Created By: socks on October 17, 2012 Last Edited By: socks on March 19, 2013
Troped

Unreliable Canon

When the definition of canon in a franchise is left purposefully vague.

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"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In a large franchise with many works and contributors, how do you determine what is canon?

Usually, fans rely on the creator or publisher of the work to directly state what is part of the official continuity. Often there becomes a defined hierarchy of canonicity designed to resolve contradictions between works - i.e. one work is "more official" than another and will always supersede another.

But what happens when the owner of the work embraces the contradictions? What if the line between canon and Apocrypha is deliberately blurred in order to make a statement about relativism?

Some universes eschew the concept of a "definitive" continuity. After all, the real world is full of vagueness, bias, and conflicting accounts. It can be a real puzzle for fans to try to piece together a picture of "true events," and of course no one’s guess is actually wrong.

In short, Unreliable Canon is when the creators of a franchise encourage their audience to call the truthfulness or authority of so-called official canon into question, while allowing less official parts of the verse to enjoy equal or near-equal status.

This type of franchise usually combines some of the following situations to create deliberate vagueness:

  • The owner of The Verse avoids any Word of God regarding official continuity.
  • Frequent Retconning, leading fans to distrust everything that is presented to them.
  • The work contains several conflicting accounts of events, leaving the audience to decide which is true (if any).
  • The work contains a Featureless Protagonist who remains genderless/raceless/nameless even when referenced by subsequent titles. Especially in a roleplaying game, where the actions/decisions of this character will be left vague in sequels, and any hints about what happened will be presented as wild rumors.
  • Major elements of the story only make sense in the context of unpublished or unofficial material, or even well-known fan-works. This creates conflict among fans as to whether said work is now "official".
  • In a work with Multiple Endings, no one conclusion is ever canonized. In videogames, this may be achieved with an Old Save Bonus.
  • All historical accounts in-verse are recounted by people who are biased, uninformed, or do not have complete information, and the audience must think critically about everything they hear.
  • Contradicting pieces of information are embraced as interesting paradoxes and all versions are considered true.
  • Writers or developers communicate directly through informal channels such as blogs or online forums, leading to debate about the canon status of the information they reveal.
  • The Verse does not have any central authority and everyone’s contributions have equal merit.

Compare with Broad Strokes, where chunks of a previous work are ignored in the sequel, Armed with Canon, when multiple authors try to undo one another's work, and Shrug of God, where an author gives up trying to explain how things work.


Examples:

Anime and Manga
  • Often done by Teasing Creators. In Death Note the finale ends with Matsuda stating a bunch of theories that may or not be true. It doesn't help that in The How To Read 13 Obha simply says: "Death Note is about the reader's interpretations".

Film
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe is official canon (conflicts are decided case by case, but generally novels are ranked highest, comics next, then video games, then RPG sourcebooks). But yeah, Lucas doesn't care about it, causing no end of problems in retconning the EU to match up with G-canon (the movies and any materials directly connected, such as the novelizations, Visual Dictionaries, and Incredible Cross-Sections). The continuity problems are one reason Karen Traviss quit.

Franchise
  • The Muppets could very well fall into this trope, whatever "canon" there might be for the characters has always been rather vague and up for discussion for fans, for a variety of different reasons, including the fact that sometimes different shows and movies aren't necessarily within the same continuity. It also doesn't help that Jim Henson himself never considered the Muppet characters actual characters, but rather, a troupe of actors that just happen to be puppets (hence such movies as The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island).

Literature
  • Early Discworld novels often contained contradictory elements, because Pratchett was more concerned with the quality of the story than with consistency, citing the famous Emerson quote. Later, he adopted a more consistent canon, but those early stories have still have a hard time fitting with it.
  • The novels in John Varley's Eight Worlds series frequently contradict each other when it comes to matters that could be called canon. Varley has admitted that he doesn't like going back to re-read his old works, and doesn't really care about the overall canon.

