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David Hines [userpic]

TFV and me (mostly TFV) on fannish AUs

March 23rd, 2010 (12:47 am)
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In LJ comments, [personal profile] thefourthvine and I had a really interesting exchange about fannish AUs. By which I mean, I asked questions and she did all the heavy lifting. It's too good to leave buried in comments, so here is the lightly edited gist.

I found this conversation really interesting and insightful, because it cued me in on something I hadn't realized about the stuff I tend to gravitate towards, and one explanation why some fandoms become huge and some don't. Discussion welcomed.

ME. I don't like AUs for a lot of reasons, but I think the chief one has to do with one of the reasons I don't like porn fic. About ten years ago, I was of the theory that fans wrote porn when the actual material didn't sufficiently capture their interest -- ie, if you really liked THE X-FILES, you wouldn't be writing dumb porn about Scully doing Mulder, you'd be writing casefic in an attempt to emulate the actual show. I don't know if that was true then, but it certainly isn't true now; for a lot of people, porn is the entire point of fandom. But AUs often give me that feeling: if you like these characters so much, why are you putting them in weird scenarios where they're so far removed from what made you fond of them in the first place?

TFV. I'm not surprised to hear that you don't like AUs, but I think there's a selection bias at work there. If you look at your favorite fandoms, most of them are the definition of "bad AU fandoms." (I mean, who is Batman if he's not, you know, Batman? Either a lunatic or a sane guy, and either way, he's no longer very interesting.) The elements that make a fandom great for AUs are elements that will actively drive you away.

You seem, for one thing, to be drawn to - I don't know how to put it. Interlocking canons? Canons where the people are who they are because of the (interesting) world they're in. That is exactly what makes a fandom bad for AUs.

ME. This is a really remarkable comment, because it make me think about my fandoms and the kind of thing I like. (I would really love a good Disney Princess AU, and have actually talked a friend's ear off on the concept in chat, but I think that's mainly because I want the Disney Princesses hanging out with and talking to each other, and an AU makes that readily possible. Though I'd probably enjoy a straight-up crossover more.)

What are the elements that make a fandom great for AUs? And what are fandoms that are great for AUs? I would think, for example, that shows like STARGATE wouldn't invite them (why would you *want* to hear about those folks being baristas, rather than universe-hoppers?) but apparently they did…

TFV. Okay, I'm hugely sick, so let's see if I can make any sense at all.

Fandoms that make for great AUs are fandoms where the characters appear in front of backdrops rather than integrated in complex, believable worlds, where who they are is relatively irrelevant to where they are. Ideally, you should be able to describe them as archetypes or using just a few key phrases - the Sarcastic Reluctant Hero with Issues, or the Mouthy Genius Scientist.

So. Oz makes for terrible AUs - who are these people if they aren't in prison? Not the people we know; almost the only way you can get them into the roles they have now and the relationships they have with each other is by locking them in a hole together. And then, even worse, the characters change over time - so now, if you write an AU, you have to do a snapshot, or you have to find some miraculous way for the characters to develop in your AU the same way they did in canon (which, wow, good luck, because like I said, prison is key to who they've become), or you have to say fuck it and have them develop totally differently, but then you're dicing with the line between OOC and OC. You know what would work as an epic Oz AU? A galley slave AU, or a gladiator AU, maybe. I'm having a hard time thinking of anything else. And then you haven't changed much but the clothes. (Obviously, a coin flip AU still works here; my favorite Oz story makes one major change to the canon. But they're still, you know, fucked-up prisoners, and they still have most of the same history.)

So let's consider SGA instead, and McKay/Sheppard because it's what I know and what there's the most of. First, these are not complex characters, relatively speaking; we know little of their backgrounds, histories, goals, fears, whatever - we have bits, but just enough to salt through an AU; not enough to make it hard to do. And they have point-by-point characterizations rather than three-dimensional characterizations. Is he sarcastic? Does he talk too much and too fast? Is he smart? Kind of not so up on the social niceties? It doesn't matter if he's a computer repairman or an alchemist or a flower: we know that's Rodney McKay. (If you can make his dialog sound like McKay, you're golden, basically.) Second, it doesn't matter if they're in Atlantis. They change a little over the seasons, but in standard arcs that are easy to mimic in any story. And what does Atlantis make them, really? Adventurers? Not exactly, and anyway, that's not unique to the setting. Um - interested in Ancient technology? Substitute another word for "Ancient" and you're golden. A team? Absolutely, but you can get that in almost any story. And so on.

