Canonless Fandom: does not exist.
The crux of fandom is its canon. All stories that are part of some fandom are based on some work – whether it is literature, film, or even reality. A fandom is molded, folded, created by its canon, and there is nothing more important to its existence than the word of god. Fandoms are groups that are fanatically devoted to their canon; it only makes sense that they would be shaped by their type of addiction, in the same way that people discriminate among types of alcoholics.
And indeed, there are no two fandoms alike. Small, large, kind, cruel, absolutely insane, communities value their differences and certainly, no one could change them. Fandoms are remarkably resistant organisms, facing off against mainstream societies and themselves on literally a daily basis. The only thing that has any affect on fandom is its master. And even then, fandom is not an obedient pet.
In fact, fandoms often fight against their creators, an act which many, inside and outside the fandom, perceive as ungrateful. The implication is that what is written by god, is what is meant by god, is what can never be questioned by man. And most of the time, I agree. This is a reasonable argument – because challenging canon is always a risky move. You are not only fighting other loyal fans, you are fighting your group’s existence; the foundation upon which thousands of works are based. When you’re undermining your own meaning, where can you stop? What can you consider absolute truth, and what is debatable?
It’s all debatable, is the answer. Just as there is not a fandom without a canon, there is not a canon without a coincidence. It is a law of interpretation: what is, is never guaranteed to be intentional. The creator’s work always represents more than the creator’s thoughts. A few works exist that are streamlined to the upmost degree, whose every line has been meditated upon and whose every plot point was weaved by the Fates themselves. But coincidence is a disease among fiction, and the more fiction there is, the more coincidence is at home. The longer a story is, (or the more subtle, debatable details in the background there are) the less definitive it is when it comes to deciding what is and what is not.
And this is vital for fanfiction. A moving fish is difficult to catch, and a moving canon is difficult to write about. Not only deliberateness, but consistency are vital for fandoms in general: how can you have an intense debate about which character would win in a fight, if both have been overworked, rewritten, reimagined so many times? The canon has been so elaborated upon that it contradicts itself; there is no one canon to go off of anymore. This effect is more common in types of canon that are limitless – a book series, a TV show, a comic series. The Murphy’s Law of Long Stories: if writers can mess up preceding canon, they will mess up preceding canon, and in the most nonsensical way.
So, to sum up the preceding 600 words, canons are not the same, they are never perfect, and some are more reliable than others. In my fanfictions and fandoms of experience, here are my rankings of the most to least consistent of canon types.
Novel: the most ultimate of canons, the novel is composed solely of words. And while those formations of letters still manage to be remarkably vague, and there is always more than one way to interpret them, the words that were written by the author, right there, on the page, are not debatable in their existence. A novel is also a standalone story. The tale within must be coherent and complete when it is set on a bookstore shelf. There is no room for ambiguous language that may or may not be cleared up in the next book. But most importantly, there is only one creator involved in the process here. Perhaps an editor tweaks some things, but ultimately, there is a single source, uncomplicated by separate minds.
Graphic Novel: a mixture of words and pictures, a graphic novel is usually produced by at least two people; an author and an illustrator. Both provide vital material for the story, and both are sources of the material. The author functions as the primary creator of canon, while the illustrator is almost like a super-powered fan, drawing conclusions from the script they are given. The dynamic between these two creators varies from novel to novel; perhaps the author dictates exactly what must be drawn, and leaves no interpretation to the illustrator. Perhaps the author gives the bare essentials to their partner and expects them to do their share of the creative work. Perhaps the author consults the illustrator, and vice versa, throughout the process. But if the author and illustrator should ever come to blows over a subject, who wins out? Relations between people are never quite the same, and are never really discussed, so it is a nebulous project to determine who is the true owner of the canon. And this is not even speaking of the resulting conflicts within the canon itself. Deliberateness is always debatable when it comes to graphic novel artwork. There ever is a certain confusion of subtlety and dual intentions. The constant question of author intent rears its ugly head, and what exists between the author and the illustrator may not exist at all.
Movie: much like a graphic novel, except with many more agents of canon, many more coincidences, and many more errors. Canon flows along a rickety, hole-filled pipeline; it originates at the screenplay writer, then is filtered through the editor, then is distributed among the many actors, animators, and behind the scenes workers. Canon also does not truly exist until it appears on the screen with the final cut version. It is widely agreed that whatever happened to the scenes that fell out of the pipe along the way or slipped through their owner’s grasps, they no longer really exist. Unfinalized canon is a shade of truth; a hint at what could have been but what was cast away. As for the canon that does complete its journey, it spends the next hour and a half flitting very quickly across the silver screen, much to the inevitable confusion and ignorance of its audience. The pace of a movie means there are always subtleties you are not allowed the time to understand. Maybe these elusive subplots will be revealed upon your fifteenth watch, but most viewers don’t have the time or energy to parse through every frame. So it is that the canon which achieves its purpose and goes in one viewer’s ear, immediately drains out of the other, and into the void of unrecognized detail.
