AU and You
|Title:||AU and You|
|Date(s):||Feb. 23rd, 2007|
|Topic:||alternate universes, canon divergence and universe alteration|
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AU and You by penknife is a 2007 meta essay that discusses the differences between different types of fanfiction generally covered by the term "alternate universe" and asks commenters for their opinion. The essay received 119 comments, but regrettably most of them weren't saved in the archiving process.
The essay starts out by defining three kinds of AUs, labeled to make sure commenters can all be on the same page for discussion.
Classic AU matches up with what people might also call canon divergence, among other things. Penknife describes it like so:
Penknife goes on to say that she thinks that "these stories work better if you can focus on one plausible change", and that adding too many changes into an AU of this sort will make it hard for readers to follow along. Penknife wants to have "a really clear idea of exactly what's changed and why" and furthermore:
Also, I think it helps if you have an answer in mind to the "What if?" question that isn't "It would be really cool." My favorite AU stories of this type use the change to show us something interesting about how the characters and their relationships might have changed or stayed the same, or about the potential consequences of what may seem like small choices in canon.
Canon-denial AU has also been called Universe Alteration.
2) Canon-denial AU -- some event in canon hasn't happened, but the focus of the story isn't on that change; the change is just necessary for the author to tell a story that wouldn't work given canonical events. I'd put stories where a character conveniently hasn't died (so he can be paired with someone else) in this category, along with stories that follow canon up to a certain point but ignore the events of a later movie or book. I think there's a lot of overlap between type 1 and type 2, but to me they're different in purpose and approach.
Penknife says that "you don't necessarily have to spend a lot of time explaining why the thing that's different is different" but that "I think this only works for canon events that might easily not have happened."
Alternate-reality AU is describing AUs like the coffee shop AU that entail an extreme change in setting.
3) Alternate-reality AU -- the characters are in an entirely different world, in entirely different roles. These are the stories where the Pirates of the Caribbean characters are movie stars, [...] There's no one event that's responsible for the change; it's an entirely different world to start with, possibly with only the characters' names and personalities the same.
About alternate-reality AUs, says:
I think the trick is to think through how the characters would have been shaped by another society, rather than just pasting them into another setting without any changes except their clothes. If Elizabeth Swann is a flapper in the 1920s or a sorority girl in the 1990s, she's not going to have exactly the same attitudes and assumptions that canon!Elizabeth has, no matter how similar her basic personality.
She also says that it's really important for alternate-reality AUs to give the characters "enough interaction in the new setting to develop similar relationships to the ones they had in the canon setting".
Comments and Reactions
I think the first and third type of AU (alternate canon and alternate reality) are in part, arguments about canon. When you write a story in which Snape was sorted into Gryffindor and Lupin into Slytherin, some of Snape's personality will be the same and some will be different--it's an argument about what makes the character who he is. Or if you write an AR story, what kind of illness or condition do you give Lupin that's a parallel to lycanthropy--that's another way to present literary criticism about canon. It's a chance to say what you think the original story is really about.
One of the reasons why I love the "Five things which never happened to..." concept and wrote several stories using it (one for Warren Mears in BTVS, two in DS9 (Kira and Dukat, and the other was Garak and Bashir) was that I love the first type of AU you specify. Thinking about just one circumstance being changed, and what the results would be, and use that to explore the characters. These are my favourite AUs - mind you, sometimes the one circumstance can cause an entirely different universe, but if I can see how it got there, I accept it just as I do universes where there is just a tiny difference to the one I know from canon.
Denial AUs: depends on the execution and personal character preferences of the reader, methinks.
Alternate Realities: we loved it, precious, when Neil Gaiman did it in 1602, oh yes, we did. 'nuff said.
