External Retcon

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While some works of fiction expose the "truth" about historical figures or events, others expose the "truth" behind the events of earlier works of fiction. This is mostly confined to parodies or works that attempt Deconstruction of the work(s) they reference.

This is most common in Literature, due to their ability to reference other novels hundreds of years old (and out of copyright). Fanfic, of course, can and does cheerfully ignore the copyright issue, frequently merely to try to justify the source material's tropes by means of Fan Wank.

When very well done, this can result in interesting and thought-provoking works. When not done well (more often), it can turn into simple attacks on previous works, or attempts to impose today's passing standards onto a story set in a time before those passing standards became the flavor of the month, and often the result is merely irritating.

Sometimes overlaps with a Perspective Flip. Often a form of Twice-Told Tale. See also Fractured Fairy Tale.

Related to Demythtification, which applies this to Mythology into Historical Fiction by Doing In the Wizard.

Examples of External Retcon include:
  • From comics: The version of the events of The War of the Worlds found in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen reveals that what killed the Martians was not just Earth microbes, but a virus deliberately engineered by none other than Dr. Moreau, at the behest of a steampunkish The Men in Black organisation. Much of the premise of this comic is also an External Retcon: Most of the members of the league, who are all characters lifted from existing works of fiction, are revealed to have faked their own deaths before the beginning of the narrative. The prose at the end of each volume also fits this trope, since it contains many, many retcons of other works; for example, an explanation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as a trip to a horrible world where the rules of logic did not exist, and after Through the Looking Glass, Alice dies because of organ reversal.
  • Several works have suggested that Sherlock Holmes's archnemesis Professor Moriarty (who, you will recall, nobody got to meet in "The Final Problem" but Holmes himself) was either entirely non-existent or an Innocent Bystander who had unwittingly become the focus of Holmes's delusions. (The full explanation usually brings up Holmes's drug habit at some point.) Possibly the most famous version is Nicholas Meyer's novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which was made into a movie.
    • Horror anthology webcomic Nightmare World did a variation of this concept where Moriarty was actually a Hyde-like alternate persona of Holmes, created so he'd have an opponent who could match wits with him on even footing.
    • The concept was also used in a stage play (with Jeremy Brett as Holmes) in the eighties.
    • Another variation is Michael Dibdin's infamous The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, in which Holmes is completely insane and turns out to be both Moriarty and Jack the Ripper.
    • Then there is Without a Clue in which Holmes is a character Watson uses to make his stories more interesting, but public demand forces him to hire a clueless actor to play the part.
    • In a short story by PG Wodehouse, a character propounds a similar theory that Moriarty is Holmes's evil alter ego. Nobody believes him.
      • This is also given a nod in the Season Two finale of Sherlock, where Moriarty convinces everyone that he's an innocent actor and Holmes only cooked up the "Moriarty" arch-nemesis so that he had someone to catch to show off and look good. Given how Holmes of that series is an Insufferable Genius, most everyone does believe it.
  • Speaking of Sherlock Holmes and The War of the Worlds, Manly Wade Wellman's Sherlock Holmes' War Of The Worlds features Holmes and Professor Challenger discovering that the creatures H. G. Wells identifies as 'Martians' couldn't possibly have come from Mars at all. As part of the conceit something of a feud has developed between Dr. Watson and H. G. Wells over what the former believes to be the latter's deliberate efforts to distort the truth and cover-up Holmes' deductions.
    • The same work also does something of a retcon on Mrs. Hudson, Holmes' widow landlady; although she's not described in much detail in the original stories, she's usually depicted in later pastiches and adaptations as a rather matronly lady around late middle-age. Wellman casts her as a young widow who is having an affair with Holmes. The reason Watson doesn't mention this in the original stories? He hasn't cottoned on, because he's a bit oblivious about these things.
