The Art of the Alternate Universe

So it’s no secret that I love AUs; my fandom history is littered with them. Specifically, what I love writing (and reading) are canon-divergent AUs, the kind where you change one single detail – one event, one moment – and then follow the butterfly effect through until you end up somewhere that looks very different from what you’d expect.

The thing I love about a really good, meaty canon-divergent AU is the meta-mystery of it. The reader knows how things should go, and the writer drops them into a situation where something different has happened and they don’t know why. The quickest way for me to lose interest in someone else’s AU is if they just explain the change from the very beginning. I love the chills I get as I’m reading this story and we’re meeting beloved characters in familiar settings but it’s all wrong. I love trying to figure out what happened, slowly getting the shape of it in my head, and then finally getting all the details later on. This is why my AUs always tend to be “change one thing and watch the butterfly effect” stories. It turns the whole thing into sort of a detective story from the reader’s point of view, and I love assembling the puzzle pieces, whether as a reader or as a writer.

For example, a fic I never wrote more than a few chapters of: Tempus Furat (Harry Potter AU). It starts on Halloween night, and Sirius Black is walking through the ruins of Godric’s Hollow, and every HP fanfic reader on the planet knows what that means. Except he doesn’t seem all that upset. And when he gets to his destination, it’s not James and Lily’s little cottage, it’s some grand mansion, and although it’s been destroyed, Sirius’s reaction is more like “well fuck” than grief-to-the-point-of-madness. Then the bad guys pop up, but they’re not Death Eaters (even though their numbers include Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Black), they’re calling themselves something else (Firewalkers). Sirius is apparently a member of an organisation called the Silver Guard. He escapes via a portkey to Hogwarts, meets McGonagall, and demands to see the headmaster – who turns out to be Tom Riddle, and not Voldemort, a Tom Riddle who’s certainly got a hard edge to him but is in no way the man who became the Dark Lord.

Sirius explains that he was on his way to meet a double-agent, a Firewalker who has agreed to switch sides; he persuades Riddle to help him get away even though Riddle claims absolute neutrality in the conflict between the Silver Guard and the Firewalkers. Sirius makes his rendezvous, meeting up with… no, not Snape, it’s Remus Lupin, with scars across his face (given him by James Potter) and a snarl in his voice and they hate each other and apparently have since school, but Lupin’s decided to turn on the Firewalkers, so Sirius has to work with him.

So this thing had its own plot (sort of, that’s why it never got written – it’s taken me the fifteen years since then to understand my own writing style and how to move a story like this forward without getting stuck on details) about the Firewalkers and their Mysterious Leader planning to attack Muggles, the Silver Guard attempting to stop them, etc. But the real story was the one that the characters themselves weren’t even aware of (well, most of them…) – working out how the hell we ended up in this situation. Why is Riddle not Voldemort? Where did these two new factions come from? Why do Sirius and Remus hate each other, why on Earth would Remus Lupin ever join the bad guys? (Bear in mind that I shipped Sirius/Remus so this was a very deliberate “everything is Very Wrong” plot element.)

I absolutely live for this stuff, for throwing in all these things that make people go “wait, what, HOW, no!” But I also have strong feelings about what makes a good canon-divergent AU, and often it’s not so much about the ways it’s different from canon as the ways it’s similar. One reason plenty of people don’t read AUs at all (whether canon-divergent or the ones that I used to call Elseworlds, i.e. the coffee shop AUs and their cousins) is because it can feel like it’s straying too far from the canon characters and their world. Funnily enough, Elseworlds often have an easier time with that, because authors are usually trying to replicate the canon emotional beats in this new setting.

Canon-divergent AUs can easily get off track, though, if the author becomes too focused on trying to show how Everything Is Different Here, particularly when it comes to characterisation. Now, I am an absolute sucker for specifically the trope where a good person is on the side of evil but I lose interest if that good person has changed so significantly that I no longer recognise them. For full tragedy and angst, I need to be able to see the person they should be and the potential for them to get back to that.

I think that’s the key of it, for me, though it sounds counter-intuitive: a good AU, even one that has wildly broken the canon timeline, should be trying to get back to the same basic outcome as its source material. The characters (at least the sympathetic ones) should be moving back towards their Real Selves from wherever you’ve punted them. If you take too much away from them and don’t allow them to get it back, it’s not a happy ending even if the characters themselves think it is, because we all know how things should be, and this isn’t it. (Conversely, I  am always okay with adding in things that were lost in canon, such as having canonically dead characters survive.)