Which leads me to the proposal of a fourth category: canon AUs. Because several shows and comic series have several of those. BTVS has the Wishverse, it has world without shrimp (thank you, Anya), and the reality in which Buffy isn't a Slayer but is locked in an institution. Farscape actually has an infinite number of canon AUS - there is an episode called Unrealized Realities in which Our Hero hops from one to the other, and is told they all exist, and later in the show returns to visit one of them. TNG does the multiverse reality hopping thing, too, with Worf in season 7, and of course all Trek has the Mirrorverse. And so forth.
To sum up the main points that for me make and AU work:
- sense (it has to highlight some aspects, like e.g. what stays the same, what changes about a character, otherwise it might be funny, but pointless)
- the consequences have to spread and multiply (e.g. if two characters meet ten years before they would in canon, this does not only change the characters of the two of them, but also the people around them and the events and decisions in the story)
- it has to be at least remotely credible (otherwise it's crackfic, which can be enjoyable, especially to one as easily amused as me, but just isn't the same), but the lines are swimmy there (talking about the Pearl in the Bermuda Triangle and time travel, for instance)
One thing I've noted about official AUs, particularly as I read more and more comics, is that there's a variant of your #1 that I think I'd call "circuitous route AUs". In many DC Elseworlds, for example, it's not that one initial change is made, leading to a cascade of more changes, but the opposite. The story starts out with a whole set of different circumstances - Bruce Wayne lost his inheritance, Barbara Gordon is a spoiled society girl, yadda yadda - and the narrative momentum concerns how to resolve all these differences to get us back to the initial main-continuity fact (in this example, Bruce Wayne assuming the mantle of Batman). They're circuitous, but they're also - I can't quite think of the word...*confirmation*, almost, of the main continuity? Superman always saves Lois Lane, whether she's a spunky gal reporter or a sentient tree or an antebellum heiress, that kind of thing.
I don't see this as much in fanfic, but there is something of a similar confirmation thing at work in your example of newly-introduced characters suddenly becoming BFF. Another example might be the way AU shipper fic tends, most of the time, to confirm the ship, whether or not the changed circumstances support that.
I actually did write a story once where as it turned out, John Sheppard had secretly been an ancient alien being all along. How does that fit into AU categories? Because I didn't change anything that we'd seen happen in canon, it was just sort of, "and here's a NEW bit of knowledge on top of that."
It's interesting. A story where Rodney had been a werewolf all along and everyone knew about it and made special arrangements for him at work and so on *would* be an AU, but a story where Rodney has been hiding his werewolfism all this time and suddenly reveals it to the other characters wouldn't be. (I mean, you could argue that it's an AU because you've added werewolves to the Stargate universe, but the Stargate universe is very big and filled with crack and it's not like they've ever said werewolves AREN'T real. *G*)
When it comes to Type 3 AUs I tend to like them much better if the author also brings across the antagonist characters as well as the protagonists-- of course, usually people don't, and so you just get a duo or a group of characters floating in a very pretty alternate setting where NOTHING EVER HAPPENS except "what should we have for dinner tonight, pizza or Chinese?"
For me personally, I like AUs to go to one end of the spectrum or another - either it's a Classic AU with one minor detail changed, then following the consequences of that change, or full-on Alternative-reality AUs. I think stories work best if the change is beyond the character's control, because otherwise they have to be different people before the story starts in order to make those different choices. For instance, I'm not keen on 'House-swap' stories in HP, because people are Sorted into their respective Houses for a reason - for Remus to get Sorted into Ravenclaw or Slytherin he has to be a different person to start with. Similarly if you're going to write about Sirius not going to Azkaban in 1981, I don't want it to be because he suddenly got all sensible and went to Dumbledre for advice. (Unless, of course, the 'trigger' change sets a course of events in action that makes these things happen.)
For the Alternative Reality stories, I think they work particularly well if the AR setting follows the character's personality. I really liked the gothic lit R/S story you wrote, because Remus and Sirius just fit into a gothic setting so well. Snape the cattle-rancher is going to be pretty hard to carry off as anything other than crack.
