Hermione wasn't Hermione.
The reader's eyes blinked a couple of times, wondering how the writer of the story could think the character in the story was actually Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series. While the character did, in fact, share the same name as Hermione Granger, that was it. Gone was the lovable bookworm who cared more about smarts than beauty, replaced by a shallow, self-centered girl who cared more about getting a makeover to get revenge on Ron for cheating on her. Which, in fact, Ron hadn't actually cheated on this fake Hermione. It amounted to an excuse to get the fake Hermione together with Draco Malfoy, which was problematic due to the tension between the two that wouldn't go away simply overnight.
So, the reader reviewed, calling the reader out for making the characters out of character.
In return, the writer responded. "What don't you understand about this story being AU? By that, I mean both alternative universe AND author's version. Since this is OUR version, we can do whatever we want to."
So, this particular essay is long over due. However, this one took quite a few drafts to write, but also couldn't be written before I wrote 6. Canon Facts and Canon Interpitations, 7. AU – Not Actually Infinite, or 8. The Dreaded Mary Sue, as this piece does build upon those three despite not referring back to those particular essays. So...
I'm honestly not sure where the words "author's version" actually comes from, but I do know that the term AU does not in any way mean "author's version", but is instead short for "alternate universe". I think I saw one argument awhile back where the person using the term stated AU comes from the first two letters of "author", but that's not how acronyms work. I've only ever seen these words used two or three times so far, kind of in the same manner I've seen only a hand full of people say the term "ship" means any kind of relationship.
So, can I accept the definition of AU from a small handful of writers I am only able to count on one hand?
The answer is, no. Even if the number was larger, the actual definition of AU wouldn't change. The question however is, what is the person using the words "author's version" getting at. Well, as the writer in the sample story notes, there is the belief that they can do anything they want - which is in part true. A person can do whatever they want when they write a fanfic, outside of plagiarism, and yet these "author's versions" are also something writer's can't do. Add to this, there seems to be the idea here that the stories belong to them, forgetting about copyright law, and how the characters and places actually belong to the original creator of the series.
Did you know one of the arguments made by people who plagiarize the original canon material by transcribing the plot and dialogue and making a few edits here and there, is to argue they're not making any money off the work, but also claim that what they posted is their story?
Author's version speaks of an ego problem on the part of the writer belying the idea they think they can do no wrong. However, one of my favorite quotes from Wikipedia's says this in regards to the alternate universe.
"A common mistake made by inexperienced fan fiction writers is to believe that writing an AU fan fiction means that the writer can acceptably and drastically alter the personalities of major characters; in fact, the point of AU fan fiction is that the characters' personalities remain as much the same as possible, and the only changes are those that could rationally be caused by the differences from canon."
Making the characters OoC is always bad writing. To clarify here, while OoC is short for "out of character", any out of character moment which can logically be explained by proper character development, a particular event occurring within a character's life, or even working specifically with an AU where one is looking to explore how canon would change should one or more characters personalities change is still considered IC, or "in character". Hands down there used to be a time when the latter was classified under OoC, which is where the term originally came from - writers who were exploring varying character faucets, but the term quickly came to be used to describe moments where the reader found themselves unable to willingly suspend their disbelief in regard to the out of character moment.
And no, the willing suspense of disbelief does not fall on the reader's shoulders, but the writers, unless we're talking about a reader who is unable to read the Harry Potter series because they are unable to suspend their disbelief in regards to magic existing. The world operates on logic, and what one writes will not make sense unless one uses some form of logic in regards to what they write. Sometimes the logic can be out there, but said logic still needs to exist and work.
One particular argument that crops up, far more often than the use of "author's version" is the idea that nobody but the original creator can predict how a character might act. However, good characterization is based on how people act in real life. Even Mark Twain in his rules for writing commented about making characters act in a realistic manner, but called out the writer of the Last of the Mohicans for not using proper characterization. The characters in the Last of the Mohicans were James Fenimore Cooper's own creation, but as Twain pointed out, Cooper was not an expert at his own characters. We see this today in works like Twilight, where the way people act towards Bella doesn't add up to how people act in real life.
