The Writer’s Craft – Worldbuilding, Part 4: Retcon City!

(Pensacola, Florida; Mar. 22, 2022,) – The privilege of worldbuilding is both a joy and a burden, an eagerly anticipated part of writing that storytellers relish, but one that requires good organizational skills in addition to a powerful imagination.

A systematic approach to worldbuilding can prevent your sanity from taking flight, leaving you a frustrated mass of literary impulses locked in mortal combat with your typewriter.  For those working on one-off novels with no sequels, worldbuilding is of limited scope, circumscribed by the singular nature of the project.  However, for those working on ideas for TV shows or, like me, novels that are part of an ongoing series, worldbuilding can present the unique problem of retcons.  Every writer will ‘discover’ new aspects of a character or fictional institution’s past over time.  What do we do when that great new idea blatantly contradicts what’s been previously established?

I first recommend you make sure your backstories are recorded in some kind of organized fashion.  I use outlines and timelines myself.  Whatever method suits you, ensure your data is recorded in a manner you can easily refer back to.  Now, obviously, if the timing and the subject of the retcon doesn’t openly contradict anything you’ve published, then you’re golden.  You can slot it in and let it become a smoothly organically part of the story.  However, if the idea contradicts something you’ve established, then you have to make some hard choices.

The first choice is whether the retcon is worth it or not.  Perhaps the idea is good, but would be better suited if applied to another character?  Perhaps the idea is good, but there’s just no way you can find to logically insert it into your continuity?  In that case, you’ll have to consider scrapping it altogether.  These are not easy decisions, but all writers have to make them from time to time.  Whatever you do must be narratively logical and respectful of the time your audience has invested in your work.

Retcons are an inevitable part of writing, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle showed how to use them wisely back in the 19th century! Check out my video (link below) to find out how he pulled this off.

Let’s take a look at a formerly popular TV show exemplifying both the right and wrong approaches to retcons.  TV shows are written ‘by committee’ over time, so there are multiple writers contributing to them, but the rules of good storytelling still apply.

When Doctor Who premiered in 1963, it was simply a show about the Doctor, a time-traveling space alien whose name was unknown and was on the run from his own people for mysterious reasons.  The show took off, becoming a true British television phenomenon.  Sadly, the show appeared on the brink of death when its beloved star, William Hartnell, had to retire from acting due to declining health in 1969.  The BBC decided to recast the character in order to save the show, but this meant figuring out how to introduce the new actor in a way that would help audiences accept him as the Doctor. 

Then the producers had a unique idea.  Since the Doctor is a space alien from a mysterious race called ‘Time Lords,’ they decided a Time Lords can regenerate into a new body upon his or her death.  This retcon would heighten the alien aspect of the human-looking Doctor and provide a narrative-supporting visual transition allowing the audience to more easily accept a new actor in the role.  In other words, it successfully added to the narrative.

The retcon worked so spectacularly that Doctor Who has been in production, on screen or in print, continuously since 1963.  In the early 1970s, it was established Time Lords had only 13 lives (12 regenerations), thus creating a limit on even the ‘magical’ Doctor and giving each regeneration the gravitas of being one step closer to the character’s death.  Later, during the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors in 1983, it was established the Time Lords could use their vast technology to bestow an entirely new set of 13 lives on worthy individuals, thereby doubling their life span.  Even so, all Time Lords would still have an inevitable final death one day.

These character retcons worked because they all operated within the rules of the Doctor Who universe while also staying true to another retcon rule: they were made slowly and carefully over time.  Decades, in fact.  Readers do not like retcons that blatantly contradict established narrative facts unless you’ve got a damned clever way of implementing them.  Even so, you can only use time travel or magic so many times before those become a mere crutch for poor writing…and that assumes you’re working in a universe that allows for time travel and/or magic!  This leads into the example Doctor Who provides of exactly what not to do in the case of integrating retcons.

Doctor Who spent 50 years establishing William Hartnell’s Doctor was the First Doctor, the very beginning of the character’s life.  The disastrous 2020 episode The Timeless Children has become a case study in all the wrong ways to perform a retcon—and doing them all at the same time!  Although the current season had been seeding new ideas about the Doctor’s past all year (a common theme in the show since the character keeps much of his background a mystery), The Timeless Children threw 50 years of continuity to the wind in only 65 minutes!  In one fell swoop, the Doctor was suddenly not from his long-established home planet, but was, in fact, from another universe.  The character was found as a child by the ancestors of the Time Lords and murdered over and over once they realized this child could regenerate until they unlocked and took that power for themselves.  As abruptly as a crashing airplane hits the ground, the Doctor was suddenly from another universe, the Time Lords were suddenly turned into murdering monsters, and the Doctor suddenly has no limit on how long the character can live.

Although Doctor Who is science fiction, the show still exists within human literature and is subject to the basic rules of good storytelling.  The early retcons about regeneration added to the character and were incorporated by carefully working them into the existing structure.  The later retcon of The Timeless Children in 2020 subtracted from the character by literally blowing up everything the audience had learned about the Doctor and the Time Lords in one episode.  The BBC took 65 minutes to destroy half a century’s worth of continuity…and they’re still wondering why the show’s ratings tanked after that!  No one wants to invest time or emotional energy in a story produced with such childish unprofessionalism, much less one that shows contempt for the audience’s long investment.

Retcons are an inevitable part of writing, be it novels, TV, radio, stage, etc.  Tread carefully.  Readers are quick to notice and complain when a beloved character’s story is badly rectonned, but are just as quick to be thrilled and excited if that character’s story is enhanced with a smoothly developed retcon.  As with many parts of the Writer’s Craft, if the retcon idea feels wrong, feels shoehorned-in, or contrived, then it probably isn’t a good idea to implement.

Listen to your heart and soul as you confront the retcon ideas that’ll come your way.  Applied carefully, these are opportunities to further develop and enhance your characters, story, and mythos.  Applied with the grace of a hand grenade tossed into a barrel of oatmeal, and these retcon ideas might just become the explosive device detonating your carefully crafted world into mulch.

-Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/Id70M14-N3A

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