What are the most popular ships on AO3? This question has already been addressed by centrumlumina or destinationtoast using results from the AO3 search engine. We used another method, by collecting individual data on unrestricted fics. This allows us to complement their results, by distinguishing “central ships”, that are the focus of the fics, from “secondary ships”, that are in the background of the stories. If women are relatively scarce in fanfiction, they also tend more to be part of secondary ships than central ones.
Data: We wrote a script to collect individual data about unrestricted fics posted on AO3 in 2015. That is, for each fic: fandom, title, author, length, date, language, rating, characters, ships, freeforms, warnings, kudos, hits, bookmarks, chapters, category and status (complete of in progress). In order to have a sample of manageable size, we limited ourselves to long fics, that is fics with more than 10000 words. Those fics account for 13% of the fics published or revised on AO3 in 2015, that is already more than 75000 works. Even if chosen for pratical reasons, this 10000 words limit in not totally arbitrary, in the sense that if defines a subset of fics of novella and novel length.
All first 10 ships are slash. Destiel is by far the biggest ship for long fics, before Larry, Sterek, Johnlock and Stucky. Each of those five ships gave birth to more than 1 000 fics longuer than 10 000 words in 2015 on AO3.
Further down the list, slash is much less pregnant. Overall, amongst the first 100 most popular ships, 53 are slash, 36 are het, 6 are femslash and 5 are gen. Those 53 most popular slash ships account for 21 726 fics, the 36 het ships for 9 078 fics, the 6 femslash ships for 1 804 fics and the 5 gen ships for 1 139 fics. Those number are to be taken with a bit of caution since more than one ship can be present in a single fic.
Because of that last point, it is to be noted that the importance of some ships can be somewhat overstated in our list. Indeed, some relationships are not central to many fics, but appear frequently in the background, especially if they are canon. For example, the couple Jessica/Sam from Supernatural is ranked 23rd in our list, but this is probably just a side effect of the popularity of Destiel. The rank thus reflects the popularity of the ship in a broad sense, without telling anything about its importance in fic plots.
The 100 relationships tags we listed – which do not represent strictly speaking 100 pairings, since for example Castiel and Dean or John and Sherlock appear as slash (romantic) as well as gen (platonic) relationships, involve 106 characters identified as men and 41 characters identified as women.
This is more than the 33 women that appear in the list established by centrumlumina (http://centrumlumina.tumblr.com/post/123467319174/summer-is-here-again-so-its-time-for-the-2015).
This could be because of differences in data set. We made the stats only for fics longer than 10 000 words, whereas she considered fics of all length. Moreover, her numbers are based on fics published between July 2014 and July 2015, whereas we considered fics published between January and December 2015. It is also possible that some of the discrepancies come from different processes of data collection.
Were there new popular female characters introduced in fandom since July 2015 (for example there is a series of ships involving women from The 100 that appear in our list and not in centrumlumina’s)? In order to answer, we broke down the number of slash/het/femslash and gen fics according to the month of publication. The following chart displays the evolution of the proportion of M/M, F/M, F/F and Gen labeled fics, normalized to 100 in January 2015. It confirms that the proportion of F/M fics, and and above all F/F fics, grew during 2015 and continued to do so after July 2015.
A same fic can combine different labels: M/M and F/M, or M/M and F/F and F/M, etc. 25% of fics are so multilabeled. Thus, the rise in the proportion of F/F labeled fics could be due to an increasing in the number of secondary F/F relationships, without necessarily meaning that an increasing number of fics are centered around femslash. That is why we also checked the evolution of the proportion of fics strictly labeled M/M, F/M, F/F or Gen (that is fics that were given one of those labels, excluding any other). The proportion of strictly slash or gen stories decreased slightly throughout 2015, whereas the proportion of new strictly het stories has been constant and the one of femslash stories has been increasing.
The question of whether those women characters are central to fics, or remain in the background deserves to be further explored. In our list of 100 most popular ships, some parings are potentially only secondary to fic plots. We already mentioned the Jessica/Sam pairing in Supernatural, which is often present in fics centered around Dean and Castiel. It is the same with the Hermione/Ron relationship in Harry Potter, that is seldom explored per se, but, because it is canon, is frequently found in Harry/Draco or Harry/Snape stories.
In order to take into account this problem, we established another list, with only “first ships”, that is ships that appear first in the listing of ships associated with a fic. We named those ships “central ships”, by opposition to “secondary ships”. Indeed, it is common practice to list ships by decreasing order of relevance for the story. Looking only at central ships changes considerably our list of 100 most popular ships.
Légende : ￼
The second column (v_rank) gives the variation in rank with respect to the first list. A positive number (in green) indicates that the ship is ranked higher in the list of central ships than in the list of all ships. A negative number (in red) signals the opposite. There is a dash where the ranking did not change.
This list of central ships confirms that female characters are more often than male characters present in relationships secondary to the plot. Indeed, in this list, there is 64 slash, 25 het, 9 femslash and 2 gen pairings. Female characters are now involved in 35 pairings, against 43 in the first list with all ship tags. The 100 most popular central ships pair 124 male characters and only 38 female characters.
If we look at the ships that disappeared between the our first and our second listing, it appears that they are overwhelmingly involving female characters and het pairings. Most of them are canon, which would explain why they are chosen by default for the background on stories not centered around those characters. The most extreme example is given by the One Direction fandom: Perrie Edwards and Sophia Smith, if they are often included in fics as the girlfriends of Zayn Malik and Liam Payne respectively, are almost never the object of those fics and only exist in the background.
It was already well known that female characters were a minority in fanfiction, and in a sens it is only the reflection of what is also the case in canon. But when we try to assess the place of female characters in fanfiction, we have to take into account that when they are included, it is more often than for male characters, in the background. However, the proportion of female characters had been increasing in 2015. Will it be a lasting phenomenon? Is it due to an increasing number of women in source material or to the authors of fanfiction to write more and more about them?