writers are individually inclined to focus upon male characters in their own writing. This essay suggests a list of possible reasons for this, which goes beyond simplified assertions of media sexism.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same
While the most popular ships of fan fiction history have obviously changed somewhat over time, they have perhaps changed less than one might think. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. In the near-decade covered by the AO3 Ship Stats project, very few new ships have emerged, despite a proliferation of new shows and books over the last ten years. It might be observed that the ingredients for popularity include white men in a gay relationship: a characteristic of the very first ship in fandom, and one that has endured in the most popular ships of the intervening decades.