Fanon And The Hazards of Source Amnesia

a guest post by weebee

Fanon is a rather odd entity. It’s often looked down on entirely, with those who think themselves the ‘best authors’ sneering at any use of it and claiming that you should never resort to such obviously flawed and factually incorrect items. Of course, it does have a purpose and one that, if it’s not noble, at least makes sense.

Some fanon, such as the name “Kimiko”, established for Soun Tendo’s wife in the Ranma 1/2 universe, is simply there because there is absolutely no canon data on the subject, but it’s handy to be able to refer to her by that shorthand and to always have a name to use if you need it.

Other fanon, like the explanation that a Sailor Senshi’s transformation naturally includes a disguise field, helps a person who needs explanations for normally unexplained phenomena, or helps bolster a story if it’s already stretching your suspension of disbelief and doesn’t want you thinking about the why. For example, if Usagi executes a perfectly coordinated wall run and Shingo doesn’t recognize her when she did it while holding him in her arms.

There is a third type of fanon, one that ascribes hitherto vaguely hinted (or not hinted at all) motivations to a character or amplifies (what TVTropes would call flanderizes) established traits such as the insistence on having Minako Aino flub a line every chapter, or having Akane Tendo chase everyone who accidentally sneezes in her direction with a mallet.

These last two types, while occasionally literarily useful, can be somewhat dangerous. For example, there is the habit of an author latching onto one of them as a device that they enjoy using in their work and, through that use, forgetting that it was an author-created device. For example, I often have to remind myself that, in the Anime and Manga, Ranmaverse characters very rarely show any ability to detect the life force of others, and that usually occurs when an aura is being clearly displayed, or a hostile action is being taken against them. It is important to keep track of these devices, as you can find yourself correcting another author on a point of fact that is, in fact, only one of your personal plot devices, or failing to enjoy a story because it violates it.

The strangest effect that modified devices or characters can have on a series is what, for the purposes of this example, I’m calling pervasive fanon, and since it is the thing that brought it to my attention, I will be using Sailor Pluto, and her relationship with the timeline and time gates for the example.

Taking only Sailor Moon, the Anime series as a basis, Sailor Pluto’s limitations and job are rather clearly spelled out. She is to guard the gates of time, ensure that she is standing at them and guarding them at all times (barring earth-shattering emergencies), and not to abuse her powers, most particularly the time stop, the penalty for which is death.

At some point (I have absolutely no idea when or who was responsible), a fanfiction author wished to write a story either revolving around Sailor Pluto, or the act of changing the past. To that end, this author thought that it would be neat if Pluto could open the gates without passing through them, to use them as a sort of temporal viewer rather than a time travel device, explaining that, in his fic, the gates had that function built in to better facilitate her guarding of the timeline.

This plot device was actually quite a good one. It allowed a whole new character interpretation for Pluto. No longer simply the grim guardian of time who stood vigil over one of the most dangerous forces in existence to keep it under control, this Pluto could actually shape events, could enforce her will on the timestream. This is fanfiction, after all, and the possibilities of that are endless, depending on how her character was played.

I’m guessing that the sheer number of possibilities from this plot device, the time gates as a monitoring device, resulted in a wave of fics that used the same premise for various effects and even fics that used it for side or background effects that would help a main story.

This is where things get interesting. The human mind tends to suffer from something called “Source Amnesia.” That is, we sometimes have trouble determining where we heard or learned a piece of information. In a case where we are reading and writing fanfiction about a series that we may not have all of the episodes of, or that we may only be catching once a week, this source amnesia tends to kick in pretty hard, and that’s why things like Pluto’s extra powers over the time gates tend to seep into our knowledge of the series. It’s obvious Pluto can do that, it’s obvious Youma and Dark Generals can absorb large amounts of life force with a single touch, it’s obvious that Sailor Jupiter is actually a dryad… wait, what?

All of these things seem obvious because we’ve seen them so often, as they become popular fanon devices, and we simply cannot go over the canon nearly that much. There are 200 episodes of Sailor Moon, each of them 22 minutes long, and the fifth season is only subbed. Let’s not even talk about the differences caused by the editing done during the dubbing process, and the trick some people (including me), do of assuming that X thing I could have sworn was canon must happen in the subbed version.

All of this seems kind of annoying, but not really that bad, right? Unless someone takes something as fanon that you find really annoying, it shouldn’t bother you. Well, that’s not exactly true. Getting back to Sailor Pluto and the Time Gates. Over the more than a decade that her abilities have been changing in fanon, the generally accepted version of her is capable of monitoring the timeline for change, sometimes remotely, and ensuring that the most likely outcome, right down to decimal point probability, remains crystal Tokyo. If you want to change something, add a major character that shakes things up, many authors will catch themselves wondering, “How would Sailor Pluto let this happen? It would cause X to happen wrong!” and then come up with a long, complex explanation as to how she could tweak things so everything worked out.

But let’s put things back into perspective, here. Recall her original list of abilities? She guards the gate of time, which is a corridor that lets you travel through time. Her only temporally dangerous ability is a timestop that will straight up kill her if she uses it. So you can go ahead and put your new character, scene, or reaction in, because canon Sailor Pluto has no inclination to stop you… unless you’re trying to blow up Usagi or something, anyways. And then she’ll do it by teleporting out of the gates when something or someone else informs her and hitting you upside the head with her staff, not going back to last Tuesday and re-arranging gum wrappers so you never have the idea.

In short, fanon is a useful thing for authors, it lets them do pretty much anything they want with a series and its characters, determined only by the writer’s ability and imagination. But when a stumbling block comes up from what you feel is a well established plot point, don’t be afraid to go back and check the source. If it’s fanon that’s blocking your way, you don’t need it.

