Think of a favorite story of yours, or a beloved character. Chances are there are things about that story or character you take for granted. Here are some examples: Superman fights for truth, justice and the American way. Aragorn is proud of his heritage and wishes to reclaim his throne. Buffy learns of her destiny as a Slayer while she’s a cheerleader in high school. Tyr’s hand is devoured by a dire wolf named Fenrir.
Change one thing about any of those stories, and everything changes.
Warren Ellis changed one thing about Superman. If his spaceship had crashed on Earth twelve hours earlier, it would have landed in Sibera, not Kansas. Hence, Red Son, one of the most audacious and comprehensive Elseworlds stories I’ve ever read. No aspect of the DC Universe is unaffected by this one matter of timing, from Kal-El’s relationship with Diana of the Amazons to Hal Jordan’s origin as a Green Lantern. Superman becomes a heroic symbol of Communist Russian under Stalin, all because of the Earth’s rotation.
Aragorn changed in Peter Jackson’s films. Instead of reforging Narsil the red-hot second he reaches Rivendell in his eighty-sixth year, Aragorn shrinks from his destiny. He fears the weakness of men, unconvinced that the blood of Numenor makes him any different from the weak and corrupt people he’s met and will meet. While some die-hard fans of Tolkien’s works threw back their heads and howled at this change (among others), I found this made his character deeper, more realistic and much more interesting and appealing. How many of us are that confident in our own abilities, our own destinies? How many of us entertain doubts about our futures and our capacity to meet the challenges awaiting us? Aragorn, despite his long lifespan and epic destiny, seems much more like us, and thus we are drawn deeper into his story and that of the Fellowship.
Imagine if Buffy found out she was a Slayer at a younger age. Let’s say she’s six years old, her daddy’s attacked by a vampire at an amusement park and she stakes it with a popsicle stick. Just pure instinct: she jumps onto the monster and drives the wood home through sheer panic. How would her story change? How shallow would she really be with blood on her hands at such a young age? Or go the other direction. Buffy’s in her twenties, married to some pretty jerk who has no time for her, so she fills her days shopping and gossiping. It could be like any episode of Sex & the City until the vampires get involved. How reluctant would she be to respond to the call? What if her husband tried to turn things around given her drastic change in lifestyle, only to discover she’s had an affair with Angel? Think about it.
I mentioned Tyr because of The Drifter’s Hand, obviously. It was more a change of genre than a change of events, but it was still an interesting exercise. It’s extended into other works as well, as the fourth (and final?) draft of Citizen in the Wilds proceeds. I changed a few things, dialed back some characters to let others grow in a different way. The results are a definite improvement. The downside is, more rewriting is required. But if the end result works better, it will be worth it.
What stories would you change, if you could?