When I was a teenager, I was a magician. Not the Owl-Delivery-slash-Mildly-Disturbing-Boarding-School kind of Magician but the sort that did… well… magic. I was taught how to thread balloons onto string, make glasses of milk disappear, and make dice pass through solid metal plates.
I learned two important lessons. First, never EVER use the word “normal” to describe something. And second, the only joy greater than having a trick successfully pulled on you is pulling one on an audience. That moment? The surprise of shared, self-aware, philanthropic deception? That’s where joy lives. Stories too.
I love that moment. I’ve chased it through my writing and interaction with pop culture ever since. And the place I’ve found it most often is encapsulated in a single word: fanon.
Fanon, also known as the generally accepted term “headcanon” among fans (though “headcanon” also refers to personal fanon instead of widely recognized ideas), fanfic writers and Roleplay crowds, is the set of theories based on that material which, although they generally seem to be the “obvious” or “only” interpretation of canonical fact, are not actually part of the canon. Occasionally, the explanation seems good enough to just be common sense.
Fun examples of fanon are legion but one of my favorites remains the now discredited belief that the 2016 Ghostbusters movie takes place in the same universe as the other two. The theory goes like this: the Ghostbusters were quietly repositioned in witness protection schemes after the second movie. Each was placed somewhere they could keep an eye on things—Venkman as a celebrity debunker, Ray as a cabbie, Winston in the undertaking business and Dana and Egon taking on teaching positions. Positions that would let them debunk frauds, keep a finger on the… let’s say pulse, of the New York occult underground, and an eye out for any potential successors. Like Abby, Erin, Patty, and Holtzmann.
It’s a lovely idea. And one that’s been completely discredited via a recent comic crossover. The official word is the original crew are in a parallel dimension. But me, I’m sticking with my headcanon.
Because headcanon, the games you play with other people’s creative toys, are just as valid as any other story. Personal doesn’t beat official. Official doesn’t beat personal. Which is both the problem and the point.
The moment any piece of art is complete, it exists both out of the artist’s head and not quite in anyone else’s. The toys are there for the whole world, the map is there for you. There’s no set path across it though. Every way is right. The trick is finding the right way for you.
Supernatural is a great example. The long-running paranormal TV show follows two brothers, Dean and Sam Winchester, as they continue the family business of, as Dean puts it, “saving people, hunting things.” The read of Dean Winchester as bisexual is supported, endlessly if never officially, by 12 years of episodes and across those 12 years the show has leaned heavily on that implication. The most obvious example is his relationship with occasional angel and frequent traveling companion Castiel, but there are many, many more. I recommend Marty Stu’s excellent article “Why Dean Winchester’s Bisexuality Matters” from Fanslashfic.com.
Supernatural has always had a complex, frustrating relationship with its fans and fanon. The way that the Dean/Castiel relationship has been explored in particular has varied wildly between colossal denial and an attempt to both acknowledge it as a valid reading and make that valid reading separate from the show’s own authorial intent. For example, Supernatural’s 200th episode, “Fan Fiction” centres around a musical based on the life of the brothers with an important twist—it’s very heavily implied that in the show (within the show) Dean and Castiel are a couple. It’s explicitly stated their actors are.
Let’s unpack this for a second, because “Fan Fiction” does some complex metafictional needlework. It bakes the ambiguity about Dean and Castiel’s relationship into the theatrical production at its heart, a production itself based on novels written about the brothers’ adventures that exist WITHIN the show’s universe. Then the play’s director tells Dean “You can’t spell subtext without S-E-X,” as we see the two characters’ actors ARE a couple, trading off their own tension to imply their characters’ unacknowledged relationship.
The entire sequence walks a line between confirmation, acknowledgement, and straight up fan-baiting so fine it’s invisible from some angles. Even Dean’s reaction, a fourth-wall bending look to camera, is open to every interpretation. Is he furious at the very idea he could be bisexual or gay? Is he staggered that these kids have figured out something he hasn’t? The answer to every question posed by this scene is “yes.”
