Sherlock, Harry Potter, and Lattes: On the Appeal of the Coffee Shop AU
Ever wonder what the characters of your favorite stories would be like if instead of solving crimes, going to wizard school, stealing secrets from people’s dreams, or traveling across the universe through stargates, they were the baristas and customers at an independent coffee shop? Apparently, a genuinely surprising amount of the internet has, and has devoted not a small amount of time to illustrating these scenarios through one of the most weirdly specific and yet popular subgenres of fan fiction: the Coffee Shop AU.
Why is this happening? It’s a bit complicated, but it all starts with the motivation behind why people write fan fiction, to begin with, and extends into the more accurate territory from there. Understanding the motivation and inspiration behind it also speaks volumes about the concept of relatability in fictional characters, and how major studios and consuming audiences both want it, but tend to achieve it in very, very different ways. Perhaps the best place to start is with the broader fan fiction trope from which the Coffee Shop came from: the AU.
Familiar Characters in Unfamiliar Settings
The AU, or Alternate Universe, has long been a staple in fiction, of both the official canon and fan fiction varieties. In the 50’s, DC Comics introduced alternate universe versions of their characters when they established the Golden Age Justice Society and the Silver Age Justice League were different versions of the same characters living in different worlds; in the 60’s, Star Trek introduced a mirror universe with darker versions of the Enterprise crew in the episode “Mirror, Mirror”; and in the 70’s, Marvel launched What If? a series of anthology stories that explored the ramifications across the Marvel universe if certain events had played out differently. The bottom line is that this is frequently returned to well across the landscape of fiction, and it only makes sense that this would spread into fan fiction as well.
Fan fiction has taken this concept into some exciting new areas. While stories exploring famous fictional worlds if certain events had happened differently have been some of the more prominent examples, it didn’t take long for fan fiction to explore a new avenue entirely: setting-based AU’s. What if your favorite crew of space explorers lived in Medieval Europe? What if your favorite cowboys all worked on a pirate ship? It’s a fascinating experiment in storytelling to imagine how similar things can be while being set in a wildly different place or time, to the point that on occasion these types of stories have been explored in the official canon of long-running media; 90’s sitcom Newsradio had two non-canon episodes, one illustrating the cast if they ran a space station and one if they were on the Titanic; similarly, Gail Simone’s Secret Six at DC Comics took a single issue to beautifully (and tragically) chronicle the adventures of the entire team if they lived in the Old West.
The key to making these work is staying true to character. If you’re reading about characters you don’t recognize in a setting you don’t know, then it’s an entirely different work of fiction, but if the characters feel right (even if what constitutes as “right” is frequently up for debate within fan circles), then as radically different as the world of the story may be, you can still see the characters falling into their original roles as could be expected and predicted. And this is what makes these kinds of stories fun and engaging; more than anything, they’re an exploration of what makes these characters work. How similar can they feel while doing something entirely different from what they’ve ever done before, in a setting they’ve never even been seen in? Pushing this limit and succeeding is what makes this experiment work, and it’s also why the next major paradigm shift manages to feel unexpected yet the perfect next step: taking characters from fantastical universes, like superheroes, space explorers, or magical teenagers, and placing them in our mundane, real life world.
So Why Coffee Shops?
The transition from fantastical to mundane might seem bizarre, but it makes sense when you recognize character consistency as the actual heart of AU fan fiction, and there’s a new trait this step adds to it: relatability. Placing characters in settings familiar to the audience allows readers to feel closer than ever to their favorite characters, and the mundane settings chosen frequently correlate to the demographics the fanwork is for/by. Teenage fan fiction often involves High School AU’s, because teenagers want to see their world, with their accomplishments and troubles, interacting with their favorite characters. For a somewhat older crowd, there’re a handful of settings that crop up, but it most popularly circles back to the coffee shop.
One of the earliest examples of the Coffee Shop AU was originally written around 2001, a N*Sync popslash story titled “Café de l’Amour.” In the mid-2000’s, Stargate: Atlantis brought a new wave of Coffee Shop AU stories, due in part to the character Dr. Rodney McKay’s love of coffee on the show. By the 2010’s, the trope was firmly entrenched in the fan fiction community, with everything from Harry Potter to the BBC’s Sherlock to the anime Naruto to Christopher Nolan’s film Inception all having their own Coffee Shop AU’s.
Why coffee shops specifically? Well, there’s a handful of reasons that directly relate to the popularity of coffee itself. In our modern era at least, coffee has entered the universal language, with the success and ubiquity of coffee shops everywhere serving as crucial evidence. Considering the omnipresence of coffee shops, it stands to reason that it’s a location almost everyone can at least picture; while High Schools are universally recognizable locations for teenagers; not all adults are familiar with all places of business, but they have likely at least been to a coffee shop. Additionally, coffee has left such a permanent mark on pop culture that a love of or even addiction to coffee is frequently found as a character trait in modern fiction. This allows fan fiction writers on focusing their new settings on something that directly relates to a canon element of a character’s personality. Plus there’s a question of genre to take into consideration; many fanworks involve romance in small or large (or Venti) proportions, and because coffee shops serve as the nexus where all walks of life end up meeting, they create possibilities for relationships between baristas and regular customers and allow for a large number of opportunities for fluffy, cutesy romance. The general atmosphere of a coffee shop, with their scents and warmth and confectionary treats, certainly don’t hurt either.
