In our work as geek narrative therapists, we’re often asked if we actually use fanfiction in session, and the answer is yes, we really do! For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “fanfiction” refers to creating one’s own stories based on beloved characters from existing pop culture narratives. Using fanfiction in therapy enables clients and therapists to rewrite the hero’s journey using narrative techniques. Since fanfiction is most often character-driven—getting inside the head of a character and asking “what if”—we can do the same with our clients, asking them to explore “what if” scenarios for themselves. For many clients, seeing themselves as the hero feels unfamiliar, and this is where fandom attachment or parasocial relationships can be uniquely helpful. Clients can use their emotional connection with fandom characters to create therapeutic fandom avatars and craft a fanfiction story that mirrors their own lives. With therapeutic support, they can begin to see their own heroism from the perspective of these beloved characters.

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Such was certainly the case for Cas (an amalgamation of several actual clients), a 25-year-old gender non-binary individual (biological gender female) of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, struggling with anger management issues and the fear that they would always be other. During our first session with Cas, they verbally noted our Adventure Time BMO, short for ‘BeMore’ tea mug, commenting that they had never seen a tea mug that was “quite so square.” We took this as an invitation to begin using therapeutic fanfiction early in our work. We shared that BMO, the gender nonbinary robot and video game console, was one of our favorite characters in Adventure Time, and asked Cas if they, too, enjoyed this cartoon. Cas eagerly explained that they loved this cartoon and that BMO resonated with them because BMO is on a journey to be “both a little living boy and girl who drinks tea.”

In the next few sessions, we fully employed the narrative tool of externalizing a problem via everyone’s favorite green superhero, The Incredible Hulk. This conversation was again initiated by Cas who remarked on the Hulk painting displayed on our wall: “Ha! That’s really true: mad does make sad.” We engaged Cas in a narrative therapy discussion around Bruce Banner, a.k.a. The Incredible Hulk, explaining to Cas that just as Bruce was not Hulk, they, i.e. Cas, were not their anger. We explained that understanding themselves as both connected to, but distinctly different from, their anger, might help them start to understand anger’s presence and reason for being in their lives. We then used the language of the Hulk comics to process their recent angry outbursts.

In subsequent sessions, we used the increased insight that Cas was gaining around both anger and the events that trigger anger to help them create a fanfiction action plan using Bruce Banner/Hulk as a stand-in for Cas. As part of this work, Cas was to pay mindful attention to their mood state, and when they noticed that they were beginning to feel angry, to place themselves into an Avengers fanfiction story in the role of Bruce Banner. They were to imagine that the team was working on a case and to ask themselves who was needed most—Bruce Banner or Hulk—playing out both scenarios to determine who would be best equipped to resolve the situation at hand. If the answer was Hulk, then they were to give themselves permission to feel anger without shame. If the answer was Bruce, then Cas was to engage in deep breathing and call upon their inner Black Widow to say soothing words to calm the inner Hulk. This was effective not only because this type of verbal play added a feeling of fun and whimsy to therapy, it also helped Cas maintain enough distance from anger so that shame was not triggered. Over the next three months of weekly sessions, Cas was able to continue the use of therapeutic fanfiction to both develop and implement strategies to de-escalate feelings of anger and to increase their frustration tolerance. They felt more in control of their inner Hulk.

At first blush, fanfiction and the hero’s journey may feel like disparate concepts for clinical work, but we have found that these concepts are not only congruous but incredibly healing in a therapeutic setting. Because there are fewer pop culture narratives made specifically for queer audiences, and because of queer marginalization in general, these conversations are all the more important and powerful. Therapeutic fanfiction allows queer clients to pick up the red editor’s pen and begin to adapt the story of their lives, creating a narrative in which they are the hero.   

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy