Fans of The CW’s hit drama can’t get enough of the sexy love triangle between two undead brothers and one very lucky mortal girl. We talked to the cast and creators about what’s next for Damon, Stefan, and Elena. Plus: Meet the ”shippers” — TV’s weirdest (and most devoted) fans.

On a fast-moving supernatural series that prides itself on shocking deaths, surprising resurrections, and gruesome special effects, a simple 15-second kiss managed to spark some of the biggest fandemonium yet. The romantic tension between The Vampire Diaries‘ lead characters Damon (Ian Somerhalder) and Elena (Nina Dobrev) had been building over two years and 53 episodes. Then, last month, executive producers Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec finally decided to give fans what they had been clamoring for since the very first season: a proper kiss. To pull it off, they knew it had to be organic — not just for the characters and the story, but for the show’s two very vocal and very divided fan bases: those who wanted Elena to rekindle her eternal flame with vampire soul mate Stefan (Paul Wesley), and those who were dying to see her take the next step with Stefan’s undead older brother, Damon. ”It’s one of those things that you want to be able to defend,” explains Williamson, who says the kiss was intended to thank Damon and Elena fans for watching and waiting. ”But even more importantly, you’d rather not defend it. You want it to feel real and right and natural by all the audience.”

The reaction to the lip-lock was resounding. Less than 10 minutes after it aired on Jan. 5, ”Elena and Damon” became the No. 1 worldwide trending topic on Twitter. Videos of the moment were quickly uploaded to YouTube, with at least one receiving more than 300,000 views to date. ”There was this amazing, immediate response,” says Somerhalder, 32. ”It was a lot of fun to see people getting excited thinking, ‘I won. That’s what I wanted.”’

Based on a collection of grim young-adult novels by L.J. Smith (and co-produced by Alloy Entertainment), The Vampire Diaries is at its heart a story about a teenage girl named Elena Gilbert who falls in love with an emotionally tormented vampire, Stefan Salvatore, while also being drawn to his reckless playboy brother, Damon. Williamson previously wrote and produced various Scream movies, so not surprisingly, The Vampire Diaries — which is The CW’s highest-rated series, with an average viewership of 2.9 million this season — can be incredibly gory. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to see characters get their hearts ripped out or heads chopped off. Yet even the darkest episodes play up the central love triangle, something both exec producers recognized from the start would be essential to the narrative. ”We saw it as a really cool love story that could be epic and romantic and dangerous and all those wonderful things,” says Williamson. ”But only when we cast and put it together and saw the response did we truly know we were onto something.”

After the series debuted in fall 2009, it didn’t take long for legions of ”shippers” (a term for fans who root for a fictional relationship) to take sides in the triangle. Shippers of Damon and Elena dubbed their couple ”Delena,” while those cheering on Stefan and Elena used the term ”Stelena.” Websites like popped up in support of each couple, as did multiple Twitter accounts and Facebook fan pages. ”I think Twilight laid the foundation for this because of the Team Edward and Team Jacob element,” says Plec. For the lead actors — Dobrev, Somerhalder, and Wesley — the shipper phenomenon was a new experience. ”I never knew these things existed,” says Wesley, 29. ”I would go online and I would see these things and go, ‘What the hell is that?”’ Some dedicated fans started writing fan fiction, while others produced and edited elaborate YouTube videos to celebrate the best Delena or Stelena moments. ”I remember when we first started the show and we went to London for the first time,” says Dobrev, 23. ”People would stop me and constantly ask me on the street, ‘Are you a Delena fan or a Stelena fan?”’

Adding fuel to the fandom was the palpable chemistry between the three actors. Says Dobrev, ”The rumor mills were ‘Is Nina with Ian or is Nina with Paul?’ There was a lot of speculation, and we all found it funny.” The rumors, it turned out, weren’t completely exaggerated. Though Dobrev and Somerhalder haven’t officially said they’re dating, they have been spotted holding hands and stealing kisses off camera, which has provided plenty of fodder for fans rooting for their on-camera relationship. ”There may be some transfer,” notes Somerhalder, before quickly adding, ”Nothing has been confirmed yet.” (Wesley’s own wife, Torrey DeVitto, joined the cast last month as a mysterious doctor — though shippers have yet to latch onto that one.)