Ooh, agreed. I hate dislike stories that say "Sirius never went to Azkaban because...well, because!" Unless the author is working with badly written canon, in which case I might allow "So-and-so didn't die because his canon death was ridiculously preventable and possibly even OOC". But anyway, I adore AUs that take the time to establish the one tiny thing that changes it all. My favorite example: Remus's owl got lost; ten years later, Remus and Sirius have adopted Harry, the well-adjusted self-confident Slytherin Seeker who's good friends with Hufflepuff Draco.
I think that, in any of these AUs, the success or failure of the story largely depends on how believably the characters are the same, rather than different. I don't know if that's a measure of actual quality or just the way that readers respond to the story -- as fic readers, our radar goes ping! when we find the familiar -- but I think it's true.
For instance, the idea of the X-Men in the Roman Empire does relatively little for me. Although there are individual characters whose viewpoints might fit into that world fairly well, for a full-out XMM fic in the Roman Empire, you'd have to rework the whole concept of the school, of Erik's particular worldview, the personalities of people like Marie, Kurt and Ororo and the inevitable changes in dealing with Charles' disability -- and once you'd done that, you might have something interesting, but it probably wouldn't work for me as XMM fic anymore. However, vaznetti posted something recently talking about why she felt that the character of John Winchester on SPN behaved like a Roman paterfamilias, and it really rang true. Put that driven father and his two beloved but beleaguered sons in the Roman Empire, give them a true-to-the-era supernatural quest, and I think that works. If your AU is drawing upon something that is familiar and constant in the characters, and springs from that, you can change almost anything and have it work.
If, OTOH, you're thinking, "Wooo, Logan in a toga!", you probably don't have a good story (though possibly a very nice view of his arms.)
It's equally true for smaller changes, such as Sirius not dying in OOTP - though weirdly, I sometimes think it's harder to pull off. The big, near-crackfic AUs tend to draw the writers who love putting all those changes together, whereas the stories with "one little change" sometimes overlook the small but real ripple effect that even relatively minor alterations in canon should create.
I madly adore #1, and #2 if it's well-done. Most #3s leave me cold. I just don't find them interesting, no matter how well-done they are.
I think you can have more than one initial change in #1, but not a lot--the cascades have to be plausible.
One of the things the Five Things format did for me was to get me over my dislike of anything that directly contradicted canon. The two patterns I see that I particularly like are "five ways things could have ended differently" and "five ways things inevitably ended up the same" (especially in Star Wars and other more mythic fandoms).
My favorite AUs of the third type are those that either involve some sort of parallels to canon events (for example, the due South story Academic Punk by The Hoyden, in which Fraser and Kowalski are English professors rather than policemen, but the plot involves Victoria as the "bad guy" in a kind of parallel to her role in the series), or that converge with canon (for example, Lamardeuse's SGA story The Road to Nevada, which is a WWII AU which still ends up with John and Rodney and the Stargate program). AUs in which the characters are transplanted into another millieu and have experiences which totally don't relate to canon don't interest me as much.
I do not want to read "Spike as a high school student" or "Jack Sparrow as a samurai." I like their moral ambiguities - it is what makes them such fascinating characters. One particularly memorable flop for me was a "Spike as a pirate" fic that had him only robbing from the rich, and never killing anyone. Uh, Spike is a vicious mass murdering vampire in canon - if you are going to make him a pirate instead, at least make him a bloodthirsty one!
If you are going to change the setting drastically, you need to keep the characters as close as possible - and that means keeping their alignment.
Heh, I just said this the other day - the AUs I like best are the ones that put the characters we know into different circumstances, and examine how it changes them, and how they stay the same. For me, this kind of story is trying to get at the heart of a character, the essence, what truly makes them them. I'd say that would apply to type 1 and 3, mostly - type 2 isn't so much about changing things as it is about resisting change, which is a totally different thing IMO.
in terms of what works/doesn't work - I have a very vivid memory from the first few months I was reading fic, of coming across a lotrps fic which had one of the guys an astronomy professor and two other actors his students, and being extremely confused, and not seeing the point.
