Whump And Its Role Outside of Fandom
Imagine liking a character so much you’d want nothing more than to see them tied up in a darkened basement and beaten bloody just so they can recover again. Seems odd, right? In any case, welcome to the complicated and somewhat contradictory world of whump.
Simply, whump is both a subgenre of fanfiction as well as a plot device that involves a character being physically or psychologically put through the wringer. Fans of whump—whumpers—engage with it for a variety of reasons (as will be later explored), but come under criticism most often due to the sexually-charged rumours that surround the fanbase and, by extension, whump itself. The rumours are not completely unfounded, as some fans pursue whump for the physical sensations and/or sexual gratification they get from it; but this is not all it has to offer. The labelling of whump as ‘taboo’ is problematic both for the amount of sensationalist rumours which surround the genre and for the marginalization of the fanbase—even if, at first glance, the criticism seems warranted. But before we get into that, let’s begin with a crash course:
Whump, Whumper, Woobie and Other Gibberish
What is whump? First and foremost, it is a fandom-born phenomenon originating from fan movements as early as the 1970s with the emergence of “Get ‘em” zines—fan-made pamphlets primarily within the Star Trek fandom (haich slash cee); modern whump “involves taking a canon [(present in the original material)] character, and placing them in physically painful or psychologically-damaging scenarios. Often this character is a fan favourite and may sometimes be referred to as a woobie” (“Whump”). The term is used both to describe ‘whump’ present in the original material as well as in fanfics.
The history of whump has been recorded extensively in articles that explore its relationship with fans as well as its evolution. So, as not to paraphrase what has already been said quite well, if this aspect interests you, feel free to take a peek at “The Pain Fandom” by Maria Temming or “Hurt/Comfort and Whump in Fandom Discourse: A Timeline (1970′s – 2020,” by haich slash cee, which offer in-depth research into the history and reach of whump from retro to present.
Whump is seldom discussed without first or simultaneously addressing the overwhelming criticism it faces, which heightens its notoriety. Nevertheless, so much controversy creates an allure that leads non-fans to ask: “What’s all the fuss about?” The ‘fuss’ in question usually has to do with the satisfaction, sexual gratification or hard-to-describe fluttering feeling often referred to as ‘whumperflies,’ some fans claim to experience when they read whump. Rather being used to dismiss and judge the written material, the criticism is turned on the fans themselves, which makes it feel much more like a personal attack.
The personal flavour of this criticism is only emphasized when fans of other ‘guilty pleasures’ like harlequin novels or political thrillers face a fraction of the same. But the criticism doesn’t always come from normies; it comes just as freely from within fandoms and other reading spheres. One Tumblr user, Alipeeps, describes her experience: “It somehow felt like something that shouldn’t be discussed, that is not acknowledged, that people would consider weird.” Were this comment taken out of context, it’s not hard to see why many fans compare the discussion of whump to that of a kink, despite the fact that whump is rarely sexual itself, commonly being housed in ‘gen’ fics (general—non-romantic or sexual fanfiction). But as is true for much of kink culture, the object of a kink can begin with something entirely non-sexual until a shift in perspective changes that (consider how pop culture has altered our view of maid or school girl outfits). Some examples of common whump tropes include being imprisoned, held captive, or tied up; self-sacrifice that ends with a severe injury or death; facing a character or situation that resurfaces trauma; and good ol’ bludgeoning, stabbing, or maiming.
Whump is built upon physical pain and high emotions, and what often sends widely accepted sex practices into kink territory is that addition of more than just mutual pleasure, whether that be roleplay, praise/humiliation, impact play, etc. So even though whump is by no means a kink in the (ironically enough) ‘normal’ sense of the word, with the addition of that physical reaction from the reader, it’s easy to see where it gets its connotation. And to be clear, the issue is not in whump’s sexual or unsexual nature, it’s the fact that 1) the word and both its uses have taken on a sexual connotation, and 2) that part is what is largely being criticized.
However, not all fans are in it for the whumperflies—and are thus not only unfairly but incorrectly criticized. Tumblr user Fififolle defends whump by putting it in the context of effective prose:
I feel it is acceptable to enjoy stories where fictional characters are injured because it does provide such an opportunity for triumph over adversity […] Surely fiction would be far less interesting without it? Patching up wounds and soothing fevered brows is the stuff of good drama.(“Mini-Meta”)
And they are not alone in their thinking; Chera Kee in her article, “Poe Dameron Hurts So Prettily: How Fandom Negotiates with Transmedia Characterization” quotes @sparxflame who notes, “When men in fiction do get hurt, they largely bounce back from it, action-hero style.” Were this the widely propagated view of whumpers among non-fans, it’s quite possible that it would not be as heavily criticized as it is. But the problem does not lie in the fact that whump and its fans face criticism so much as why—which denotes a much larger issue, especially considering whump’s ubiquity.