But the appeals of this subgenre go beyond the mere commonality of caffeine. When the question was raised on a fandom forum in 2011, “why is the Coffee Shop AU so popular?”, answers ranged, but many agreed that part of the charm of the setting was that the setting allowed itself to be unimportant. The coffee shop is seen as a casual place of business, one which allows for periods of inactivity where character developing conversations and sequences could take place. It’s small and cozy; it’s both a work and consumer environment that gives a reason for individuals to predictably be found in the same location allowing for interactions to happen on a regular basis. In general, it’s fun and is a much lower stake, more lighthearted, a possibly even trivial environment that allows the story to focus on the characters themselves more than any other element. When you consider that these characters frequently come from stories where their actions are typically bombastic, fast paced, and hugely consequential, the idea of slowing down and focusing on what they do when what they do doesn’t really matter all that much is more than just a functional setting, it’s a way to make these characters more relatable. And that’s where we get into...
A Different Kind of Relatability
There's a strong argument to be made that relatability is one of the most sought after traits in a fictional character. Relatability makes audiences connect with a character's plights and instantly sympathize with them, becoming invested in a character quickly using a few common personality aspects that they can easily see in themselves. This is why characters like Spider-Man or Buffy the Vampire Slayer become so famous and beloved, even while their world revolves around events and actions the average person realistically can hardly fathom. It's why characters like Superman or Sherlock Holmes, who are defined in part by being a step above everyone around them, tend to have purely human characters like Lois Lane or John Watson permanently orbiting their stories; it's so that the audience has an emotional viewpoint to latch onto when the protagonist is too alien to be immediately relatable. Because storytellers love to multitask, points of relatability tend to get combined with big, important parts of the origin story or with significant, emotional events in the ongoing adventures. Spider-Man's relatability stems from him feeling like the put-upon everyman, and this takes the form of him feeling like an outcast because of his strange new powers, feeling alienated from his peers and loved ones because of the secrets he keeps from them, and from the occasions where his loved ones die because he wasn't good enough to save them. And this may be a successful form of creating relatability, but it's also a limited one.
The big draw here is that this is an economic form of storytelling, saving screen time and page space by combining the necessary parts of the story development into dual purpose fictional constructs. This, in turn, keeps the story focused on the big important parts, making sure the audience is never bored by the trivial, mundane things that don't matter. But this is a short view thinking. They say no time is wasted if it was spent doing something you love, and this applies to fiction as well; no amount of storytelling is wasted if it gets the audience further invested in the characters and their story. The bottom line is that not every moment in our lives is big and dramatic, and fictional characters can reflect that by being given scenes or traits that aren't as big or exciting as dead girlfriends and daddy issues.
Even while acknowledging issues of limited space in some media, this technique is still achievable in most stories. Novels have long passages of prose that can easily be set aside to give us glimpses at the mundane but human parts of characters' lives; television shows and comics are ongoing and episodic forms of storytelling that can easily have the space for trivial moments; even standalone films can make clever use of scene building to include pieces of daily monotony that add to a character's personality.
Great writers and storytellers are already doing this. I mentioned Gail Simone has already dabbled in AU stories in her comics, but she also took whole issues out of the Secret Six just to explore what happens when the characters go on a date. Her other books are filled with trivial conversations over take-out Chinese food and immature banter while on missions. Matt Fraction's recent, universally acclaimed run on Hawkeye was pretty much built around this as the entire concept for the series. Shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender took the time to spend episodes or subplots of episodes on the characters aimlessly bumming around on their few off days, and this resulted in some of the most famous episodes of the series; compare this to The Legend of Korra, which had shorter seasons that didn't allow time for "filler" episodes, and now take notice of the general opinion that it took longer for the show and the characters to really find their stride compared to Avatar. Even movies, with their limited screen time, have done this, albeit usually through more subtle means. Inception, itself the inspiration for one of the more popular Coffee Shop AU stories around, took moments during the heist's planning stages to display the bickering between side characters like Joseph Gordon Levitt's Arthur and Tom Hardy's Mr. Eames. Scenes like this endeared even the side characters to the audience, capturing the imaginations of some to such a degree that they were inspired to pen fluffy romances of the characters despite there not being any real development of a relationship in the original film.
This is what the Coffee Shop AU is all about - finding the human in the fiction by less dramatic means than we've become accustomed to. We might see hints of this in professionally published works of fiction, but it tends to be limited to subtle little moments. If trends in fan fiction are representative of what the audience is receptive to (and to a lesser extent untapped territory in storytelling), this is something we can take to be a type of story that the audience is willing to see more of than is currently being delivered. Fans are telling a surprising amount of stories about their favorite characters finding love and coffee in unexpected places; maybe the major writers and studios can look for inspiration in these places as well.