The Off-Canon Approach

by Kara Wild

I'll start by telling you a secret: none of the Featured Authors at Outpost Daria writes strictly on-canon. That includes such noted "canon" writers as C.E. Forman and Paperpusher.**

Michelle Klein-Hass and Diane Long: Both are "'shipper" fanfic writers -- most of their work is set in the future, and takes a strong position on the highly-ambiguous relationship between Daria and Trent.

John Takis: Besides fanfics that are true to the "canon," he is a writer of notable cross-overs ("X-Files," A Christmas Carol).

Martin Pollard: He wrote about Quinn getting raped in a sober tone utterly different from that of a typical "Daria" episode.

John Berry: His fanfics are true to the canon, yet have a tone that is too wacky for "Daria."

Austin Covello: He made Stacy smart and dead and an Evangelion Pilot, and also gave Quinn depth.

Jon Kilner: He generally stays true to the canon, but also has used his fanfics to speculate, such as by imagining what Daria and Jane's future will be like.

C.E. Forman: He speculated that Sandi would pick on Daria and that Jodie would crack under pressure, neither of which has happened and may never happen. He also speculated about Helen and Jake's past in "Fireworks."

Paperpusher: He wrote alternate episodes to "Daria!" and "Speedtrapped," doing more justice to hurricanes and learning to drive than either of the real episodes. He also ventured into writing a cross-over/parody with "Hearts of Darkness."

And then there's me. I write in the form of scripted episodes that adhere to the "canon," yet have taken several small departures, also based on speculation. I fleshed out Helen's family history and got her in touch with her artistic side. (In a future fanfic, I'll also have her suffer a nervous breakdown.) I had Jane run for president, made Sandi resentful toward her mother, got Jake to take parenting seriously, made Daria an eensy bit more proactive and idealistic. Oh, and the biggest departures: I gave Quinn vision problems, made her president of the Fashion Club, and suggested she might be smart.

The fact that none of us writes strictly on-canon is significant, because too often it seems that fans think writing on-canon is the only true measure of fanfiction greatness. "Wow, your fanfic is just like the show!" one typical compliment goes. Yet is it really so great to be able to write a fanfic that resembles an episode?? For that matter, what does "writing like an episode," or writing on-canon, really mean?

From what I can gather, the strictest definition of on-canon writing is that the fanfic must in no way veer from the conventions established in the episodes, the Diaries, or the Database. That means the fanfic must be in script and it must have three Acts. It also must have Quinn acting shallow, Jake stupid, Helen domineering, Brittany vapid, Trent lazy, Jane sardonic, and Daria cynical.

It must have Quinn always feeling embarrassed about Daria and referring to her as her "cousin." It must have Quinn and Sandi struggling for power over the Fashion Club and always ending in a stalemate. ("Gee, if Quinn's so [fill in the blank], maybe she should be president of the Fashion Club." "Oh no, Sandi...") It must have Daria blushing around Trent, and him being clueless about her feelings. It must have Jodie and Mack lurking along the sidelines but not really factoring into the main plot. And it must have Daria and Jane mocking something, more often than not being justified.

Oodles of references to places or people cited in the Diaries/Database never hurt, nor some scene-changing music. And most of all, every episode must be presented from Daria's point of view, or risk seeming hopelessly off the mark.

At first glance, these conventions don't seem too strict. But when you examine them further, you realize that they don't allow you to focus on other characters, to make predictions about what will happen to them or to Daria. They also don't encourage the introduction of new main characters. In other words, you cannot speculate, which is the primary function of fanfiction.

Yes, fanfiction. Now I want you to take a deep breath and repeat to yourselves: "We are not here to write episodes of the show." Glenn and Susie will not read our work (or, at least, not admit to it), which means they are not going to swoop down on the Fanfiction Message Board one day and declare that they have selected a Chosen One to be a new script writer. Firstly, why would they select a perfect novice when they could have their pick of seasoned veterans, many of whom they might have known for years in the Biz?? Secondly, there are legal concerns -- MTV will not permit its members to read unsolicited scripts. How do I know? C.E. Forman told me, after he'd unsuccessfully tried to get his scripts looked at. And I, too, had no luck when I took the same course last summer. (Well actually, my package came back to me with a big "WHO??" on it, causing me to wonder whether the MTV clowns even knew who Glenn Eichler was.)