Until it isn’t. As the episode closes, Dean talks to Marie, the show’s writer and apparently, explicitly, confirms that Dean and Castiel aren’t a thing. At least not in his version of reality:
“I have my version, and you have yours. And that’s OK.”
As far as Dean is concerned, every read presented is valid. Once again, there’s no single map through the territory. It’s extraordinarily brave and engaged writing, and the response it received was all over the map. Stacey Grant at MTV argued convincingly that it honoured the fans and their personal interpretations. On the other hand, Sadie Gennis from TV Guide made a compelling, nuanced argument for this being one of the show’s biggest mistakes. Not just because of the skewed authority that this “permission” assumes but because the show has, again and again and again, made the Dean/Castiel relationship all but overt. Gennis’ well-sourced and deservedly angry piece argues that the show’s attempt to reach out to and permit fanon isn’t the problem—the problem is the showrunner’s inability to leave that read alone and to row away from it as fast as possible whenever it’s noticed by the viewers.
Perhaps the most infamous example of Supernatural clashing with its fans is the Chad Kennedy incident. Kennedy, a script supervisor on the show, was asked about the possibility of Dean being bisexual (a partial archive of the exchange is available from The Fandom (de)Bunker and it’s worth reading). The response he gave, which is partially quoted below, is on the surface, fine. However, as you dig in to the issue it becomes clear that this is the show having its cake and at the same time claiming it never took a slice in the first place.
“I support the idea of bi lead [characters]. But… it is not our intention for these [characters.]… if it served the story, I would support it.”
The problem is, for at least the time Jeremy Carver was showrunner, Supernatural has continually toyed with this idea without ever committing to it. A season 8 episode compares the collapse of one of Dean’s male friendships with Sam’s last break up, and, as sourced in the Gennis piece, Mischa Collins has talked about how Carver directed him to act like a jilted lover with Dean. The issue certainly existed prior to this run, but it seems to have come to a head across seasons eight to 11, during Carver’s time in charge.
Supernatural’s complicated relationship with its fans isn’t limited to this issue. Its persistent fridgeing of female characters has never been a good look and at their San Diego ComicCon 2015 panel the producers failed to really give a reason for the latest female character death. It’s an interesting, and massively frustrating watch but if nothing else the schadenfreude of seeing the showrunner thrown under the bus by his cast for a couple of minutes is satisfying.
This Gordian knot of implication, interpretation, principle, and painfully birthed new ways to communicate is at least as interesting as the show itself (albeit with slightly fewer pieces of classic rock on the soundtrack). I mention them here because I think there’s a very strong case for their root cause being Supernatural’s position in the modern genre fiction conversation.
Dean Winchester’s Schrodinger’s sexuality, the show’s persistent inability to not murder female characters, and its even more persistent willingness to address fans if not quite engage with them, all come from the same place. It’s a show that sits at the intersection where authorial intent runs headlong into reader interpretation. The endlessly mutable landscape of fan fiction becomes a battleground for some of the biggest issues in contemporary fiction: authorial authority versus critical interpretation, whether anyone really controls how a text is read or interpreted, and the liminal boundaries of creatives interacting with their fans who, in turn, themselves become creators.
The Winchester Boys at a crossroads with all the stakes riding on their decision. I can’t think of anything more appropriate.
But while Supernatural is always at the crossroads, fan fiction and fanon are moving on and standing on their own two creative feet. Fanon stops being an odd function of fiction and instead becomes a different, and separately conical, take on canon. The Fifty Shades books started life this way. Closer to home, Redshirts remains both a note-perfect piece of Star Trek fanfiction and an extended critical and philosophical treatment on the nature and ownership of stories.
That’s why it matters, immensely, that Supernatural has fought so shy of this. Perception is truth in metafictional space—if an audience is seen as being under-represented or talked down to, then to all intents and purposes that’s what’s happening. That in turn means reader interpretation, and fanon, are diametrically opposed to authorial intent even if they’re ultimately found to be in lock step with that intent. Contrast that with the author’s need for control over the story, to get it down on the page the way they envision. But by that very nature (and in no small part thanks to intellectual property laws) the default approach to a story is calcified and inherently conservative—text as carved in stone. Which is, of course, an approach that’s anathema to fans and modern consumers in the digital age. Think of it not so much two different maps of the same territory as two siege engines, perfectly matched and pulling against each other for eternity.