Whump and TV
Whump gets most of its exposure through TV shows, which have narrative arcs for every episode and much more opportunity for whump than in a novel. Thus, unsurprisingly, the Whumpapedia—it’s exactly what you think—is largely dominated by instances of whump taken from TV shows. Books, movies, anime, comics and video games take a backseat in terms of sheer numbers of entries. In addition to the larger number of whump examples, TV might dominate the scene simply because it is the more popular medium and, many would say, easier to consume, or it might be because there are fewer standalone books and movies that are mainstream in the same capacity or have such established fanbases. Criminal Minds, Grey’s Anatomy, Supernatural, Stranger Things, and The Handmaid’s Tale are only a few of the extensive list of shows featuring commonly whumped characters.
However, shows like The Handmaid’s Tale that are inspired by novels prompt an interesting question: Why feature canons from the show rather than the book? Now, as was mentioned above, this could be chalked up to the simple fact that the kids aren’t reading these days, but The Handmaid’s Tale stands out. To say The Handmaid’s Tale is free of violence would be a gross fib, but one could say it is free of the sort of violence that would be attractive to whumpers. There is a substantial emphasis on male whump due to societal sensitivities concerning violence against women, that would only be emphasized with the sexualization of such violence. Thus, it is not so surprising that the only whumpee listed on the Whumpapedia is Luke, Offred’s husband, a character who takes a backseat in the novel. So, as the novel has a cast 99% made up of women, viewers get something more tangible to latch onto in the show. A commonly referenced scene is in season 5’s episode 6 entitled “Together” where Luke is “captured and beaten” before being dragged back to his cell, “bleeding and barely conscious” (Cabral).
Yet, Catch-22, an absurdist war novel written in 1961, was also remade into a mini-series, and the featured whumpee—Snowden—is given about the same amount of attention in both. Therefore, it would seem that in addition to the speculation raised above, there could be a certain visual factor that activates people’s fascination or delight—a factor that would be incapable of existing in the basic novel.
Whump as an Entirely Un-Risqué Plot Element
But, if there are so many instances of whump in canon, it would be inaccurate to then say that whump can only exist within fanfiction. Careful consideration of whump’s common conventions and attributes makes it clear that rather than a genre, whump possesses more similarities to a trope or plot element. Much like ‘Enemies to Lovers,’ whump follows a predictable formula: injury, suffering/healing, return to the real world or death. So when whump is discussed, it is this specific plot sequence being debated rather than a genre categorized by an overcoming/succumbing to adversity theme.
However, this doesn’t mean it’s completely impossible for whump to evolve into its own genre. On the anime and manga scene, age demographics like ‘Shoujo’ (young girls) or ‘Shounen’ (young boys) are becoming increasingly synonymous with various tropes generally appealing to each age group. And in the West, more and more elevator pitches are being adapted to include buzzwords like ‘Mistaken Identity’ or ‘Love Triangle.’ With the rise of modern literary fads—partly due to online communities like ‘Booktok’ (TikTok’s book community)—authors are desperately remixing genres and tropes in hopes of creating something unique. So it is not so preposterous to suggest a potential trend based on the devising of an entire story around one section of the typical novel structure.
In any case, a standalone genre is what many whumpers anticipate as OC (original character) whump becomes increasingly popular. September of 2022 saw the publication of the collection Hurt and Comfort: A Whump Anthology by Kailey Alessi, which featured over two dozen whump stories by various authors. Additionally, Maria Temming writes in her article, “A pair of authors recently teamed up to edit and self-publish an anthology of original whump stories, and at least one author has argued that whump should be recognized as a genre in mainstream publishing.” The numbers don’t seem especially promising but with social media as a driving force, it would only take a slight change in image for emerging authors to shoot whump into the mainstream with carbon copy stories in different fonts.
If these stories were to come to exist, the question then remains as to how they would be marketed. No one would argue that a lighthearted romance and a supernatural romance are both subgenres of romance, but there is room for significant debate concerning whump’s roots. Action, thriller, drama… from Star Wars to Good Omens to My Hero Academia to Modern Family, whump travels between genres because, while possessing a similar layout to many tropes, it doesn’t possess the same exclusivity that ‘Love Triangle’ has with the romance genre or ‘Last Girl’ has with horror. Whump also exists as a plot element no different from the climax or rising action. It is this specific universality that makes it so that even if whump emerges as a genre, it would lack many of the other elements needed for a complete and resolved plot structure. So, if whump were extended without the additional elements, it would potentially leave the reader dissatisfied; and if additional elements were included, it would likely fall under an already-established genre.
