The use of what, in academic historical circles are referred to as ‘counter-factuals’, is becoming more widespread and accepted by the Academic community. The overt examination of ‘what if’ to explore historical possibilities and changes is becoming a standard form of historical study. The concept of ‘what if’, however, is not restricted to history; but is also a staple of fan fiction.
One thing that every narrative fan fic has in common, whether the fic is about a canon or UC ‘ship fic, whether it’s a straight adventure piece or anything else for that matter, other than a PWP of course, is that it has a “Point of Departure” (PoD) from the series on which it’s based.
In a very real sense, once a point of departure is selected, you’re creating an alternate reality for the show within the confines of the fictional work. “Whoopee!” I hear you all cry. “Tell us something we don’t know already!” Okay, I will J
There are a variety of differing kinds of PoD. The first is when, in an instant everything changes. Examples of this are Buffy’s going to Cleveland rather than Sunnydale (The Wish) in as much as soon after that decision is made, the harvest occurs and the Master is released. A second example of a dramatic PoD is from Babylon 5, where, in the telemovie “In the Beginning”, the Minbari surrender on the verge of a genocidal victory over Earth. In this case the alternate reality is examined in a fan fiction epic entitled “A Dark Distorted Mirror” (the URL is http://www.b5-dark-mirror.demon.co.uk/).
There is another way to achieve a radically different alternate reality, one which Star Trek, the Original Series used in “Mirror, Mirror”, where the PoD was located in the distant past, thus the two realities had diverged massively by the time of the episode.
However, a much more frequent, and to me inherently more believable, approach is to make a ‘small’ change in the overall scheme of things. This is, I strongly suspect, easiest to do in ‘ship fics. In the overall narrative of the storyline, it doesn’t matter who is involved with whom, if anyone. To take Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example, Buffy’s (or anyone else’s) current love interest isn’t very often relevant. But … when one chooses to create an unconventional couple, one does begin to trace an alternate path that will, at first very slowly, move away from the established story arc. The changes will accelerate over time, as one small change accrues with the next and so forth.
As an example, in one of my own pieces (and yes, I know self-quotation is the worst kind of conceit). I utilise an episode in season 5 as a PoD. In it, Tara, the lover of Willow, elects to return home. I actually pick up the narrative part way through the break between seasons 5 and 6. There has been one other change (Buffy didn’t die), although the reasoning behind it is implicit, not stated outright. Another advantage of this form of AU writing is that one can use many of the events in following seasons, but manipulate them slightly to reflect the UC ship. Perhaps, in Season 5, if Tara left as cited above, then Glory would have to find another way to locate the key. Assuming she does so, then perhaps Dawn doesn’t get cut and therefore Buffy does not need to die.
A different kind of example, that shows many of the same aspects, is the work by some writers to ‘re-write’ a season. An example is Frau Hunter Ash’s re-written season 6. This utilises the materiel of the season but re-works it into an AU more attractive to the author.
In general, a series of small cumulative changes is the most likely way for a fanfic to alter the canon of the established story. A small divergence will lead to a slightly larger and so forth, until eventually, you have your own Alternate setting for the series. To me, this is the essence of what fanfic is about; the ability to take a pre-existing setting and divert the intended path of the Joss-verse to examine other issues and possible relationships. After a certain amount of time, the divergence will be so great as to be completely separate from the Canon.
So, go forth and create an infinity of Buffy-verses.
The authors own nothing. Joss, UPN, WB, etc. own Buffy, the show, the characters, the places, and the backstory. The authors own any original plots.