What's In An AU?

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Title: What's in an AU?
Creator: yourlibrarian
Date(s): Sep. 30th, 2010
Medium: online
Fandom: Pan-fandom, Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Topic: the alternate universe trope, Fanspeak, Fan Activities
External Links: DreamWidth, LiveJournal
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What's in an AU? is a post written by yourlibrarian in 2010. It discusses how the term AU is defined differently in different fandoms, and suggests different labels for sorting AU types.

It is the origin of yourlibrarian's taxonomy of AUs, an more specific categorization of AU types which became somewhat popular:

  • AC - alternate characterization
  • AL - alternate life
  • AS - alternate setting
  • AT - alternate timeline


Today I was reminded of a conversation I was having with someone over the question of "is all fanfiction AU?" The answer to me seemed to obviously be "yes" in the sense that nearly all fanfic is going to deviate from canon in some way, if not now then by being Jossed in the future. There is certainly a good chunk of gen that fits neatly into open canon spaces, but I think the majority of fic indeed skews away from canon in either its premise or in the repercussions for events in the fic.

But my bigger issue is with the term "AU" because it's used frequently to mean what I consider to be vastly different things. I find the term always has relevance in indicating that the story is somehow non-canon-compliant. However, the ways in which this lack of compliance occurs may relate to settings, life histories, character development, or timeline changes. And in some cases the term is used mostly to distinguish cloaked original fic from canon-inspired stories. Moreover, the fandom in which the term is used may affect the definition in ways that are not the same across the board.

For starters, the sort of fic that gets written in the fandom and the laws of its Verse affect the meaningfulness of the "AU" term. "Alternate Universe" is often nothing of the kind. I'm going to discuss this issue by focusing on SPN and the Buffyverse because these are the fandoms whose fic I'm familiar with. Other fandoms fall into different spots on the "look out your window" to "fantastical" polarities, but some of the discussion should still apply.

However, there is then also the issue of AU stories which use fantastical or futuristic locations for the characters and in which settings are either the principal change, or an additional change to the canonical characters/universe. These could more accurately be called an AU given that it may literally be a universal change. Yet there are also AU s which use historical settings or alternate countries of origin in which the setting is also the crux of the story, but they could have taken place within our known world. These might be more fittingly characterized as an AS, or alternate setting.

What continues to make the AU term confusing is the fact that something being futuristic, fantastical, or hugely different in time may be non-compliant with canon only depending on the Verse. For example, in SPN RPS, these would all be major deviations from known "canon." But in the Buffyverse, these could potentially be canonical stories. For example, long lived vampires could easily have canon-compatible stories stretching into the past or future, or taking place in alternate fantastical universes. What's more, in the Buffyverse there are characters who could shift themselves or other characters to such settings and sometimes have within the canon. This is equally true in SPN since the introduction of angels and the mention by individuals such as Gabriel or Death of alternate universes. FPF in SPN tends to have very little AU written in it. Rather, what is more commonly seen is that hell, post-apocalyptic earth, and now heaven, have been treated in some ways as alternate universes where vastly different laws and conditions exist that make setting a key factor in the story. However, given that all these settings have a canonical existence, these stories are not really AU so much as AT, or alternate timelines.

All of this is to say that what actually constitutes the "canon" timeline is a fragile thing in texts which are already based on the fantastic. So the "AU"ness of a timeline change is more meaningful in some texts than others. White Collar, for example, would experience a change on the order of an Alternate Universe if everyone suddenly had memories of a previously non-existent character, or if someone dead for more than 24 hours was suddenly restored to life. But for SPN or the Buffyverse, this falls more under the "timeline tampering" rubric.

To reiterate, rather than the blanket term "AU", I think we also need alternate life (AL), alternate setting (AS), alternate timeline (AT), and alternate characterization (AC) if we really want to be on the same page in discussing how fanfic deviates from canon, and when it has nothing to do with canon at all. It's also useful if we want to look at how differently fans can explore different canons.

For example, if I look at SPN and Buffyverse fic, I tend to see these sorts of patterns:

SPN/RPF – Some AU, more AS, lots of AL, very little AT, AC hard to define. SPN/FPF – Very little AU, AS or AL, some AC, lots of AT.

Buffyverse/RPF – Some AL, very little AU, AS, AT, AC hard to define. Buffyverse/FPF - Lots of AL, some AS, AU, AT, less AC.


musesfool: penknife had a good post about this a few years ago here, and cofax7 came up with a classification system similar to yours[1]

[shadowscast]: My understanding of the term AU is deeply influenced by the fact that I grew up watching Star Trek, in which there are canon AUs (most especially the Mirrorverse) which seem to exist alongside the default universe but following slightly different histories; travel is occasionally possible between these AUs. Also, time-travel frequently leads to the creation of alternate timelines, which also tend to get called AUs (I think)—most especially, of course, there's the Reboot-verse.

So coming from this background, the idea of, for instance, the Wishverse as an AU makes total sense to me. A fic which deviates from canon at some specific point and carries on from there also makes sense to me as an AU. A fic in which the universe and also the characters' backstories and basically everything expect for the characters' names has changed, on the other hand ... that's never made much sense to me at all, but some people definitely seem to enjoy them so I guess we need a name for them! At which point I do start to see the problem with the over-use of the term AU to mean lots of different things, yup.

I've seen writers working within the Wishverse or the Normal-Again-verse tag their fics as "canon-AU", which seems to get that particular point across reasonably well.



I've seen the opinion that all fanfic is AU pop up every now and then, but I don't really think it can be defined that easily. Fanfic that takes place after the canon ends, for example, can't be contradicted by canon. I'd say that writing non-AU fic that takes place during canon events is nigh impossible, though.

The thing is, when it comes to AU, I think a lot of people (me included, so I might be a bit biased!) see all the categories (AL, AS, AT etc.) as subcategories of AU. Subcategories that we don't generally define, at that.

It's those of us who subscribe to the theory that a choice will create a whole new universe alongside the old one that accommodates it and all the differences it generates that use this definition, I'd say. The "trousers of time", if you like (only trousers with an infinite amount of legs, and where the legs have legs.... but, well, you know what I mean), though the choices aren't limited to specific characters, but the entire universe. That means that any story that directly contradicts canon creates a new universe that can be very similar of very different to the canon one. So all your examples are AU by this definition - they just contradict canon in different degrees.

I agree that after a certain amount of different choices (so that the shape of the world, the time line, and the characters have little in common with canon) it's questionable whether it's really fanfic. I suppose if the author says that it is, then it is, but sometimes it's really not recognisable as such! Canon characterisation can be created in completely different settings, though. It's just very hard to do.