  • The Dracula Tape by Fred Saberhagen, in which Dracula explains how the events described in Bram Stoker's novel resulted from a series of terrible misunderstandings.
    • Similarly, Saberhagen's The Holmes-Dracula File reveals that one of the characters in Dracula, Jack Seward, became a criminal mastermind who planned to extort London, and other cities worldwide, with the Plague.
    • Countless other settings in which Our Vampires Are Different feel the need to include Dracula under House Rules.
    • Saberhagen's The Frankenstein Papers likewise deals with what "really" happened between Frankenstein and his creation: The creature wasn't created by Frankenstein, it was a humanoid alien who was curious about what Frankenstein was up to; it got too close, was zapped by the lab equipment and ended up on the slab with Easy Amnesia. Frankenstein was so insane he mistook the alien for the rotting mass of body parts which was now in a heap on the floor; Frankenstein told the alien that he was his creation, so the alien believed it. Frankenstein's attempt to create life was a failure, and was even more morally dubious than in the original: his research had been funded by slave traders who wanted to market his creations, hence his aborted attempt to create a breeding female.
    • It's mentioned in Vampire High that this is one of the reasons that relations between humans and vampires aren't so great. Dracula (who was really a decent guy) agreed to tell Bram Stoker all about vampire society, and Stoker proceeded to ignore most of it and make the vampires all look like a bunch of baby-killing demons. This pissed off the vampire community so much that plenty of them wanted to off Stoker, and only didn't because Dracula had promised him protection. Even in present times, vampires call humans that they hate "stokers". They call humans that they're out to get "brams".
  • The Phantom of Manhattan was written as a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, which was only possible by retconning Erik's death out of the story. This was done in the introduction by explaining why Gaston Leroux's "sources" were unreliable and thus events must have played out differently from how he described them. It is probably no coincidence that the novel fits in continuity with the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical exactly.
  • The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter continues on from the end of The Time Machine; among other things, it explains that the "dying sun" period near the end of the original book was earlier than current scientific estimates because the Morlocks had been messing with it, and that the time traveller had been given a helping hand in the early development of the time machine by his own future self.
  • The novel and Broadway musical Wicked shows the events behind The Wizard of Oz from the Witch's perspective.
    • The writer of Wicked, Gregory Maguire, has made a cottage industry out of this practice, also creating revisionist versions of "Cinderella" (Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister), "Snow White" (Mirror Mirror) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Lost).
    • In the novel version of Wicked, you don't have to have read the books, but it really helps, especially in catching all of the Shout-Outs and Foreshadowing.
    • The television adaptation of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister even lampshades the retelling, with the narrator saying that viewers who liked the magic explanations of the fairy tale aren't going to be happy with learning that the "true story" was more ordinary.
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is the story of how Bertha (Rochester's first wife) from Jane Eyre went crazy. Rochester is far less sympathetic than he is in Jane Eyre, even though part of the book is narrated by him.
  • The Wind Done Gone, by Alice Randall, was a retelling of Gone With The Wind from the perspective of a Flat Character—Cynara, Scarlett O'Hara's mulatto half-sister. All of the direct references to the original are done as Lawyer-Friendly Cameos—Scarlett's only referred to as "The Other", for instance. (Not Lawyer-Friendly enough: The publisher was unsuccessfully sued by the estate of the original author.)
  • Tabletop Games example: In the central book for the game Promethean: The Created, there is a prologue where a psychoanalyst interviews Frankenstein's Monster. The monster claims that his "bride" (a nightmarish creature he created by mistake) told Mary Shelley the story that became Frankenstein just to make him a figure of horror to humanity. The other books in the gameline are deliberately vague about whether or not he was right.
    • A similar thing happens in the 2004 TV movie Frankenstein. When a main character mentions Frankenstein to the original creature, he says, "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was a fiction based on fact. I am that fact."