Live-Action TV
  • Doctor Who, especially before the New Series, can be best summarized as existing in a state of constant flux. Not only did you have the TV show introduce a new concept that gets changed to outright retcon after a few years, convoluted timelines for UNIT and the Daleks, but you also had several lines of novels that came during the show's hiatus. This isn't helped by the fact that the New Series sometimes makes references to the books and that the New Series itself doesn't follow certain things from the Classic Who (the aforementioned Daleks' timeline for example). This is not even counting the comics, the novels and the audio stories for the New Series. And let's not even get into Big Finish...

Tabletop Games
  • This is often done deliberately in Tabletop Games, both as bait to get people to buy supplemental rulebooks, and to offer individual GMs maximum freedom in constructing their own campaign storylines.
  • In Nomine went so far as to document areas of "Canon Doubt and Uncertainty" which would never be resolved by supplements.
  • Both In-Universe and out in Warhammer40K, where misinformation and plain lack of information is visible at all levels of classification. For example, in order to avoid lowering morale anymore than it already is, the Imperial Guardsman's Uplifting Primer states that orks are cowards who will flee at the first opportunity and whose teeth can be yanked out (orks are eight-foot-tall killing machines who embody Attack! Attack! Attack!) or that the Tau (the army dedicated to ranged firepower) have bad eyesight and can't see things that don't move. And as most of the information on other races comes from a xenophobic human point of view, what information is canon may not necessarily be true. Out of universe, you can create your own highly specific army with its own backstory and design (most popularly, Space Marines) precisely because of this loose canon.
  • Shadowrun. Most early edition supplements had a statement like this in their introduction. Like previous Shadowrun sourcebooks, this supplement is formatted as an electronic document from that fictional world. Scattered throughout the document are comments and additions from readers who seek to correct, expand, corroborate or contradict the information it presents. Because this "black" information comes from characters within the game universe, players or characters cannot safely assume that these comments are truthful, accurate, considered or clearly thought out (though they may be all those things). The material in this supplement comes from a variety of sources, most unofficial and all with their own biases built in. These different points of view give gamemasters greater scope to decide how much of the information presented is accurate, misleading or false in their own games.

Video Games
  • In The Elder Scrolls universe, canon is an almost meaningless concept. Bethesda refuses to invalidate your choices about who your character is and what he/she does. Therefore, there is no definitive version of the Nerevarine/Champion/Dragonborn, etc. and very few canonized events (the main quest line usually being an exception.) Additionally, all in-game information, books, and historical records are biased or otherwise unreliable or contradictory, with the implication that All Myths Are True and everyone is right in spite of the contradictions. From a meta-perspective, canon is complicated by the fact that the majority of the lore that elucidates the nature of the world of Tamriel comes from the work of an ex-dev and were written in an unofficial capacity after he left the studio. Many lore-scholars within the fandom actually consider his work ‘more’ canon than the published games themselves, and the fact that the games reference and quote these works adds to the confusion. Rather than become frustrated, fans tend to embrace this ambiguity as one of the more fascinating elements of the series.
  • The background lore of World of Warcraft has grown quite complicated. Different races tend to tell conflicting stories about such details as their races origins or past history and Word of God says that they are suppose to be conflicting; every race has a biased/distorted view and so none one race's myths are completely accurate. Then there is the ambiguity of major plot events, such as rather a certain Naaru may have intentionally let itself be captured as a ploy to help blood elves find redemption. And all of this is before you count the numerous actual retcons.
  • The various games in The Legend of Zelda franchise have many characters and sometimes place names in common, but they don't fit together neatly into a single continuity.
  • In the early days of Sonic the Hedgehog, the in-game stories are simple Excuse Plots about Dr. Eggman trying to rule the world through robots, with Sonic stopping him. SEGA encouraged production of alternate storytelling media, resulting in at least six groups of people working independently on their own interpretation of the franchise, each with their own continuity totally separated from the video games. With the exception of Sonic X, which came later, most kids in the 90s accepted at least one of these adaptations as canon with the video games, a precursor of the franchise's infamous Broken Base today.
  • The Touhou series is as much a product of its fans as it is its creator, who works mostly by himself. Anything made by the fans that achieves Memetic Mutation becomes part of canon, including character artwork, behavioral traits, backstories, even including fan-made games. Anything that achieves Memetic Mutation that contradicts something else that previously did the same receives a justification.
  • Valve Software once stated that 'canon is uncanonical' to reserve creative freedom for the Half-Life series of video games.

