Canon Versus Fanon Versus Authorial Intent
- By Merlin Missy
- Published 07/30/2007
Merlin Missy has been active in online fandom since 1994. She likes fanfics with plots and happy endings.
(Note: The following contains spoilers for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Torchwood, Batman Beyond, and Justice League Unlimited.)
It's that time again, when something very popular and much-discussed has come to an end, and the folks over at Fandom Wank are delighting in the arguments that have ensued. Once again, the author is participating in the post-mortem with comments on what happened to whom and how and when, and what was meant here and what was just a typo there. Once more, it is time to delineate "Canon" from "Fanon" from "Authorial Intent."
Every fandom has a canon. Canon is most easily defined as "what happened in the source material." The source material is whatever one is fannish about, the book, the movie, the television series, or for the RPF folks, the things recorded in some manner that happened in the person's life. (For most of this essay, I'll be ignoring the RPF crowd for the sake of ease. Try not to feel to left out.) "Harry Potter" fans have two similar canons: the books and the movies. "Lord of the Rings" fans have the same. Fans of various television programs such as Supernatural have the episodes as broadcast. Fans of other shows such as Farscape and Firefly have episodes as well as a movie that takes place after the show's timeline. Fans of Doctor Who and Star Trek have all sorts of places that incorporate pieces of canon. Fans of Buffy, Angel and Gargoyles have canonical comic continuations. Fans of comics have my sympathies.
Canon is what happened. Sometimes that's hard to determine. In the case of changed media from a series to a movie or a comic, some fans will assume that canon continues and others will say it ended with the show. Both sets of fans are right. In some series, canon says one thing and then goes back and retcons (lit. "retroactive continuity) new canon overtop the old. For example, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation timeline, the Federation was canonically finishing up a bloody war with the Cardassians at the same time first season was running. Except they didn't decide that until season five. Both sets of canon are true; trying to fit them together is possible, though nosebleed-inducing. As for retconning films, there's a reason why the cry of the Wild Fanboy has been "Han Shot First!" for ten years now.
Some series air abroad before they air in the States and lose scenes due to time constraints. A good rule to follow is to include the cut scenes as canon. Whether the same should be true for films is up to individual fans. With the advent of DVDs, cut scenes are much easier to include, and "Director's Cut" is nearly a standard release format of anything successful enough to warrant a re-release.
This leads us to "personal canon." Personal canon is "What happened, as far as I'm concerned." Back in the day, I knew a lot of Buffy fans who thought the show jumped the shark after season two. I know more who thought it jumped after the end of season five. I know a lot of people who are saying right now that they're ignoring all "Harry Potter" books after The Order of the Phoenix. This happens a lot. Shows change hands and casts, quality diminishes (according to some), and whether or not fans continue to watch, they choose not to acknowledge what happens in canon. Season three of Beauty and the Beast? Season Three of Gargoyles? "Didn't really happen." (In the case of the latter, the comic is serving as alternate canon continuity.)
Most fans have some kind of personal canon. Personal canon also includes things that didn't happen on the screen, but one feels they happened off-screen. Personal canon tends to incorporate 'shipping desires, backstories, aftermaths, and anything else that might be found in fanfiction. If something didn't happen in canon, but you believe in your heart of hearts that it did happen, that is your personal canon.
Fanon is any personal canon held in common by two or more people. Lt. Commander Uhura has no first name in canon. One of her early fanon names was Penda. The most common fanon first name for her today is Nyota but since her name has never appeared in a canonical source, it remains fanon. Captain Sulu's first name Hikaru was fanon until George Takei asked to incorporate it into a film.
When one's group of fellow 'shippers look at two characters together and think that after the scene ended, the two of them began screwing like bunnies, that's fanon. When a character is not given a name in canon and more than one fan begins using a made-up name for the character, that's fanon. When fanfic writers share a universe, that's fanon too. Fanon is fun.
Author intent is the personal canon of the person (or people) who wrote the source. When J.K. Rowling said that Harry and Ron became Aurors as adults, that is author intent.
Author intent is not canon.
Let me repeat, because it's going to be important: author intent is not canon.
Most authors know what happens next to their characters, who they marry, how many kids they have, that the grandkids are called Vera, Chuck and Dave. Their favorite breakfast cereal. How they're going to die. Some authors end up giving out all this information, either via writing it in the text or including it as an appendix in the back ala J.R.R. Tolkien. Some writers can't, because the medium (TV, film) won't allow it, but that doesn't stop them from knowing what they want to do. In this day and age, message boards allow them to share with fans what they intended to do, had they time. It's lovely and helpful for fans who want to know more. It is not, however, canon.
The same thing can be said for authorial interpretation of the source material. Canon is what is in the source material. Reader/viewer interpretation is up to the individual, although the author may have intended something else entirely. For example, Ray Bradbury recently claimed that Fahrenheit 451 was not about censorship, but instead warned against the perils of too much television. In an episode of Torchwood, a character utilizes the alien equivalent of Rohypnol in order to get lucky. Showrunner Russell T. Davies was called on the carpet for this by some female fans, who said these actiosn made the character a rapist; Davies said it was "just a joke" and did not. Authors don't always intend to show what appears in the text, but the text is the canon.
Authorial intent tends to lead to fanon. After someone high-up involved with a series says "X is true," many if not most fans will follow in that direction. The problem comes in when authors change their minds, or projects change hands. In Batman Beyond, Terry McGinnis was Bruce Wayne's clone, as engineered by Catwoman. At least, that was the original idea. Creator Bruce Timm was going to use that storyline for a project codenamed "Catwoman Pitch Black." As fans of Justice League Unlimited know, what actually aired was a story where Terry was revealed to be Bruce's biological son via some SF technology handwaving. Authors change their minds. J.K. Rowling said in a chat at The Leaky Cauldron that Luna "ended up marrying (rather later than Harry & co) a fellow naturalist and grandson of the great Newt Scamander (Rolf)!" However, in an interview with Today, she said she was "feeling a pull" between Luna and Neville. Authors change their minds, or events happen that change things for them. Until it's written, until it's broadcast, until it out there somehow, it didn't happen, at least not in canon.
Canon is hard. Sometimes it contradicts itself. Sometimes it makes no sense. Sometimes it upsets what the fans thought was true for years. Sometimes we ignore it, for those reasons and more, to see what we can find on our own inside the world we've discovered. Many times canon says things that the author never intended, and many times, we sit with our books or in the theatres or in front of our TVs and we swear at what's presented. But there's always something in it that draws us back again.