For starting writers, it’s more important to write the canon of your story into existence than it is to worry about how every minutia fits into the story at large. There’s a lot of groundwork that has to be laid, and it’s no mean feat. Plot, characters, themes, and the relevant worldbuilding are far more important to establish first. You have to try out the slots before worrying about the casino download, as the saying goes.
However, what about established franchises? Franchises where beloved characters are known by millions, and where every fan rabidly consumes every piece of media churned out about the story and characters? These are franchises that are bought and sold like commodities that, unfortunately, tend to get milked by companies for all they’re worth. Where does the line get drawn between corporate greed, artistic expression, fan fiction, and a story’s true canon?
To put it simply, a story’s canon is the parts of the story that are universally established to be the true events. I can say that Luke Skywalker teamed up with Wonder Woman to fight Godzilla, but no fan of any of those characters would accept that just because I said it was so.
If there’s anything that fans like, it’s coherency- or at least consistency. It would never make sense for Luke Skywalker and Wonder Woman to ever interact because they’re part of two entirely different stories and part of two entirely separate universes. These two modern mythologies have never been said to interact with one another, but who gets to decide that they don’t?
Ostensibly, it would seem that the authors of the original work would be the ultimate arbitrator of the canon. This is called the “Word of God”, where any ambiguity that’s clarified by the author is considered canon.
And in perhaps 95 percent of cases, this works. After all, nobody is more familiar with “The Stormlight Archive” than Brandon Sanderson, the author. However, there seems to be a growing trend of disagreement between what the original author wrote versus what the author decides after or what the fans accept as being true.
Let’s take the case of Harry Potter. The seven-book saga is one of the most beloved and most profitable of all time. They’re, of course, not perfect. It’s blatantly obvious to anyone who rereads them without the nostalgia glasses that J.K. Rowling didn’t plan out everything from the outset- and that’s fine. They’re good books.
…but what about the stuff that came after? “The Cursed Child”, an eighth book to the franchise that is loathed by nearly every fan, was technically printed with J.K. Rowling’s approval, even if she didn’t write it herself. Does that mean it’s canon? What about the “Fantastic Beasts” movies, the first that was mediocre but enjoyable, and a sequel that was apparently terrible? Where do they fit in the canon of J.K. Rowling’s story? She technically approved them, even if she was paid for the rights. What about the various tidbits of lore from her Twitter feed and on websites like Pottermore?
Not every fan is so eager to accept this external information as canon content. Some of it is controversial, like changing established character’s ethnicities or sexuality in contradiction to the original books. Some of it stupid, like trivia that said in times of old, wizards that had to go to the bathroom would squat wherever they were and magic the mess away when they were done. Then there’s the argument that fans shouldn’t have to look outside of the source material for canon content.
So then, if the authors stray from the source material, does it come down to the fans to decide what is and isn’t canon? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, it can be argued that the fanbase, by a nebulous consensus, decides which content counts as part of an established canon. To go back to that Harry Potter example, most fans don’t count “The Cursed Child” as part of the story, and the publishers seem to have gotten the message.
On the other hand, you can’t just throw the entire story in the hands of the fans. Not everyone was made to be an author, and that’s okay. While it’s absolutely okay for fans to write fan fiction, it would be anarchy the fanbase could arbitrarily decide what was and was not canon. There does need to be some kind of filtering. The amount of homoerotic and / or incestuous “ships” would simply be untenable. Do you know how much Draco X Harry fan fiction there is on the internet? Too much. Far, far too much.
However, no matter what the ideal solution would be, all that I can say with absolute certainty is that these franchises should not be left in the hands of megacorporations that couldn’t give one iota of concern for what the fans thought, so long as they continue to spend money. Or worse, when these corporations hand the reigns of a franchise over to someone who cares more about pushing their own ideology than continuing a story.
Case in point: Disney Star Wars.
At first, when George Lucas sold the franchise to Disney, most of the fanbase got excited. The Star Wars prequel definitely divided a lot of the fans. While not a bad story, their execution certainly left a lot to be desired. With Disney backing Star Wars, it seemed like a win-win scenario. The Star Wars story would be continued, and Disney’s resources could get the best and brightest to work on it.
Oh, how young and naive of me.
Disney promoted Kathleen Kenedy to take over Lucas Films, and the subsequent release of movies with a revolving door of directors made for an incoherent mess of the sequels. While it’s understandable why they put aside George Lucas’s notes and outlines in favor of creating their own story (more merchandising opportunities), the final product ended up being terrible and leaving the fanbase more divided than before. In fact, it’s even left Lucas Films divided internally.
Regardless of what I think about these movies, however, Disney does own the franchise. They decided to add these movies as part of the canon and removed the beloved Extended Universe content, written by fans and then stamped with George Lucas’s approval.
So, where does that leave the canon? In the hands of greedy and unaccountable megacorporations who worry more about what China thinks than about the fanbase? In the hands of authors who seem to have lost the talent or the drive that created what their fans have fallen in love with? With creators who have become out of touch with what their fanbase wants out of their product?
I wish I had a definitive answer to any of those questions. The most appropriate solution seems to vary on a case-by-case basis. With Harry Potter, it’s probably just best to ignore what J.K. Rowling is getting up to and just enjoy the original seven books for what they are. At least J.K. seems to have moved on from the franchise herself, even if she’s still selling the rights to its movie companies and whatnot.
However, with Star Wars, Disney will keep churning out as much content as they want so long as it still makes money. Really, the only solution is a capitalist one. The only way to sway our Disney overlords is to vote with your buck. If the bad stuff starts losing money, Disney will (hopefully) rethink its position and either step away from Star Wars for a while or get someone more competent to work on it. Basically, I’m advocating for pirating “The Mandalorian” or whatever you want off of Disney+. Wait, no- that’s a crime. I legally am required to tell you not to pirate content off of subscription platforms, as that’s theft. So yeah, don’t do that. Totally. Don’t.
For smaller authors, keeping control of their franchises is going to be nearly impossible. Without any clout, getting publishers or movie studios to listen to you is very unlikely. However, larger authors have basically no excuses. Whenever Steven King has an interview where he whines and moans about how X movie didn’t stick faithfully enough to his book, I don’t have much sympathy. I feel like he totally has enough power to pressure movie studios into at least letting him approve scripts before going forward with movies.
But that’s an aside. I guess the point I’m getting at that while ultimately, the fans end up deciding what they do or do not like about any given canon, a creator has a certain amount of responsibility to their own story. We’ve seen so many times where authors give up on or else stop caring enough about their franchise, and it goes to garbage in someone else’s hands (Game of Thrones Season 8, anyone?).
Sure, you could sell out to Disney and live a life of luxury with little to no cares in the world, but that makes random nerds on the internet like yours truly write mean things about you on blogs that nobody reads! Is that really worth it?