Alternatives: Why What Didn't Happen Is So Much Fun

By Guest Lecturer Lizbet

Do you remember that episode of "Angel" where Angel came back to L.A. human and found Cordelia running a nightclub in a post-Apocalyptic Los Angeles, and Lindsey was the Emissary of the Underlords? Wasn't it great?

You don't?

That's because it is an alternate universe, AU, mirror universe (although that's usually only used for Trek) or an alternate timeline. An alternate universe takes the characters, situations, events and/or locations of a story and changes them in some way.

There are as many reasons for doing an alternate universe fic as there are ficcers. The most basic is to repair (or ignore) something that went egregiously wrong in the show (for the sake of convenience, I will generally use fandom and show interchangeably, but it could refer to a movie/movie series or book/book series).

In "Quantum Leap," in the fourth season opener "The Leap Back," Sam and Al switched places so that Al was leaping through time and Sam was back in the QL HQ. For the first time, we found out that Sam had left behind a wife when he'd started leaping through time.

Many fans did not find this character appealing. And thus was born a sub-genre of QL fic: alternate universes where Sam Wasn't Married.

Then there was the spate of various He/She/They/It's Not Dead, Dammit! fic for various shows and characters. Fics in which Richie Ryan did not die stupidly (if at all), Nick and/or Nat survived the "Forever Knight" finale (alive or undead, pick your flavor) and Jenny Calendar did not die at Angelus' hands in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "

If the great granddaddy of modern media fandom is "Star Trek," then it is also the granddaddy of alternate universes. It is one of the few instances of an in-show AU, and the mirror universe allowed them to examine the characters as though they were villains rather than heroes. (I only wish Next Gen had gotten into the act. . .wouldn't it have rocked to see a villainous Picard?) This is an excellent use for AU's: exploring facets.

There are things that characters absolutely would and would not do. Duncan doesn't kill women (unless he really, really has to). Constable Benton Frasier does not swear. Wolverine does not know what fork to use at a formal dinner. But what about a universe in which they did? How different would things have to be to reveal a different facet of a character's nature or the nature of the world around them?

And then, sometimes, alternate universes exist for the sheer hell of it. Because you have this great idea for a story, but it would contradict known canon. Or it's just so wild and far-out that it screams to be done.

There's really no one reason for writing an AU. Nor is there a wrong reason. However, there are some things to keep in mind to make it a good AU.

1) Stay true to your source material

Even if your definition of true is skewed. Something about the situation and characters must be familiar enough to hook readers, otherwise they have no interest in the story. There is currently a series of stories (which I have not read) on fanfiction.net set in a Buffy alternate universe where there is no magic, no vampires, Angel is a human teenager, and everything is about just trying to get through high school as best they can. Some of the reviews complain that removing that much of the show's background has made it unrecognizable and, therefore, not interesting.

2) Detail, detail, detail

What changed? When in the series timeline? What repercussions has that change had before the start of your story? How do your characters react in a world different than we're used to seeing them in? You have to know far, far more than ever gets into your story about the differences between the canon universe and your own. In the Buffy episode "The Wish," we saw a Sunnydale that had existed without the Slayer three years past the time she had arrived in the regular timeline. The resultant Sunnydale was a very different place on every level, some subtle, some extremely obvious.

Writing an AU is kind of like working on a high wire without a net: done well, it is breathtaking. If you slip, there's a nasty splat. Unless, of course, you live in an alternate universe where you have wings. . .

"...listen: there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go" -- e.e. cummings, Pity this Busy Monster, Manunkind

Elizabeth Ann Lewis is a fanfic author who loves to write alternate universe fiction. Yes, we quite often question her sanity. She has written AUs in "Forever Knight" (for the hell of it kind), "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (too cool to pass up kind), "Alias" (he's not dead, damnit! kind) and is currently working on an "Angel" AU. Not to mention that she has managed to come up with an alternate universe for 15th century British history. We did mention the whole 'questioning sanity' part, right?

You can find much of her work at her homepage or her little section of Fanfiction.net. You can reach her at lizbet@rhiannon.dreamhost.com.

Story cited at the top of this article is Yahtzee's As Time Goes By.

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