Given that fan fiction goes back centuries (Virgil’s The Aeneid circa 25 BC is basically just Iliad fan fiction) it stands to reason that the notion of ‘shipping goes back pretty far as well. After all, if someone were emotionally involved and dedicated enough to write fan fiction, it wouldn’t be surprising that people were emotionally involved enough ‘ship their favorite characters.
That’s largely all that ‘shipping needs, really. If you, as part of the audience for a story, find yourself invested in the characters and their well-being, you’ll want them to succeed. And that can extend beyond the parameters of the story itself. Naturally, you’d want the protagonist to achieve the goal of the basic plot (i.e foiling the bad guys, saving the world, whatever…) but the deeper you invest yourself in the characters, the more success you want them to achieve. You’d want them to reach the pinnacle of their career path, to receive accolades and recognition for their achievements, and to find their true love. Which is where ‘shipping comes in.
When you think about it, ‘shipping is just wishing that the characters you’ve grown to care about achieve success in their love lives, which is not always the primary focus of the story that authors are trying to tell. Or even if they are, it might not be for any of the characters beyound the primary two or three. Han and Leia fall in love with each other over the course of three movies, but Luke, Lando, Chewie, and the rest of the cast don’t have romantic interests at all. At least within the confines of the movies, there’s scarcely anything there to even suggest anyone else besides Luke has the slightest interest in a relationship of any sort.
In 2005, Daria co-creator Glenn Eichler was asked about the couple of episodes that suggested a possible relationship for the title character. He noted that, “as cool and fun as Trent was, any viewer who really thought that Daria and Trent could make a go of a relationship was just not watching the show we were making.” He later added, “The fact that those moments were few and far between should have given some indication that the series was not about Daria’s love life.” Interestingly, this is both precisely and precisely beside the point.
It’s precisely the point because the show only portrayed a specific part of the title character’s life, and it leaves open the possibilities for viewers to imagine those portions that aren’t sufficiently addressed. It’s beside the point because, regardless of the central theme of the show, viewers were heavily invested in the characters and, as noted above, want to see them succeed in all areas of their lives. Whether Daria’s love life is shown in full, in snippets, or not at all, viewers want to see her achieve success and, absent anything in official canon, they’re left to their own imaginations.
Whether creators agree with the pairings fans come up with or not, they’ve succeeded by connecting with those fans at some deep, emotional level where they want to see these characters win at everything. And if these creators are self-reflective enough, they can keep developing the characters according to their own understanding of them, but still appreciate the enthusiasm ‘shippers display as well. As Eichler later said, “I really appreciate all the continued interest in Daria, and if you all want to write stories about her with happy endings, hey — to hell with the secret rulebook!”