In other words, this idea that only the writer can get their characters right is majorly flawed, because there are writers who fail miserably. So, if the writer can fail at getting their characters right, then it stands to reason that someone else can get them right. The question comes up regarding why, as human behavior is not predictable. However, this idea that human behavior is not predictable is a major misconception which is based on the fact we as humans can not predict unexpected events. This said the human behavior is predictable when one has all of the facts and looks at the situation from hindsight. Thus, it also stands to reason that a writer can predict where the character is going to go within a story because they have all of the pieces.
One argument I've seen used in regards to where the plot of a story is going but have yet to see in regards to characterization issues is the idea that the writer of the fanfic knows things the reader does not, so they should logically be able to get away with an OoC moment because they know something the reader does not. However, this is only true in very rare cases. The rule of thumb in writing is the make sure the reader knows what they need to know ahead of time, and not expect them to be willing to put aside their willing suspense of disbelief simply because the writer says they know what they're doing. Add to this, as I've already said, the type of story that uses some kind of secret - a legit secret mind you - is rare.
Most stories where the writer tries to pull the secret card aren't of the mystery genre, which is the one genre which tends to be able to get away with this due to the fact the reader is pulled into solving the mystery of why something is off. The question, of course, comes up whether the reason for a change in the characters personality should actually be a mystery or not. So, how does one determine whether the reason should remain secret?
In part, the type of plot one is using plays a major role. If for example, Hermione came back from summer and avoided both guys, the story would then logically have Harry and Ron trying to figure out what happened to her over the summer. What happened though shouldn't ever be used as an excuse to pair two characters up. This isn't to say romance can't occur in the story, but this is something which should take a back burner to the actual plot, and only show up if the plot facilitates the addition into the work.
Romance, or shipfic, is one of the major places where OoC moments happen. One writer once told me falling in love makes people act out of character, however, this is yet another misconception. For most characters, falling in love won't change the way they act. The exception happens to be characters who are in denial, find romance to be embarrassing, or who finds confessing to be an awkward thing to do. For these moments, it needs to be in character for the character to feel any of these ways when they fall in love. In the same regard, the actions they take are still going to be in character for them, as they're based on traits that already exist, but end up coming forth simply because of the situation.
This said, characterization is something learned, so it can be expected that a writer, particularly a young writer still learning how people other than themselves act, will mess up at times. That's actually part of the learning process a writer is expected to go through to learn proper characterization. Making the characters OoC though isn't a sign of being creative, as it is much harder to keep a character in character than make them out of character.
When a character is OoC, the writer's not depending on rules of characterization, and effectively are doing what they want to do. A writer, however, who keeps the characters in character will in fact follow the rules to the best of their ability, and put a lot of work into doing so.
Why though is this a big deal?
Some readers would say they read fanfiction to read about the characters they fell in love with, not some fake. They're already emotionally attached to these characters. There is, though, another reason. Change the names of all canon characters, places, and terms - what you have is original fiction and not fanfiction. I have read some really awesome original fiction pieces which could have been published as professional work, but the writer decided to pass it off as fanfiction instead. I've always felt this was a waste of the writer's talent and felt that fanfiction really is about stories you can only do with the characters that already exist, not stories one can do without.
There is also a myth out there that only OCs, or original characters, can be Mary Sues, or Gary Stus. However, an OoC character - one whose behavior is never explained - is always a Mary Sue, or for males, a Gary Stu. One of the things which have always bothered me was how OC writers tend to get a lot of flack, and yet these writers who don't care about keeping the canon character in character tend to receive little criticism in comparison. I've seen readers go ga-ga over a supposed AU story simply because the writer is able to spin pretty prose. However, there is more to writing a good story than the prose.
In fact, the prose is part of the technical side of writing and something which defines a writer's personal style. It is not though one of the parts which make up a story. Stories are comprised of character, place, plot, conflict and theme. Where do these AU's tend to fail? Hands down, in all five of these areas. The characters are out of character, the world no longer feels like the world imagined up - or an actual situational AU that exemplifies that word, the conflict is contrived, or brushed away, the plot isn't logical or is non-existent, and the theme... well, there is a theme, but the writer doesn't use well. For example, if the theme is true love, it's actually tru luv, as the characters are forced together.
In fact, the scenario mentioned in the sample story is actually quite a common way to try and get Draco and Hermione together. As a fan of the pairing, they're rather painful to read, as they're not the characters I fell in love with, but also contain none of the character dynamic between the two that makes me like this pairing either.