Web Comics
  • Homestuck, specifically the Word of God coming from its Trolling Creator. Andrew Hussie frequently answers fan questions with blatant nonsense and a sarcastic tone--but sometimes that "nonsense" actually turns out to be true. For example, after Tavros and Vriska died, Hussie jokingly confessed that he was planning to bring both of them back to life--then, months later, they actually did come back (albeit in the form of Tavrisprite, who only lasted a few panels before exploding). Which leaves the fandom unsure of how to take his other claims, like "Sollux's full name is Solluxander" or "All fantrolls are canon"...

Web Original
  • This is the general idea behind The Fear Mythos and the only way to be a fan of every version of every Slenderman webisode series without Dis Continuity derailing your enjoyment of each. It helps that each monster is an Eldritch Abomination and the bending of reality isn't hard to believe, but when everyone is going a different way with the interpretations, you just have to let some things slide.
  • Done deliberately in the SCP Foundation, since it's built on a crowdsourcing model, and allowing for multiple interpretations (i.e. Dr. Clef as an abrasive researcher / a Reality Warper / Satan himself or the Foundation as a Men in Black organization trying to save the world or control it).
Community Feedback Replies: 42
  • October 17, 2012
    socks
    Just realized the name is already taken. The trope is different, however. Needs a new name.
  • October 17, 2012
    Chabal2
    Both In Universe and out in Warhammer 40 K, where misinformation and plain lack of information is visible at all levels of classification. For example, in order to avoid lowering morale anymore than it already is, the Imperial Guardsman's Uplifting Primer states that orks are cowards who will flee at the first opportunity and whose teeth can be yanked out (orks are eight-foot-tall killing machines who embody Attack Attack Attack) or that the Tau (the army dedicated to ranged firepower) have bad eyesight and can't see things that don't move. And as most of the information on other races comes from a xenophobic human point of view, what information is canon may not necessarily be true. Out of universe, you can create your own highly specific army with its own backstory and design (most popularly, Space Marines) precisely because of this loose canon.
  • October 18, 2012
    socks
    Maybe it could be called "Canon is Useless"?
  • October 18, 2012
    rolranx
    The background lore of World Of Warcraft has grown quite complicated. Different races tend to tell conflicting stories about such details as their races origins or past history and Word Of God says that they are suppose to be conflicting; every race has a biased/distorted view and so none one race's myths are completely accurate. Then there is the ambiguity of major plot events, such as rather a certain Naaru may have intentionally let itself be captured as a ploy to help blood elves find redemption. And all of this is before you count the numerous actual [[Retcon retcons]].
  • October 18, 2012
    McKathlin
    • The various games in the Legend Of Zelda franchise have many characters and sometimes place names in common, but they don't fit together neatly into a single continuity.
  • October 18, 2012
    surgoshan
    Perhaps Crazy Confusing Canon

    Compare Armed With Canon, when multiple authors try to undo one another's work.

