Once Upon A Time...

AUs, and You!

When is an alternate universe not an alternate universe?

by LJC

Once upon a time, there was a multiverse. What should have been one was split apart into Infinite Earths. Then the skies turned red, and the shadows came in force and the anti-matter universe began swallowing the positive matter universes whole...

Whoops. That would be the plot of DC Comics' epic Crisis on Infinite Earths. But these days, it can feel like you're living in a multiverse, when every fan fiction story you open starts off with a disclaimer that lists all the myriad ways this story diverts from series canon. When every fan author defines "Alternate Universe" so differently, it can be difficult for the common fanfic reader to sort through what is an actual AU story, and what is mislabelled AU.

What's the difference between Alternate History, Alternate Universe, and Parallel Universe stories?

Alternate Histories change the presuppositions of the series canon. Example: Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Wishverse in which Buffy Summers never came to Sunnydale in 1997.

Alternate Universes split from canon at some point during canon. Example: Francis Doyle did not die destroying the Scourge's beacon. All "denial fiction" is by definition AU.

Parallel Universes are different simultaneous dimensions. For example, rather than diverging at a single point before or during series canon, a parallel universe timeline is separate from the source universe, rather than diverging from the source universe's timeline. Think Sliders or the Star Trek mirror universe. Parallel universes co-exist and are equally valid, whereas alternate universes are self-annuling and "overwrite" the source universe. Also, alternate universes will tend to focuses on the differences brought about by an individual, whereas parallel universes involve more "global" changes such as a world in which World War I was won by the Germans, or vampires have overrun the planet.

So what does this actually mean?

An argument has been made of late that all fan fiction is Alternate Universe simply because as fan fiction, it is not canon. However, it should be noted that the classification of "Alternate Universe" refers to the fiction's relationship to series canon. Yes, we know that only what airs is canon. That is has never been in question. However, what makes fan fiction alternate universe is whether or not it adheres to series canon.

For one thing, if a story is set in a canonical universe—such as the Wishverse or the Mirror universe—then in fact these stories are not AU because they do not actually deviate from series canon. The fan author did not define or create the universe. They are merely setting their story in that canonical universe. The Wishverse was created by Buffy writer Marti Noxon in the third season episode, The Wish. The Mirror Universe was created by Star Trek writer Jerome Bixby in the third season episode Mirror, Mirror and was revisited by the Deep Space Nine staff in Crossover, Through the Looking Glass, Shattered Mirror, Resurrection, and The Emperor's New Cloak.

Alternate Universe fiction falls into two main categories: stories that are rendered AU when the series canon contradicts the story after the story has been written, and stories where the author deliberately and intentionally diverges from series canon. Of the second category, an author usually creates an alternate universe for one of two reasons:

1. The author is creating a What if? scenario, and following it through to its logical conclusion which results in a radically different universe. (example: What if Spike had been cursed with a soul in 1898, rather than Angel?)

2. The author is creating a universe in which a specific event or series of event did not take place, but the rest of the universe remains unchanged. (example: Doyle did not die, Riley never happened, Angel never left, etc.)

In the case of a What if? story, the purpose of the story is to explore that universe, particularly the differences between the canonical universe and the alternate universe. This sub-genre is not unique to fan fiction. For decades, speculative fiction has been enamoured of such What if? stories, particularly regarding historical events such as the fall of Rome, the American Civil War, and the outcome of WWII. The fact that such stories have been told with such frequency, and by so many, assumes that it is a very popular "gag" or plot to write and read. The motivation is simple: take the characters we know and love, and see where they would go, what they would do, and how different they would be if one thing about their world was different. It could be a seemingly small thing, or it could be a vast sweeping epic change. But at the heart of these stories is the appeal and lure of the idea of "what if...?" It is as much plot driven as it is character driven, and rather than being an emotional response to the source universe is an intellectual one.

By contrast, in the denial scenario, generally the author has created an alternate universe in order to rectify what she or he sees as a "mistake" on the part of the series and preserve the characters at a specific place in their evolution out of personal preference. The appeal of this type of story is to excise the universe of a character, fact, or character development that changed the source universe in such a way as to motivate a writer to want to erase that change. It is generally an emotional response, rather than a plot-driven one. The driving force behind it is to maintain the writer's inner status quo, in "denial" of the canonical universe. Denial fan fiction became very popular in Highlander fandom after the death of fan favourite character Richie Ryan, and is now a common subset in any fandom where a character death or major change has taken place that the authors feel was detrimental to the series. Such stories are often written as a kind of stage in the grief process, and vary in quality quite widely.

However, it should be pointed out that whatever the motive, the worth of the story always comes down to the individual strengths and weaknesses of the writer and the work itself.

So the next time you see a story labelled "Alternate Universe" hopefully now you'll have a better idea of what that actually means.

LJC has been writing, illustrating, editing, publishing, and archiving fan fiction since 1989 in a variety of fandoms, first for print fanzines and then online. She is a professional webdesigner and freelance journalist.

Read the Once Upon a Time archives:

  • Profic vs Fanfic
  • That River in Egypt
  • Tips for writing better fan fiction
  • Enough alphabet soup!
  • A 'zine! A 'zine! My kingdom for a 'zine!
  • When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?
  • My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks...
  • Canon Fodder
  • If you can't say anything nice... come sit over here by me.
  • Why research doesn't suck
  • Whomp Upside The Head IV: Return Of The Big Stick
  • AUs and You!
  • Mall Rats
  • Reality By Consensus: The difference between canon and fanon
  • The Rain In Spain In My Ass Is a Pain : dialect do's and don'ts