The thing is, the SGA people are in Pegasus, but - I don't need to tell you that they aren't, really. Imagine how you would write a story about a small group of people who travel to a distant, populated galaxy to explore a dangerous and mysterious artifact. Would it look anything like SGA? Not unless you were totally phoning it in. That crappiness makes for fantastic (and extensive) fan fiction, leagues better than the show, and it also makes for great AUs. When the canon writers suck, we can take what they do and do it anywhere. And usually it works better.

So, like, I have two mostly-complete SGA AUs based on movies: Desk Set and Romancing the Stone. They work; I mean, I'm saying so myself, but still. They do. You can take almost any movie and sub in John and Rodney for the main roles. Try that with Beecher and Keller from Oz. Or with Batman and Robin. (Or Joker and Harley - oh god no don't NEVER MIND.)

If we read the same books, I could make a couple of other points, but we mostly don't, I don't think. And, anyway, this comment is getting above itself. But, yeah, I think about this a lot, because I read enough ff that I can usually recognize on sight a fandom that will produce great AUs and a fandom that really, really won't.

[ . . . ] the Disney Princess AU is a perfect example of this. I am not so totally up on my princesses, but - who is Belle? The one with the knowledge and the book-learning and very little real-world experience. Who is Mulan? The one who goes out and gets the real-world experience, with skills the other girls don't have. Who is Jasmine? The sheltered wealthy girl who longs for more. And so on. (Does Cinderella have a personality at all? I honestly can't think of what it would be.)

So you can take Belle and Mulan and Jasmine and put them somewhere else - medical examiner's office, a girl's school in 1941 England, the Belle Epoch, Mars - and they will still be recognizable. And if you do it well (especially if you do it on Mars), they will probably be more interesting, because of the interaction between them, yes, but also because they are underexplored characters who are typically archetypes, and whose personalities and arcs are independent of the worlds in which they've been placed.

You will actually learn far more about those characters if you break them out of their worlds. But they will still be who they are. The same cannot be said of Legolas or Tobias Beecher or Harley Quinn.

ME. Okay, so my comment about sucky stuff making for more AUs wasn't too far off the mark? It's odd, considering that the show I'm the most fannishly active about is a show that is mostly crap, but your comments about my brand of fandom are really interesting. You're right; I tend to really go for characters tied into their setting and dynamic, and am not that interested by source materials that don't have a strong, all-pervading, intrinsic sense of place and purpose.

TFV. …I'm not saying backdrop canons have to be kind of sucky - I am just not familiar enough with TV and movies to know for sure. But I do think that backdrop canons are more likely to be.

And that drives the fandom, too. Most fans, as far as I can tell, are looking for characters, not settings. Great characters in interlocked settings with great plots and great writing tend not to be fandom's babies, in part because they're hard to write and in part because slash fandom, at least, does best with great, or at least beloved, characters, full stop. Ideally played by actors who give you something to work with. So, like, Life on Mars (UK) - a perfect example of a great canon with great characters destined to be a small fandom. It's too hard to write in the world, and this is a canon almost wholly resistant to AUs, so - what can you do? Rewatch the source, mostly.

The fandom-eating fandoms - Smallville, Popslash, SGA, probably SPN - are all about characters in front of backdrops. (Popslash and bandom and J2 and Lotrips and AIRPS all count for this; I can't read RPF involving living people, because I am tragically allergic to celebrities, but I bet these fandoms are FILLED with great AUs. They're the ultimate AU fandoms, or should be: just characters. No real setting at all. Make 'em baristas! Make 'em magicians! Make 'em dragons or robots or pirates or ninjas or high school students or Pokemon! You can do anything with them, or you should be able to.)

Oh, and you said you couldn't understand why I (or, okay, anyone, but I count!) would want to read the Atlantis crew as baristas rather than, you know, on Atlantis, but this should make it obvious: as long as the characters are there, that's all that matters. So if the story is good, and it reveals something about the characters, and especially if it integrates them into the new setting better than the old one, I am sold. That is exactly what I want! (And if it does all those same things, but in Atlantis, I'm still sold. My point is, in these fandoms, AUs are just as good as non-AUs - and they are more likely to be long and detailed and plotty, which is a good thing for me.