So going back to Tempus Furat: Sirius and Remus seem to hate each other, but it becomes quickly apparent it’s predicated on hurt of some kind, that something happened at school to drive them apart and they’re both still snarling over it out of emotional self-defence. The conflict between the Silver Guard and the Firewalkers seems like Death Eaters vs Order of the Phoenix under another name, but Sirius and Remus discover that there’s more going on than that, and the leaders of the two factions are connected in some way. A lot of characters who would be dead in canon (e.g. Neville’s parents, James and Lily) are alive. The goal was at the end of the story to be able to have an epilogue showing this universe’s Harry, Ron, and Hermione going off to Hogwarts in ten years’ time, and for it to be not that different from canon. A different history of a different war (but it’s still over), maybe some different faces teaching at Hogwarts, but overall, we’re back where we ought to be, now with bonus living parental figures.

Another example, which I just wrote: in Pray For Us, Icarus (Good Omens AU) I royally fucked up the last 350 years of Crowley’s and Aziraphale’s existence, drastically altering how they interacted with each other and with Armageddon. The first three stories were specifically designed to show off all the ways this world was different and broken, but even then (particularly in Like a Sunless Garden) I was setting things up to make sure I could get them to a happy ending, because I knew that there were some things that could not be lost along the way, or it wouldn’t really be happy. Once I moved on to the “fixing it” part of the series, it was a question of bringing all the strands together so they were ready to be rewoven back into something that looked as much like canon as possible.

So Crowley had to have the Bentley, and it had to be the Bentley, with an equivalent level of love and history behind it. If we got to Happy Ending 2019 and he had no Bentley it would be on some level tragic even if he didn’t know it. Aziraphale had to have the bookshop, and it had to have the same weight of time and history and his relationship with Crowley attached to it. Crowley had to end up back in his own form, with powers and immortality and all his memories. Aziraphale had to be demonstrably able to heal from the trauma of watching him live and die. They had to be together, and be ready to face the future together.

Again, the question I asked myself was: ten years after the end of this story, are they in roughly the same place as we assume they are ten years after canon? In a happy relationship, with a cottage in the country (if in a slightly different location), and immortal lives stretching out in front of them? With the bookshop and the Bentley and good memories of their past together in various forms? With Aziraphale having learned to cast off Heaven’s yoke and Crowley having earned his freedom from Hell?

Other people’s mileage on this may well vary; I expect there are people out there who feel like having an AU end up back on the same track as canon is a cop-out, but this is how I approach it and the kind of AU story I like to read. It feels very much like a puzzle, and I love the meta-narrative that can only exist because the reader is aware of the contrasts and similarities between canon and this divergent timeline. It’s a feeling I’ve never managed to capture in original fiction (historical AUs just don’t do it for me). And I fully intend to just write AUs of my own original stories too, at some point. 🙂

Look, I amuse myself, okay

“Okay,” Akemi said, “new plan. We do whatever Hikari tells us, and maybe we don’t get murdered by a tent.”
“Fine with me,” Shoichi muttered, still rubbing his head.

No idea if this scene will make it into the final version. It might be too silly and fillerish. But for now, at least, I am enjoying the Great Battle of the Celestial Guardians Versus Shoichi’s Tent. (It goes a lot better for them once they let Hikari at it. She’s good at instructions and assembling things.)

April Writing Update

Well, April decided to continue much as March had, and my doctor now suspects that I’m getting a hayfever reaction that’s triggering the fatigue and flu-like symptoms, so that’s fun, since it could go on for months. Would it be excessive to wear a full hazmat suit out of doors? :/

Celestial Chronicle

Got chapters 6 and 7 written! Suck it, fatigue!

It’s kind of fascinating how it’s playing out this time around. I’m using pieces from the first draft but the whole flow and pacing is different. At this point in the earlier version, Kestrel and Luna had recognised each other and Astra was yet to appear. This time around, the reveal hasn’t happened yet (mostly so I can let them get properly attached to each other first because I am a monster) but Hikari is ready to join us as of the last scene of chapter 7. It feels like everything is moving a lot faster, but I’m at roughly the same narrative point. Current wordcount: ~38k

Also, this happened:

“It’s not kidnapping if you put her back after,” protested Akemi.

Goals for May: Minimum goal is to get to chapter 9, main goal is to get to chapter 11 or 12. I feel like that ought to get me to the showdown with Neikos and the labyrinth and the Kestrel/Luna kiss, but we’ll see. If I can get to that point I’ll be in all new territory, and we might finally get to meet the other two Guardians.

