This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #153. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Examining trends in fanfiction.
Rip and tear is a philosophy that’s fundamental to the foundation of the Doom franchise – what does it mean to have that level of unrestrained violence. Doom asks, in its many iterations, what does it mean to rip someone apart? To tear them asunder?
What Doom doesn’t ask is what happens when you put them back together again; this is the foundation of one of the most popular tropes in fandom, Hurt/Comfort. In fiction there are several tropes that rise above others; in fanfiction you have just a few that dominate no matter the fandom. Fluff, domestic fic and hurt/comfort. Hurt/Comfort is what it says on the tin – a character is hurt, so they must be comforted. It’s a dynamic that lends itself well to both derivative and non-derivative works. How does a character handle taking care of someone else? Does a normally grumpy character become a caretaker when presented with a sick friend/future lover? How does a character handle trauma?
Hurt/Comfort, in part because it’s such an established trope, has many varieties. The base model can be dark, but it’s also heavily fluffy – it’s not hard to find a Hurt/Comfort work where say Yuuri has had an accident and must be taken care of by Viktor, where Xie Lian must suddenly deal with blindness, where Anthony DiNozzo has been shot. The call can come from outside the house. However, sometimes, the hurt is more of the point than the comfort.
The juicy ones that’ll get you into ship wars online with puriteens are the ones where one of the characters is responsible for the hurt as well as the comfort. The no-holds-barred champion of this flavor of Hurt/Comfort is the Hannibal fandom, specifically in the relationships between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter. It’s effectively canon at this point, but Hannibal hurts Will Graham – removes his agency, allows his disease to progress, etc. so that he can be there when it all comes apart. So he can watch; this is a staple of dark romance.
Darker still (rip and tear until it’s done) is the trope/subversion of “Hurt, No Comfort” where your audience is forewarned in the tags that this is not going to end well. The character is about to go through suffering with no release, no catharsis. It’s a common pairing with something like “Dead Dove Don’t Eat.” If the character is to find no comfort, the reader is unlikely to. That is the point.
Even in the varieties that claim to have no comfort, Hurt/Comfort is about establishing painful circumstances for the characters to overcome, and either finding that there is no safety or in establishing that there is someone there to take care of you. It’s no wonder it’s a classic – it pairs well with things like domestic fics – and everyone has had a hard time at some point, so it’s easily relatable even when the suffering goes above and beyond. Hurt/Comfort is about catharsis and relief, even when the characters in those fic find none.
Amanda Hudgins is an occasional writer, former rugby player and wearer of incredibly tall shoes.