Retcons, or instances of “retroactive continuity,” are an increasingly divisive subject in the modern entertainment atmosphere of decade-spanning series and universes with dozens of sequels. Retcons are a type of literary device in which writers adjust, ignore or contradict previously established facts.
The competitive attempts of writers in every genre create interesting and emotional stories that naturally lead to narrative inconsistencies. And this comes at the cost of abandoning their already nuanced and well-beloved characters.
The intent of retroactive rewrites almost always need not be questioned as well-meaning, but the offense to fans cannot be overlooked. It can be quite the metaphorical slap in the face to invest one’s time into studying the lore of a franchise only to be rewarded with dismissal of relevant information from the canon.
Particularly large points like character motivation and pivotal events in a timeline are especially difficult for writers to alter without creating inconsistencies, and, therefore, a divide in their respective communities.
For example, in the later “Harry Potter” books, the authorial innovation of instantaneous travel made some transportation decisions by the characters a bit nonsensical in hindsight, yet it cannot be argued that much is lost in the way of gravitas due to this trivial change.
Conversely, when the popular soap opera “Dallas” inspired infinite parody by retconning an entire season as “just a dream” in order to bring back a character that had previously been killed off, the integrity of the show took a massive hit. There is simply no reason to make emotional connections to characters that can be taken away or returned from a story on the whim of a writer.
Certainly a case could be made for “Dallas” to be among the worst offenders in retcon in media history, and therefore most retcon could be mostly benign. It is important, though, to consider genres like science fiction, graphic novels and high fantasy, in which I find minor changes to be much more impactful.
Much of the appeal of these styles for fans is the discovery, memorization, and speculation about obscure facts. Change only the already established home planet or familial relationship of a character to fit a niche as George Lucas is notorious for doing many times with “Star Wars,” and a mess is made.
So how can we strike a balance between letting writers tell the stories they want and satiating their audience by keeping the story straight? Certainly the best case scenario would be doing both. Additions can be made to previously established canon without negatively impacting the experience. Yet, this may not always be possible, so how much is too much when it comes to retcon?
Without drawing too hard a line in the sand, retcon becomes excessive for me when characters and narratives stop resembling themselves from before they were altered, regardless of whether the new canon is better or not.
In fiction, I find my ability to suspend my disbelief is highly contingent on the honesty and consistency of the writer. It becomes difficult to justify the time investment into characters that don’t develop realistically or into a narrative that doesn’t adhere well to cause and effect when there’s so much more entertainment out there.
There may sincerely come a time for every series when any sort of retcon is no longer worth the transparency it will surrender, and the sooner writers accept that, the sooner their fiction will have higher artistry and appeal—at least for those of us with a pretentiously vengeful eye toward inconsistency.