Winter Sunlight

Fanfic, canon and headcanon

I ran across this question on Tumblr, but decided to answer it here rather than there, because of Tumblr's lack of interactivity/commenting, and I wanted to open it up for discussion.

If you write fanfic, do you try to make sure your characterization on points that aren’t defined in canon remain consistent from story to story, even if they aren’t in the same continuity? Or do you try different things out in different stories? (I don’t mean natural evolution of how you see a character, but consciously trying out different possibilities. To take a frivolous example, does Joe Character, who we never see drinking coffee in canon, always take his coffee the same way in all your stories?)

I think for me, it kind of depends.

I don't usually stick to the exact same sequence of events for pre-canon, post-canon, and in-between-canon stuff. For me, a lot of the fun of fanfic is exploring what-ifs. So, for example, my different post-Winter Soldier stories don't all take place in the same continuity; the one in which they're growing a garden on the Avengers tower is (probably) not the same reality in which Steve has to deal with a severely messed-up assassin sneaking into his apartment. In White Collar, I wrote several different versions of what happened to Neal and company after canon ended. Back in SGA, I vaguely recall writing multiple episode tags to several episodes, taking off in a different direction each time. I also don't usually have strong OTP inclinations, so I write different pairings. I wrote a couple of Peter/Neal and P/E/N fics, for example, which were definitely not meant to be in the same reality with each other or with the gen reality (realities) in which I write most of my stories. I wrote Rodney/Teyla in SGA and I also wrote John/Rodney (as well as a bucketload of gen) and none of these were meant to come into continuity conflict with each other.

I think what I particularly tend not to do is reference events from an unrelated story in a different one, or (if I can help it, anyway) carry specific non-canonical details from one to another. (Stories that are supposed to be in the same universe are obviously exceptions.) For example, let's say I needed to come up with a name for Neal's mother in one story -- I'll often try to use a different one if I write another story in which I need to refer to his mother by name (unless, of course, it's supposed to be in deliberate continuity with the other story). And the main reason is because I tend to feel a little uncomfortable with the sort of fanon that sweeps through a fandom and eclipses other options -- like the way that, say, MCU fandom has collectively decided that Natasha calls the Winter Soldier Yasha on the basis of NO CANON WHATSOEVER, and it turns up in fic after fic after fic. And I find myself feeling kind of weird about doing that in my own stories if it's something that hasn't been pinned down in canon yet, unless I have a compelling reason to do so. It's the same sort of "... but this is not canonical" squidgy feeling that I get with that overwhelming fanon stuff.

But! I also think that my different fanfic realities tend to wobble back and forth within a relatively limited set of options, if that makes any sense, and some things are completely non-canonical but don't really change much, if at all. For example, in MCU fandom, the way that I write Bucky post-TWS -- his particular set of psychological issues (touch aversion, consistently presenting social interaction issues, etc) -- isn't canonical at all, and it's not based on comics canon either, but it's basically consistent from story to story; I have a fairly indelible headcanon for the way that the whole thing affected him, and while the specific details of how he gets back to the Avengers and what happens afterward are different between stories, the underlying characterization is basically the same, even though we have little to go on from canon. Similarly, I realized the other day that I have a fairly strong headcanonical backstory for MCU Natasha, which is based on nothing whatsoever (except, I guess, pulling together the handful of hints we've gotten in canon) and is very different from her comics backstory, but if I ever do a story in which her backstory is discussed and dealt with, it'll probably be that one.

Incidentally, when I say "headcanon" I'm basically talking about things like that (and had always assumed that other people are too, until I started to realize that on Tumblr people often use it to mean "what-if") -- but for me, it's indelible bits of idiosyncratic personal characterization that aren't canonical, but are fundamentally worked into the warp and weft of the character. There are a lot of things I have no opinion about, and can therefore change freely from story to story. I don't have any strong feelings on whether Peter on White Collar is an only child, so I give him siblings in some stories but not in others. However, I do have a pretty solid feeling that he and Elizabeth don't have infertility issues, they just chose not to have kids and don't really plan on ever changing that, and while there is ZERO canon to support this, it's hovering in the back of my head when I write stuff dealing with their relationship. (I might deliberately choose to write a story in which that's not the case, but I'd be thinking AU when I wrote it.)