But the weird thing is that I had definitely come across AUs before that, including putting the lotr characters on BigBrother and other silly things. And since then I have read some very excellent AUs in several fandoms.
My conclusion from this long story, is that cracktastic AUs can pretty much do whatever they want as long as they are funny (see the bigbrother lotr) but "serious" AUs have to be faithful to the characters, or they don't work. Because otherwise it's just an original fic with the canon names being used in order to skimp on physical descriptions
Just to toss another wrench into the works, Xena fandom has a whole subgenre of "Uber" stories, which look almost exactly like Alternate world AUs, but aren't really. Because the show established in canon that Xena and Gabrielle are fated to be reincarnated into multiple lifetimes and keep getting together (there was one episode with reincarnated versions of the characters in the 1940s, and one in modern-day, and possibly others I'm forgetting).
So there were tons of stories where Xena and Gabrielle are competing business women in modern-day NY, or space colonists in the 23rd century or aristocrats in revolutionary Russia or whatever, but they were always reincarnations of the original Ancient Greek characters. Sometimes the characters actually found this out, sometimes they didn't, but the readers always knew.
I think Xena was the only fandom where I've ever really enjoyed these alternate-world fics. I tend to fall in love with a canon source's world and atmosphere as well as the characters, so removing those elements removes a large part of the attraction for me. The fact that the Uber-Xena stories were kinda-sorta canon made me like them more, I think.
Overall, I tend to like the Classic AUs best, because I think they're less apt to fall victim to authorial self-indulgence. Denial fics often have a strong authorial agenda behind them, which can easily intrude at the expense of the story, and Alternate-Reality fics often read as if the author just went "Wow, wouldn't it be hot if they were all dressed as cowobys!" without having a story at all.
I think that in all AUs, the key factor that makes it work is, quite simply, characterization. Well, characterization and attention to detail, because AUs can be nearly mathematic in their fiddlyness- you've got to remember to rethink EVERYTHING.
Basically what the AU author must do is get the reader nodding along- to get them thinking, as they read, "She's right! That is TOTALLY how Jim Ellison would have acted if he were a British landed gentleman in 1842." Or what have you.
I tend to agree that the most successful type-1 AUs are the ones where every change comes from one single change. My current favorite example of this is Sam Vimes' story "Stealing Harry" and its sequels, because Sam manages to create a universe where (a)the same people are present, but in wildly different relationships and configurations; (b)even through those differences, many of the same events happen that happened in canon- but not all of them, and they don't all work out the same way; (c)all of the changes proceed logically and sensibly from a single, relatively minor change to the canon backstory. (For those that may not have read it, this is a universe that starts from an owl post addressed to Remus Lupin having gone astray and winds up with a universe where Sirius was never in Azkaban, the Tonks family runs a clothing shop out of #12 Grimmauld Place, and Draco Malfoy is happily Sorted into Hufflepuff... and every one of what might seem like cracktastic changes are logical and consistent and fit what we know of the characters.)
I got the idea because I was reading a lot of TPM and Due South at the time and I realized that a lot of Fraser's defining traits - living in uniform, devotion to duty, martial abilities that he prefers not to use, negotiation tactics, a strong moral code, etc- would actually work well for a Jedi in the Old Republic era. Thinking about it some more, I thought that, well, Fraser had a distant, workaholic Mountie father and a dead mother. Jedi children, we are told, are left in the creche at a young age and have no further contact with their families. The parallels fell into place.
Once I had settled Fraser, I turned my thoughts to RayK. His parents certainly hadn't abandoned him as a child... but they *did* make considerable sacrifices to get him an education, opportunities to have a better life. I translated Ray's father's job from a Chicago meatpacking plant to an Outer Rim mining colony, and I saw it- Ray as a Force-sensitive child whose parents give him to the Jedi so that he could have a better life than they could provide.
I won't go through every detail, and I'm not saying that I did a perfect job with it, but my goal throughout was to say, in this completely different universe, how would this relationship arrive at the same (or a very similar) place? I look at this sort of story almost as if the author is making "skins" for the canon, like it was a browser or media player- the bones are always the same, but the appearance changes.
