'Riverdale' Writer Britta Lundin on How Fan Fiction Has Made TV More Diverse

In her YA novel 'Ship It,' Lundin explores how viewer-generated stories have increased queer visibility — and why TV actors have fought against it.
Courtesy of Subject

Britta Lundin is channeling her teen TV knowledge into YA fiction. This week, the current Riverdale writer sees the release of her debut novel, Ship It, a lighthearted examination of the intersection of teen TV, queer representation and fan fiction. 

In Ship It, Claire, a 16-year-old fan of the fictional TV show Demon Heart, goes viral when she asks the show's lead if his character is gay — and he laughs at her. That Demon Heart's two male protagonists are romantically involved is the central idea behind Claire's popular fan fiction of the show, and when Demon Heart decides it needs to do damage control after the actor's comments create a PR nightmare, they offer Claire a spot on a high-profile publicity tour to bridge the divide. 

Though Ship It is not based on any specific real-life event, its premise brings to mind recent examples of actors or showrunners dismissing fan suggestions that onscreen characters might be queer. For instance, in 2013, Supernatural's Jensen Ackles, who plays one of two main male characters that are frequently shipped together, reacted negatively to a fan question about his character's possible bisexuality.  

Lundin's book, which features a f/f relationship, also comes not long after TV's "Bury Your Gays" controversy in which internet activists argued that queer teen girl characters — already a television rarity — have been consistently killed off in shows like The 100, The Magicians and more. Below, Lundin weighs in on the controversy, on how TV actors and showrunners should view fan fiction and what's it like inside the Riverdale writers room.

What drove you to write Ship It?

This is a book about both the entertainment industry and fans and fan culture. And as someone who currently works in the entertainment industry as a writer and also has been actively involved in fan culture for most of my life, I felt like I was someone who could tackle this topic. 

The book is told in two perspectives between Claire, a teenage fan who writes gay fan fiction about her favorite TV show [Demon Heart], and Forest, who is an actor on the TV show that Claire is obsessed with. He's being shipped with his male co-star, but he doesn't think his character is gay. 

So it's about who has control of the character once it's out in the world — who gets to decide which characters on TV are gay or not. 

The premise of Ship It feels a lot like the 2013 incident with Jensen Ackles of Supernatural in which he reacted negatively to the suggestion that his character might be bisexual. Did you intend for the premise of Ship It to dovetail so closely with real life?

The fictional show within the book Ship It is not supposed to be precisely one show or another. It could be "homaging" any number of shows where the fans see a gay relationship in a TV show that the creators or actors or writers of that show don't want to pursue. This is something that has come up time and time again and will continue until show creators get more open to the idea that just because we originally thought of a character as straight doesn't mean they have to be straight forever. 

Queer representation on TV can come in many forms. It can come in the form of a character who is gay from the moment we meet them, but there is also the perfectly valid method of taking a character who everyone assumes was straight, and then in season four or five or six or 13, saying, "Oh, actually, no, this character has another layer to them — maybe they are bisexual or pansexual." 

If we're going to get more queer representation on TV, I think we need both of those things to happen.

As campaigns like "Bury Your Gays" have highlighted, teen TV is not always welcoming to queer teen girls. When you were writing Ship It, how much were you trying to make space for them?

Having been a queer teen girl myself at one point, and watching television and not seeing anyone like me, that was one of the reasons why I turned to fan fiction in the first place when I was in middle school and high school. It's because you weren't seeing any gay characters on TV, but in fan fiction, there's more than you can possibly count. And they're doing all kinds of things, for one. They're falling in love, and they're solving mysteries and they're going on adventures. 

I think that's why you see people turning to fan fiction. It's because they feel let down by the current media landscape. Fan fiction is filling a desire in them to see more queer characters.

How inclusive has the Riverdale writers room been for you? 

The Riverdale writers room is a very welcoming space. It's really wonderful to have a gay showrunner [Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa], someone who understands these issues and cares about them. Just in season two, we took a character on Riverdale who was maybe assumed straight in season one and we gave her a queer backstory, and we gave her a girlfriend. It's super exciting to be part of the team that's putting more queer girls on TV. It's kind of a dream come true.

Do you think writers, actors or showrunners of TV shows are beginning to respect fan fiction more as a vehicle for fan engagement? 

I hope so. I think it still really depends person-to-person. I don't think fans are eager for showrunners to start diving into the fan fiction. That's a recipe for disaster. But I hope there's more of an awareness of fan culture in Hollywood now. There's a lot of talent in fan fiction. 

On one hand, I don't want to see fan fiction get commercialized, because it's a wonderful and pure community. But at the same time, there's so much great queer storytelling happening in fan fiction, and I'd love someone to take a look at that and go, "Oh, maybe we can be telling gay rom-coms in Hollywood; look how popular they are in fan fiction," and use fan fiction as a tool for measuring audience demand.

What differences between writing a book for teens versus writing a TV show for teens have stood out to you? Were there moments while writing Ship It where you thought, "Oh god, I wish I were doing television"?

One thing I had to learn when writing the book is, when you're a screenwriter, you're just writing the words and actions of the characters, but when you're writing a book you have to be the costume designer, the art department, the camera department, the lighting, and you have to know what everything looks and sounds and smells like. And you have to be the actors, and you have to feel everything the characters are feeling. [Because I am a first-time novelist,] these were all new things for me. As a screenwriter, you're like, "I don't need to know what they're wearing; the costume department will figure that out." But in a book, you have to be all the departments in one.

It's also great working on a TV show because you get free lunch.