Shipping, headcanons, and OTPs: an introduction to fandom vocabulary
Though fan communities have existed in the forms of zines, email lists, and online archives for years—decades!—it is only recently that the world of fan creations has been exposed to the glaring spotlight of mainstream media attention. If you’re new to the world of fandom, the jargon may flummox you; but Oxford Dictionaries can help! Here’s a primer on some basic terminology of the fandom multiverse.
Pretty much anything a fan of a piece of media makes that incorporates existing elements of the original. The best known type of fanwork is fanfiction, styled with a space between the two words in most dictionaries but very rarely in fan communities themselves.
But the term ‘fanwork’ can be used for a massive array of things (also known as ‘transformative works’), from music to paper dolls to full-fledged fanmade movies. If you’re not sure what specific category a fan-made creation falls into, just say fanwork and you can be sure you’ve spoken accurately.
The etymology and usage of ship and its older cousin slash received an impressively thorough run-down in a recent piece by Flourish Klink of the Fansplaining podcast. There is nothing I (or anyone else, possibly) can add to her work on this.
As in literary studies, canon in fannish circles refers to the official product on which the fandom is based (although fandoms differ—from each other and amongst themselves—on the question of the exact boundaries of canonicity). Some may, for instance, accept Doctor Who tie-in novels or radio adventures as canon, while others restrict their canon adherence to the television show itself. (Incidentally, canon is originally from the Greek kanōn, ‘rule’, and was first incorporated into English – via Latin – with the sense ‘a rule, law, or decree of the Church’ – so it has traveled quite some distance.)
Like so many fannish terms, the fun of this one is in its semantic variants. Headcanon refers to an individual’s interpretation of canon, like how the pastors at Unitarian churches will announce firmly that David and Jonathan were gay, or how I fully believe Mirkwood elves deliberately use their worst table manners when they’re in Imladris just to mess with the Rivendell elves. (If you are not a Lord of the Rings person, substitute ‘northerners’ for ‘Mirkwood elves’ and ‘southerners’ for ‘Rivendell elves’, or the other way around if you live in the US, and you will have a fair idea of the sense of that example.)
The David and Jonathan thing may, in fact, be sufficiently widespread to qualify as fanon, which is what the luckiest of headcanons grow up to be: unofficial conventions, character traits, or theories that are widely and casually accepted as true by the fandom.
One True Pairing, i.e., the characters you will ship together forever. Paradoxical though it may seem, our modern and permissive era of fandom does not restrict you to a single OTP, and fans may have a range of OTPs across (or even within!) their many fandoms. Displaying typical linguistic playfulness, fandom continues to produce iterations on this term: ‘broTP’ for a platonic relationship; ‘noTP’ for a ship nothing could induce you to support; ‘OT3’ and ascending numbers for relationships consisting of trios, quartets, and One Direction.
You have not inquired, but my OTP is Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and I feel no shame about this. Please @ me at any time, day or night, to scream about their eloquent and enduring devotion to each other (or the time an adorable misunderstanding by Robert Browning led to a mini-contretemps with the staff of the OED).
Fandom frequently sorts fanworks by the emotional métier in which they are written. Fluffy fanworks promise happy endings, and generally happy beginnings and middles as well. Creature comforts feature prominently. In fanworks tagged ‘angst’, absolutely nobody is getting a good night’s sleep, and while the ending may be a happy one, the characters will probably have to march through hell to get there. Expect crippling self-doubt, tragic pasts imperfectly recovered from, and wildly dysfunctional families.
A type of fanfiction in which a problematic element of canon is corrected. Maybe a character died that the writer of that fic wanted alive. Maybe Laurie and Amy got married in the end even though nobody in the whole world ever remotely shipped them. (I expect a flurry of passionate Laurie/Amy shippers in the comments to this post.) A fix-it fic corrects these pesky problems, either by creating a canon-divergent AU (see below) where things turned out differently, or by inventing a canon-compliant means of producing another outcome.
My favorite thing in this life. You require no further information.
Okay, okay, okay, I’ll elaborate. AU stands for ‘alternate universe’ and refers to fanworks that transpose characters into a world other than the canonical one. Some AUs follow all the rules of the canonical world while diverging from canon events; others throw the characters into new universes entirely. Coffee shop and bakery AUs are exceptionally popular, presumably because coffee and baked goods represent the peak of human achievement.
If I were to register a complaint about AUs, it would be that not nearly enough fanworks exist wherein the Avengers are all contestants in The Great British Bake Off. The fault is not in our stars, dear readers, but in ourselves.