Handing it Over to Christopher Booker
In Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, he lays out plots and their variations (you’ll never guess how many) that can be seen over hundreds, perhaps thousands of stories, including whump—though not under that name. He first notes in his “Introduction and Historical Notes,” “[o]bviously it was not true that every story fits neatly and with mechanical regularity into one or another category of plot: otherwise we should all have noticed the fact long ago, and stories would scarcely be the endlessly varied and fascinating things that they are” (14). Booker acknowledges that his seven basic plots are not the be-all end-all of structural categorization, later differentiating stories that adhere to these structures from those that don’t: “there are others, a great many, which show the story somehow ‘going wrong’, in terms of failing fully to realise the basic plot which lies behind it” (Booker 15). In the various categories he describes, whump finds itself under “stories which are shaped only by part of such a plot” (14), which is how whump can exist both separately and in its larger context.
Whump most often develops in the ‘Overcoming the Monster’ plot. Although essentially any plot, basic or not, will reveal a ‘darkest point’—also called the ‘lowest point’ or the ‘crisis’—when the main character seems defeated, there are few that manifest in quite the same way as whump does in Overcoming the Monster. For example, ‘the Quest,’ according to Booker, contains what he calls, “Arrival and Frustration” (83), where the hero is about to get what they want but is required to complete more tasks beforehand. In an example using Babar and Father Christmas, he illustrates the Arrival and Frustration stage:
Babar and the dog dig a hole in the snow for shelter, but they are so cold and tired that they are on the verge of giving up hope – when they have a ‘thrilling escape from death’. The snow gives way under them, and they fall into a huge, brightly-lit underground cavern, a treasure house of toys, where they are warmly welcomed by the twinkling and venerable Father Christmas himself.(Booker 84)
Rather than the impossibility for whump to exist in this archetype lying in the hero’s inevitable recovery, it instead lies in the fact that the ‘recovery’ is brought about by an external source. Whump focuses very much on the inner turmoil and human connections created by heightened stress and the encounter of physical limitations. However, a ‘Hurt Without Comfort’ fic where the hero is hurt yet succumbs by the end would be equally impossible because the hero would be incapable of completing their remaining “Final Ordeals” and “Goal” (Booker 83). Even in Booker’s ‘Dark Quest,’ such as Moby Dick, where the hero is slain by the end, Captain Ahab still arrives at the Goal rather than being eighty-sixed by the Arrival and Frustration stage.
The Overcoming the Monster hero is completely justified in going after whatever Big Bad has made the huge mistake of messing with their day-to-day life. The hero eventually confronts it and stands at such staggering odds that it seems there is no hope of victory. There is then a staggering reversal and the hero wins the day (Booker 23). Some examples of Overcoming the Monster are: Stars Wars – A New Hope, Beowulf, and Jack and the Beanstalk. Overcoming the Monster sees not only the typical ‘action hero’ type protagonist but feeds off that archetype to amplify the effect of what Booker calls the “Nightmare Stage” (48). It is housed just before ‘the final ordeal’ where the hero vanquishes his monster. The hero needs to recover in order to slay the monster—an event that defines the archetype. In fact, Booker highlights the importance of the Nightmare Stage under a heading that reads “Constriction and release”:
So powerful is the effect on us of one element in this plot — the growing sense of nightmare as the hero seems to be slipping into the monster’s power, followed by the surge of relief at his thrilling escape from death — that a whole sub-group of tales has grown up which use just this element in the story to make a plot in itself.(Booker 49)
In addition to most basic adventures, this description fits ‘Hurt With Comfort’ fics quite well—the whump stories that don’t leave the hero to suffer alone but let him overcome his infliction either by himself or by the sides of his companions.
Speaking of constriction, what about the whump where the hero is constricted so tightly that his little head pops right off and he never defeats his monster? In his chapter, “The Dark Power: From Shadow into Light,” Booker breaks down the tragic antitheses to his seven basic plots. When discussing Overcoming the Monster, Booker says the following about what readers anticipate from the plot in terms of the hero’s development:
[F]rom the moment we first see them in their initial lowly, disregarded state, we know the one thing essential to bringing the story to a satisfactory resolution will be to see them finally emerging from obscurity into the light, where their true hidden self will finally become obvious for everyone to see.(Booker 220)
Booker explains that heroes who become intertwined with darkness must die to restore the reader’s inner sense of the happy ending, because the light wins a victory for ‘life’ (219).
