BTS is known around the world for their relatable music, dynamic concert performances, and their passionate fanbase. But another large element behind this successful group of young men is the “BTS Universe” (BU), a fictional world with a narrative that depicts characters inspired by the BTS members. The BU started with just a handful of music videos, but it later went cross-platform with the introduction of the “HwaYangYeonHwa Notes,” small booklets of text included in the group’s Love Yourself albums. Additional music videos and short films fed the storyline, and BigHit Entertainment recently released a physical HYYH The Notes book and launched a webtoon on Naver titled “Save Me.”
Dedicated fans spend hours deconstructing and analyzing this narrative, which spawns countless Twitter threads, blog posts, and YouTube videos about the storyline. Although the narrative began in 2015, fans are still consistently involved in discussing this story as new information continues to come out. It’s clear that the BU successfully intrigues fans, pulling them into the narrative and the world of theories as deeply as they wish to go — but what lies beneath this narrative’s ability to draw people in?
In his book on writing technique titled The Emotional Craft of Fiction, author Donald Maass writes, “To entertain, a story must present novelty, challenge, and/or aesthetic value.” Maass encourages writers to “force the reader to figure something out,” because that will both engage the reader and make it more likely they’ll remember the story. The BTS Universe, though not strictly a narrative in the form of a book, manages to hit on all of these points.
The BU is a novel concept, a first for K-Pop, as no other group has ventured into storytelling at this level, across this many platforms, and with this level of cohesiveness before. In addition to music videos, short films, texts, and the webtoon, the BU was further expanded by the Smeraldo blog, which provided lore surrounding the smeraldo flower, a fictional flower that appears in BTS’s storyline. Smeraldo was also used to name the Twitter account that promotes the webtoon and the HYYH The Notes book. Additionally, a real Smeraldo shop that sold special flower-themed merchandise opened at the group’s Love Yourself Seoul concerts. The Smeraldo tie-in bridged the gap between the BU world and our own, adding yet another layer of interactivity and immersion. Fans are captivated by the level of detail and amount of content that’s been put into the BU.
The challenge of the BU lies in its storytelling. The story is fleshed out mainly in the “HYYH Notes,” which are epistolary in nature. Each note bears a name and a date, but despite the three albums’ worth of Notes and the full-length HYYH The Notes 1 book we have so far, the full story is yet unknown. Events that take place in the Notes sometimes appear in videos or the webtoon, but no medium gives the full picture. Gaps in the narrative leave fans to put the pieces together themselves and to theorize about the missing portions, symbolism, and character motives. It’s particularly effective since bits of the story are released only periodically, intriguing fans to wait for the next piece to drop. BTS’s content is often released in media res, effectively drawing fans in with the promise that more of the backstory will be revealed later.
An additional challenge exists in the outside sources that occasionally influence BTS’s work. With the release of title track “Blood, Sweat & Tears” off their 2016 album WINGS, the band noted the influence of Demian, a German Bildungsroman by Hermann Hesse. Later, BigHit Entertainment’s official shop released a book bundle that included Demian as well as Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving and Murray Stein’s Jung’s Map of the Soul, giving fans even more to connect to BTS’s releases. With their upcoming release bearing the title Map of the Soul: Persona, it’s clear that fans will have even more material to unravel.
When it comes to aesthetics, there’s much to appreciate in BTS’s music videos and short films, which are all shot cinematically and with great care to detail. Both the visual storytelling and the aesthetically pleasing videos serve to hold the audience’s attention. Since BTS’s content provides a long-running story rich in symbols and connected themes, fans are encouraged to re-watch past videos to look for information they may have missed. Truly, by hitting all three points of novelty, challenge, and aesthetics and utilizing so many forms of media, BigHit ensures that fans stay engaged, and when we stay engaged, we develop deeper attachments.
Maass touches on emotional attachments to fiction in his book, discussing how psychology’s affective disposition theory explains why readers become emotionally involved — we tend to make moral judgments about characters and attach emotions to them as a result. If we feel something in relation to a fictional character, we’re that much more bonded to them and the story.
From the very start of the BU, even before it was billed as the BU, BTS’s characters played into disposition theory. In the first string of BU music videos including “I Need U” and “Run,” the members of the group are shown as innocent but troubled youth, with each character confronting his own struggles. At the time, fans had nothing more to go on than the music videos, but these videos served as a great emotional hook. Fans could relate to some of the realistic characters and sympathize with others because of how they were depicted — we judged them to be good characters, despite their bad circumstances. Creating relatable and likable characters is one huge step in the direction of successful emotional attachment.
What makes the experience even more emotionally invested for fans is that the fictional characters are portrayed by the real BTS members. They use their real names for these characters, and occasionally real personality traits bleed over into their fictional counterparts. Fans who already have an attachment to the real BTS will more easily attach to this fictional story and world. This ease of attachment eliminates a hurdle in traditional fiction writing, because in a book, the characters are unknown. In the BU, however, they’re unknown and revealed only incrementally, but they are presented in a familiar form.
With so many sources of information and a slew of gaps to fill in, the BU allows fans to play an active role in the group’s narrative. Other K-Pop releases may be momentarily engaging, but if there’s not much to mull over, we’re not as likely to keep thinking about them and may lose interest. But the BTS Universe is special because it extends its storytelling beyond just a music video, or even a series of videos, enabling fans to actively engage and solidifying the fans’ attachment to the series, the characters, and the members of BTS themselves. Maass may be talking about writing novels, but his formula for effective, engaging fiction concisely explains why so many of us are willing participants in this cross-platform fictional universe.