Another Tangent: Degrees of Connectedness

NOTE: Given the amount of time and effort I’ve put into finding good example links for this, I decided it would be acceptable to let it double as this week’s fanfic roundup.

While I was reading The Futile Facade (the sequel to The Pureblood Pretense, which I’ve reviewed), I started thinking about how murkybluematter handles making references to Tamora Pierce’s The Lioness Quartet.

In doing so, I realized that there exist four basic ways in which two stories can be connected. From strongest to weakest, those are:

  1. Crossover
  2. Fusion
  3. Abstract/Meta-Narrative Reference
  4. Direct Reference

NOTE: As with pretty much anything involving classifying fiction, the boundaries between these categories and subcategories can get pretty blurry.


Anyone with more than a passing interest in fanfiction or comic books will be familiar with this technique. In essence, a story is written where two universes, formerly considered separate, are brought into contact.

As I’ve read a lot of Ranma ½ crossover fanfiction, I’ll use it for most of my examples here.

The key to this approach is that your readers must feel as if these are the canon characters rather than alternative versions. (ie. That the only alternate universe in play is the one the fanfic itself unavoidably creates and its characters were canonical up to that point.)

That said, some fudging of the dates is generally allowed as long as it doesn’t have a significant effect on the story. For example, it’s not uncommon to nudge the Ranma ½ series forward a decade or two in order to make it match up with a series where technology is more important. (Aside from the occasional brief glimpse of a TV or other electronic gizmo and one episode where a Super Famicom is seen, Ranma ½ does a very good job of making itself fairly timeless by making the technology level irrelevant to the story.)

Common ways to bridge series together include:

“Never Separate To Begin With”

This technique involves revealing that stories were in the same setting to begin with by answering the question “If they were the same setting all along, why did the two casts or rule sets never bump into each other?”

This is a popular technique for crossing together anime/manga series because of several facets foreigners see in Japan: Tokyo is huge, Japanese culture is quite reserved in person, and their TV shows tend to be very… not reserved. This disconnect makes it easy for westerners to imagine all contemporary anime and manga take place in the same “anime Japan” universe, ignorant of each other as each part of Tokyo tries desperately to pretend they’re “as normal as” the other parts. (It also helps that Japanese culture tends to impart shared tonal and stylistic elements to their stories which make them seem much more similar to each other than to foreign works in the same genres.)

There are too many examples of doing this without fudged dates for me to just pick one off the top of my head, but an example of doing this with fudged dates would be the Ranma ½ – Sword Art Online crossover Saotome Art Online by Ozzallos where the Ranma ½ timeline is bumped forward to match SAO. With that done, Ranma “gets caught up in a mess, as usual” as a result of doing motion capture and testing to pay off some money he owes to Nabiki Tendo.

This doesn’t include stories where technological hand-waving is necessary to bridge some kind of gulf of time or space. That’s covered further down.

“Never Separate To Begin With” by way of Unreliable Narrator

This trick merits its own category because of how it doesn’t really fit with either of its neighbouring classes and typically involves having two Earths in the same setting without resorting to alternate universes.

In my experience, it most commonly crops up in Star Trek because it’s canonical that an advanced species known as the Preservers are responsible for all the human populations on terraformed worlds that Kirk and his crew encountered and it boils down to making the “Earth” with a more provincial view of the universe into an unknowing copy of the original Earth.

Examples of this include:

