If stories are brought to life by audiences willing them into existence with their imagination, does that mean that the true fates of characters and their worlds vary from person to person? Just because a writer decides to kill off a beloved character or veer stories of into wild directions, does that mean that everyone is forced to accept the developments are irrevocable truth? If a company says that a well-loved tale no longer exists in the fictional world they own, does that mean audiences must now disavow something they have loved for so long?
Since every story is fictionally, who is to say that every story is clearly defined and the same for every person?
This concept, most commonly known as headcanon, may have only been given a name in recent years, but it’s a practice that has been in use since the first caveman decided that he didn’t like the way his fellow Neanderthal ended the story he painted on a cave wall. With serialized storytelling in place today in everything from television shows to comic books to shared movie universes, the repercussions of an audience-hated development can ripple through more stories than ever.
So does practicing your own personal brand headcanon help in the enjoyment of fiction, or is it all an exercise in pointlessness?
Creator vs Audience
When audiences begin to love a novel, film, or television show, they put their faith in the people in charge of a story. While an individual film or novel is a standalone story, the developments and fates of characters are set before they are ever put in front of audience members. So anything that happens can only annoy readers and filmgoers so much, because there has been far less investment in the story. So long as the tale is well done, even the most frustrating and devastating developments can be tolerated when they serve the greater purpose of a fantastic story.
But the longer that audiences invest in a story, the higher the stakes are for future developments. Depending on the type of story, readers and viewers may have their own ideas of where everything should go? Do two seemingly destined characters get together? There’s plenty of shippers out there and their YouTube videos will tell you exactly what they think. Is the death of a character a compelling development or a twist that will make audiences abandon ship? Some characters deserve a longer time in the spotlight, while others would have been better off dead.
If creators and audiences can clash so much over the fate of the stories they love, where does ownership of fictional stories and characters truly lie?
Creators definitely cannot poll audiences and ask them where they think the story should go next. That leads to haphazard ideas and a poorly formed narrative. Making a story subject to the whims of audiences is a poor way to appease everyone. However, good creators should an understanding of what can thrill, please, and even frustrate audiences. Having a balance of all three can lead to stories that bring audiences back again and again while still remaining true to the ideas and goals of the story’s core elements.
Violating and Regaining Trust
In the history of storytelling, there are many classic developments that have caused audience members to deny the very things that lie before their eyes. Everyone has something that they simply cannot accept, but this can easily vary from person to person.
What are the story developments that have inspired the most ire and the powerful mental exertion that comes from establishing and maintaining one’s own well-groomed headcanon Zen garden.
The New 52 – When the editorial team behind DC Comics decided to reboot the entire comic book universe, they decided to give 5 years of leeway, where the many beloved stories that came before may or may not have happened. Of course, the leeway meant that everyone just denied that this was a brand new universe. Backlash was so great that DC is finally giving in and bringing back elements of the old universe!
Dexter – Yes, it was all downhill after Season 4, but things really got bad in Dexter’s eighth and final season. Disregard the existence of the final season can help make all the others seem better. Disregarding the final 20 seconds of the final series finale can help save you from insanity-causing rage.
Harry Potter – Maybe the most extreme cases of rampant headcanon in all of fandom? Tons of HP fans are constantly deciding for themselves which plot developments are true and which are not. These hardcore shippers can and will exercise their rights to make Tumblr accounts dedicated to nonexistent romantic relationships that only exist in their heads!
Alien 3 (and probably Alien: Resurrection) – Was there a bigger violation of audience trust than the beginning minutes of Alien 3? Almost all of Aliensis carried on the backs of the Ripley-Newt-Hicks pseudo-family dynamic. So brutally killing off both Newt and Hicks at the very beginning of Alien 3 makes every audience member immediately hate the film from the start and lament all the great things that could have come from a different direction.
The Dark Knight Rises – Some may or may not despise The Dark Knight Rises. But while the film itself is decent on its own, it really does a number to the trilogy as a whole. Disregarding the fact that Bruce Wayne retired from being Batman immediately after the conclusion of The Dark Knight makes the second movie’s ending far more powerful and inspiring.
Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – For many, The Indiana Jones Trilogy is just that, a trilogy. It’s got it all, including a perfect cap to the trilogy as Indy, his father, and his friends ride off into the sunset. The fourth film makes strange, CGI-laced decisions and takes Indy in weird directions that almost destroy the good will created by the first three movies. Keep the sunset ending. Leave the aliens.
While these are some of the most widespread developments that almost demand being disregarded, the breadth of audience preferences and stories means that everyone has something that he or she refuses to acknowledge.
Putting Too Much Stock in Others’ Stories
While preventing the destruction of a story that has required time and investment is helpful in preserving one’s own sanity in the face of overwhelming mounds of media, allowing stories to personally affect you to the degree of frustration and obsession is far from healthy.
Those who choose to spend their time complaining about the creations of others and only worrying about the lives of fictional character is ultimately a fruitless exercise. Creativity and the creators who are truly trying to bring something new, exciting, and meaningful to life should be applauded. Yes, there are definite missteps and poor choices made by plenty of creators. And there are countless people in the world of storytelling who are only in it for money and fame. But good work should be appreciated, and then left in its own fictional world.
Have your own ideas on what makes a good story and what should never be done to audiences? Take the time to create your own work. If it’s good enough, you may just find that there will be thousands of people who decide that part of your story isn’t true in their own headcanon. And that’s the sign of a story that’s worth investment.