Writing has been at the heart of many of my relationships online, from the late 90s friendships that grew out of posting my Crow fanfic and lead me to early online plurality and otherkin communities, to the roleplaying community friendships that got me through college and an abusive relationship, to meeting my significant other when I was critiquing a fanfic they were writing at the time. More than ten years ago, I wrote a post about co-writing with my significant other and how it was more symbolic to me to ask them to write with me than it was to ask them to marry me.

Writing online is often a community activity. I write fanfiction for an audience, and generally speaking the audience I'm picturing is my friends who share the fandom with me. When I did roleplaying online, whether it was in IRC, on LiveJournal, by email or in forums, the key component was the writing that we passed back and forth. Characters fell in and out of love, of friendships, of enemy-ships, and however you feel about the relationship between a writer and their characters, there is going to be crossover between how you feel and how your characters feel.

Relationships that started between characters turning into online dating and offline marriages only reinforced that, as did the way someone leaving a game or setting resulted into the severing of whatever relationships characters had developed. When your character's wife's writer abandons the game and the relationship those characters have, it can feel like a divorce even if you and the other writer have never so much as shaken hands. These aren't the same as relationships we have names for like "spouse" or "friend" but they're not the parasocial relationships of youtube stars or popular bloggers and their followers. There is a connection that goes both ways there, even if it's not the same in both directions.

In the past decade, I have learned to reclaim some settings and some characters I thought I would never be able to get back from relationships that had ended. I learned to be share a bit more, even knowing nothing is forever, and I learned how to perform the delicate surgery to remove the painful parts of a plot and replace them with something that not only removes the things that weren't mine but makes the story stay true to where I am writing from now.

It's a little bit like breaking up with someone who's still part of your friends group. Either you have to learn how to make it stop hurting and learn to live with seeing them, or you have to find a new set of friends. Sometimes it has to be the latter because it's too complicated.

I believe that co-writing is an excellent practice for long-term relationship partners. It can keep things fresh and exciting, allowing you to literally fall in love all over again with someone you've been married to for ten years. More than once I've seen something we're writing reflect back to me something I've been thinking about but not been able to solve on my own; solving the problem on the page is a relief.

There's nothing in an online relationship that can't happen in real life, but it can feel difficult to talk about offline; it's vaguely embarassing, weirdly niche, and it seems like there's so much to explain that it's not worth trying. I know there are therapists out there who do understand this stuff, mostly because I know them as friends. Hopefully there is a generation of therapists studying right now who will all understand fanfiction and roleplaying and small community drama online, at least well enough to help people dealing with it. I think we're getting there; there's certainly more understanding of online bullying now than there was when I was breaking up with either of my exes.

Writing together is inherently intimate. When you're writing, you share not just the actions and the spoken words of your character, but you share their thoughts and feelings, and when you're writing with someone else, you can't help reacting to those thoughts and feelings. Co-writing is a kind of psychic link, because you both share emotions back and forth, you inflict things on each other knowing what response it will generate. It's often an almost kinky relationship, because for many writers, the suffering of a character is necessary and even fun to write. You write asking your partner to hurt you, or hurting them, and each of you smiles as you do it. When you read a lot of someone's writing, you see the themes they're drawn to and the phrases and plots they repeat. Often you see more of them than they realize they're showing you.

Co-writing and roleplaying have brought me all of the best relationships in my life because they let me be emotional when I didn't know what I was feeling and because they let me ask for things I didn't know I wanted. Writing and roleplaying were the first place in my life I ever felt seen as myself, despite the fact that my words and actions supposedly belonged to someone else.

How could a relationship like that not mean everything to me?

This was written for and inspired by the February 2024 IndieWeb Carnival on Digital Relationships.