  • Depending on how you look at it, pretty much every Battlestar Galactica crossover I’ve reviewed could fit this category. It just doesn’t feel like a full-on fusion to replace the unsatisfying “we are descendants of the Galactica fleet” ending with the Lords of Kobol (be they Alteran, Preserver, or something else), as having established Kobol by taking humans from the original Earth. (The Phoenix and the Wolverine even casts the Cylon Earth as being a world near the real Earth which was too irradiated for Kirk-era technology to allow an investigative team.)
  • Reaper’s Origin by prometheus55 initially gets the SSV Normandy into the Stargate universe via “glitches in poorly understood high technology are magic” but eventually retroactively bridges the gap in a technological way fitting for Stargate canon. Specifically, by revealing that the Furlings were refugees of the civilization that built the Reapers who fled interdimensionally rather than intergalactically like the Ancients. (This story was written before Mass Effect 3 and, to be honest, I think I prefer this Reaper backstory.)
  • A Thin Veneer by AlbertG has the Federation discover the Babylon 5 setting (and its anomalously accurate copy of Earth) when some politicking among the more advanced species of Trek and B5 canon allows a Federation ship to access one of the Preservers’ “warp superhighways”.
  • Someone Just Like Me by IdiAmeanDada introduces Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation to Chi from Chobits by casting the latter as taking place among a near-human-looking species which actually does have anime-style “rainbow hair”. For better or for worse, it chooses to simplify the task of making things believable by having them wipe themselves out with neutron bombs only a few years before the Enterprise comes to evaluate their suitability for contact. (Though, it does foreshadow a “not as thoroughly extinct as initially believed” situation, should the author ever come back to it.)
  • The Dresden Fillies: Strange Friends by psychicscubadiver is a My Little Pony crossover where canon Equestria is reachable from the Nevernever and manages to survive within the Dresdenverse because Celestia and Luna are beings on par with the Fae queens and put a lot of time and effort into wards in the Nevernever to keep it safe and hidden.
  • Mercury’s World by Fire places the Sailor Moon setting inside The Matrix, with Sailor Mercury being the first successful result of a program to breed humans who can act as living magical reactors in the real world.

I’ve also seen it done in Stargate: A New Era by DN7 and Stargate Mass Effect by InHuman Englishman, where it’s discovered that, while the Stargate Network and the Mass Relay network appear to overlap in a typical 2D projection of the galaxy, they actually exist in separate slices of the galaxy when viewed edge-on, with the stargates and the mass relays occupying separate layers of the galaxy.

First contact then occurs when the SG-1 cast find the time and resources to investigate gateless regions.

Advanced Technology or Magic

If your two source settings are unequivocally separate, then the next choice is to find some way to bridge the distance. Examples of this include:

  • A character has cancer and is placed in experimental cryo-stasis until he can be cured… a clerical error leads to him waking up much later than necessary and on another planet. (This is actually the solution a friend and I chose for a fic we still hope to complete and release some day.)
  • An accident with some kind of time-travel or faster-than-light travel technology (or a run-in with a spatial anomaly in an unmapped region) allows two groups to come into contact who normally wouldn’t. (This is andrewjameswilliams‘s favourite method for crossing together different sci-fi settings.)
  • Like the previous example, but with wild magic. (This is the road taken to make it plausible for two very insular settings on opposite sides of the world to come into contact in The Girl Who Loved, by Darth Drafter. Harry feels such shock and revulsion at Dumbledore telling him that the solution to defeating Voldemort is mpreg with Snape, that a burst of accidental magic sends him Jusenkyo, China… speaking of which, it’s a good fic if you ignore the sort of “successful parody of bad fanfiction… but by accident” feel to Dumbledore at first.)
  • Characters could be reincarnated, cloned from a recorded memory, or otherwise mentally transferred into another setting. For example:

Note that none of this automatically resolves the need to reconcile differences in mood/atmosphere/tone between very different settings. (such as western fiction and Japanese fiction.) This is why it’s so rare to see, for example, a good story that crosses Harry Potter with anime.


When you have to “nudge things” too far for a setting to be believable canon, you’ve moved into the realm of “fusions”. A fusion is a “same setting all along” story which uses canon characters or settings in recognizable forms, but rewrites their backstories enough to remove the disconnect.

A mild example of this which a skilled author may write in the fuzzy area between crossovers and fusions would be a Harry Potter – The Dresden Files crossover where the “wand wizards” have managed to carve out a little patch of innocence and safety for their children and civilians in the much grimmer, more consequential setting Harry Dresden knows.

In this case, the “fuzzy area” is defined by two things: What “canon” means  to each individual reader and how much skill the author can bring to bear. The more engaged the reader is, the more likely they’ll ignore or excuse changes necessary to bring the settings together.