  • In the world of The Dresden Files, it is stated that the White Court of vampires convinced Bram Stoker to write Dracula in order to expose the weaknesses of the Black Court of vampires, one of several factions of vampires that each conform to different vampire mythologies. This resulted in the near destruction of the Black Court, as almost all of humanity learned their weaknesses.
    • The licensed RPG, written by Billy the werewolf with help from Harry and Bob, has the three authors discussing this in margin notes as well as how this very book could likewise be used to help Muggles against other supernatural predators.
    • According to Word of God, H.P. Lovecraft wrote his books to spread knowledge of Outsiders. Furthermore, Abdul Alhazred the "Mad Arab" was killed by the Gatekeeper and the Necronomicon was a book of rituals that was distributed by the White Council after his death to lessen its power (each ritual can only give so much power at once and when too many people try to draw on a ritual's power source, it is rendered so weak as to be harmless).
  • Spike is miffed with the Buffy Verse Dracula for much the same reason as in the Dresden series (see above), as he spilled the beans to Stoker on many of a vampire's weaknesses. Also, Dracula owes Spike eleven pounds because he destroyed Spike's first edition copy of Dracula.
  • In the Thursday Next novels, crucial scenes from classic literature turn out to be caused by people from the "real world" entering the story (or vice versa). For example, Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre was burned down by "real-world" criminal Acheron Hades, and Miss Havisham's death scene in Great Expectations is the result of a fatal car crash (in a drag race). Indeed, in Thursday's universe, Jane Eyre originally ended with Jane going away to India to do missionary work with her brother and wondering what could have been; it's only through Thursday's intervention that Jane ends up marrying Rochester, and that pisses off elements of Jurisfiction to no end.
  • Jekyll starts by establishing the main character as a descendant of Dr. Jekyll and then elaborating on his powers and love-life.
  • The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs features the Big Bad Wolf (real name: Alexander T. Wolf) telling the real story of his hunting of the pigs: he only wanted a cup of sugar from each pig, but his sneezes had the unfortunate accidental result of demolishing their houses and causing their untimely deaths. No one's going to leave a perfectly good dead pig just lying around. So he ate them. As for the third pig, he insulted Al's granny, resulting in Al trying to break down the door by the time the cops came by...
    • A single-panel cartoon had the wolf and the pigs sharing beer and sandwiches while they laughingly reminisce about "how I blew down your houses for the insurance."
    • The recent Guardian advertisments about getting the story behind the story also has it as an insurance scam, but with the wolf as an innocent patsy. "I know that wolf! He's got asthma!"
  • The Moneypenny Diaries novels and short stories by Samantha Weinberg (writing as Kate Westbrook) chronicle the life and times of MI 6 mainstay and James Bond flirting partner Jane Moneypenny.
  • Neil Gaiman has done this, most notably with Snow, Glass and Apples ("Snow White" from the stepmother's point of view) and the film adaptation of Beowulf.
  • Starslip Crisis: the Cirbozoids take responsibility for Cloverfield.
  • The fanfiction The Renegades tries to show what really happened to the six Nobodies "killed" in Castle Oblivion during Kingdom Hearts.
  • Confessions of a Teen Sleuth is an external retcon of the Nancy Drew series, narrated by Nancy herself.
  • In Dragon Ball Abridged, the reason King Kai told Goku the planet Vegeta was destroyed by a meteor instead of the real reason was because Frieza vandalized the wiki page and Goku lost interest before King Kai could check the edit history.
  • In L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero Lost, Miranda explains where William Shakespeare's The Tempest diverges from the facts. For one thing, she did not get married.
  • In the COPS-in-Star Wars parody Troops, Luke's foster parents weren't killed by Imperials. Aunt Beru, during a domestic dispute that the Storm Troopers were checking in on (and were quite familiar with), grabs a thermal detonator from one of the Troops and blows up herself, Owen and the farm house.
  • The Anno Dracula timeline of several of Kim Newman's novels is an external retcon of Bram Stoker's Dracula, with the premise being that vampires around the world drop The Masquerade after Dracula defeats Van Helsing and goes on to marry Queen Victoria.
