The New Frontier: The Alternate Universes

The Alternate Universe (AU) is one that is mostly associated with fanfiction, although I would argue that it has a strong presence in fanart and fanvids as well. It is also a story tag that I, personally, have great trouble in using correctly. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to focus on AUs in fanfiction, since that is the medium I have the most contact with.

The question I always find myself asking is “At what point does ‘fanon’ become ‘AU’?”
I have asked a similar question before when writing about fanfiction, in which I concluded that, in my opinion at least, all fanfiction is fanon, since it isn’t written by the original author or creator. However, at what point is that fanon an alternate universe?

At the time, I believe, I resorted to a Harry Potter example in which Hermione kissing Harry on the cheek at the end of Goblet of Fire led to a confession that they had feelings for each other. That, unless JK Rowling announces something on Pottermore within the next year, is not canon; it is fanon. Sorry, Harmony shippers.

But is that story AU because it never happened? Or does it remain simply fanon-that-could-have-been-canon until that confession leads to a relationship which changes book 5? And do those changes need to be extreme for it to be an alternate universe? You see my dilemma.

Obviously, there are the more obvious alternate universes, in which the characters have magic (or don’t, if they had it to start with), or are in high school (or an office, if they were already in high school), or have all been swapped with the opposite gender (always an interesting one). These are the obvious AUs and for these writers, it is fairly easy to tag their story as such. For those of us who tend to diverge from canon a little, but not completely, it’s a little more difficult.

For example, if a character is killed off in Episode 9, and I write a drabble about Episode 12 in which that character is still alive but everything else in canonically sound, does that make it AU? Yes? No? Anyone? Bueller?

Clearly everyone is just as in the dark as I am. I find myself increasingly grateful for the AO3 archive, since it offers sixteen different options for alternate universes of realities (Note: I am not affiliated with the site in any way, nor am I being paid to advertise anything in this article. Red vines – what the heck can’t they do?)

The other issue I tend to find when dealing with AUs is that it’s a sort of Marmite situation.
For those of you who have never had Marmite, or are not familiar with their advertising, allow me to explain.

Marmite is a yeast extract that has a very strong flavour that is often spread on toast or used in sandwiches. Because it is so strong, the advertising slogan has always been “You either love it or you hate it”. And I have noticed this with alternate universes. There are some people who are adamant that alternate universe fanfiction should not be allowed. That it somehow insults the original creator. Obviously, everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

Personally, I tend to avoid stories that are completely AU, but that’s just a personal preference – if you can write them or enjoy reading them, then good for you.
Celebrate diversity, that’s what we need to do. Although please try to remember that where your characters are coming from has a great influence on the type of person they are, so if you change their background, they are going to be ‘out of character’, so to speak. For the record, that applies to reviewers as well as writers, but that’s another article, and I’m fairly sure we’ve covered that anyway. So now I’ve covered the two ‘big issues’ when dealing with alternate universes, why do I find them a good thing?

Well, first of all, they provide fresh ideas. The old ‘take Hogwarts students and put them in a Muggle high school’ might be a common basis, but because they take very little from the original source, it makes it very hard to create stories that are carbon copies of each other. Second of all, they provide wonderful fodder for denial, which is how I tend to advertise it.

[Note: the following commercial is best read in your best TV commercial announcer voice.]
Have you been let down by a movie or television series?
Has your favourite character just been killed off?
Did that couple with the immeasurable amount of sexual tension who spent the whole film or series giving each other such smouldering looks that everyone around them needed a cold shower afterwards fail to just get on with it and threaten the PG rating?
Then you may need AU fanfiction, for all your fan-denial needs.
Side effects may include: squeeing, crying and hyperventilating.

Come to think of it, I may have seen a post of that nature on tumblr… Although, I see a lot of posts on tumblr, so I may be combining several in my head.

Seriously, though, if you have a problem with how a TV show is going or how a book or movie ended, don’t complain about it! That won’t do anything, trust me.

If you’re in the Supernatural fandom and you’re upset about a death, there’s no point in even thinking about complaining – they’ll probably get resurrected anyway, I gather it happens a lot. But don’t complain – aside from anything else, it ruins the fun for other fans, especially those who might have enjoyed that plot twist or despised (or adored) that ship.

Get yourself over to a fanfiction archive, or YouTube, or one of the many forums that will have inevitably popped up. Then you can immerse yourself in alternate universes to your heart’s content. And if there aren’t any fanfiction or fanart or fanvids that you’re satisfied with, why not try to create your own?

There’s a whole world out there, readers – all you have to do is explore it.

Roxanne Williams (off to resurrect some more dead ships… I mean characters)

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One Response to The New Frontier: The Alternate Universes

  1. luvtheheaven says:

    I started off in the fanvideo world. Over there, AU has a fairly simple definition, usually. So when I got into fanfiction, it was immediately confusing for me. Because I thought ALL fanfiction was, by definition, an ALTERNATE universe, even if it’s just a slight change. I’d been conditioned into that definition of AU by the fanvideo world. I came to realize that in fanfiction, AU meant something else. Mainly, AU fics generally start off with characters who are significantly changed in some way. AUs basically need you to FORGET a lot more of what you already know about the show/book/movie/(fandom) (or at least try to push it aside temporarily). In an AU, everyone will feel out of character, or at least one character will, except it’s not “OOC” because it’s on purpose and you’re not supposed to think it’s wrong, instead you’re supposed to think it’s an exciting change. If none of the characters feel OOC, then the world has to be SO radically different that it still feels like literally a different universe. But the line is never black and white, not even in the vidding world definition of AUs, and it is a confusing idea to navigate.

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