I enjoy these mild forms of fusion when done well, since they preserve enough of the familiarity for the story to still be riding on the effort of the source material.

A more serious example which can be nothing but a fusion (which I’ve also seen in practice) would be to move recognizable characters from “anime Japan” to the far-future, desert planet “Gunsmoke” where Trigun takes place.

In such a case, it’s simply not practical to bring the canon characters there. Even if you can justify using technology to put them in stasis or bring them in from a parallel universe without it feeling contrived, you still have to use what “suspension of disbelief” you haven’t spent on trying to bridge the differences in atmosphere, tone, and mood between the two stories.

In this case, the fusion is accomplished by rewriting character backstories so that they’re “native” characters by origin, but still match the original characters in every significant attribute.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the latter case for two reasons:

First, when I start reading a fanfic, my interest is in taking known characters, introducing one change (the “divergence event” which starts off the story) and seeing how that changes them.

From that perspective, a fused-in character comes across as “harmful author laziness” because they exceed my ability to compensate for the differences. They’re unavoidably too different to be equivalent to their canon selves, but not original enough to hold my interest on their own merits. (It certainly doesn’t help that 99%+ of the stories I read lack characters who can stand fully on their own merits.)

Second, humans instinctively perceive things as having an identity imparted by their history. This is why a perfect forgery is not valued as highly as a copy made by the original artist, and one of the reasons we recoil at the idea of technologically reprocessing human waste into food rather than spreading it on a field where we don’t perceive the fertilizer as “becoming” the food.

(No matter how similar a fused-in character is, we can never forget that they aren’t the original.)

This is probably why I rarely find fusions written by good authors outside the fuzzy crossover-fusion border region. When you know enough to see the problem, you tend to find an easier way to accomplish your goals rather than burning effort on forcing it to work.

Also, I apologize for not having example hyperlinks for these. Despite a quick examination of the HP-Dresden crossover category on over the last couple of weeks, I failed to re-locate the mentioned fusion within the time available to me. As for the Trigun-AnimeJapan fusion, my memory of that detail is too disconnected from the greater story for me to remember anything searchable.

Abstract/Meta-Narrative Reference

Now, we come to the type which inspired this entire post.

The key to making a really good reference is to make something that’s recognizable, yet doesn’t detract from the story as a whole. (eg. by hurting the immersiveness of the setting)

Basically, it should be something so in-character that you only recognize it as a reference because you have extra information which is external to the setting. (eg. If you have one of your characters say the catchphrase of a character from a series that inspired yours, it has to be perfectly reasonable within the universe… not just because you (the author) are trying to say “wink, wink, nudge, nudge.” (While not as bad as breaking the fourth wall, it has the same kind of problem. Having a character say or do something noticeably out of the ordinary to make a reference, without sufficient justification, reminds people of the man behind the curtain (you).)

If you really want to focus on immersiveness and leave people impressed at your ability to weave a tale, then the best approach is to make your references an emergent property of the larger narrative, rather than small, self-contained things that don’t require much pre-planning.

As I mentioned at the start, the best example I’ve seen of this in fanfiction is murkybluematter‘s excellent series of stories which recasts the concept of Tamora Pierce’s The Lioness Quartet in the context of the Harry Potter series. (and, again, here’s my review of the first one.)

For example, in “The Futile Facade” (equivalent to Harry Potter, Book 4), when Leo (the youthful “king of the court of rogues” in Knockturn Alley) says “Besides, I’ve already got my eye on a lass, and something tells me honesty isn’t high on her priority list.”, it makes it clear that his attraction to the heroine isn’t merely one of curiosity or friendship.

It’s so perfectly in character to the story that there’s nothing to complain about, but we know that this story is recasting the concept of Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet in a Harry Potter setting, and that, in those books, Alanna wound up married to her friend George Cooper, also a youthful king of thieves who wound up becoming a baron.

