I’ve gotten this question a few times over the course of running this blog, and I’ve never been quite sure how to answer appropriately. To me, and to a great many others, the chemistry between the actors is palpable, but I don’t want to try to convince you to see something you just don’t see, or to ship something that’s just not your cup of tea. To each his own, right?
But I guess I will attempt to at least help you understand what exactly the appeal is to everyone who does both see it and like it. Why is the “Sterek” ship so damn popular? What has people gravitating in droves towards this particular pairing? Why (as of writing this post) of the 13,863 Teen Wolf stories on AO3 are 9,433 of them tagged as featuring Stiles/Derek (68% of the total), which is more than five times the amount of stories that feature the next most popular pairing (Scott/Allison)?
I’m going to try to explain from a narrative standpoint rather than a shipping one, so that hopefully the reasoning will seem a little more relatable and clearcut instead of solely subjective. It’s extremely easy for shippers to get caught up in their passion for a pairing, especially when that pairing is so immensely popular as to create a lot of unintentional vicious cycles among fandom rhetoric. So my goal is to present a few of the more objective theories about Sterek as a way of clarifying for anyone who might not “get it.”
And holy hell is Sterek popular, so I can see how “not getting it” might be intimidating to admit in that kind of climate. This is the behemoth of ships, relatively speaking. I have very very rarely come across a fandom in which a ship was so pervasive as Sterek is within Teen Wolf fandom, and even then those fandoms were all centered around source material in which every character not involved in said dominating ship was canonically ancillary and/or merely recurring (e.g. Sherlock/Watson, Mulder/Scully, Sam/Dean before Castiel was introduced, etc etc)
To begin with, I’d like to go straight to the horse’s mouth. Because who better to explain these characters and their dynamic than the man who created them and the men who portray them?
According to Jeff Davis, when speaking of the Stiles/Derek relationship in an interview with E!Online:
There’s always a lot of fun to be had with characters who seemingly despise each other and then have to work together to survive. In a funny way, that’s how a lot of romantic comedies begin. The two leads always start out absolutely hating each other until they find their common ground.
Dylan O’Brien puts it in slightly different words, but the core concept is basically the same, when he spoke about “Sterek” in his interview with Da Man magazine:
I think fans are reacting to something that humans naturally react to, which is good chemistry between characters that you wouldn’t expect to be seen together. Stiles and Derek couldn’t be more opposite as people or as personalities. On the one hand you have the most eccentric, animated, irritating and spastic character on the show. And then on the other hand you have the very serious, very “has everything on the line” kind of dark character. When you put those two together, that’s just comedy 101, so it just creates a funny and fun dynamic.
I think both quotes put into fairly simple and understandable terms exactly what (at least on the surface) initially attracts a lot of people to the ship. Characters who begin at odds with each other, so different in so many varying ways, but who work together due to necessity and end up playing off one another in generally comedic ways— that kind of dynamic is ”fun,” and is the cornerstone of basically every buddy cop movie in existence.
Breaking this down a little further, the appeal of Stiles/Derek also rests on the fact that the relationship (arguably) satisfies several extremely popular tropes, including, but not limited to:
As early as episode 1x02 Stiles and Derek are pitted against each other in a “I don’t like you, but I need you” type of relationship. Though they only interact in one scene in that episode (their conversation in the police cruiser after Derek’s been arrested) it immediately sets into motion the continuous snarky banter that comes to define all their subsequent interactions (and which some fans from the start decided to interpret as “Belligerent Sexual Tension”). The characters, even in this early episode, are at odds with each other, but have a common goal (protecting Scott) that they need the other in order to achieve (in this instance: Derek can’t keep Scott off the lacrosse field but knows Stiles can, and Stiles doesn’t have all the information he needs to keep Scott and others safe but knows Derek does), and they both accept this fact but, entertainingly, refuse to be happy about it (as is the case throughout most of their relationship).
TL;DR, the dynamic all on its own, without any romantic implications, is already enjoyable and popular for all of the reasons listed above and then some. The addition of a romantic element, however, is not much of a stretch for a lot of fans simply because the relationship falls so easily under so many headings (Love At First Punch, Slap-Slap-Kiss, Opposites Attract, Belligerent Sexual Tension, etc.) that we all tend to inherently view as a precursor to romance due to the prevalence of those tropes in so many fictional romantic narratives, both modern and classical.
A few examples of romantic duos that share a similar dynamic are: Elizabeth/Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (though more so in adaptations than the book), Knightly/Emma in Emma (as well, their modern successors, Cher/Josh in Clueless), Han Solo/Leia in Star Wars, Katherine/Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew (and their modern successors Kat/Patrick in 10 Things I Hate About You), just about any main romantic pairing in any old school Screwball Comedy… The list goes on and on. (Like Jeff Davis said in the quote at the top, “In a funny way, that’s how a lot of romantic comedies begin.” And he’s not wrong.)
But I think one of the most perfect classical examples is Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Made all the more applicable in this context when you cast Scott and Allison in the roles of Claudio and Hero.
In case you’re not up on your Shakespeare, here’s a handy little Wikipedia blurb about it for you:
Benedick and Beatrice are engaged in a very “merry war”; they are both very glib and proclaim their scorn for love, marriage, and each other. In contrast, Claudio and Hero are sweet young people who are rendered practically speechless by their love for one another. By means of “noting” (which sounds the same as “nothing,” and which is gossip, rumour, and overhearing), Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into confessing their love for each other, and Claudio is tricked into rejecting Hero at the altar.
One fan even sums up this very dynamic on Teen Wolf in a similar way, without actually referencing the play specifically:
I love how Allison/Scott and Derek/Stiles kind of parallel each other in opposing ways, if that makes any sense.
Like Allison and Scott pretty much fall into instant infatuation whereas Stiles and Derek mistrust and dislike each other from the start. Allison doesn’t know about Scott for a good chunk of their relationship, and Stiles knows all about Derek right from the start. Allison and Scott get into danger because of each other, whereas Derek and Stiles get into danger together and then have to get each other out of it. Scott and Allison have to sneak around to spend time together, and Stiles and Derek try to avoid having to see each other, but always manage to gravitate back together despite themselves. Scott and Allison spend all of their time declaring their love for each other, and Derek and Stiles go out of their way to convince everyone they don’t care if the other one dies even though they keep saving each other.
So when it comes right down to it, do Tyler Hoechlin and Dylan O’Brien have fantastic chemistry on screen together? I would say yes, but that analysis is entirely subjective. Slightly less subjective are the literary devices and character traits active in their characters’ scenes, both together and apart, and a good deal of those play right into the hand of some of the most popular and pervasive notions of literary romance in current pop culture.