It’s a tale as old as time:
Author writes story. Fans fall in love with story. Several years later, author releases new information that completely changes how fans understand the story.
If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, you know what I’m talking about, even if you haven’t heard the term before.
A retcon (short for “retroactive continuity”) is when the form or content of a previously established narrative is changed.
In this article, I’ll talk about what retconning is… and why it makes me want to tear my hair out.
What Is “Retconning” Anyway?
A retcon is when an author or creator changes something about his or her work after the fact.
Here’s how Arthur Conan Doyle did it in the Sherlock Holmes series:
In “The Final Problem,” Holmes fights Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. Both men tumble to their deaths. Later, Conan Doyle reveals that Holmes didn’t actually die – the whole thing was a setup!
This after-the-fact change is a perfect example of a retcon. When Conan Doyle told his readers that Sherlock Holmes didn’t die, it changed their perception of what happened in “The Final Problem.” Now, instead of a tragic sacrifice, Holmes’ “death” becomes another move in a long game of mental chess with Moriarty.
Why Retconning Makes Readers Furious (Or, At Least This Reader)
I had heard of the term “retconning” but hadn’t really paid it any mind until a few months after the final Harry Potter book was released, when J. K. Rowling told a crowd gathered at Carnegie Hall that Albus Dumbledore was gay.
Now, the “revelation” of Dumbledore’s sexuality didn’t bother me (I’ve read many a fanfic), but how Rowling announced it did.
If Dumbledore’s sexuality was important, why didn’t she say something about it in the seven books she wrote? She had seven books to tell us more about Dumbledore.
Rowling remains one of the worst retconning offenders. Since the conclusion of the Harry Potter series, she has retconned everything from Hermione’s race to the true origins of an evil snake to how students at Hogwarts used the bathroom.
It’s Rowling’s right to change her books, but the how and the why behind her changes are what makes readers so furious about retconning.
Rowling’s retcons range from the mundane (no one needed to know that Hogwarts students used to simply vanish their bodily waste before the invention of toilets!) to the deeply problematic (It wasn’t important to tell us before that Nagini, a symbol of evil in the original books, was actually an Asian woman enslaved to a white supremacist?).
Therein lies the big problem with retconning: most retcons are either pointless or too important. The former makes reader wonder why the author bothers: did Rowling tell us about wizards vanishing their poop just to make headlines?
The latter makes the reader wish the author had included this information in the original text. If Rowling had revealed Dumbledore's sexuality in the books, she would have given readers an LGBTQ+ character to identify with. Similarly, if Hermione was actually a woman of color all along, Rowling missed a big opportunity to explore what her journey at white-washed Hogwarts was like. Hermione would have had to shoulder the double burden of being both a Muggle and a visible minority.
Instead, both Hermione and Dumbledore's identities are treated as an afterthought. By not addressing them in the original text, Rowling's later admissions feel cheap and attention-grabbing. Saying that Hermione was black all along is akin to saying, "I don't see color." It feels like Rowling's way of addressing the lack of representation in her books, but in an inauthentic way. If she actually cared, or if had actually mattered, she would have included this information in the original text.
Retconning: Final Thoughts
So what does this mean for us as authors?
Well, if a plot point’s important, include it in your book! If it’s not, then maybe keep your mouth shut about it… until you start to work on the sequel!