End of excerpts. You see why I wanted to bring this out of comments and into its own post, right? I find this concept fascinating and disturbing at the same time. Mostly disturbing, because it just goes so counter to what I look for in source material. I want fanfic to be about the show because *I like the stuff I like.* I like futurefic and alts, but there's a certain degree of removal where I wonder, "Um, why is this story in this fandom, again?" I don't think there are any characters, except the Disney Princesses, that I would follow into AUs -- and frankly, with the Princesses, it's just because AUs are the easiest way to get them all to meet up. I think this is because my big thing is *characters making decisions.* The choices characters make tell us about who they are; in AUs that are just about the characters, odds are really good that the decisions they make in those stories will be much less important, or meaningful, or interesting to me than are their decisions they make on the show, so I will be sitting around going "THESE PEOPLE COULD BE PLANET HOPPING, I DO NOT GIVE A CRAP ABOUT THEM SWAPPING SPIT AND MAKING COFFEE." I would a thousand times rather read casefic than romantic fic, for the same reason.

(Also, if it's not obvious, I kind of hate RPF and wish it were still anathema, and while I know there are people who have found deep fulfillment in bandslash, the celebrity culture aspect of it still creeps me out. I mean, I love Leonard Cohen like whoa, and I can imagine some stories involving him but they would be really awkward to write, and I'm certainly not about to write a LEONARD COHEN'S ANGELS fanfic AU about Sharon Robinson, Jennifer Warnes, and Anjani Thomas fighting crime. This is partly due to old fannish attitudes, partly to snobbery -- and while we're on snobbery, I think plotty genfic is innately superior to porn, AND I AM RIGHT TEN MILLION TIMES INFINITY SO THERE -- and partly to a personal extreme squick, because I am made deeply uncomfortable when I find out that people have been talking about me when I am not present. So I still consider RPF to be a gross invasion of personal space. Clearly, a lot of musicians have way different standards of privacy than I do. This is probably part of why they worked their asses off to become celebrities.)

ETA: my thoughts on the XENA connection, here.

Originally posted on my DW. | comment count unavailable people have commented there. | Do so yourself, if you like.


Posted by: Dessie Octavia (dessieoctavia)
Posted at: March 23rd, 2010 05:26 am (UTC)
Anne Boleyn

Disney Princess Roundtable.

Posted by: John C Fiala (jcfiala)
Posted at: March 23rd, 2010 02:30 pm (UTC)

Amusing. I remember reading that when Peter David wrote it as part of his 'In Which I Digress' column. :)

Posted by: Sinanju (sinanju)
Posted at: March 23rd, 2010 05:33 am (UTC)

I'm not a fan of AU fanfic. But boy, howdy! do I love CROSSOVER fanfic. That's my passion. Straight canon fanfic can be fun, but nothing (to my mind) beats crossovers.

I probably like crossovers for the same reason some people like AU fanfic. It's about the characters--I love having characters from different fandoms interacting. Plot is good, but it's the fun of seeing well-known characters interacting with (to them) strangers; it gives you ways to experience the various characters' personalities that don't generally crop up otherwise.

Posted by: sireric08 (sireric08)
Posted at: March 23rd, 2010 06:59 am (UTC)

I am fully prepared to get mocked off the board for this, but what is an AU?

Posted by: boogieshoes (boogieshoes)
Posted at: March 23rd, 2010 12:42 pm (UTC)

AU stands for 'alternate universe'. there are several things which fall under this purview, all of which deal with changes to either the characters or the canon universe:

1) using the same universe 'rules' or setup as the canon, but changing :
a) character background
b) characterization (making some darker, or actually psychotic, or fluffier, or...)
c) changing location and/or time and/or jobs
d) changing a decision or action in canon (plot-divergence AU)

2) changing the canon world:
a) change the history of that world
b) change the rules of that world - for example, in 'the sentinel', the canon world is mostly 'modern day america, everything's normal for everyone, but there's sentinels...' but you could say instead 'it's modern day america, but magic is real, and there's sentinels...'
c) give the characters psi or supernatural powers

3) future AUs are kind of a special category, because they can be not so different, or wildly different from canon, depending on when they're placed. a few years into the future, and you may have a 'main characters have kids' piece. a few centuries in the future, you could make tech and societies up from whole cloth - it could almost be fantasy.

