For someone who doesn’t particularly like rom-coms, I sure do read a lot of fanfiction where romance is prominently featured. This could be because rom-coms, particularly Hollywood rom-coms, have become mostly clichéd retreads of the same old tired story where attractive cis lady meets attractive cis man and then they get together. There’s no suspense in it. Fanfiction, though, allows the writer and reader to explore the stories that Hollywood and primary gatekeepers of “worthwhile” media have deemed unsuitable—stories about people of color, queer people, polyamorous people, etc. It’s because these stories aren’t the ones normally seen on the silver screen or on television that the issues surrounding them become new, interesting, and, if done well, representative of more marginalized groups.
Fanfiction has in turn developed a lot of its own tropes. One of these tropes is the soulbond trope, or soulbond AU (“alternate universe”). In the soulbond AU, two (or more) persons find that they have a magical bond connecting them to their soulmate. Now, this is a trope that could easily become a cliché, but the development of the trope has, interestingly enough, taken on an increasingly intersectional feminist turn as it’s been allowed to change through the internet.
The cool thing about fanfiction is that it exists in a culture of sharing. As noted media scholar Henry Jenkins has said, “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.” Although the soulbond trope has been around for a long time in both fanworks and published fiction, it’s only recently, thanks to newer websites like Tumblr and Archive of Our Own, that we’ve been able to exchange and consume fanfiction and headcanon ideas at an incredible pace. In other words, as we have been allowed to play with this trope, we’ve come to “own” it in some sense. As such, the recent years of the soulbond trope are the most thought-provoking to me.
You can have all sorts of soulbonds. One popular soulbond idea comes from the TiMER movie—in this movie, people can get a watch installed that will count down the exact days and minutes until they find their soulmate. If your watch is blank, however, it means that your soulmate hasn’t yet gotten a watch. The movie is, of course, played out between a cis white lady and a cis white man—not that those are necessarily bad things in and of themselves. But it does perpetuate the idea that only cishet white people are worthy enough to act out stories about timeless themes such as “does everyone does have a predestined path?” or “is there such a thing as a soulmate?”
That’s why the fandom variations on the soulbond are so intriguing—for the most part, fanficcers latch onto the idea of the soulbond and choose to write stories about it in whichever way they see fit. And what I find interesting about it is that a lot of these writers are taking into account intersectional feminism when they do.
Fanficcers have experimented with this trope in two primary ways. The first is with the magical connection of the soulbond itself. The idea that there is only one person in one’s whole life who is meant for you is perhaps a bit romanticized and outdated. On TVTropes, it has its own page under Red String of Fate, which itself comes from an old, generally East Asian mythological story that says that two lovers destined to be together are linked by an invisible red string between their two hands. In more modern literature, many books have soulbonds where the two involved have telepathic or empathetic bonds and can share thoughts and feelings.
Fandom’s many variations of the soulbond are numerous: sometimes a character knows when they’ve met their soulmate because they can suddenly see color; they might have a soulmate-identifying mark like a phrase or a symbol; they might feel an inexorable tug in one direction until they and their soulmate meet. Whichever way the stories goes with the trope, all of them add to the worldbuilding. Typically the soulbond is the one piece of magic in an otherwise magic-less world, so the culture, customs, and practices that surround the soulbond are the things that can really set a story apart from its trope peers. In a world with soulmate-identifying marks, does Les Misérables‘s Enjolras choose to look at his mark, or does he keep it covered? What does it say about him, either way? In a Sherlock soulbond AU, does Sherlock even believe in the science of soulbonding, and what happens to his carefully-constructed theories when he meets John? Ideas like this exercises both the writer’s creative juices and forces the reader to dig deeper into the accepted characterization given by the canon material. It’s as much an exercise in literary analysis as is any college English course.
Ficcers also experiment with this trope from a more gender/sexuality oriented standpoint. For example, one popular idea with the soulmate-identifying mark is when the name of the soulmate appears on one’s wrist. What happens to people who are inadvertently outed to their parents when their names appear? If the person’s soulmate is transgender, does their preferred name appear on the wrist? What about names in a language you can’t read?
Then there’s the idea that one shouldn’t have just one soulmate at all. What about people who are asexual or aromantic, or polyamorous people who may have more than one soulmate? How does that work? My favorite take on this has been ones where the soulmate-identifying mark appears for the first time on the place where you and your bondmate first touch. Even if you have more than one soulmate, everyone who’s most important to you—romantic partners and platonic life pals alike—shows up on your skin. All of these make for fascinating and complex story ideas, and demonstrate that there are many more stories to be told when one steps out of a cisgender, heterosexual norm.
Without any constraints on the fanfiction community—ie, without someone to tell us that we can only write about cishet people in order to appeal to a cishet market—we’re free to develop stories whichever way we want. I especially like how this can be seen through the soulmate trope—maybe it’s a bit old-fashioned, or maybe it’s just clichéd, but fandom has taken this trope and breathed new life into it. Not only are fans creative with how the bond occurs magically, they’re also intelligent enough to realize that the old ideas don’t necessarily work anymore, and they’ve made variations on the trope so that it’s more inclusive.
In short, it’s been a pleasure seeing this trope develop and change into a cool microcosm of what makes fandom so special. What are your favorite soulbond AUs or ideas? Let me know in the comments below.