Also, my basic characterization is consistent from story to story. I think the way I conceptualize Neal as a character, or Peter, or Steve, is basically the same in every story I write with them, and it's as close as possible to how I see the character in canon, but of course filtered through my own perception and preferences. I guess the best way to put it (reflecting a discussion I had the other day with [personal profile] magibrain about this stuff) is that I have a construct of the character in my head, and I might run it through different scenarios, try on different options, see under what circumstances I can get it to fall in love with character A or B, but it's very firmly constructed and it doesn't really change a whole lot (though it evolves over time as new canon comes to light). I can set out to write a P/N fic and say "Well, what would I need to do to get Peter to have a relationship with Neal -- under what circumstances would he do that, what conditions need to be true in order for that to happen" but what I can't really do is just decide to make Peter be a person who, all other things being the same, would fall into a relationship with a person I don't normally see him having a relationship with. Even if I'm going to intentionally write Peter as a slightly different person -- as in, say, that Worldwalking fic in which Neal visits different realities and encounters different versions of both himself and Peter -- it's a matter of running his personal timeline backward, picking a point of divergence, and then setting him off down a different path that would make "my" Peter end up somewhere else in the present day. I can't really just say "Well, but what if Peter himself is fundamentally different" because it doesn't work that way. (For me.) I can't write a Peter that's not "my" Peter unless I also track back the course of changes to figure out how he got from "my" Peter to wherever he is now.

And I notice when I read fanfic that's tilted away from my mental character concept. It tends to read OOC to me, even if it's not necessarily OOC with regards to actual canon. I think the fandoms I stay in, or at least the ones I tend to read widely in, are those in which the prevailing characterizations are reasonably close to my mental ones -- which is actually why I skipped out of Highlander fandom so quickly, because the majority of fic was really far off where my mental concepts of the characters were, and it was terribly jarring and unpleasant. One of the factors that's making me slide quietly out of White Collar fandom is that I'm starting to feel that my mental character concepts have slipped off the canonical characterizations and I don't really know how to write the characters anymore. (I'm having this problem with Peter, especially; I feel like I've been writing him OOC all along, and I've been trying to reconcile my mental character construct with the canon character and getting frustrated.)

So yeah, long complicated answer to a relatively straightfoward question!

What about you?

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short answer
If you write fanfic, do you try to make sure your characterization on points that aren’t defined in canon remain consistent from story to story, even if they aren’t in the same continuity?

yes, within the same 'verse

Or do you try different things out in different stories?

yes, within different 'verses
Re: short answer
That's more or less how it works for me ... though I think my characterization is more consistent across universes than I'd realized before I started really thinking about it.
I'm not answering your question, Sholio. I just wanted you to know that so many of us in the White Collar fandom miss your stories! Whenever I see you've posted another fic , I rush to check if it's WC-based, only to be sadly disappointed. I have always enjoyed your character concepts, especially of Peter and Neal!
You have to follow your own instincts but to me, your characterizations have never been OOC. We need you back in the White Collar world; so many fics since S5 have been written purely as vendettas against Peter in some misguided, superficial protection of Neal. You have always played "fair". I Miss YOU!
Awww, thank you. I'm glad you like my stories, and sorry to disappoint with the failure to write WC lately!

I found the surge of Peter-bashing in S5 fic thoroughly offputting. It did a lot to chase me out of the fandom (or at least, to make being in the fandom a thoroughly miserable experience), and I don't really see myself going back full-time, though I still have some unfinished stories that I'd like to complete and get up online at some point. At the same time, I don't feel that my own version of Peter is entirely compatible with canon, so I think I'd need to rewatch some episodes and relearn his "voice" all over again before I could write him easily.
If you write fanfic, do you try to make sure your characterization on points that aren’t defined in canon remain consistent from story to story, even if they aren’t in the same continuity? Or do you try different things out in different stories? (I don’t mean natural evolution of how you see a character, but consciously trying out different possibilities. To take a frivolous example, does Joe Character, who we never see drinking coffee in canon, always take his coffee the same way in all your stories?)

Well, the only fandom I've written enough stuff in for this to apply is SGA, and for that I basically have two modes, depending on whether or not I treat "Outcast" as canon for Sheppard's family history. Aside from that, yes: characterization details stay pretty much the same. I don't know if I could manage it otherwise, actually--they're too much like actual people in my head for me to keep changing the details on them. Even in my AUs the root character remains the same--the changes show up only because of changes in circumstance. (So if Joe doesn't have access to coffee in one AU, I'd substitute the closest appropriate equivalent; that sort of thing.)

As a reader, I find I appreciate consistency in how a writer treats characters, even if their stories don't take place in the same continuity--again, outside of differences necessary because of the circumstances. It means I don't get mental whiplash as I'm reading through their works. And if there is a major difference, it carries a lot more weight than if the writer keeps changing things up all the time.
*nods* This makes sense to me. I think that for my part, as a reader I tend to treat each story as a separate entity unless they're explicitly set in the same continuity -- actually, in a way, the appearance of bits of headcanon from other stories tends to throw me a bit, since I approach each story as a blank slate so to speak -- but I can definitely see how it would work differently for other people, and I also know how much I love large complicated 'verses in which bits of headcanon feed into other bits of headcanon and make the whole thing feel grounded and real.