Book Series: a novel given free reign over several books and plot lines. A series gets around. If the author is not careful handling it, it sires many minor plots, which then become orphans when the series is ended. When dealing with book series, it is not a matter of whether or not there will be lonely, neglected plot lines, but of how many will fill the orphanages. Sadly, many of them were likely intended to be loved by their creator, but as the creator progressed through their series, they had new ideas, and new is incessantly better.
TV Show: is to a movie as a book series is to a book. But as if a movie’s ever-present hundreds of workers weren’t enough, a TV show’s workers don’t stick around. There is a constant cycling of writers and actors through TV shows, and the canon is influenced by its actors’ schedules and its writers’ moods more than anything. It is agreed by most that TV shows have a life expectancy. TV writers do not know this. It is always the goal of a TV writer to extend their show just that next episode, just that next season, until the poor thing is a decade old, living off of write support. As a TV show extends beyond its lifespan, its caretakers come and go, and some try different medications. This means that the details and themes of the show are fading in and out, as the show is of consciousness. At some points, viewers would be hard-pressed to say what is currently transpiring is part of the same canon, much less the same plot line.
Movie Series: much like a TV show, but less reliable. The year or so gap between updates means there is even less pressure for continuity than a TV show. Characters can change hair color, skin color, personality, or they can vanish entirely, and no prayers to the creators can ever be answered with a sensical in-world explanation. Again, there is the danger of unwanted children of the plot, a danger that largely goes unheeded. Movies series also suffer from a low standard of coherency in storyline: there is no need for the plot of the second movie to have any connection to the first.
Video Game: a strange mix of in-the-action-moments and previously-set story rules. Canon in video games usually exists as a background feature, or not at all. It appears as the story behind the action, designed to explain the world in a way that provokes a sense of purpose and history-making in the player. This story is known as lore. Those games that come with a more complex lore, with flexible characters, are those that are more frequently written about. I suppose its a relationship of bait and fish; the more canon there is to feed off of, the more stories are written about it. But this bait isn’t chum, it’s alive, and these characters are often alterable. Every time the player interacts with them, they change. Changes mount upon changes, and before you know it, this character is one of hundreds of versions of themself. There is a reassuring regularity to these alternates, a single way they were planned and programmed, a deliberate style to the way things change. But they change nonetheless.
Play/Musical: a product of authorial suggestions and actor improvisations, a play/musical is most closely related to a movie, with the same awkward, deciphering interactions between the canon and its various executors. The difference with a play/musical is that the interpretation never ends. This is a live event. It is like running a universe over and over again; what happens one run through of the world never happens quite the same the next time. Understudies fill in, singers reach a new high note, people find a new way to display and understand their character. Because of this, there is never an ultimate canon.
History: seems like the kind of thing that should appear at the very top of this list. How can there be different interpretations of reality? The answer, as anyone who observes a single day of news notices, is that there are always, always different ways to interpret real life. Because there is no creator, and knowledge of any canon event is spread across hundreds, perhaps thousands, history remains one of the most difficult canons to understand. There are widely-accepted truths, but even they fade in credibility the older they are. The vast majority of details recorded are recorded by a few accounts, and it is those eyes only who determine our comprehension of our world.
Comics: I am sorry to say it, but this is the absolute worst of all canon. The two primary sources of comic canon, DC and Marvel, were founded in the 1930s and have not had regard for continuity or the laws of logic since. From the very beginning, comics were characterized with a passion for the fantastic, the unbelievable. They carried that unreality with them forever. In comics, science is only an excuse for magic. And there is no boundary to comics’ dream or its delusion or its volume. I don’t believe anyone has ever counted all the comics that have ever been produced, even only under the two giants. And if they have, I don’t believe their number. Because even as the count is being done, another thousand comics are made. There is such a mass of canon that even the official writers trying to produce a new work for a character cannot find all the canon about them. But even if they could, it wouldn’t do them any good. Comic canon is determined by its inconsistency, but also by its dependence on precedence. Long ago, main characters were established, and rarely does anyone today create their own. Instead, they reimagine someone else’s character. It seems that as long as the character retains the same name and vaguely the same looks, they are perfectly suitable for this in-canon AU. This is not a thing that only sloppy writers do, transfixed among the creators of the comic icons. This is a thing that defines comics, that in order to truly become a comic writer, you must take an existing character and record over their canon. You must purposefully create a contradicting storyline. This is the mark of a comic. It does not exist without defying itself.
So now, if you have made it to the end, you are familiar with the kinds of canons out there. It is important to remember that a fanfiction follows an original work, and is only held to that standard of continuity. With proper dedication and lack of better things to do, you may apply this list to fanfictions you encounter. Go forth and conquer and continue with what is hopefully a better sense of reality than that of some of the canons above.