With regard to the canon-denial AU, how much explanation a reader needs to accept the AU is going to be proportional to how much investment the reader the reader has in the change you have made. You might accept the premise of Sirius not being dead without any explanation, but though I like Sirius I suspect I don't have the same kind of emotional investment in him and so would require more explanation to accept the AU.
So I guess for the writer it really depends on the readership you are trying to attract. For a short PWP a person might not care too much if only people invested in a particular character/pairing read the story, but for a more substantial story it would probably be worth a little additional effort.
Classical AU needs to answer one question, and just one question, for me to want to read it. Otherwise it becomes far less interesting. It's no longer about characters I know, or in a world I recognize, and I just don't care.
Alternate reality - I understand the appeal of writing, I see the potential for fun, and I just have very little interest in it. If it's a situation where the worlds are largely compatible, and it's a crossover excuse, then - great, I'm there. Otherwise I'm so confused and baffled that I get very little out of the story.
Denial AU is where I think most "Au" falls - and in fact I'm not sure it's where almost all fic falls. Unless you're writing something that meshes *exactly* between scenes, and not only requires no change in the canon to set up *and* has no impact on the canon that follows, it all falls in here for me.
I know you're talking specifically about one single event not happening - Sirius dying, for example, but I still think most fanfiction falls in there somewhere. If nothing's changed by the story - what's the story again?
For me, it's really a matter of "sale." I've written AUs, and when I'm doing them, my focus is on making the change believable. I tend to shy away from canon-denial AU unless it looks probable. So many of them are just an excuse to rewrite the author's work ... and it's often NOT as good as the original. It's kink/wish-fulfillment. I want the author to do something more interesting than that.
Another thing might be how different the author intends things to be. Some AUs are radical changes, like the Stealing Harry of Samvines. Others, the goal is to change something, stay close to canon, and see what alters. When I was writing Finding Himself, it was all about what Cedric's survival might have meant ... without permitting enormous canon changes. If Cedric had lived, how might things have gone down differently with Umbridge ... but not assuming the change was somehow going to 'save the day,' etc. I don't like AU changes that are an excuse for the AU change to make the author's chosen character into an infallible hero.
In an AU, I think these key factors matter:
1) What is the complete fall-out of the AU. Not just partial fall-out. Many AUs suffer because they're *too short*, and don't really examine the ramifications of the change.
2) Make me believe the AU could happen. Some are pretty weak and it's just an excuse to get hero with hero or hero with heroine.
3) Not everything should go swimmingly in the AU world. Drama needs tension. If your AU change is to make character A (and/or B) into a James Bond type of 'can't err' hero/ine ... ick.
What those 3 things boil down to is realism and logical consequence. I like clever, well-done AUs (especially if they hit my kink(s)), but there are just so many that are "lazy" or badly thought through.
I'm not a big fan of AU in general.
Well, that's not entirely correct. I'm not a big fan of your #3, the AR/AU. Mostly, I think, because what attracts me to a fandom is the characters *and* the canon -- or, the characters *in* the canon -- if that makes sense. I read fanfic because I want more of the characters, but for me, the canon settings/situations are part of that. With AR/AU, even when the chacterisations are recognisable (by any value of recognisable possible when Harry and Ron are non-magical footballers or Jack and Will are space cowboys), I feel like something is missing.
When I do read AU, it's usually the first type, the Classic AU. And what works best for me, as a reader, is when the author takes the change to canon and comments on it in some way. Take Slytherin!Harry: you'll probably lose me if it's just a vehicle for schmoopy Harry/Draco porn. What I really want to see is how a non-Gryffindor!Harry effects the situations, timelines, and other characters. Would he still befriend Ron? And if he didn't, how would the troll-in-the-bathroom bit play out in his absence. That sort of thing.
- penknife, AUs and You. Feb. 23rd, 2007
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