    • The Star Wars Extended Universe. According to Lucas, the movies are canon and he doesn't care about anything else. The fans have their own ranking system.
  • October 18, 2012
    Stratadrake
    IMHO, this should be Loose Canon and the existing article should get a rename. But that requires evidence before taking to TRS.
  • October 19, 2012
    Xtifr
    Some authors do this because they're more concerned with the quality of the work they're making now than in constraining themselves for the sake of a broader consistency between works. A possible page-quote: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    Literature
    • Early Discworld novels often contained contradictory elements, because Pratchett was more concerned with the quality of the story than with consistency, citing the famous Emerson quote. Later, he adopted a more consistent canon, but those early stories have still have a hard time fitting with it.
    • The novels in John Varley's Eight Worlds series frequently contradict each other when it comes to matters that could be called canon. Varley has admitted that he doesn't like going back to re-read his old works, and doesn't really care about the overall canon.
  • October 19, 2012
    Tuckerscreator
    What about Broad Strokes?
  • October 24, 2012
    socks
    I don't think it's the same. Broad Strokes is when a future installment ignores some elements of past installments. This is when canon status is ambiguous, especially when that ambiguity is intentional. Here's the laconic version of Broad Strokes: "It did happen, but not necessarily every detail." I think that shows that it is clearly different.
  • October 24, 2012
    elwoz
    This is often done deliberately in Tabletop Games, both as bait to get people to buy supplemental rulebooks, and to offer individual GMs maximum freedom in constructing their own campaign storylines. In Nomine went so far as to document areas of "Canon Doubt and Uncertainty" which would never be resolved by supplements.
  • October 24, 2012
    elwoz
    Oh, hey, here's another closely related trope: Shrug Of God. Also, if we're going to rename the existing Loose Canon, I'd like to suggest "Apocrypha" as the new title for that.
  • October 24, 2012
    StarSword
    @surgoshan: Actually, the Star Wars Expanded Universe is official canon (conflicts are decided case by case, but generally novels are ranked highest, comics next, then video games, then RPG sourcebooks). But yeah, Lucas doesn't care about it, causing no end of problems in retconning the EU to match up with G-canon (the movies and any materials directly connected, such as the novelizations, Visual Dictionaries, and Incredible Cross-Sections). The continuity problems are one reason Karen Traviss quit.
  • October 24, 2012
    VandalHeartX
    How about Wave Motion Canon? "Use it however you like, it won't miss the mark."

    • This is the general idea behind The Fear Mythos and the only way to be a fan of every version of every Slenderman webisode series without Dis Continuity derailing your enjoyment of each. It helps that each monster is an Eldritch Abomination and the bending of reality isn't hard to believe, but when everyone is going a different way with the interpretations, you just have to let some things slide.
  • October 25, 2012
    Stratadrake
    ^ Ouch, that is bad.
  • October 26, 2012
    VandalHeartX
    It's not THAT bad.

    Okay, it's bad.
  • October 28, 2012
    socks
    I'm biased of course, but I'd love if we could change Loose Canon to be the name of this trope.
  • October 28, 2012
    TheMutant
    Homestuck could be an example, maybe? Between Hussie relentlessly trolling the readership, breaking the fourth wall, and his declaring that all fantrolls are canon...
  • October 28, 2012
    VandalHeartX
    Regarding co-opting the name of Loose Canon an renaming it something else:

    I just read the page for Loose Canon. Isn't that essentially the definition of a Gaiden Story? It happened, and it's technically canon, but it doesn't apply to the primary plot in any way, and is no part of the original story. It neither affects not will it ever be affected by the primary story except as a basis for the characters used therein. Case in point: Resident Evil Gaiden. It's technically viewed as non-canon, but only because the cliffhanger it set up was for an early version of RE 4 that never happened. I still could have happened, because nothing that happened in that game conflicts with the rest of the RE 'verse. Not non-canonical, but doesn't contradict canon, either. So, can we rename Loose Canon Gaiden Story and use the Loose Canon name here?
  • October 28, 2012
    VandalHeartX
    Laconic:

    The work has many authors, and all contributions are canon, even if they are contradictory.

    Yes?
  • October 29, 2012
    socks
    Sort of. It doesn't have to have multiple authors, as long as the canon is ambiguous.
  • November 3, 2012
    socks
    bump.
  • November 18, 2012
    socks
    We're starting to get a fair number of examples. Does someone want to spearhead the campaign to rename Loose Canon (I don't feel experienced enough to do so), or should we rename this one?
  • November 18, 2012
    StarSword
    A rename of an existing trope requires a TRS discussion, as I recall, which means this is going to need a rename until the TRS gets under the thread cap.

