Canon, in fiction, is what is considered official within a fictional universe. This is a term one would expect to stir heated discussions within the fandoms of revered popular franchises, such as Star Trek or George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Canon refers to any genre, but can mostly be found discussed regarding large pieces of work, particularly fantasy and science fiction.
For many, whatever is written on the page of the book is what is considered canon. This plays naturally into the Death of the Author, which largely discusses subjectivity and the role the audience plays in the creation and processing of the story. The author has no further say in the material once it is printed. Canon is what is objective—what cannot be argued—as the author has established a law within their own work as a stated fact. So even once the work has left the author’s hands, these aspects should (in theory) not be disputed. For example, the last name Snow in A Song of Ice and Fire is given to northern-born bastard children.
The issue that spirals from here is the argument between fans as what is ‘obvious fact,’ but that is a discussion all unto its own.
However, it isn’t uncommon for authors to produce work and interconnecting tid-bits for audiences to consume after they’ve read the book. J R R Tolkien’s mythology of Middle Earth, its inhabitants, history, and languages extended far beyond the work of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion. In fact, the desire to include appendices to The Return of the King was the reason why the book’s release was delayed.
J K Rowling has Pottermore as a means of providing further insight into the wizarding world after Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, and still, to this day, regularly uses her platform on Twitter to let fans know of her character’s lives post-final book.
Canon is also often twisted and confusing, specifically for a casual comic book fan. Retconning is a common phrase thrown around in the DC and Marvel fandoms, used to described when a previously established fact is altered to suit a new narrative. This could be whether Batman’s parents were murdered by an unknown gunman, The Joker pre-Joker, or a hitman etc. The retcon can be caused by a new writer wishing to have more control over the work they are producing, or it may be an executive decision to suit changes in social attitudes of the time.
Star Wars, after Lucasfilm was bought by Disney, found a lot of its literature and graphic novels written off as it does not necessarily suit the Disney image, or possibly contradicts a statement that the film studios wish to put out in future.
With the rise of social media and the resultant demand for instant gratification, many authors could find themselves in a new writing trap. This is a pressure to answer every question a fan or audience member has about any given piece of their work. In fact, it is almost expected of an author to have this information ready should the questions be sprung on them at any given time—but should they have to?
At risk of sounding old, there was a time when the end of the book was the end of the story, and any unanswered questions were left to the audience’s imagination—in fact, fan fiction was built around this practice. That being said, there is something fun about asking an author embarrassingly silly questions about their characters, such as what types of drink they’d order at a coffee shop (as seen on V E Schwab’s Twitter)—but whatever answers are given, are they truly canon? Not everyone has access to Schwab or Rowling’s Twitterfeed, or Pottermore, or even Tolkien’s appendices. Not everyone will have access to fandom sites which largely discuss and re-affirm understandings of their favourite passages or debates on what clues the author has left in the book.
The nature of an author divulging ‘canon’ information is also more likely to get brought into question. J R R Tolkien was of an earlier age in writing. He didn’t need to produce the appendices in The Return of the King because they were needed for the work, nor for any financial promise (though it could be argued that his passion, as shown in the appendices, were a good advertisement for his work). In a modern, cynical world, Rowling has been subject to ridicule for returning to the Harry Potter franchise, with fans and critics openly wondering why. With that in mind, fans have started to argue with even the creator of said works what they consider canon.
For example, J K Rowling has tweeted before about dormitory habits of Hufflepuff House members, but because it was controversial she has since deleted the tweet—is that still considered canon?
For authors boggling their brains on what is expected of them, it is important to remember not to fall into such a writing trap. As cold as this sounds: you do not owe your audience more than what they paid for. Feel free to step in and give tid-bits, offer insight when they’re perplexed, heck, you can even support their fan fiction if it pleases you, but you’re also free to step back and say, “You work this one out,” or, “What do you think happened after THE END?”
Canon, despite being defined as a set of laws that establish consistency, are, quite considerably, subjective. They are rules that the individual audience interprets as objective, and so one shouldn’t feel compelled to try to force it.
Let your passion flow into your work. You don’t have to have an answer for every fan, and you don’t have to have appendices for your final book of a trilogy. Just stay consistent and have fun.
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© 2018 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.