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Retroactive continuity, or retcon for short, is a literary device in which facts in the world of a fictional work that have been established through the narrative itself are adjusted, ignored, supplemented, or contradicted by a subsequently published work that recontextualizes or breaks continuity with the former.
There are various motivations for applying retroactive continuity, including:
- To accommodate desired aspects of sequels or derivative works which would otherwise be ruled out.
- To respond to negative fan reception of previous stories.
- To correct and overcome errors or problems identified in the prior work since its publication.
- To change or clarify how the prior work should be interpreted.
- To match reality, when assumptions or projections of the future are later proven wrong.
Retcons are used by authors to increase their creative freedom, on the assumption that the changes are unimportant to the audience compared to the new story which can be told. Retcons can be diegetic or nondiegetic. For instance, by using time travel or parallel universes, an author may diegetically reintroduce a popular character they had previously killed off. More subtle and nondiegetic methods would be ignoring or expunging minor plot points to remove narrative elements the author doesn't have interest in writing.
Retcons are common in pulp fiction, and especially in comic books by long-established publishers such as DC and Marvel. The long history of popular titles and the number of writers who contribute stories can often create situations that demand clarification or revision. Retcons also often appear in manga, soap operas, serial dramas, movie sequels, cartoons, professional wrestling angles, video games, radio series, and other forms of serial fiction. They are also used in role playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons.
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