4) fusion fic is AU fic where the characters from one universe are plunked down in another universe. Mulder and Scully become Weyrleader and Weyrwoman of Fort Weyr a la McCaffrey's DRoP books.

this is just an overview of the different types of AU, but i hope it helps!


Posted by: Persephone (persephone_kore)
Posted at: March 23rd, 2010 05:16 pm (UTC)

As a minor but possibly useful addendum, the conversation in the main post, as far as I can tell, is almost exclusively discussing what might be a subtype of either 2 or 4, in which you take some of the characters and plunk them down in some other setting that is probably not that of any specific story, but is also not necessarily the canon world with the rules changed. Like having them all work in a coffee shop, start a band, go to high school, or live in the Roman Empire or something.

Posted by: Cathryn (formerly catslash) (remindmeofthe)
Posted at: March 23rd, 2010 07:06 am (UTC)

I'd like to observe that you guys are talking about a particular type of AU fic, which is also one I happen to dislike - I fail to see the point and/or interest of taking all the characters and putting them in high school or whatever. What I adore, though, is the type of AU that stays within the universe, but just changes something in it. Like, I wrote a Torchwood AU wherein a character took a very different approach to a particular issue but ended up with similar results, because I felt the character was badly handled and wanted to see if I could do it better (not much of a challenge with TW, really). I like it because it is still recognizably fic of that particular fandom, but gives the characters and universe itself something different to respond to, which in turn makes for some great opportunities for character exploration and taking a look at how deeply an event reverberates within the universe. I'm always messing around with ideas for that type of AU, even if I don't write most of them down, because it gives me a new and different way to look at a fandom while still keeping the fandom as itself.

And as far as general tastes in fic go, I used to be all slash all the time (hence the username - Cat is short for my name, incidentally, and does not imply any sort of Oscar-style leanings on my part), but in the last couple of years I've been much more into reading and writing genfic. Which, since some of my more active fandoms have included TW and Supernatural, I find kind of hilarious.

Posted by: izhilzha (izhilzha)
Posted at: March 24th, 2010 11:23 pm (UTC)
is there life on mars?

I second this comment. The type of AU mostly being discussed above describes an entire subset of fic that I simply don't read, in any of my fandoms. (To be fair, my favorite show ever is Life on Mars UK, so I clearly like my worlds and characters integrated--that was a great point to make.)

But I love the "one choice was made differently" type of AU, which several of my fandoms lend themselves to beautifully (SG-1, Supernatural): it's a great way to explore the characters on a slight slant, without veering too far from what makes them and their interactions with their world interesting.

Posted by: wee_warrior (wee_warrior)
Posted at: March 23rd, 2010 10:37 am (UTC)

(Hi! I usually lurk - in a friendly, non-stalkery way. I have developed a strange fascination with your Spartacus summaries, without meaning to ever watch the show. So much for lengthy introduction - )

I like futurefic and alts, but there's a certain degree of removal where I wonder, "Um, why is this story in this fandom, again?"

I might be mixing this up, but do you make a difference between AUs and alts? For me, I have a great fondness for AUs where the people are in different settings, but there is still some connection to the original verse in itself. A fannish example would be a story by selenak which put the (at that time second season?) Heroes characters into a fairytale setting, and that worked well because it said something about those characters. A show example would be Deep Space 9, which had an alternative setting among SF writers in the 1950s (not to mention most of the Trek shows also worked with parallel worlds, down to the new Star Trek movie, which is an alternate reality in canon). Or take something like the movie Clueless, which is a pretty good interpretation of Austen's Emma, despite putting it into the 20th century and a Highschool setting.

Now, the sort of AU where the BSG crew are US American Highschool students? I think after the initial curiosity about who ends up being what and introduced how I'd certainly lose interest. I'm not sure that would be the same for any setting with those particular characters, but a lot of their situation is very essential to them, so the variety of believable AUs is at least limited.

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: March 23rd, 2010 07:31 pm (UTC)

Alt for me is alternative version of canon -- ie, a relatively small change. A character made a different decision, or some character died or lived counter to what happened on the show.

Posted by: Aiglet (aiglet)
Posted at: March 23rd, 2010 01:31 pm (UTC)

I must admit that almost *all* the fanfic I read is AU, because it's Harry Potter fic. (There's a fairly large segment of the fandom made up of older people writing interesting stories that may or may not have sex in them.)

