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More Than You Ever Wanted to Know
About Canon and Fanon

by Melusina




(Please note that these descriptions are heavily influenced by those used by [info]thebratqueen in her explanation of Buffy canon vs. fanon).

My definition of canon is facts that are plainly stated in the original text. Buffy is a Vampire Slayer. Will Turner is Bootstrap Bill's son. This is the stuff you can't get around without explicitly declaring your story an AU. Ignore these facts (even the small, seemingly insignificant ones, like the color of an actor's eyes) at your peril, because someone will call you on it every time. Arbitrarily changing these kinds of details (or screwing them up out of ignorance) will pull readers out of the story and interfere with their enjoyment of it.

In some fandoms there are multiple canons because the original text has been adapted for another medium. This can present difficulties because the different canons may have incompatible or outright contradictory continuities. Some writers prefer to make it clear which canon their story is based on (e.g., the X-men movieverse vs. comic continuity), others like to pick and choose from all available sources. Frankly, either way, you're going to piss somebody off.

Beyond hard and fast canon are the things that are implied by the text, but not explicitly stated, or places where canon contradicts itself - these facts are open to interpretation and often the source of kerfluffles fertile discussion. One of the best examples is the debate over who sired Spike. Originally it was implied that Angel was Spike's sire. Then Joss Whedon explained in an interview that Drusilla was Spike's sire. Then there was a flashback where we saw Drusilla bite Spike, but we never saw Spike drink her blood, leaving open the possibility that it was actually Angel's blood that turned him into a vampire. As a writer, you have more leeway on these kinds of issues. Sure there are fans who have a lot invested in one interpretation or another, but in general, readers are open-minded enough to realize that there's no definitive call on whether Bootstrap is dead or not. Go with the reading that works best for your story, but make sure to support it as necessary.

Also ambiguous are details from other sources associated with the primary text - deleted scenes, interviews, tie-in novels or comics, etc. Commodore Norrington's first name is James; the slayer succession runs through Faith and not Buffy now, etc. Depending on the fandom, these sources will be accorded varying degrees of authority. Personally, I tend to rank deleted scenes pretty high and interviews with actors fairly low, with tie-in products and interviews with the creator/writer somewhere in between. But again, it varies from fandom to fandom and from fan to fan. If you want to incorporate something from these supplementary materials into your story, go for it, but don't feel like you're required to. Remember you can't assume that all your readers are familiar with these additional sources (yes, I've watched the PotC deleted scenes 500 times, but there are some fans who don't feel that need). In some cases (specifically the Buffy novels and comics) this sort of thing may actually contradict canon. In that case, I'd either go with canon, or call the story an AU, otherwise you'll spend all your time explaining to people about the "alternate source" you found, and why you gave it priority over canon, which just seems like a big waste of time.

And then there's fanon, the fan created bits and pieces of characterization and backstory that accrue to characters until they become (in many readers' minds) as much a part of the character as the characteristics ascribed to him or her by the creator. The creation of fanon is usually (but not always) shrouded in mystery. Someone describes Xander as addicted to chocolate or Jack as tasting like spices, and someone else thinks, "hey, that makes sense!" and includes it in her story and someone else picks it up from her, and so on and so on.

Fan inventions become fanon because they resonate with readers and writers - there's a kind of collective agreement that Jack would call Norrington Jamie, or Spike would call Xander pet / whelp / nummy treat (it may annoy the hell out of you, but you have to admit that a significant group of fans must like these inventions, or they wouldn't have become enormously popular). Fanon can be invented whole-cloth, but it's often extrapolated (or wildly exaggerated) from hints in canon (Xander's parents are neglectful and alcoholic, which gets transformed into Xander was physically or sexually abused by his parents). In an ongoing series (especially one where the writers frequently interact with the fans), bits of fanon can even be integrated into the show as a "shout out", becoming canon.

Fanon has a bad reputation, but it's not always so wrong. If one writer has fleshed out a character or given him or her an interesting backstory, there's nothing wrong with other writers using that backstory in lieu of inventing their own, especially if the character plays a relatively minor role in the subsequent story (although it's considered good etiquette to ask before borrowing details from someone else's story). I often see writers asking if there's a fanon name for a minor character, something I think makes good sense - why go to the trouble of inventing a name, if everyone's already thinking of the character as someone else? Of course, writers should never feel constrained by fanon - if you don't like the name / backstory / quirks that have been collectively assigned to a character, feel free to ignore them (but know that if they've been widely accepted, many readers may not even realize they're not canon, and will be confused or even downright angry that you've changed them).

The bad sort of fanon is stuff that contradicts canon or has become a lame cliché. Fanon characterizations can drift further and further away from canon, becoming bizarre caricatures of the original. Cross-pollination from other fandoms (although it can be a good thing) can also be the source of bad fanon. Instead of sharp characterizations based on the source material, writers often use bland stereotypes pulled from multi-fandom central casting (the bitch, the overfeminized wimpy bottom, the one note villain, etc.), or they borrow something that's already become a cliché in one fandom and superimpose it on a character from their current fandom (there was a time when every female character in every fic I read, regardless of fandom, smelled like vanilla).

There are a couple of things that are often called "fanon" which I would not necessarily include in that category:

1. clichés - worn out catch phrases and bits of description, lazy characterization, and dead metaphors - unfortunately common in fanfiction. Clichés can be generic (i.e. in use across fandoms or in many different kinds of writing - "sank like a stone,"), canon (yes, Jack really likes the pirate song, but it has become something of a cliché in pirate fic) or fanon (Buffy smells like vanilla, Will has "chocolate orbs" instead of eyes). A clever trick is to use a well-known cliché and invert it or give it some kind of twist.

2. Inside jokes and other kinds of meta fandom commentary - Fandom is a small community and references to inside jokes, kerfluffles, and meta discussions frequently make their way into fanfic. I'm not necessarily against these meta references - they have value, if nothing else, as community building exercises. And in a fandom where the canon is a closed text (no new material being developed) things like this can inject some life into the same old characters and situations and make them feel fresh and new again. But if you include these kinds of references in your work, remember that you may be excluding anyone in your reading audience who doesn't know the original story (depending on how you handle the reference), and that even those who know the story may not think it's as funny or clever as the original participants do.


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