Canon, Consistency, and Ilja & Anja

In the last few weeks, I've found myself again and again referring to strict internal consistency as a current storytelling fashion, and not necessarily the one true way to do things. I figure it's time to explain what I mean by that.

In This Year: Canon

Our default storytelling mode these days seems to be "historical epic." I don't mean in the same sense that that's a genre, of course. But we've tended to take a very literal approach to our big stories, such that they wind up like clockwork, each gear-tooth fitting into another with infinitesimal precision.

As in history, there is a clear timeline: We know the precise sequencing of any piece of the story and how it fits into the whole. We can write wiki articles laying out that timeline, and know, if not precise dates, at least the order of causation. We can make family trees and maps, trace the rise and fall of political dynasties, know the protagonist's complete dating history. This is the fuel that modern fandom runs on: Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, True Blood, any Whedon property you care to name.

We transmedia creators love this fashion, because it allows us to hide truths in the differences between one fragment of a story and the next, in the same way that an astronomer can detect a distant planet by tracing the brief shadow it draws on the face of its star. It is elegant and satisfying.

Perplex City was exactly the same kind of sprawling and strictly internally consistent transmedia project that I am calling fashionable. It had a clear timeline, a clear geography, characters that evolved, and a backstory that became increasingly convoluted and relevant as the story changed. But Perplex City also had Ilja and Anja.

Mythology

Ilja and Anja were a sort of folk tale the Perplexians had. Their creation emerged out of some thinking about what kinds of truths their society might tell themselves and mythologize. Ilja and Anja were a pair or orphans, brother and sister. In the stories about them, they would ask a favor: For food, or shelter, for kindness; but they were always refused.

In the dark, secret past of Perplex City, its people had completely destroyed their neighbors in a brutal war. It was a city with a guilty conscience. And the intended subtext of Ilja and Anja were that these were the ghosts of foreign children killed in the war; each story was a sort of guilty reminder of a wrong done in the distant past that could never be corrected.

But -- to bring this back to the point at hand -- Ilja and Anja stories were also timeless. It would be ridiculous to work out which story happened before another one, because none of them were true, or they were all true, or they happened all at once but to a thousand different children. It simply doesn't make sense to treat them as history.

Likewise, for all that we like to refer to transmedia as mythology, this is one of the traits that separates mythology from modern entertanment. Mythology decidedly does not fit together like clockwork, and you cannot draw a map of Olympus or Asgard or Shangri-La; the ability to do so would erase the mystery forever, smoke out of a bottle, and make the ineffable suddenly common and mundane.

It doesn't matter which extramarital fling Zeus had first; as with Ilja and Anja, they all happened at once, or none of them did. The factuality of the story isn't relevant. What matters are the truths these stories reveal. In his case, about marriage, maybe, or lust and jealousy.

This mode of storytelling was, not so long ago, quite fashionable indeed. Think of the classic sit-com. Nobody ever ages, and every episode ends exactly as it began. The only things that matter are constants between the episodes: That the Brady family are always basically loving, that Gilligan and crew were always stuck on that island, that Jeannie wouldn't be found out.

One could easily imagine that same kind of mythologizing for Indiana Jones and James Bond: Multiple stories that are all equally true, even if they happen to be inconsistent. Or even a hybrid approach, something the X-Files *almost* did: Conflicting stories that are all equally true on the face of them and reset to a zero state, with glimpses of deeper truths from time to time in the spaces between.

The Line

Some consistency is necessary in order to keep a story comprehensible. It's going to be hard to relate to a character who is a wise-cracking lawyer at the beginning but a somber god at the end -- unless that transformation is the story you're trying to tell. And if you're telling a transmedia story characterized by sweeping change over time, then a greater degree of care is probably in order -- especially in these times, when you can almost rely on fan culture to tug at every inconsistency and loose end to see what treasure pulling it away might reveal.

But it isn't the only way, and our current fixation on unerring consistency may well be a passing fad. Once upon a time, flowery prose was the hallmark of a good novel. Now all writing advice warns against it. One day, sacrifiing a great story for the sake of trivial canon consistency may look just as ludicrous to us. What makes a good story... well... it's a matter of taste, isn't it?