Popular tropes in fanfiction

This week, Elizabeth Minkel and Flourish Kink asked Twitter what their favorite tropes in fanfiction were. This resulted in this interesting chart … and also inspired us: what can we say about favorite tropes or genres with our data about long fics published on AO3 in 2015?

Fake relationships

Among the answers received on Twitter about favorite tropes, Fake Relationships was a clear winner (29% of the answers), to which we can add the 6% received by the Arranged Marriage trope. Those who answered were few and probably not representative fandom in general. On AO3 in 2015, 1105 fics of more than 10K words were tagged “Fake/Pretend Relationship” or “Arranged Marriage” (or similar tags such as “Fake Marriage”, “Forced Marriage”, etc.). That’s a reasonable but not huge amount. For example, it’s 18% less than the number of Mpreg fics we looked at in our last post.

Here is a list of the 19 fandoms with at least 10 of those fics about “Fake” relationships. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has the most of these stories in absolute terms, but Game of Thrones and The 100 were the two fandoms where this trope was relatively more important.


It is easy to imagine that for Game of Thrones, those type of “Fake Relationships” are likely to be arranged marriages, given their frequency in canon. Looking at specifics ships tells us that they are indeed not specific to particular Game of Thrones characters, but rather common. Indeed, no Game of Thrones pairing appears in the 14 ships that counted 10 or more of long “Fake Relationships” fics.

In the top 5 of these pairings we find 3 MCU pairings (Loki/Thor, Leo Fitz/Jemma Simmons and Erik Lehnsherr/Charles Xavier), along with Bellamy/Clarke from The 100 and Merlin/Arthur.


Are these fics especially popular? One way to measure that is to look at the number of kudos they received (one could also look at hits or bookmarks, but those three measures are usually rather correlated).

On average, for all the fics, the median number of kudos received by fics tagged “Fake relationships” was 3 times higher than the median number of kudos received by other fics. So this is indeed a popular trope!

This popularity varies according to fandoms and ships (click for a larger picture):


The popularity of “Fake relationship” fics was very high for Erik Lehnsherr/Charles Xavier, Oliver Queen/Felicity Smoak, Castiel/Dean Winchester, Sherlock Holmes/John Watson and Draco Malfoy/Harry Potter shippers. The median number of kudos received by “Fake relationships” fics is more than 3 times and up to 4.7 times higher than the median number of kudos received by other fics. However, for Bellamy/Clarke or Merlin/Arthur, the difference is much less significant.

Angst and Fluff

Angst was also a trope cited among their favorites by those who answered… whereas fluff was nowhere to be seen. So, which is more popular, angst or fluff? Again, I would imagine that it varies a lot according to fandom and ships, but let’s have a look.

Among our sample of long fics published on A03 in 2015, 15205 were tagged with “Angst” (or similar tags), 12239 with “Fluff” (or similar tags) and 6343 with a combination of both.

We removed those “mixed” fics to look only at exclusively angsty (no fluff) and exclusively fluffy (no angst) stories. The median number of kudos the former received was 84, and for the latter 117.

So can we safely say that fluff is more appreciated? It depends in what fandom of course… but overall, yes.

First, let’s look at the number of fics for each genre according to fandom. There are 24 fandoms with at least 25 fics in each category, angst of fluff. For each of these fandoms, we computed the ratio of fluffy fics over angsty fics, to rank fandoms from the fluffiest to the angstiest, according to the popularity of the genres in numbers:


9 of those fandoms (the pink ones), had more fluffy fics than angsty fics in 2015. 15 had more angsty fics than fluffy fics (the blue ones), Homestuck and 5 Seconds of Summer being the fluffiest and Star Trek, Harry Potter and Glee the angstiest according to this ratio.

When we look at the median number of kudos for each type of fics and compute the ratio of kudos for fluffy fics over kudos for angsty fics, we can rank fandoms according to the relative popularity in kudos of the two genres.


In 16 over 24 fandoms, fluffy fics received more kudos than angsty fics. For EXO, Hannibal, Arrow and Harry Potter, the median number of kudos for fluffy fics is more than 50% higher than the median number of kudos for angsty fics.

Homestuck is the fandom where angsty fics receive the most kudos relatively to fluffy fics. Maybe because they are relatively rare, according to the preceding graph? Glee however appears to be a very angsty fandom: a lot of angsty fics relatively to fluffy ones, and they received a lot more kudos.

Inside a given fandom, preference for fluff over angst can also vary depending on the favored ship. If we compute both ratios for the ships with at least 20 fics in each of the two categories, we obtain those rankings:


For most ships, there are more angsty fics than fluffy fics. It can vary a lot inside a fandom: for example in Supernatural, one can oppose fluffy Destiel to angsty J2 or Wincest.

Despite (or due to?) the numerical importance of angsty fics, fluffy fics tend to receive more kudos than angsty ones.


However, one still finds ships for which there is a high relative number of angsty ships and a preference, in terms of kudos, for angst, such as Drarry  (Harry Potter), Gallavich (Shameless) or Captain Hook/Emma Swan (Once Upon a Time).

What can we conclude?

  • Fake relationships is indeed a popular trope on A03. Fics in this genre tend to receive more kudos than other fics.
  • There are more angsty fics than fluffy ones, but fluffy ones receive more kudos. However, it depends according to fandom… Glee in this respect if the perfect counterexample, angsty fics receiving there much more kudos.
  • These measures are to be taken with a pinch of salt… They depend hugely on the attitudes towards tagging that can vary a lot across fandoms. Not all the fluffy stories are tagged “fluff” and vice-versa. Add to that the fact that the reader’s opinion may differ from the author’s on the pertinence of the tag…


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