Alternative universe (fan fiction)
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An alternative universe (also known as AU, alternative timeline, alternate timeline, alternative reality, or alternate reality) is the occurrence of canonical facts about the setting or characterization of a particular fictional universe being explored in a non-canonical way. These universes are often made unofficially, though elements of fan fiction are sometimes used in official, though usually non-canonical, storylines.
Stories that fall into this definition are usually "what-ifs", where possibilities arising from circumstances that do not occur in the original fictional universe are explored. For example, the premise of an alternative universe story may go something like this: "What would happen if character X was killed before event Y could happen?" Unlike regular fan fiction, which generally remains within the boundaries of the canon set out by the author, alternative universe fiction writers like to explore the possibilities of pivotal changes made to characters' history, motivations, or environment, often combining material from multiple sources for inspiration.
Types of AU fan fiction
Authors and readers of AU fanfiction enjoy it for many different reasons, but there are several shared story types that exist within many fandoms: alternative timelines, contextual reassignment, "reality" swaps, crossovers, and predictive fiction.
Stories with alternative timelines follow the established canon before veering away at a crucial moment—similar in concept to many entries in Marvel Comics' What If series and DC Comics' Elseworlds series. Some alternative timeline stories are called "fix-it fics" because they rewrite the story so that the consequences of events are undone, although beginning events are the same. Others are called "denial-fics" because they ignore certain pivotal events in a given canon. Another example of a subgenre of the alternative timeline story is called a "do-over fic", similar to "fix-it fics" in which consequences of an event are undone, but in do-over fics particularly the entire story is reset to the beginning, and the author creates an alternate timeline that diverges from the original canon of the work.
Plot switch stories take the characters from a series and place them in another time, place, or situation. A subset of this type called "familiar plot switch" takes the characters from a series and places them in a setting more familiar to the author. This type of context shift is one of the main sources of "high school fic" in which all the characters are written going to high school.
In a reality swap alternative universe (AU)—often in movies or television shows—the actors may find themselves in the fictional universe, the fictional characters may find themselves in the "real" universe, or the story may feature swaps both ways. This type of AU has appeared in mainstream publications as well. In Star Trek short stories written in the early 1970s, the actors from the Desilu set were swapped with the "real life" Starfleet officers via the transporter ("Visit To A Weird Planet"; "Visit To A Weird Planet, Revisited"). These fan fiction stories were eventually published in official Star Trek books.
This concept was used also in an episode of Supernatural, "The French Mistake" (Season 6, Episode 15). In the episode, the main characters Sam and Dean are transported to an alternative universe where they are actors named Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, respectively, on a television show called Supernatural.
This type of alternative universe places two fictional universes in a situation where they interact, similar to reality swaps (which mix a fictional universe with the real world). Such stories sometimes involve "comparisons or conflict" between the combat prowess of the two universes, often involving the various strengths and weaknesses of the technology/magic of each world. This genre of fanfiction is distinct from plot switch in the fact that it usually involves characters from at least two separate series interacting with one another. Sometimes these stories involve the substitution of characters from one universe for those of another.
Alternative universes can arise inadvertently in fanfiction when the source material is released in a serial form (such as a multi-season television series or a book trilogy) so that fan works are written before further canonical information arrives. For instance, much Harry Potter fan fiction written in the nearly three years between the publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was written as "continuation" fan fiction, but became AU as soon as the new canonical material appeared.
In alternative universe stories, characters' known motivations may vary considerably from their decisions in the canonical universe. The author of an alternative universe story thus can use the same characters, but send them down different paths to achieve a completely different plot. On occasions, a fanfiction writer creates a character which does not exist in the actual story that inspired it.