I think that what you're describing here is the way that original fic works for me, but not usually fanfic (except in AUs, where I'm building all the details from the ground up). That is, my original characters are very fleshed-out and consistent, with just one version of their backstory, one "true" way they met character X or Y, particular ships that they will or won't have, etc. Whereas I don't tend to approach fandom characters that way. (Not to say it's a bad way to do it, just different from how I do it!)
Well, I only started writing SGA fic because John Sheppard set up shop in my head (and still hasn't moved out). But as you're experiencing with WC, I had the problem of the show's version of the character start to diverge from mine (and fandom's even more), which is why I still haven't watched chunks of the later seasons, and have pretty much entirely fallen out of the fandom. Of course, now I'm gearing up to write that epic-novel time-travelling version of season one, so. *shrugs*
Damn it, don't let that biased fandom get at you. The Peter you've been writing all along is exactly spot-on on character. This is exactly how I see him (and still do). The main reason I enjoyed your fanfics so much was precisely because you are so good at portraying the characters, on character. And Peter in particular. I think you "get" him, while most people who don't like him just don't even bother trying to understand him.
Thank you! :) Poor Peter, the fandom just doesn't like him much, do they?

I dunno though, I kinda got to the point where I didn't trust my own perception of the character anymore. I mean, I really do appreciate the supportive comments, but I no longer feel like I get him, and my post-season-five attempts to write him feel kind of hollow and stale, like I'm just going through the motions. I probably need to go back, rewatch early episodes, and revise my mental picture 'til I can get it lined up with canon again.
I guess it depends which which part of the fandom you hang out with. Though, yeah, in general there's a majority more interested in Neal's good looks.

Rewatching the episodes is probably the best way to go :-) Nothing like the show itself to get your mojo back.
Though I hope you won't do that with this idea to readjust the way you saw Peter, because it wasn't wrong...

Well, anyway. Not that I should tell you what to do. It just saddens me that the stupid bashers seem to have gotten to you, while *they* are the ones in the wrong. And I miss your WC fics.
hmmmm honestly reading it made me very sad. If you do think Peter's a jerk, well, I can't do much for you.
He is NOT. Or at least, no more than Neal. In early seasons, they didn't trust each other and were betraying each other all the time. But that didn't really bothered them because that was what they expected from each other. It's different now because it does hurt.
Their views of the world are polarly opposed but I honestly don't think Peter's is any less valid than Neal. We have laws and a system for a reason. If everyone was thinking like Neal, it'd be anarchy and honesly not a world I'd like to live in.

I'm not sure what exactly you suddenly dislike in Peter, but I sincerely don't think he deserves it.
I hadn't realized that you were deliberately changing details so much in your stories; I guess I hadn't kept close enough track! That makes sense.

On the other hand, I tend to think of my fics as being my canon, which is awfully presumptuous of me, but I do tend to carry little details over from one to another—partly because once I've worked them out, I've convinced myself! Once I've decided that Bill Lee began having marital troubles after his captivity, I keep that image of him in my head for anything set after that point, for instance.

One of the factors that's making me slide quietly out of White Collar fandom is that I'm starting to feel that my mental character concepts have slipped off the canonical characterizations and I don't really know how to write the characters anymore. (I'm having this problem with Peter, especially; I feel like I've been writing him OOC all along, and I've been trying to reconcile my mental character construct with the canon character and getting frustrated.)
What?! I feel like you're one of the few writers I can rely on to give us a Peter who fits with what I see in the show: who gets frustrated with Neal and sometimes makes mistakes but is never downright abusive and rarely callous, and who loves Neal and would, for instance, give him a signal to run rather than let him get trapped by a single-minded FBI agent who wants to be his next handler. I'm not reading much WC fanfic any more, but I miss yours.
I hadn't realized that you were deliberately changing details so much in your stories

To be honest, I'm not sure how much I actually do it. I think it's not even so much that I try really hard to change it up every time, so much as I don't really keep track of what I've done before (unless it's within the same AU 'verse, obviously), so I'll just, say, come up with a name for Neal's mother or El's sister off the top of my head -- assuming it's demographic/period appropriate -- and not try to make it match whatever I wrote the last time I did this.

But there are exceptions ... back in SGA fandom, for example, I remember having a headcanon of Caldwell as being divorced with grown kids, and I used that in multiple stores. So it does kind of depend. One of the comments on the DW side, referring to her own ficcing practices, wrote I do have some assumptions in place, in those canonical interstices, until new canon-compliant ideas come along. -- and I think that fits me to a "T": I have a number of "preferred" bits of characterization/backstory, but can replace them with something equally plausible without throwing myself off too much. I suspect that this might be a self-defense mechanism when I'm fanning on an open canon; it helps me keep from being too attached to any given bit of headcanon that might be jossed.

... but at the same time, I do get attached to some interpretations of the characters, and especially to certain character relationships. I can't read fic in which Peter is openly abusive to Neal, say -- it's just too wildly off from how I see the character. I can accept a lot of different variations, but not something that far off base.
What about you?