Sorry if that sounded so harsh, but I really wanted to get the point across. What we are doing as fanfic writers and readers is indulging in wish fulfillment. Our favorite show only makes thirteen episodes a season, each of which is a mere twenty-one minutes long. That means there can only be limited time devoted to important subjects (like death in "The Misery Chick"), and only limited scenarios can be played out. Plus, "Daria"'s generally detached tone has prevented it, thus far, from delving into serious subjects like rape or suicide. So, of course, we fans want to remedy this situation. Why? Because we love the characters. We love Daria, Jane, Trent, Stacy... and yes, some of us even love Quinn. ; > So wonderfully have they been sketched out on the show, we watch them knowing they can be more than what they are onscreen. Thus, we free them from the restraints of time, of the episodes' light dialogue, and, in some cases, of the realistic setting.

Writers have given the characters vibrant pasts and vibrant futures. We've added characters, and sometimes subtracted them!, focused on characters who've received scant attention on the show, and forced Daria and company to face challenges that would never see the light of day on MTV. Most significantly, a good many fanfics have upped the emotional octane of a Darian experience. Meaning, they've had "Daria" characters actually get upset to the point of tears and violence. This includes even the proclaimed "wacky" authors....

I had the option of staying on-canon, and chose not to take it. My first fanfic, "Rose-Colored Lenses," could be described as a typical canon piece, for not only did it have three scripted Acts, but it also had a light tone that hardly wavered, even during scenes of self-discovery. Most significantly, it restored everything to status quo at the end: Quinn chose poor vision and popularity over the chance to have a new identity (although she did show greater interest in learning).

From there, I could have just focused on writing situation-based, self-contained episodes that did not stray too far from the canon. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Quinn's struggle in "Rose-Colored Lenses" opened the door for more exploration of her character. I could see if she was more Daria's sister than she or Daria would ever admit; I could examine why she needed to be popular, what she would do if her popularity were threatened, and whether she couldactually expand herself enough to be popular and brainy. To let that opportunity go to waste would be foolish. After "The Tie That Chokes," I felt the same way: I had not said all that I could say about Helen, Amy, or the other members of the Barksdale family. I needed more episodes to show the changes in their relationship. So even though "Daria" has never been a show with strong continuity, I thought: "Why not create a couple of story arcs that would really explore this stuff?" The "couple" of story arcs have since branched off into three or four, creating the basis for The Driven Wild Universe.

I spoke earlier of fanfic being an exercise in wish fulfillment; The Driven Wild Universe is no exception. Specifically, it aims to satisfy those who want more "Daria" episodes per season (I'm aiming to write twenty-two, for a "full" season), longer episodes, and ones that correct some unrealistic dynamics on the show. By dynamics, I'm thinking especially of the long-lasting stalemate between Quinn and Sandi. Now I just happen to believe that nothing in Real Life is static; relationships and situations can change dramatically over the course of a few months. For Quinn and Sandi to never alter the face of their rivalry, after a year-and-a-half, to me, seems unrealistic. I also aim to bring out dynamics that could exist on the show, but have yet to take place -- like Helen's relationship with Amy, Quinn's rivalry with Brittany (see "Cheered Down"), or Jodie's grudging bond with Sandi, which we will see more of. My belief is that even if none of these dynamics take place on the show, they at least represent realistic possibilities for the characters.

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, let me emphasize that striving to write on-canon is not a sin; I just think it's limiting. It really only allows for two possibilities: episodes where Daria and Jane mock something stupid, and ones where an event occurs -- like a dance -- that usually result in Daria and Jane mocking something stupid. There's nothing inherently wrong with that -- who wouldn't want to read a good fanfic in which Daria and Jane nuke a sacred cow? But if every work of fanfiction were like that, it would be very, very, very, very boring. Boring, and a sign of a serious blindspot on the part of the community, that we can't recognize the characters' potential. Sticking to fanfics that never veer off canon would force us to let the characters stagnate, or even to turn them into parodies of themselves. If it's the characters who draw us to fanfiction writing in the first place, is it really fair that we do that to them?

At the same time, a valid question to ask is where we draw the line with interpreting characters. How much can we speculate before our work is labeled "out of character"?

It depends. Some believe any fanfic that depicts a character behaving differently from on the show is "out of character." Like having Daria become enraged and violent -- something which she has yet to do in the actual episodes. Authors like Peter Guerin have been slapped with the dreaded label after placing their characters in wild situations (Sandi attacking Daria with a baseball bat), or after suggesting they have disturbing pasts (Daria getting molested).

