Creating an Alternate Universe (AU)

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Creating an
Alternate Universe (AU)
by JEHallows

Some of the most interesting fanfics are written in what we call AU, or Alternate Universe. This is when the original setting for the story is completely changed. For instance, the wild west can be swapped for a futuristic outer space setting, or historical characters can be placed in a modern world. This may seem a daunting prospect at first, but fear not, with a little well-placed thought, whole new possibilities can open up in your head! Writing AU fics gives you the freedom to explore virtually anything, while dismissing certain aspects of the original story. Don't be afraid to ignore things that don't fit your chosen setting. Almost everything except the characters themselves can be changed from the ground up. It's a wonderful way to explore writing and learn about character - you are working with already established characters but creating your own world. The challenges they face in this world may be completely different than anything they've encountered before. Will it create limitations? Will it give them more abilities? Will they lead different lives, meet different people? It's a great opportunity to explore what hasn't been covered in canon. Don't be afraid to dismiss things that don't work for you, but include things that do. You are free to pick and choose.

Successful AU fics create a different world whilst still keeping a familiar sense of the original work they are based on. For instance, one of my one-shots replaced pirates with bikers. A biker gang and a pirate crew have many similarities - swapping waves for wheels, bikers can travel pretty much wherever they please, not stopping in one place for long. The sense of freedom, of doing as you please, is prevalent in both sets of characters. A biker can love his bike as much as a pirate loves his ship. Both gangs can enjoy drinking and gambling at bars and taverns, and both gangs consider themselves outlaws with their own set of codes. So you can see how swapping one world for another can work in this case. That's not to dissuade you from taking something completely and utterly different; there's nothing wrong with placing elves and hobbits on a futuristic planet, for example. But an AU can capture the overall atmosphere of its original story if there are similarities. So, think of the setting and characters, and consider what kind of world has some similarities.

If you're going to use an historical period (say, the Wild West or Victorian London) then do your research! If it's not a fantasy world, you need to make sure you have the technology, dress codes and social aspects right! This will only enhance your story and make it more believable. If research isn't your thing, you can always create a fantastical world based on a real time period, rather like steampunk. But make sure you specify this in your story, so people don't become confused! No-one wants to be reading and then suddenly stop and think "wait, they didn't have machine guns in Victorian England, this story sucks". You could create your own place names rather than using real ones, or avoid real historical events and people. Not that you can't be inspired by real events, of course!

Making a bullet point list of the things you know about a certain time period can help when creating your new world. It's also a neat way of reminding yourself of things you can put in your story. Note down the styles of dress, types of weapons, jobs, modes of transport etc. You never know what kind of ideas you might get from this.

Another method you can try, is listing some of the things that happen in the original work you're writing about. Can these events take place in a different setting? Let's take The Hunger Games, for example. Can Katniss Everdeen be a cowgirl forced into pistol duels rather than a fight for survival inside an artificial dome? Or does that concept seem a little ridiculous and unworkable? Perhaps we could try taking Frodo out of the Shire and placing him in a modern 21st Century world where the voices in his head encourage him to do evil things without him realising the thoughts come from the ring on his finger. Try making a list of your ideas - what might each character face that is particular to their world? Guns, horses, stagecoaches, or maybe mobile phones, computers, cars. Still thinking of the major events that take place in the original story, can you exchange, for example, horses for cars, or a sword fight for a gun fight, or maybe a thrilling train robbery for a spaceship battle?

In most AU fics, the characters remain essentially the same as the original work they are from. Their personalities shouldn't be affected too much. They can dress different, have a completely different job, but essentially keep the same role (hero, villain etc). But you are free to give them new love interests, new back-stories, or even create careers for them in your new setting. For instance, there is a widely used scenario based on the Assassin's Creed video games, where writers place the characters (typically from historical time periods such as the French Revolution or Renaissance Italy) in a modern day coffee shop. The characters keep their personality, but they obviously encounter a very different set of circumstances. In the original games, the characters don't exist at the same time, and so can never have met. But in AU fics, they can all exist together! This gives you the scope to be able to create confrontations or friendships that would not otherwise be explored. You can make stories around your favourite characters who would never have normally met!

In fact, an AU fanfic doesn't even need to be set in a different world. For instance, I've written stories based on the TV show Once Upon A Time. I kept the Enchanted Forest fairy tale setting, but dismissed the modern world Storybrooke side of the show. This is still technically an AU, since it is dismissing a whole aspect of the canon world. You can make completely different backgrounds for the canon characters, create different adventures for them, give them new villains to interact with, or new love interests! You can go as far away from canon as you like, as long as the characters essentially remain the same! AU fanfics create virtually limitless possibilities.

Creating a whole new world isn't as difficult as it may seem at first. With some careful thought on your canon story, and a little planning for your chosen alternate world, you can create anything!

 With some careful thought on your canon story, and a little planning for your chosen alternate world, you can create anything!

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