It has to be AU, because the Epilogue to Book 7 shuts off any further development of the characters between the end of the books and when the epilogue is set, and puts the characters in situations that almost everyone I know thinks are unrealistic for them as they're developed. (I.e., if the epilogue had appeared after book one, it would have been fine, but the characters after book 7 don't fit into that box as neatly anymore.)

A lot of them preserve the setting, and then change one or two major things to make the story happen. One of my favorite fics of all time (McAmy's A Matter of Honor) is deeply AU, but I think it captures the spirit of where those characters are going better than the actual epilogue did. I actually find that my entire ongoing HP universe is populated with AU-fic characters -- McAmy's Snape and Hermione, Clio's Seamus, Dean, Ginny, and Draco (from Eight Ways From Sunday), etc. But it's still very firmly the HP setting -- Hogwarts and Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley and all the rest.

Posted by: Rusalka (marinarusalka)
Posted at: March 23rd, 2010 09:19 pm (UTC)
SPN: plotbunnies

mean, who is Batman if he's not, you know, Batman? Either a lunatic or a sane guy, and either way, he's no longer very interesting.

It's true that Batman is not at all suited for the sort of AU where he's an office drone or a high school student. But he seems very well-suited for the sort where you keep the "costumed vigilante obsessed with his parents' murder" bit but move it to a different time and/or place. Like, Batman could be Batman in Victorian London or early Christian Rome or a 31st-Century space colony, and the interesting thing would be exploring how he would function and relate to a world where there are no modern forensic techniques, or where there's magic, or where half the criminals are telepathic alien squid. Marvel and DC do that sort of thing all the time with things like Elseworlds and 1602 and [Insert superhero here] Noir.

Likewise, Holmes and Watson could be an eccentric genius detective and his admiring BFF almost anywhere, and the Winchester brothers could hunt supernatural evil to avenge their mother in a variety of settings. If the characters are strongly identified with a particular role or archetype rather than a setting, you can change just about everything else as long as you keep the archetype in place.

Posted by: HJ (hjcallipygian)
Posted at: March 24th, 2010 12:17 am (UTC)
btvs - vague disclaimer

You know, you could even analyze a show that you liked in the beginning but disliked as time progressed and see this setting/backdrop trend -- say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer for instance.

Posted by: Nokomis (nokomis305)
Posted at: March 24th, 2010 02:33 am (UTC)

This is a really fascinating discussion to me! Before I got into my current fandom, I could not understand the appeal of AUs. I avoided them, no matter how highly recced: why read about HP if there was no magic, mutants if they had no powers, Batman if he didn't have Gotham? Each of the universes were fascinating to a degree that you didn't need to alter it to find interesting things to discuss.

Then I fell into the dreaded bandom. And because it's a fandom built on characters, not a universe, AUs are the norm. (I just counted five non-AUs out of 32 fics submitted to a fandom-wide exchange.) I think I've probably stayed in this fandom this long BECAUSE it's so AU-oriented. The same setting over and over would lose its appeal, but seeing characters reinvented as a vampire or a priest or the center of a gothic romance or a space pirate or anything that strikes someone's fancy - actually tends to mean that there's more plot than porn, since universes have to be developed and relationships forged. I totally understand your aversion to RPF, I feel like I should add. I used to be the same way, and still refuse to go into another RPF fandom. I only felt comfortable in this one once I found out that the people themselves were okay with fic (and I'm 90% certain that some of them used to WRITE fic themselves in some random fandom). So I'm just talking about what about this fandom made AUs suddenly readable to me.

The thing about AUs is that the characters themselves have to ring true, and for most of the fictional universes I love most, vital parts of their characters tend to be left behind if they're taken out of their surroundings. It falls flat, like reading original fic with familiar names pasted in. But with fandoms focused entirely on characters, you can play with theme and setting and end up with something fascinating.

Posted by: Grey Bard (grey_bard)
Posted at: March 24th, 2010 01:18 pm (UTC)


Heh. That's... exactly the kind of AU I like best. The planet-hopping kind, sort of.

My favorite AUs are the one where the author is like "How can I take these characters and put them in a story that is even more epic and stirring and exciting!"

Evil aliens actually succeed in conquering Earth for more than two episodes/issues and it leads to something other than lame sex-slave fic? And our heroes have to boldly be the Resistance? SOLD.

Secretly the Archangel Michael all along? (It makes sense in context.)SOLD.

They actually go to galactic war with the Romulans? SO VERY SOLD.

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