In my opinion, the "out of character" label is risky and highly subjective. And too often, it hearkens back to the canon-centric mentality that if it's not like the show, it's no good. But that mentality ignores the fact that there are only a handful of writers on the "Daria" staff, and dozens upon dozens of fanfic writers. That means more possible interpretations of the characters will appear in fandom than on the T.V. screen. And most of these interpretations will be valid. With regard to Guerin's work: there may not be any concrete evidence that Daria was molested as a child, but there are some clues in her withdrawn behavior that suggest she might have been. By that, I am not saying she was; I'm merely saying that Guerin did not pull his interpretation out of thin air.

Overall, my belief is that the best way to judge the validity of an interpretation is to see whether it progresses logically from the character's behavior on the show. Meaning, if we see Daria acting enraged in a fanfic, we should ask "how did she get this way?" -- instead of shaking our heads at the writer's poor characterization. Some of the very best fanfics I've read have had the characters acting logically different from how we see them on the show. In Martin Pollard's "Sins of the Past," when Daria trashes her room and attacks Sandi, we know it's because she's distressed about what happened to Quinn. And in it's own strange way, Daria's destructive behavior is a genuine show of love.

My rule of thumb is not full-proof, since -- once again -- we dozens of fans will each have a different idea of what makes "logical progression." But if you find someone's work falling a bit short, I'd advise you to keep calm, and remember once again that we are not writing for the show. No one from the "Daria" staff will punish us for being off the mark.

All in all, I see that off-canon writing is widespread and widely-accepted in the "Daria" fanfic community, which is good. However, there also seems to be an underlying belief that even the best of off-canon fics are not quite legitimate enough, that their writers have failed in some way because their work is not "like the show." That the ultimate honor is to create a character or scenario that gets so widely-adopted it becomes part of fanfic canon (which is another essay altogether). Well off-canon writers ought to put these feelings to rest. Multiple interpretations of the characters and widespread scenarios are a sign of a flourishing fanfic community. And if most of you who read this already feel that way -- great! I just wanted to write this essay to encourage those who felt discouraged. So now, don't worry about making Daria a lesbian or Trent a werewolf who pilots a starship. Don't worry about your interpretation becoming "de-legitimized" if it doesn't come true on the show. We're not supposed to be psychic in fandom, though it would be nice. The more interpretations that surface, the more we will have to talk about in between seasons. ; >


C.E. Forman wrote in his essay, "Writing Where It Hurts,": "Departures from the show's canon seem to be met with little tolerance." If my words here seem to relate to his statement perhaps it's not so suprising -- because with his blessing, I'm outing myself as his minor co-conspirator on that essay.

The story: Three weeks prior to its posting, C.E. wrote to me and told me that he had burnt-out on writing and reviewing fanfics, and was dissatisfied with the amount of feedback he'd received for his latest fic ("Fireworks"). Since I was experiencing similar dissatisfaction with feedback, and since we both knew of others who were, too, I suggested he write a "reform" essay. (Actually, I'd considered writing an essay in that vein, but at the time, I was so swamped with thesis paper writing, I would have had to put it off until late December.) He thought it was an excellent idea, so he wrote it, I beta-read it and made some small suggestions, and he submitted it. And the rest is history...

Sorry to have not said anything sooner. C.E. expressed initial concern that his essay would get flamed, and I don't think he wanted to drag anyone down with him. And I was concerned that I'd look like a glory-seeker if I went on the MB's screaming, "Me, me! I helped!" But confessing in an essay: oh, that's much different. Ah well... ; >

The point is: I, myself, am happy with the response that the essay has stirred up.People have been giving other people more feedback, and I think the most helpful avenue toward new fanfics has been a link on the Message Boards. I've been doing my best to read more and provide more feedback as well. I may not be able to read every link that gets posted on the Message Boards, but I am willing to offer my services as a beta-reader. In fact, the best way to get me to read your fanfics would be if you sent them to me over e-mail as an attachment (not as a cut-and-paste document; that takes up too much space on my e-mail disk). But eap! please don't send me your entire fanfic collection. One fanfic will suffice, and then you can refer me to others you've written. And also, 'cause I'll be busy writing my own fanfics and essays, I may not be able to return feedback right away. But still, I'd like to do more.

Anyway, to wrap up: anything that promotes diverse writing and thinking is good, so let's keep it up as best we can... ; >

The End

February 19, 2000

** This list is only of active fanfic authors -- ones have produced something within the last year, or could still produce something, which is why I did not include Katherine Goodman. Still, my theory holds true: "Untitled 1" is off-canon, in that it portrays Jane sick with leukemia.