Fandom is known for throwing its characters into new and unusual situations. In part, of course, it’s why we write—because we’re craving something the source media isn’t giving us (or isn’t giving us enough).
Sometimes that means more than just making Starsky and Hutch go through a wicked undercover job involving cross-dressing and psycho killers. Sometimes, it involves taking the characters out of their own universe and putting them into ours. It’s called writing an alternate universe, and in the Magnificent Seven fandom, we do it a lot.
I mean a lot, people.
We have AUs where some collection of the boys are kids, we have AUs where they’re ATF agents. We throw them into the Star Trek universe, Project Quantum Leap, the ‘verse where Serenity flies. Seriously, we’re mad for them.
Now, I read Professionals fic for a long while, and we had a lot of AUs there, too. Certainly Star Trek has a ton, but there’s something different here in Magnificent Seven. We like to share.
Now, please remember that I have only been in this fandom for a few years, but it seems to me it all started with a girl named MOG. MOG got interested in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and she wondered what the boys would be like as modern-day ATF agents. Thus was born the ATF AU (the bible is here). MOG wrote an initial story, a lovely set of dossiers, and—awesomely—threw the universe open for everyone and suggested they play in her sandbox.
And they did. Boy howdy, did they. On Archive of Our Own, there are almost as many ATF stories for Mag 7 as there are Old West. There’s a canon the fandom has created, quirks about the ATF boys that one writer contributed that were then taken and run with by others… It’s an entity all its own.
Now, open universes are a thing here in Magnificent Seven fandom. As I said, we like to share. There are ideas that we’ve run with in various flavors, like the amorphous Little Britches universes, which are actually a number of universes where some of the boys are children and some of the boys take care of them. These too are universes where one person wrote a story and others riffed off of it (usually with permission from the original author).
So… why? I totally asked myself this when I started in Magnificent Seven fandom. I’d come from writing “straight canon” stories for the most part in my other fandoms, with a few exceptions and the slash element of course (which automatically makes you an AU in most sources), and here was this fandom where the boys were just everywhere! The Federation, the FBI, the ATF, youth ranches. What was going on!?
Well, as farad points out, yes, the boys are sort of a matching set of archetypes:
- Chris Larabee: Hero
- Josiah Sanchez: Mentor
- Vin Tanner: Ally
- JD Dunne: Threshold Guardian (go ahead and fight me on that one, ladies and gentlemen. Seriously. It’ll be fun!)
- Nathan: Herald
- Ezra Standish: Trickster
- Buck Wilmington: Shapeshifter (at least at first—again FIGHT ME!)
This gives us a chance to throw them anywhere and make them work. A gunslinger turned reluctant hero becomes a maverick team leader for insert-agency-here, a sharpshooter with a bounty on his head becomes an ex-military sniper with an uncertain past, a defrocked and world-weary philosopher-priest becomes a studier of man via profiling or psychology. They work.
And they’re compelling no matter where you go. Ezra Standish’s fight to make the good choices when no one expects him to resonates whether he’s a gambler in the Old West or a grifter in the nineteen-nineties. Farad makes a good point that writing characters in a modern setting is easier in a way—no tedious thinking about the fact that quoting Rodgers and Hammerstein is woefully anachronistic, or worrying about what technology would have been available to the boys.
And the possibilities for hurt/comfort are different in the modern world. It’s functionally and emotionally different to watch a man dying (maybe) of gangrene in the Old West than to watch a friend on life-support in a sterile hospital. It is. The emotions can be less desperate when machines are keeping that person alive—or moreso, because the inevitable moment when they turn the machines off and you give him up is a conscious betrayal on your part, not God’s will taking its course.
So, AUs are fun, and the boys are flexible, BUT…
The problem, of course, comes from the question: Was that really Vin Tanner in that fic? Does making him dyslexic in the modern world in any way equate to being functionally illiterate in the 1870s Southwest? How likely is it, really, that a grifter on the order of Ezra and his mother (at least as portrayed in many of the ATF fics) would be able to pass the background checks necessary to become an FBI undercover man? Does making Nathan an EMT or a former medic in the military equate to the character in the show, whose life was overshadowed by his slavery and status as a second-class citizen?
I would argue yes on all counts, but then, I AU. Those who don’t wouldn’t agree when I say dyslexia is a struggle to decode the written word that at least parallels Vin’s canonical illiteracy. A former grifter can be the ultimate secret weapon for a law enforcement agency, as a cheater can be useful in a fight. A black man isn’t suddenly equal in the eyes of society because we’re 150 years removed from legal slavery.
So what’s a fandom to do? Well, in Magnificent Seven, we seem to be of the opinion that live and let live is the way to go. I’ve read any number of variations of thaccian’s comment:
the fandom itself welcomes and enjoys all manner of alternate takes on the Mag7 characters. As long as the boys and their relationships are recognizable, the Mag7 fandom is amused and very accepting of AUs, and the writers are all happy to support one another and to play in everyone's sandbox. It is a pleasant quirk that seems to be particularly specific to Mag7.
And I agree with huntersglenn:
I think that in a way, the willingness to have the shared AUs in this fandom does come down to how there are more good writers than bad ones. And by "good", I'm mainly thinking of characterization, but overall writing ability is also there. It's easier to open up your AU, your baby, when you know that the other writers in the fandom will treat it/them with the same care that you take with it/them.
Because that, perhaps, is the most important trait of most of the open AUs in Magnificent Seven fandom. There’s often a serious adherence to the spirit of each character. No matter what age Ezra is in an AU, he has that same combination of moral malleability, innate goodness, and child-like pain and playfulness that the character had in the show. Nathan is always going to point out where things are unfair, unjust, or unequal. Josiah will never, never be a flawless character.
As long as they are them, we are willing—even thrilled—to read them.
In conceiving my Supermagnificent universe, I went in knowing that I wanted other people to write in it. I didn’t want to be alone in my sandbox. Taking a page from MOG’s handbook, I posted a bible for the universe and tried to leave enough open and unanswered in the origin piece, Assembly, to allow others to grab any of the many balls and run with them.
Has it succeeded? Well, it’s early yet. The problem, as an AU originator, appears to me to be letting the AU grow without you. I have HUNDREDS of ideas about how the boys could work. I want to write them all, but I don’t want others to look at that as canon.
That’s the funny old thing about Magnificent Seven fandom, it seems. We all see the boys in a thousand different faces, and we want everyone else to see them, too.