Canon vs Head Canon

Doctor What?

I’m not talking about the weapon, which is spelled CANNON.  This one is missing an ‘N’ and gets thrown about a lot.  What is it?

Canon–  A list of works connected to an author, world, or character that are established as the ‘real’ continuity.  All others are either their own universe or considered alternate versions of the main timeline.

Keep in mind that this is my own definition that I’ve taken from just how people use it in conversations.  For example, a new story may come out that involves retelling a character’s origin.  People will ask if the original or new version is ‘Canon’.  This means that the audience wonders which version needs to be more acknowledged going forward.  The other one is considered an alternate and may take a few more stories into a side dimension with it.  Of course, the author gets final say here . . . usually.

There’s another type of Canon that one can run into, which is a newer concept even though it’s been around for a long time.  This would be:

Head Canon–  The plot elements, explanations, and interpretations that the audience has created in their own heads.  There can be evidence of these being possibilities, but these pieces are not stated by the author.

As you can tell, this involves your fan theories and explanations.  Leaving an ambiguous ending or letting readers come up with their own reasons for something happening will result in this.  Authors do this to stir conversation and mystery, which helps draw in readers and convince people to read the books again.  It also causes Head Canons to emerge and get spread throughout the Internet, but that’s definitely a part of the conversation.

Is Head Canon a bad thing?  Not really.  It’s fun to come up with these scenarios, but it can go dark.  Some people will cling to their Head Canon so much that they refuse to believe anything else, including the author.  They like what they came up with because it implants a piece of themselves into a world they love.  Now, they’ve added to the creation and those pieces being disproved can hurt.  It’s not that different than an author getting a bad review, which is odd since a jilted Head Canon person may leave one of those if they’re upset enough.

There are times when an author may read a Head Canon idea and turn it into Canon because they like where it’s going.  It can also be that the audience guessed correctly and what they believed would happen comes true.  This shows that Head Canon can be transformed, but the opposite can’t happen.  You can’t take something that was explained and then turn it into an audience-built theory.  Canon can only fall into alternative history or possible Alternative Canon.  Not sure if there’s a term for it, but the point is that these things are surprisingly fluid.

What do you think about Canon?  Have you ever come up with a Head Canon theory for a story you enjoyed?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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12 Responses to Canon vs Head Canon

  1. I am probably slightly off-base, but I’ve been trying not to explain everything to foster this in my readers. I think they enjoy more when they figure bits and pieces out, even if it’s different than I would have done it. It’s never the main plot or character build, but more of the extended environment type things.

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    • I think a lot of authors do that, but problems can still arise. This happens primarily with long, on-going series. One thing can be taken as a sign the author is going one way, which can change the way readers perceive the main set pieces. What they’re looking at can be a clue they misinterpreted or nothing at all, but it becomes a key component of the story they are building in their head. I guess ‘Head Canon’ does tend to be more character and storyline focused because it’s what a reader will firmly believe is going to happen. For example, all of the Mephisto stuff that surrounded ‘WandaVision’. A fly being in a scene was pointed out as a big clue and it wasn’t.

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  2. noelleg44 says:

    Interesting post. I’ve never thought about that! With writing mysteries, you are always giving readers bits and pieces and hoping they DON’T figure it out until the end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mysteries might be safer than other genres when it comes to head canon. You’re supposed to try to figure things out before the end. At the very least, you’re attempting to do so and looking for clues. If you come up with the wrong answer then it’s more acceptable since it’s a mystery.

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  3. I can’t say I have come up with a Head Canon for a story but I remember in the book Misery by Stephen King the author got into deep trouble with the nuts fan when he killed off a character in a book she was forcing him to write. This would be the ultimate Head Canon. Well done post, Charles.

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  4. jomz says:

    Head canons are fun. Head cannons can also be fun… hehehehe…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was in Pern fandom for a long time, so I’ve seen all sides of this. We wrote fan stories in a shared setting that was a big head canon. We received limited input from the author about things she would prefer not to be included in the setting. We knew she would never read our work, lest she be accused of stealing our ideas. And we knew we couldn’t make and sell merchandise based kn her world.
    The shared setting was rather like the Marvel Universe, where all the characters could meet and interact in stories, so there was a bit of mediation to make sure writers were happy with howmtheir characters were used. Mostly it was a lot of fun.
    If I ever get anyone spinning head canons about my own work, I’ll just be really surprised.

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    • I wasn’t sure if head canon and fan-fiction was the same thing. Mostly because those who create or read fan-fiction know that those stories are part of the author’s vision. With head canon, it’s when a reader comes up with how they firmly believe the author’s story will and should go. This is why some people get angry when the stuff in their head turns out to be untrue. It’s real and full canon to them until the author shows that it’s not the plan.

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