Because of that, a perfectly reasonable, in-character statement within the story takes on extra meaning for readers who remember how the source material progressed. (And murkybluematter has filled the series with that kind of elegant use of referential re-interpretation. The plot and characters don’t feel derivative beyond what is necessitated by it being an AU… and every time you recognize a reference, the forethought necessary to make it feel natural leaves a pleasant sense of “I’ve discovered an easter egg” rather than a shallow “Yep. I recognize that.”)

…and, importantly for the immersiveness, Leo and George aren’t the same name, nor do they meet the heroine in the same way, because either of those would be too blatant a coincidence.

murkybluematter’s approach produces an engaging story that feels original, but draws attention to the commonalities at points when it’s especially effective. (After all, as the oft-quoted maxim says, there are only 7 stories that everyone keeps rewriting.)

…now, admittedly, no technique is perfect. The flaw to this approach is that, the more familiar the reader is with the source materials (eg. the more recently they read them), the more difficult it is to keep your story from feeling predictable. murkybluematter resolves this problem by making the story thick with original details which help to induce a “can’t see forest for the trees” effect. You’re too busy getting caught up in the events which *aren’t* references to see the references as evidence of a predictable story or, really, even to notice then until they’re on top of you.

Direct Reference

Finally, we come to the most disconnected option. A story can simply make an isolated reference to another story, be it a catchphrase, character cameo, or some other minor nod.

The problem with this approach is that, ideally, every element in a story should improve the whole, and it’s surprisingly difficult to make a one-off reference satisfy that constraint for two reasons:

  1. The whole point of good writing is to build up a world, and a blatant reference to another story detracts from the atmosphere-building by reminding the reader that the story is an illusion crafted by “[the] man behind the curtain” (you).
  2. It takes quite a bit of skill (or luck) to make such a concrete reference subtle enough to feel truly natural, yet overt enough to not be missed by people who recognize what is being referenced.

Generally, the best solution is to employ one or both of the following tricks:

  • If your story’s primary purpose is comedy, then you can get away with more that would normally break immersion as long as your reference really does elicit a laugh… since the comedy more or less is the atmosphere you’re building.
  • If the work being referenced believably exists within your setting, then your characters can be referencing the in-universe version, rather than the real-life version. Examples of this latter case include:
    • A Harry Potter fic I read in which the nearby muggleborns find it inordinately funny when Draco Malfoy, having never heard of James Bond, introduces himself as “Malfoy. Draco Malfoy.”
    • A Harry Potter comedy fic I may have read or may have just envisioned where Harry makes use of a summoned Rabbit of Caerbannog to deal with the dragon in the first task and, again, only the muggleborns get the joke.

As for a more concrete example of a well-done reference, here’s one of Harry Dresden’s thoughts after winding up in Harry Potter’s body in A Wizard Named Harry by Bugz-Toon:

Of course, that didn’t mean that I was going to just sit back and watch the show. As good as Dumbledore was, backup never hurt. And besides all that, if I was somehow fated to be the one to bring Voldemort down, I was going to do my damnedest to make sure it was as unfair a fight as possible. Up to and including arranging for an anvil to be suspended above a big painted ‘X’ on the pavement, if possible. Although I might skip the birdseed part of that one- it was possible to overdo the Wile E. Coyote, suuuuuper genius thing, after all.

…or, even better, this delightful Philosoraptor reference from Harry Leferts’s The Scaly Raptor:

Now that got a laugh out of Owen as he shook his head. “Well, it is unexpected you know… but why not? I got time to kill after all.”

That caused him to get blank looks from the raptors before they looked at each other. Then Charlie reached up with one claw and scratched the bottom of her jaw like she had learned to after copying some of the various handlers. “{How does one kill time? Time not have body to kill nor blood to spill?}”

In reply, Blue scoffed. “{Just Alpha being stupid with saying stupid confusing things.}”

The key being that, if a reader doesn’t recognize the reference, it should fit in as seamlessly as possible and the biggest advantage of this type of reference is that it can also be used in non-fiction.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Another Tangent: Degrees of Connectedness by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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