Both Williamson and Plec are well aware of how invested the fans are in the pairings. They’ve seen the Delena and Stelena videos (Plec will occasionally tweet her favorites) and read the fan fiction. The showrunners have also received insults and death threats from unhappy viewers on Twitter — most recently, following the Damon and Elena kiss. But they try not to let any of those things affect the course of the story. ”It’s tough because then you’re like, ‘Am I making this decision because somebody got in my head? Or is this exactly where we’re supposed to be?”’ explains Plec, who admits that she sometimes takes breaks from Twitter to block out all the noise. Though Damon and Elena’s most recent kiss was their first ”real” one, they had brushed lips a few times before — but with major caveats. (For example, Damon has kissed Elena’s manipulative doppelgänger Katherine, also played by Dobrev.) Each time, the creators grappled with how to do what was right for the characters without alienating fans. As Plec puts it, ”How can we service this moment between our characters that we really want, a Damon and Elena kiss, without getting the Stefan/Elena side of the fandom to give up hope and give up on us? And vice versa, when we want Stefan and Elena to have a moment together, how can we do that and not have our Delena fans outraged?” The answer is to make sure all romantic developments fit into the natural course of the narrative. The most recent Damon and Elena kiss, for example, followed months of a deepening friendship between the duo in Stefan’s absence. ”I’m really big on when you’re telling the story and whether you have people kiss or you kill someone, you just want to make sure that you’ve earned it and that it feels right,” explains Williamson — who, as the creator of Dawson’s Creek, knows a thing or two about managing shipper expectations.

What sets The Vampire Diaries apart from other shows, however, is the drastic evolution of its characters (usually as a result of supernatural forces). Though Stefan started off as the series’ hero, he has recently morphed into a bad boy — a development that’s caused some Damon and Elena shippers to…well, jump ship. ”It’s like Stefan went to the dark side and immediately became more favored than he was in terms of being Elena’s suitor,” says Wesley. And Williamson and Plec warn that the triangle could always change shape to include other love interests. ”I think that a triangle is a constantly evolving, organic idea that over the life of a series is going to become a square, a hexagon, and a dodecahedron in certain circumstances,” says Plec. ”I think we’re just scratching the surface of opportunity there.” (When asked who she and Williamson side with, Plec answers, ”We’re both Team Salvatore because the love between the brothers is more important to us than anything.”)

As the series, which airs Thursdays at 8 p.m., races to its season 3 finale this May, the dynamics are indeed poised to change again. After months of reveling in the dark side, Stefan will finally embark on some soul-searching. ”We start to see he’s trying to put himself squarely back on the straight line, but everything that he’s done and everything that he’s not letting himself feel is actually destroying him from the inside out,” says Plec, who explains that Elena’s kiss with Damon will continue to weigh heavily on Stefan. ”He’s got to come out the other side of that before he can even step forward as a viable option for Elena.” While Stefan tries to get back in touch with his emotions, Damon will attempt to shut his off — with some help from a few pretty distractions. ”Damon needs to get his mojo back a little bit,” says Somerhalder. But his quest for a diversion won’t sit well with Elena. ”They’ve got some tension that they’ve got to work through as we get deeper into the season,” says Plec, who indicates the triangle will come to a head before the season’s end. ”Elena is ultimately in the position of asking herself, ‘How do I feel about each of these brothers, and who do I want to be with?”’ But shippers shouldn’t expect a clear resolution anytime soon. ”There’s a reason a happy ending is called an ending,” says Plec. ”The trick of a television storyteller is to find all the rivers and mountains and valleys on the way to that ending.”


What’s Next

Dying to know what’s ahead for the residents of Mystic Falls? So are we.

Romance Heats Up

Elena, Damon, and Stefan aren’t the only ones in town dealing with affairs of the heart. Exec producer Julie Plec teases, ”It will be interesting to see what Tyler’s [Michael Trevino] absence means for Klaus [Joseph Morgan] and Caroline [Candice Accola].”

Murder Mystery

The uncertainty about whoever (or whatever) was responsible for the recent attacks on Council members — including Alaric (Matthew Davis) — continues, as does the suspicion surrounding his new love interest, Dr. Fell (Torrey DeVitto).

Familiar Faces Return

After speedy exits for Elena’s brother Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen) and vampire-werewolf hybrid Tyler, expect both to make their way back to Mystic Falls before the season’s end. But Plec asks, ”Will it be too late for them to step back into the lives they left behind?”

The Originals Show Their True Colors

Though the Original Witch (Alice Evans) says she wants peace for her brood, her actions will indicate otherwise. Says Plec, ”If you thought their father had it out for them, then he doesn’t have anything on their mother.”

Damon’s Backstory

Mark your calendars! The March 15 episode will flash back to explain how Damon became the Casanova we know (and love-hate) today. Shares Plec, ”We get to see the birth and rebirth of that wicked, wonderful character.”

Episode Recaps

Best Starting Point: ''Growing Pains'' (401) — A lot changed in last season's lead-up. It's probably best not to miss this season opener, which shows…

The Vampire Diaries

Ian Somerhalder, Nina Dobrev, and Paul Wesley star in the CW’s romance-infused vampire soap opera.

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