On Retcons

It’s hard for the creator of a long-running work to remember everything, and harder still to get everything right on the first try. As often as not, whether you’re a gamer or a writer, you find something that you would absolutely love to implement—it would be awesome, thematic, whatever the appropriate adjective is—but you’ve already implemented something that, despite possibly having no other impact whatsoever on the narrative, renders what you want to do completely impossible. Or in light of current events, something that happened a long time earlier just doesn’t make sense. At this point, you’ve got two options. One is to just trash the idea, or change it until it fits the world. The other is to implement a retcon.

The retcon, or retroactive continuity, is essentially a mending tool for narratives. It takes a part of the story: a detail, a bit of worldbuilding, a character’s motivation, whatever—that is already functionally canonical to the story, and says, “No, it was this way.” These can range from being as small as the color of a character’s eyes to as plot-impacting as whether a character was freed of the main antagonist’s direct internal influence in a certain scene; they can be changed completely, or just reinterpreted; but no matter what, this is a case of the creator deciding after the fact that something isn’t going to work too well. Sometimes this is done to protect a later plot point, or fix an earlier plothole. Other times, it’s a response to someone’s dissatisfaction—the audience’s, a third party’s, or even the creator’s in retrospect. The one thing that always stays the same is that some part of the past changes, either to a compatible but different state or to something mutually exclusive with the original.

There are a number of factors that increase the odds of a retcon being needed. One is dividing a work into smaller pieces released separately, particularly over a long span of time, as that requires commitment before the full work is finished—as a result, you’re likelier to see retcons on a serial novel, a webcomic, a TV series, an RPG campaign or a long series of books than you are on a single long novel. Another is having multiple authors working separately in the same continuity; if one of them misremembers another’s details, or starts depicting one character severely uncharacteristically, another might splice in a retcon later to either justify the change or bring the character back to her original state/behavior.

One of the biggest catches with retcons, of course, is figuring out how blatant they can be. On the one hand, having a clear and recognized retcon can throw people out of their suspension of disbelief, and having too many can bring out both confusion and apathy in the audience (confusion from trying to keep track which facts are now true and which are now not, apathy because once it’s clear that anything can be retconned, it’s no good getting attached to much of anything). On the other hand, trying to just sneak a detail in without recognizing that the change is deliberate can look like shoddy work or attempts to lie to the audience. It’s best to recognize a retcon, but the more smoothly it can be worked into its world, the better.

Tool or crutch? Advantage or cheat? It all depends.


  1. UZ says:

    Everyone loves a retcon! The audience may go with it if there seems to be a good reason, but sometimes there is not.

    Sind’Vraal: Dude, I am actually a gargoyle.
    The Avatar: But you were a demon – sorry, daemon – for…
    Sind’Vraal: Ut! Gargoyle now.
    Audience: Ooh.

    After all, the reason why the audience is still paying attention now is because they already liked your story before, and if you revisit part of the story that they already liked, and alter the fundamental tone of it to fit with your current story, you may be undermining what people originally liked.

    Belgarion: It’s all happening again, isn’t it grandfather?
    Belgarath: I’m afraid so. Our perfectly decent stand-alone fantasy story has been refit to be part of a time-cycle, so be prepared to meet everyone we’ve ever met all over again in an effort to recapture their characters the same way as before.
    Prince Kheldar: Speak for yourselves! I was awesome last time and now look at me!
    Audience: Aah!

    After all, part of the importance of the story is what other people read into it, and if there’s something about a character or a setting or an event that they find important – even if you didn’t as the author – you can end up sabotaging a success that you might have recognized, but still didn’t understand for what it was.

    Obi-Wan: I will take the boy to Tatooine, not change his last name, and hide him at Anakin’s old house. He will never look there – or in the phone book.
    Senator Organa: What should we do with the girl?
    Obi: I want you to disguise her as a senator and hide her on television, constantly.
    Darth Vader: Hey, are those my kids?
    Obi: These aren’t the children you’re looking for.
    Vader: These aren’t the children I’m looking for.
    Audience: Nnngh!

    So I think it’s best to consider very carefully when going back and making changes, as you don’t always know what it is that made the story good in the first place. Your time for revision and self-research is limited – the audience’s time in front of the fridge after reading it is not. Plenty of stories sound all right to begin with, and then utterly go to pieces if you ever think about them again. If you’re one of those authors that actually managed a lasting success that doesn’t wilt when exposed to the light of reason, then going back and editing the resulting blossom should probably be done with care.

  2. Ravyn says:

    There’s the rub, isn’t it?

    I find most of the good retcons I’ve run into have been in game situations, with the consent of most if not all members of the group involved: I actually planned this post as the opener to a riff on the question of whether to retcon or not.

  3. UZ says:

    Ah, I misspelled Sin’Vraal. My mistake.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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