I remember being read a story when I was a kid. Nothing about the plot or the characters — what I remember is the ending, and it’s stuck with me for something like two decades. The story ended… by not ending. Not just by leaving questions unanswered or threads untied, but literally telling the reader, “Now you come up with your own ending!” You might laugh if I say that to me it was a moment of profound frustration, disappointment — even betrayal. But it was. I can still remember how disturbing it was to me and how lost I felt; I can still taste the bitter, confused anger all these years later.
I’d spent literally minutes with these characters (Hey — at that age, minutes feel like days!), and now this book wasn’t going to tell me how it all ended? Would I never find out? Would I live with this unresolved tension for the rest of my life? I don’t want to make up an ending! I need to know the real one!
But… things have changed since then. That ending still seems like sort of a twisted trick to pull on a child, but it was probably the first step on a long journey. The first time my concept of what a story was was challenged. I’ve come a long way, from a very concrete conception of what is “acceptable” within the writer/reader relationship. I had to, given the hobbies I’ve picked up since then. Videogames especially have a really bad track record with plot lines that actually end. In a way, that story my mother read me years ago may have prepped me for all the disappointments I was headed for down the road.
I’ve become more and more a supporter of fanon, head canon, personal canon — whatever you want to call it — the older I get. It kind of comes with the territory. I’m much more on the side of a Save the Date-esque view of storytelling now than I ever was — that view that a story really lives in the minds of anyone who loves it, and those people have the right to accept and reject whatever elements they see fit. Sure, I’m very fond of Fallout: New Vegas, but for me it exists in a separate universe from Fallout, Fallout 2, and Van Buren. Like a lot of the Metroid fanbase, I disregard Other M as part of the timeline (though I go a little further and toss Zero Mission out the window too), and may have to settle for my own dreamt-up post-Metroid Fusion ending if Nintendo never writes their own. And I’m right now playing through the F.E.A.R. games to find that I like a lot of what the officially non-canon Perseus Mandate does more than where Monolith and Day 1 actually take the “proper” sequels.
Here in the Digital Age, the “canon” has started getting squishier. Fans are so connected to one another now that in a lot of ways they’ve become a stronger force than the original creators, and their ideas can really get a foothold in a community in a way we’ve never seen before. In rare cases, those ideas can even become more popular than the official ones. But the crazy part is when those fans become so disenfranchised that they move on from creating their own canon to creating their own content. You can see it in all the mods being created for Fallout 2 as its unofficial sequels — and even attempts to recreate Van Buren itself.
It’s not a videogame series (at least, not primarily), but the ripest ground for fanon is probably Star Wars. I’m endlessly fascinated by how terrible the prequel trilogy was and yet how much creativity and brilliant stuff has come about because of it. Red Letter Media was built on its satire of the prequels. But if we’re talking about fanon, Belated Media is the one you have to check out. It’s amazing to see how a simple rewrite by a fan can create a version of the films that demonstrates more understanding of storytelling and even of the Star Wars universe than the ones that took years of planning by the original creator.
Basically, this post is a long-winded way of saying that the guy at Belated Media is my hero, and as far as my head canon goes, his versions of Episode I and Episode II are how I’ll see the events of the Star Wars universe from now on. If I’m ever a popular storyteller who goes off the rails the way George Lucas has, I hope my fans do something like this to fix up my stories too.