Why Do We Ship Non-Canon Couples?

There’s a simple reason why we love non-canon ships.

Fotolia.com | © khemfoto

Fotolia.com | © khemfoto

As fans, we adore the things our favorite writers create for us. Why then do so many of us blatantly ignore canon and obsess over non-canon couples? There are plenty of canon love stories for us, yet for many of us, most of our attention is focused on the non-canon. According to a census of the most popular shipping tags on Archive Of Our Own, the most popular couple tag on the website in 2014 was Sherlock Holmes and John Watson from the tv show Sherlock, who canonically are a pair of mutual friends. A canon couple doesn’t even make the list until the number ten spot. The list also shows how slash fiction dominates fanfiction websites, with a heterosexual couple not appearing until number 23.

If we’re such loyal fans, why do we ship non-canon so much? Is it alright to do so when an author has worked so hard to create the canon for us to enjoy?

This issue creates a divisive attitude amongst fandom due largely to how boys and girls interpret media and experience fandom differently. There are exceptions, but boys generally obsess over canon. They are the fans who will have long arguments in forums about what can and cannot be considered canon and what the creator’s artistic vision was supposed to be. Girls on the other hand form the creative part of the fandom and make up the majority of the fanart, fanfiction, and slash fiction communities. They are the ones coming up with headcanons, AU’s, and genderbent cosplay, bending the canon to suit their needs.

This is why some fans, particularly the males, have an issue with shippers. As mentioned in “I’m Sorry. My OTP’s Acting Up Again“, sometimes we can obsess over our OTP so much that we can almost delude ourselves into thinking it is real and say things like “they’re practically canon” or “they’re so married.” Trying to defend or rationalize our non-canon OTP’s causes shipping wars as male fans think we are taking our ships literally. They are quick to point out “that character is straight” or “that’s not what the author would have wanted.”

The truth is that shippers aren’t stupid. We are fully aware that our ships aren’t canon and that the subtext we are reading into is usually unintentional. Some of the reasons why people write fanfiction is to fix what they think was wrong in a story, explore what could have been going on behind the scenes, or see how a couple’s relationship could have played out in different circumstances.

This doesn’t mean that all shippers reject the canon entirely as demonstrated by the Lord of the Rings fanfic All That I Had. The writer of this fic went out of her way to make sure her story was as accurate to the book canon as possible. The fic is written to fit around the canon, sometimes even using direct quotes from the book, so you believe that the relationship it portrays could have happened in the canon story, just off page.

Even AU fanfics which take the characters out of their own world and put them in a completely different one will maintain the character’s personalities, interests, and relationship dynamics. Take for example Theory and Practice, a short Sherlock fanfic which places John and Sherlock in the world of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. (As the most popular ship on the internet, these two appear in literally any AU you can think of!) The characters interact with each other in the same way they do in the tv show while still keeping with the laws and conventions established in the His Dark Materials universe.

Being true to canon doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of some aspects of it. This is one reason why slash makes up such a huge part of the fanfiction community. Canon gay couples have only very recently become acceptable in fiction, and as any LGBT activist will tell you, there is still a huge underrepresentation.

But there’s a simple and much less academic reason why we love non-canon ships, slash or otherwise. Shipping is just fun. We aren’t restricted to the heteronormative or boring romances that mainstream media churns out. We can read fanfics, drool over fanart, come up with headcanons and AU’s, and squee about our OTP’s on Tumblr. It’s a much more fun way to participate in fan culture than making a long list of plot holes.

If any fans still have an issue with this or worry that non-canon shipping is wrong or disrespectful to the original author than they don’t need to worry. There is no right or wrong way to interpret fiction or enjoy fandom. Whatever works for you is fine.

Recommended Fanfic: All That I Had by Elenya (MA, 300,000+ words)
Why did Sam end up marrying Rosie, and what was it like for Frodo to realize that he could no longer live in the home he had struggled so hard to save?

Recommended Fanfic: Theory and Practice by redconverse (T, 3300 words)
Sherlock/Watson + daemons with maybe Sherlock touching Watson’s daemon as an experiment and Watson being all, “sdkjgndfkjgn” over it.

About Jessica Wood (4 Articles)
Jessica Wood is a British writer and editor currently living in Turku, Finland, with her fiancee. She has a degree in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and has had work published in Blueink Review and The Bath Chronicle. 

4 Comments on Why Do We Ship Non-Canon Couples?

  1. Shipping is quite fun! I think that a huge element of people’s love of shipping also stems from trying to fill a need. You allude to this toward the end of your post when you mention LGBTQ+ relationships only recently making more clear appearances in fiction. Even these are often not expressly stated in the work due to limitations put out by the network or publisher.
    I know that when I was in middle and high school, I often shipped LGBTQ+ relationships gathered through subtext. It was the closest I could ever find to the real existence of such relationships. In this way, shipping filled a need that the creative minds behind most works could not. Thanks for the post!

  2. Oh the struggle of non canon ships. I watch Shark Tank, and I ship Kevin O’Leary and Barbara Corcoran because they loathe each other, and kissed as a joke (?) three times and counting. Not to mention I also ship Lori Greinier and Mark Cuban bc Lori’s the shortest shark and Mark’s the tallest. I can’t stand either of them, go figure 🙂

  3. We’re getting pretty close to Johnlock becoming canon, though. 😉
    Though we wait 50 years for a season every time… :/

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