Whump thrives off of action hero types being forced to reveal their flaws or fight against their inner darkness. Even whump that deals with ‘cinnamon rolls’ (soft and cutesy characters) or comic relief characters exist almost exclusively for the moment the facade is dropped. For whump to scratch a particular itch for the reader, if the main character dies, it should always be due to a fatal flaw or darkness; if the main character dies not due to a fatal flaw but instead for the development of another, these plots are then inapplicable because it means the focus character of the whump wasn’t the main character and the story was probably told from a peripheral perspective.
In Summary and in Addition
So, if whump is so common, why the ‘read with caution’ label? Well, the taboo that exists around whump is largely due to the medium with which it is propagated. Unlike harlequin or dark fantasy or horror novels, which can contain many of the same topics like excessive violence and sexuality, but have gone through the publication process, whump stands against no such critics. Anyone who likes it is able to write it. There are community moderators, but the fact that whump is such a prolific genre shows that it isn’t suppressed, at least en masse. So one theory is that the taboo partly stems from the idea that ‘anything you can find on the internet is worse than what you can find in print.’ Or that the internet is a cesspool of horrible, disgusting things and whump is one of them.
But while on the topic of whump and unfairly psycho-analyzing anyone who enjoys it, it feels wrong not to acknowledge other genres that are entirely acceptable but pose, if not similar, then greater issues. There’s a circumstantial sensitivity in today’s audiences that restricts what can safely appear in mainstream media. Recently, there has been a surge of ‘based on a true story’ series and movies that exist in a genre just a little more cinematic than documentaries. The problem lies not with biographical fiction as a whole but with what stories writers are choosing to investigate and portray, particularly within true crime.
The 2022 Netflix series, Dahmer, was met with a huge amount of backlash. Even though many viewers stood with the murder victims’ families as they spoke out against the show, Dahmer is still able to be streamed on Netflix. “‘We’re all one traumatic event away from the worst day of your life being reduced to your neighbor’s favorite binge show,’ Eric Perry, whose cousin Errol Lindsey was killed by Dahmer in 1991, told the Los Angeles Times in September” (Peay). Although the series does try to portray these events in a way true to the events’ horrifying nature, the message taken away lies entirely in the hands of the viewers. Shows along the same lines that have taken fewer steps towards sensitivity represent much larger issues, especially considering the now stereotypical image of a suburban mother with a glass of wine, sitting on the couch while some altogether indifferent narrator with a voice like honey describes just which parts of the victim’s bodies were cut off.
Yet, it would seem desensitization and a morbid fascination are the worst to come of the genre. So, this isn’t meant to be a total condemnation of the genre so much as a side-by-side comparison, demonstrating how real violence and serial killers can be glorified in mainstream media with its fans openly sharing their latest true crime binge, while a group of fans who enjoy fictional violence are condemned on an entirely separate level.
Alipeeps. “Mini-Meta : Whump – Why do we like it?” Internet Archive. 2008,
Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Continuum Books, 2004.
Cabral, Matt. “The Handmaid’s Tale recap: Surprise escapes, a shocking execution, andunexpected pregnancies.” Entertainment Weekly. 2022, ew.com/tv/recaps/the-handmaids-tale-season-5-episode-6.
haich slash cee. “Hurt/Comfort and Whump in Fandom Discourse: A Timeline (1970′s – 2020).” Tumblr. 2020, haich-slash-cee.tumblr.com/post/189543273406/hurtcomfort-and-whump-in-fandom-discourse-a.
Kee, Chera. “Poe Dameron Hurts So Prettily: How Fandom Negotiates with Transmedia Characterization.” NANO. 2017, nanocrit.com/issues/issue12/Poe-Dameron-Hurts-So-Prettily-How-Fandom-Negotiates-with-Transmedia-Characterization.
Peay, Malik. “Critics of Netflix’s controversial ‘Dahmer’ open up about lack of ‘respect’ they felt.” Los Angeles Times. 2022, www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-09-30/netflix-monster-jeffrey-dahmer-story-controversy-victims-eric-perry-rita-isbell.
Temming, Maria. “The Pain Fandom.” Fansplaining. 2023, www.fansplaining.com/articles/the-pain-fandom.
“Whump.” Fanlore. 2008, revised July 2023, fanlore.org/wiki/Whump.
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