Casey McQuiston is flattered when people compare Red, White & Royal Blue to fanfiction

For better or worse, readers and reviewers alike often describe the bestselling romance Red, White & Royal Blue as reading “like fanfiction.” Four years after its debut, the queer love story and political commentary of Casey McQuiston’s novel have amassed a certifiably huge online fandom. Matthew López, director of Amazon Studios’ newly released movie adaptation, described himself as a “rabid, passionate fan” of the book himself.

There are plenty of reasons for the comparison to fanfiction: Red, White & Royal Blue’s central relationship, between a U.S. president’s son and a British royal, feels like a crossover story between outsized fan-favorite character types. It’s full of tropes like enemies-to-lovers and fake relationships. It also has its fair share of light smut. The characters are modern-day young adults, tapped into pop culture. It’s also a queer love story, a favorite theme in fanfiction.

But no matter how or why the descriptor is used, McQuiston is flattered.

“I think that ultimately, it’s a compliment,” McQuiston tells Polygon. “Fanfiction is pure pleasure reading. It’s not like almost any other kind of reading. It is here to be fun. It is here to pacify, it is here to transform something that you love into something that you could love in a different way. It’s just pure love.”

Alex and Henry embracing while lying down on a staircase Photo: Jonathan Prime/Prime Video

Red, White & Royal Blue follows Alex Claremont-Diaz, the son of a fictional first female president of the United States, and his romance with Prince Henry, fourth in line to the British throne. The leads’ highly publicized lives contribute to the book’s tense political landscape, but the book digs into broader politics as well. Alex’s mother, Ellen Claremont, was elected in 2016, when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were facing off in the real world, and Ellen’s reelection campaign plays a huge role in the novel.

Reading about a reality where a woman won the 2016 election has been demonstrably cathartic for much of the book’s core audience. McQuiston started writing the novel before the results of the 2016 election came in, and their original draft was more of a tongue-in-cheek satire in the vein of Veep. But after the election, that tone didn’t make sense anymore.

“When the election happened, I literally just put it aside for six months,” says McQuiston. “I was like, I don’t know how to write this anymore. It took me six months to come back to that and figure out what I wanted to do with it. It became a form of escapism for me. I was living in Deep South Louisiana, red-state territory at the time, and feeling really isolated, and really surrounded by what was happening in 2016. The book was really conceived for me as a very big wish-fulfillment place.”

That sense of wish fulfillment, the wide-eyed idealism about a different and more satisfying world, is another element that likely sparked the fanfiction comparison. McQuiston also thinks the specific fandom tropes in Red, White & Royal Blue could be a factor. After all, searching for fics often involves typing your favorite ship and favorite tropes into a search engine. (“We’re out here doing media studies and playing around with constructs of fiction that make stories what they are,” McQuiston laughs.)

One of the book’s most iconic elements is the inclusion of historical notes from real-world queer people, which Alex and Henry begin sending each other via email. Lifting quotes to bookend fics and caption art or edits is another huge part of fandom, and a favorite element for fanfiction. But there was a specific reason McQuiston included these messages in their novel, and it only had a little to do with being a history nerd who wanted a chance to look over Rictor Norton’s anthology collecting centuries of gay love letters.

Alex and Henry standing in an empty museum, holding hands Photo: Jonathan Prime/Prime Video

“I knew it was such a fantastical story,” says McQuiston. “There’s so much to it that it’s just inhabiting hyper-reality. It is big and tropey, and it’s a rom-com, and it’s 80-foot screens. I wanted there to be something that was kind of grounding and contextualizing happening in the book. This fantastical idea of two great men having this clandestine love for each other is something that is actually very much historically precedented, whether or not anyone ever teaches that in a classroom or puts it in a book.”

McQuiston was inspired by a phrase that’s gotten wide attention recently as historians consider gay erasure in the historical canon. “We love the expression, ‘They were close friends,’ McQuiston says. “I was just thinking so much about how these two characters would fit into history and why, and contextualized it within the history of the world that they are, for lack of a better word, presiding over.”

The movie version of Red, White & Royal Blue is out on Amazon Video now.