This is fiction’s Kobyashi Maru. This is the near impossible final link in the circuit. We all come in alone to culture, and we all see what we want, or more often need, to see. Dean Winchester’s bisexuality. Egon Spengler’s quiet sunset years teaching the next generation of New York’s heroes. The fact Memphis Raines knew Dominic Toretto’s father. Although that last one might just be me.
The act of reading, of watching, of playing, and of interacting with a story could be viewed as externally personifying our subconscious. We look into the scrying pool and read the omens. We binge watch the show and ship a particular pair of people. We read the book and see echoes of ourselves as we are, as we wish to be, or as we fear we may become.
And, like the Kobyashi Maru, with headcanon all you have to do to win is change the rules. Open the door. Surrender some aspect of control. If your book or game or comic came out of your head you are absolutely going to want to retain full control over it.
But the simple fact it has come out of your head means it isn’t yours any more. Not fully.
Fanon is critical interpretation combined with emotional attachment. Done wrong, it’s where coal fires start that will burn underground forever. Want to know why I think the Bioware properties will never hit the silver screen? Because the canon of the story is, by necessity, controlled and defined by player choice as authorial choice. Making a canonical selection can’t avoid invalidating experiences of players who made other choices. Bioware’s David Gaider makes it clear the two Dragon Age prequel novels are canon, but almost nothing else in the extensive tie-in fiction is.
In other words, Bioware have made the choice to place canonical decisions in the liminal spaces where players aren’t. That’s as necessary as it is brave, and it’s caused more than a few ructions. The simple fact that some decisions had to be reached for the sequels to take place speaks to that. Throw a rock, and the search term “Dragon Age Canon,” online and you’ll find discussions of whether Bioware made the right choice, how that changes player’s interaction, and what it means for each individual story.
It’s not just Dragon Age either. Mass Effect 2’s superbly clever “So! You’ve just been regrown from your horribly charred corpse! Let’s see what you remember!” post-resurrection quiz gives you a chance to change the past and shape the future in doing so. If you’ve played ME1 then you can bring “your” Shepard back. If you haven’t, or want to undo past actions, you can start over.
Perhaps the most interesting examples of this juggling of canon control lie in Bioware’s most recent games. Mass Effect: Andromeda places you six hundred years beyond the end of Mass Effect 3, whatever end you chose. The game is still steeped in its predecessors’ lore, but cleverly placed in the timeline in such a way that the previous trilogy’s choices can’t have a direct impact on the Andromeda Initiative. Dragon Age: Inquisition takes this in a subtler but no less impressive direction, giving players the ability to input and tweak the entire world state of the previous titles, or default to a pre-selected choice. Or to put it another way, you can literally choose between placing your own personal canon imprint over the world, or let the game choose for you. There’s a default canon, not an official canon—a critical distinction.
Done right, fanon and the audience engagement it can create has no parallel. It shows you the one thing a creative can never see alone: their text from the outside. Doing so can give you a really strong read on what you’re doing, how it’s being interpreted, and what the reaction is. If that reaction is good, you’ll know. Chances are fan art will be involved. If it’s bad, you’ll definitely know. Witness the reaction of Native peoples to J.K. Rowling’s blisteringly ill-considered American magical schools.
As a magician, I learned to tell stories based on deception and surprise, stories that stole joy from scepticism and threaded balloons along a string of doubt. Unlike those stories, this one doesn’t have a big finish. Not yet. When it comes to fanon and authorial control, there’s a hat and a rabbit, but there’s no real sense yet of who’s pulling who out of where.
So don’t panic. Your interpretation is valid. It’s always valid. So is everyone else’s. We’re all the magician. We all have something up our sleeves. And the only thing better than landing the trick ourselves, is watching others find different routes to the same destination: joy, and the sound of applause.
© 2017 by Alasdair Stuart