Brain twins. I could have written the exact same post, just with different examples, with the sole partial exception of this bit:

I think the fandoms I stay in, or at least the ones I tend to read widely in, are those in which the prevailing characterizations are reasonably close to my mental ones

I've stayed in fandoms where the prevailing characterisations were pretty far from my own - SGA was one of them, because the fanon version of Sheppard had so very little to do with the way I see him in canon. It's very frustrating and leads to me screaming at friends in email or chat, but if there's just enough fic for me to find something I enjoy, just often enough, I can't quite make myself give up. *g* But sometimes it's just too far, and then I do give up looking eventually. (Xavier/Magneto is one example for that, alas.)
Brain twins! \o/

That's a shame about Xavier/Magneto; there are so many interesting things that could be done with that ship, but it seems like in a lot of cases, fandom latches onto a handful of prevailing tropes and that's all you ever get.
It varies. While I do keep things consistent more often than not, I do try new things with the characters so long as it's not OOC (or at least OOC as I see it). Some characters I really stretch with, Roy Mustang, Connor, Spike. Often the characters I find easiest to write are the ones I get most adventuresome with.
Oh, that's interesting, about some characters being easier to expand upon than others! I'm not sure if it works that way for me, though I guess that I do have more indelible headcanons for some characters than others.
One of the things I've always enjoyed doing is filling in the back story and plot gaps with characters even though I know I might get jossed as the story goes on. Oddly some of those are my most read stories
I tend to have a view of each character that carries through most of my fics, and although that can change over the seasons as the characters change, it tends to stay reasonably the same. Of course, I write a lot of AUs (should I say wrote, seeing as I'm not writing atm?), which means the character(s) may have to be a little different to my normal view of them to fit the new universe, but they normally still have a lot in common with that view, even so.

As for things like backstories - well, what's the point of writing AUs if you can't mess with that, lol?! It's part of the fun, to me!!! :D And whilst I don't think I could ever write a fic where Neal was the FBI agent and Peter the criminal, because that's just tooooo far from my mental image (and would hurt my poor brain), I could (and have) remove Ellen and James and WitSec just for a fun new backstory that's the plot bunnies have produced (new shiny angst-ridden one, ooooh... *chases after it*) :D

As for the the whole fanon thing, that can grate a little at times. If I was to write a canon-based fic about Neal's mom, for instance, and then another one later, I would most likely change her name in the second fic (assuming it's not a sequel/companion piece to the first one, that is), because fanon-names can be confusing to newbies and I sometimes find them annoying. Though I'll admit that I've fallen into using fanon in the past (Sheppard's backstory in one of my AUs is that he has a military father, as per fanon at the time - fanon that was thoroughly trashed in Outcast!), but nowadays I tend to be a bit more original about this sort of thing. I've even contemplated playing with a fanon-established thing and turning it on its head, just to mess with people's heads! Yes, I am that evil... :D

Btw, I don't think I've ever read one of your fics and thought 'that's not Peter' - in fact, you've always seemed to write Peter just how I see him. Just thought I throw my two cents in with others on that! :) :)
Yeah, I tend to have a fairly firm idea of character/personality, while being kind of vague on the specific details of backstory that haven't been nailed down in canon yet.
Interesting!

One of the factors that's making me slide quietly out of White Collar fandom is that I'm starting to feel that my mental character concepts have slipped off the canonical characterizations and I don't really know how to write the characters anymore. (I'm having this problem with Peter, especially; I feel like I've been writing him OOC all along, and I've been trying to reconcile my mental character construct with the canon character and getting frustrated.)

Oh my god this. I am having the exact same issue with Neal. I just don't know who he is anymore after season 5, and it's not that I don't like the show, or don't like Neal, but I just don't feel that this is 'my' Neal anymore on the show (maybe season 6 will change that). Peter too, but to a lesser extent. Oddly enough, there I just can't deal with the idea of lack of Elizabeth since she's in another city...
wtf, I'm logged in and LJ is still giving me a captcha. Why????

Anyway .... yeah, I'm kind of feeling that way about Peter too, not that I dislike him at all, but just that now I feel like the Peter I've been writing all these years isn't the Peter on the show (and it's not specifically a season five problem, more like season five made me take a look back at him in previous seasons and feel like I've been writing him wrong).

On the other hand, I wrote a bit of WC fic today, so there is that. :D
I'm sorry fandom getting you down... fwiw, I fully agree with other comments: the way you write Peter and Peter&Neal friendship is exactly spot-on how I see them on the show (and based on comments I get on my translations of your fics - not only me:) I never get the impression "no, it's not Peter" and several times it was your episode tags that helped me understand canon and characters better. You know I have big issues with S5 and I probably won't watch S6 at all, but I really miss your stories.