Ed.: If you have any ideas as to where in the fandom the expansion of Sailor Pluto’s powers originated, please share them in the comments. Inquiring but overworked minds want to know.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Fanon And The Hazards of Source Amnesia by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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1 Response to Fanon And The Hazards of Source Amnesia

  1. Gabihime says:

    I agree with your assessment. I think fanon concepts can be a very interesting way to explore a universe. I indulged in your second identified usage several times during the course of The Shape of His Heart, simply because I think writing interesting explanations for how certain things work — say stealing items from fiends, or the limit break/overdrive system — is one of the things that makes fanfiction interesting. I love exploring mechanics because I’m a great big nerd, and probably also because I like to show off. “You pretend this just doesn’t exist? Ha ha, I’ll show you how it’s done.” Hubris is definitely one of my sins.

    Seriously speaking though, I think popular or pervasive fanfics certainly create a truth all their own, which gets accepted by other fanfic writers. Particularly if, as you pointed out, these writers are not consulting the original source material before writing, but just basing it on “what everybody knows about X series.” There is nothing wrong with these third-hand, fourth-hand, dozenth-hand retellings, and they can be very enjoyable in themselves, but at some point, if you compare how a character acts in the original source material, and the way he or she acts in a tenth iteration fanfic, some obvious differences arise. But hey, fandom is all about how we personally interpret (and often recontextualize) a series. Fanon definitely deserves serious study, particularly as what is acceptable as ‘canon’ for many things is very vague and always up to very personal interpretation. Take Sailormoon for instance. Is your canon based only on the explicit events of the animated series? What about elements of the series that are poorly explained? Is it based purely on the manga? Is it based on the musicals? Do you include elements from the Another Story super famicom rpg? All of these are valid canonical sources, and I’m sure each author has their own reasons for relying on one or the other, or like me, ultimately choosing to take a salad-bar approach, and make off with what is most delightful from each place and sew it up together into a more interesting whole. What I end up with is easily recognizable as Sailormoon, and while I may be happy to defend my interpretation as ‘canonical’ to the death, other people will probably disagree.

    This issue of what canon exactly is isn’t just native to Sailormoon, obviously, although it’s a good case study. Look at Final Fantasy 7. When Dirge of Cerberus had not yet come out, a good friend of mine wailed at me “No, they’re going to ruin everything! I bet they made Yuffie marry a tonberry!” What is canonical to a FF7 writer? Is it the original game? Is it content introduced in Advent Children? What about Crisis Core? What about Before Crisis? Ultimately, you end up with a situation where each writer’s ‘canon’ becomes their own, for which they have their own reasons and prejudices. If I write a story about Game 1 of something, positing a particular thing, character development, or relationship, and then eventually Game 2 is made, contradicting this, its perfectly reasonable that I, as a fan, declare that whoever made it is doing it wrong, and that’s not fairplay canon XD. It’s particularly easy if someone can make the case that Game 2 is not as ZOMG AMAZING as Game 1 — and this doesn’t mean Game 2 has to be crappy. (Consider Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 as an example here).

    And this can be about novels, television series, movies, you name it. Ultimately, people rarely agree on canon in the first place, which is how a lot of fanon is born: from people’s steely notion that they’ve GOT IT RIGHT. I think that’s great, and not a problem at all, provided the story is enjoyable. I think the greatest problem comes from stories that are not very enjoyable, for whatever reason. People who are too concerned about every contradicting canon sometimes end up writing some pretty boring stories, but then, that’s just my opinion, so take it with a grain of salt. I don’t like regurgitations of the original material. If I wanted to view the original, well then that’s what I’d do XD. Of course there are also stories on fanon steroids, where the author assumes so much magical author-conjured backstory, that you feel unable to connect with the work at all, although the author keeps winking at you and assuring, “This is the way it is, just take my word for it.”

    Ultimately, I think the richness of fanon for a particular series is a good indication of how much that series is loved, and how much it fires the imagination of its viewers. Again, Sailormoon is an excellent example. There is an amazing amount of fanon concerning how every little bit of magical girl trope in the series “really and truly works” from bad guy teleportation to Hotaru’s transformation into Sailorsaturn to all Chibiusa’s time paradoxes (wait, maybe I made that last part up myself). As authors and as fans (sometimes just as readers) the creation of fanon is how we weave our ownselves into the fabric of the thing we love.

    But it is frustrating when you create a work as an author that disagrees with ‘prevailing fanon trends’ and get criticized for poor characterization or a lack of knowledge on your particular subject. The fact is, most readers don’t read very critically, and most writers don’t write very critically. This is no indictment, just an honest truth. I think most readers and writers indulge in fanfiction as a pleasure to escape the stresses of their lives. It’s fun, and as such, they don’t really want it to be excessively difficult. This leads to writers and readers who rely on third or fourth hand information in the creation of and enjoyment of stories. Like I said, these stories are just valid expressions of love and affection for their fandom of choice as meticulously researched ‘canon friendly’ stories, but here, the fanon truth has become the only basis for the story. Since I think the large majority of fanfiction statistically speaking falls into the ‘fanon based’ section, it ends up being the spoonful of sugar and the medicine going down: it can make for some great stories, but it can also make for a story with very little relation to the original product at all, so as a reader, you’re left asking ‘Well, do I even want to read this? The only things that seem familiar are the characters’ names.’

    But (often) good or (sometimes) bad, fanon in fanfiction is definitely the fundemental nature of the world, and there’s no changing it without changing the fundemental character of fanfiction writers (and readers).

    We are the lovers and purveyors of subjective truth.

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