  • The TV show Alias fanfic halo is notorious for this, with almost endless external retcons trying to recast the character of Irina Derevko, played by Lena Olin, as a misunderstood heroine who just loved her husband and daughter, and meant well. The canonical evidence for loving her husband and daughter(s) is ambiguous, the canonical evidence for 'meant well' is essentially non-existent.
  • The Sliders fanfic The Slide Home reveals what happened to Rembrandt and Wade between Seasons 3 and 4, including their move to Los Angeles, the government funding sliding research, with the Earth Prime versions of Maggie Beckett and Angus Rickman involved, as well as the revelation that Elizabeth Mallory had a son named Colin who had died at birth.
  • In the Robotech fanfic Valkyrie Nights, detectives from the Macross City Police Department chase a serial killer into the under-construction SDF-1 Macross. The serial killer detonates a grenade, which damages the hyperspace fold drive, thus causing the fold drive to disappear when it is first used to escape the Zentraedi.
    • It is also revealed that the United Nations does not have a death penalty, although some of its member states do. The United Earth Forces does have a Supermax type underground prison in Russia.
    • In "A Rainy Night", Claudia mentions that she and Roy never spoke about their conversation that they had in that eponymous night. One reason for that, revealed in Valkyrie Nights, was about a minute later, Roy was arrested for the murders that were committed by the serial killer who had damaged the SDF-1 hyperspace fold drive.
  • CS Lewis's Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, told by Istra (Psyche)'s older sister Orual. Orual is inspired to write the story after hearing the myth and being angered by what she sees as the gods' self-serving version of the events. Turns out her version is somewhat self-serving as well, and the second part is itself a retcon of the first part, revealing that some events were closer to the original version than Orual's.
  • In H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos there are several inconsistencies due to several different authors expressing their own views in the stories set in the continuity.
    • One of the most notable issues is Hastur, a name which Lovecraft dropped only once in his stories as a reference to Robert W. Chambers's The King in Yellow anthology. The original text the name seemed to indicate a place, not person (it was almost always invoked along with the Lake of Hali and the City of Carcosa). However, Chambers himself borrowed the term from Ambrose Bierce's "Haïta the Shepherd", where Hastur was a deity of shepherds, and not a place. Derleth, likely knowing the reference, made Hastur into a Great Old One.
  • One early Gunnerkrigg Court chapter gave this treatment to the minotaur story. The minotaur himself was actually a pretty nice guy.
  • Wapsi Square has done this to a couple of stories from Greek mythology. There is an interpretation of the Medusa myth that makes most of the characters more sympathetic, as well as a version of the encounter between Oedipus and the sphinx (warning, some spoilers) that makes Oedipus out to be a simple pawn who padded his own story.
  • Lenore Hart's novel Becky is told from Becky Thatcher's point of view—apparently, Mark Twain lied about quite a few of the events in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Specifically, Becky was One of the Boys, and Injun Joe was framed.
  • The Looking Glass Wars starts out by revealing that Alice (actually spelled "Alyss") is a lost princess of the real Wonderland. When she ended up in our world, she told Charles Dodgson her plight in the hopes that he'd write a tell-all book, and he proceeded to get everything she'd told him wrong.
  • Once Upon a Time frequently combines this with Fractured Fairy Tales.
  • The Whateley Universe is a superhero world, so the retcons often relate to comic books. In-universe it is known that The Baroness of the G.I. Joe stories was a blatant ripoff of supervillainess Lady Hydra, but she was retired for long enough that the comic book authors didn't get killed. It is also recognized in-universe that the 'age one year every four years' Comic Book Time is in honor of the legendary Miss Champion (later Lady Champion) of the 40's and 50's (who is still aging so slowly that she looks like she is in her early thirties even though she is now a mid-seventies school headmistress).