    Also, I repeat what I said regarding the Star Wars Expanded Universe. It is canon. That's Lucasfilm official policy. The problem is that Lucas himself doesn't consider the EU part of "his" story and the movies outrank the EU, meaning Continuity Snarls when a new movie or TV show conflicts with previously written EU items.
  • November 18, 2012
    Stratadrake
    There's currently a filibuster on any new TRS discussions until at least 180 more TRS threads get resolved.
  • November 19, 2012
    socks
    Thanks Star Sword, I've edited in your info.
  • January 18, 2013
    elwoz
    Bump for hats.
  • January 18, 2013
    MokonaZero
    Often done by Teasing Creators. In Death Note the finale ends with Matsuda stating a bunch of theories that may or not be true. It doesn't help that in The How To Read 13 Obha simply says: "Death Note is about the reader's interpretations".
  • January 18, 2013
    ZombieAladdin
    Two Video Game examples:
    • In the early days of Sonic The Hedgehog, the in-game stories are simple Excuse Plots about Dr. Eggman trying to rule the world through robots, with Sonic stopping him. SEGA encouraged production of alternate storytelling media, resulting in at least six groups of people working independently on their own interpretation of the franchise, each with their own continuity totally separated from the video games. With the exception of Sonic X, which came later, most kids in the 90s accepted at least one of these adaptations as canon with the video games, a precursor of the franchise's infamous Broken Base today.

    • The Touhou series is as much a product of its fans as it is its creator, who works mostly by himself. Anything made by the fans that achieves Memetic Mutation becomes part of canon, including character artwork, behavioral traits, backstories, even including fan-made games. Anything that achieves Memetic Mutation that contradicts something else that previously did the same receives a justification.
  • January 18, 2013
    CrystalGamma
    Valve Software once stated that 'canon is uncanonical' to reserve creative freedom for the Half-Life series of video games.
  • March 3, 2013
    sock
    Canon Is Uncanonical? That could make a good name for this trope if Loose Canon can't be had.
  • March 4, 2013
    Chabal2
    Done deliberately in the SCP Foundation, since it's built on a crowdsourcing model, and allowing for multiple interpretations (i.e. Dr. Clef as an abrasive researcher / a Reality Warper / Satan himself or the Foundation as a Men In Black organization trying to save the world or control it).
  • March 4, 2013
    Arivne
    Tabletop Games
    • Shadowrun. Most early edition supplements had a statement like this in their introduction.
      Like previous Shadowrun sourcebooks, this supplement is formatted as an electronic document from that fictional world. Scattered throughout the document are comments and additions from readers who seek to correct, expand, corroborate or contradict the information it presents. Because this "black" information comes from characters within the game universe, players or characters cannot safely assume that these comments are truthful, accurate, considered or clearly thought out (though they may be all those things). The material in this supplement comes from a variety of sources, most unofficial and all with their own biases built in. These different points of view give gamemasters greater scope to decide how much of the information presented is accurate, misleading or false in their own games.
  • March 4, 2013
    Stratadrake
    I think where titles are concerned it might be worth giving the existing Loose Canon some TRS.
  • March 4, 2013
    elwoz
    FYI, "Retconning" should be spelled with two Ns. (Otherwise it parses as Ret Coning, which sounds like the sort of thing that might still be illegal in Alabama.)
  • Franchise
    • The Muppets could very well fall into this trope, whatever "canon" there might be for the characters has always been rather vague and up for discussion for fans, for a variety of different reasons, including the fact that sometimes different shows and movies aren't necessarily within the same continuity. It also doesn't help that Jim Henson himself never considered the Muppet characters actual characters, but rather, a troupe of actors that just happen to be puppets (hence such movies as The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island).
  • March 5, 2013
    Frank75
    Five hats, enough examples: @socks, this seems ready to launch.
  • March 5, 2013
    Stratadrake
    But there's a breaking roadblock: What to do about the article occupying the current title.
  • March 5, 2013
    Paradisesnake
    I think we shouldn't call this one Loose Canon. The present article with that name is about events that are loosely tied to Canon i.e. Exactly What It Says On The Tin, whereas this is more about the Canon itself being messy (or rather, the creators making it messy). Couldn't we just name this something like Vague Canon and call it a day?
  • March 19, 2013
    socks
    Thanks elwoz and justanotherrandomlurker. Unless someone else wants to spearhead it, I'm happy to simply rename this article, since it would be a lot easier and I'm too new to try to head a TRS campaign.

    The article is ready to launch - I just need to know what to call it.
  • March 19, 2013
    FastEddie
  • March 19, 2013
    socks
    Unreliable Canon sounds good to me. Nice and simple.

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable

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