Once Upon A Time...

Reality By Consensus

The difference between canon and fanon
by LJC

Once upon a time, the Communications Officer of the starship Enterprise was Lt. Penda Uhura.

What? I hear you say, Since when? Isn't Uhura's name "Nyota?" What kind of crack are you on?

Ah, but it might surprise you to learn that Star Trek's Uhura does not have a canonical given name. Although the professional novels have used Nyota for decades, and fanzines and websites across the globe continue to call her Nyota, Nyota Penda, and Penda, as they have done since the birth of Trek fan fiction in the early 1970s, the names Nyota and Penda are what we in the 'fic world call "fan-canon" or "fanon."

"Fanon" is what happens when an author accepts another fan author's speculation as fact, and that "fact" spreads from author to author until it becomes commonplace in fan fiction, its origins no longer noted or in most cases even known. Sound familiar? It should; it happens all the time. An author sits down to write a story and says "So-and-so needs a name. And a backstory." So she writes it. Sends it off to a fanzine, or posts it to a newsgroup or publishes it to a website. People read it, and think "Oh, I like that. That works." and begin—consciously, or unconsciously— working that story into their mental picture of the character or the series. If they write, it may find its way into their own fiction. If they read, they keep it in the back of their minds as they read other stories. It takes on a life on its own, and down the line, the new fan comes into the fandom and finds the same facts and situations cropping up in stories all over the fandom, and takes them to be a canonical part of that universe. Poof! Presto! fan canon.

In some very rare cases, fanon actually becomes canon. Like his shipmate, Sulu never had a given name either, until actor George Takei asked that Sulu's given name, Hikaru, be added to a scene in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in effect making it canon after decades of the name being used in fan fiction, professional novels, and comic books.

Okay, I hear you thinking, Where's the bad here? What's wrong with fleshing out a show? Isn't that what fanfic is for?

Absolutely. Definitely. I agree 100%.

In that one story.

Look, you gotta understand one thing. When a fan writer writes something, she's not looking to change series canon. She might be trying to get the fandom to view a character or a situation a specific way. But she's not throwing her story out there and saying "This is how it'll be from now on" to the entire fandom at large. With the notable exception of shared world stories, a fan author's world is self-contained. There is internal consistency between stories, and between the series and the fan fiction. But by and large, it's never a hot idea for fan authors to take each other's work as canon.

Writing fan fiction based on other fan fiction results in stories that distance fan fiction even further from the source material, not unlike a xerox copy of a xerox copy. After time, the crisp clean lines of the original are completely blurred and the picture many not even resemble the source any longer. And there is a hidden danger: if a reader believes, due to fanon, that a character would react a particular way to a situation or stimuli, or has a backstory that conflicts with what you have written, then the writer can be hit with backlash despite the fact that the story in question adheres to series canon. In some worlds, fanon is considered more valid to the readers than canon, consciously or unconsciously. And from this kind of attack, there is no defence. How can there be, when the attack itself is not base on logic, but emotion? The fact of the matter is, fanon can become a very dangerous animal when any group of readers and writers reach reality by consensus.

Fanon is neither all good or all bad. After all, why write fan fiction, except to flesh out existing characters and situations? This is one of the major motivations of every writer, and the more fiction a writer writes in a particular fandom, the richer and more detailed her or his personal universe. There is no bad there. But it's important to know the difference between canon and fanon and to be aware of when you're relying on fanon which may rely on specifics that your reader cannot access.

Fan fiction operates using an assumed level of knowledge. The author assumes that the reader is cognisant of series canon—so that when an author writes an Angel story, for example, she or he assumes that the reader knows Angel's history, and specifics from Buffy and Angel and therefore does not have to cover that material in the story in order for the story to be effective. The writer and audience share a common and immutable source—Buffy and Angel. However, when a story relies on fanon, then there can be no assumed level of knowledge, and this undermines the effectiveness and validity of the work of fiction.

The only way to combat the steady creep of fanon is to actually bring folks back closer to the source material. If you're a writer, this generally means re-watching tapes and/or transcripts and literally sitting down and separating canon from fanon. If you're a reader, it becomes trickier. Why put such an emphasis on canon versus fanon? After all, from the consumer's point of view, it's not about different: it's about more. Many readers don't make any distinction between the series and the fan fiction. They are just looking for more of the characters they love, and don't much care who gives it to them: 1013, Mutant Enemy, Paramount, or fanzines, newsgroups, and web sites.

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