Starborn

Worked on a lot of bitty details, like names for the fully FIVE MILLION CAST MEMBERS that seem to be involved. I mean, I like big casts and I cannot lie, but this may be excessive even for me. Sigh. Anyway most people have names and a bunch of exciting backstory, lots of stuff to explore. I am definitely setting this up as a series where I have a rough plan and a lot of space to explore, rather than something with a strict outline or end point. We’ll see how that works out…

Wrote a couple of scenes of Aster’s viewpoint that may or may not be the opening scenes of the first book. Not sure yet, but I enjoyed writing them a lot, particularly the first glimpses of Kallisto being her Awful Awful self.

Goals for May: Write a bit more of Aster’s POV and keep working on the details so I’ve got a solid background. I might do some blog posts to convey a bit more of the universe and characters. You all need to meet my disaster gays. 😀

The Other Side of Twilight

Didn’t work on it this month since I was so low on energy and time, and CC is my first priority. I think I’ll try and set aside a chunk of time, a few days or a week, later on in May to just plough through to the end of Blood and Promises and see where I end up.

Stories from Kestrien – Part 4

In November 2018 I wanted to do NaNoWriMo but knew I wouldn’t be able to manage 50,000 words of coherent narrative at that time. So instead I took the prompt list for World Anvil’s Inktober Challenge, and wrote a prompt a day. I posted them day by day on tumblr, but I’ve reordered them here to make things flow.

The world of Kestrien has three moons, one continent, a hurricane that never stops, and magic coming out of its hypothetical ears. The main narrative takes place in its modern age, nearly 1500 years after a worldwide apocalypse during which one of the moons, Demira, was shattered, and now hangs broken in the sky.

More About Kestrien

Part 4: Before the Fall

Three snippets set on Demira, which was once home to a powerful kingdom (before it, you know, broke). I didn’t write as much for this as the others, partly because it’s full of spoilers for the main narrative. I recommend reading these stories last even though they chronologically take place before everything else. The first (“Poison”) is deep backstory for Zephony, set hundreds of years before the Fall. The other two (“World” and “Treasure”) are set in the Last Days of Demira, which will someday get its own prequel story.

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Stories from Kestrien – Part 3

In November 2018 I wanted to do NaNoWriMo but knew I wouldn’t be able to manage 50,000 words of coherent narrative at that time. So instead I took the prompt list for World Anvil’s Inktober Challenge, and wrote a prompt a day. I posted them day by day on tumblr, but I’ve reordered them here to make things flow.

The world of Kestrien has three moons, one continent, a hurricane that never stops, and magic coming out of its hypothetical ears. The main narrative takes place in its modern age, nearly 1500 years after a worldwide apocalypse during which one of the moons, Demira, was shattered, and now hangs broken in the sky.

More About Kestrien

Part 3: After the Fall

These stories take place between the Fall of Demira and the modern age, and follow two immortals, Zephony and Akana, who are kicking around during that time. (Akana is the one doing most of the kicking.)

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Stories from Kestrien – Part 2

In November 2018 I wanted to do NaNoWriMo but knew I wouldn’t be able to manage 50,000 words of coherent narrative at that time. So instead I took the prompt list for World Anvil’s Inktober Challenge, and wrote a prompt a day. I posted them day by day on tumblr, but I’ve reordered them here to make things flow.

The world of Kestrien has three moons, one continent, a hurricane that never stops, and magic coming out of its hypothetical ears. The main narrative takes place in its modern age, nearly 1500 years after a worldwide apocalypse during which one of the moons, Demira, was shattered, and now hangs broken in the sky.

More About Kestrien

Part 2: City of Light

The city of Vanrillion has been isolated since the Fall of Demira, its tunnels and halls delving ever deeper below the ground. The surface world is lost to them, and the once-great city is shrinking in on itself. Many within make a living of scavenging old technology and old magic. Sometimes they find things better left undisturbed.

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Stories from Kestrien – Part 1

In November 2018 I wanted to do NaNoWriMo but knew I wouldn’t be able to manage 50,000 words of coherent narrative at that time. So instead I took the prompt list for World Anvil’s Inktober Challenge, and wrote a prompt a day. I posted them day by day on tumblr, but I’ve reordered them here to make things flow.

The world of Kestrien has three moons, one continent, a hurricane that never stops, and magic coming out of its hypothetical ears. The main narrative takes place in its modern age, nearly 1500 years after a worldwide apocalypse during which one of the moons, Demira, was shattered, and now hangs broken in the sky.

More About Kestrien

Part 1: The Seagrave Academy

Ever since the Fall of Demira, the people of Kestrien have blamed magic for their misfortunes. Now the island nation of Thari, troubled by the restlessness of the Sea of Storms on their eastern shores, has defied tradition and built the Academy to try and turn sorcery into science.

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