The Joy and Fun of the Shared Fictional Universe

With Ant-Man coming out today, the time seemed right to make the Marvel Cinematic Universe the inspiration for a blog post. Because I have to say, I am a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – which is somewhat ironic, because I’m not really much of a fan of Marvel Comics any more (I’ve been much more of a DC Comics guy for a very long time now – if only their movies were better!). But even more than the individual movies and TV shows, I am a huge fan of the concept of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The idea of all these separate films and shows, each with their own main characters and their own creative teams, but all coexisting within the same fictional universe, is pretty damned cool.

But the MCU is far from the only shared fictional universe out there, and that’s really what I wanted to cover in this week’s blog post – specifically those shared universes found within the context of novels and/or short story collections. Because I believe that novels and shorts stories can be fantastic media for a shared universe, even more so than movies & TV – and certainly more so than comic books, which sadly suffer from the sheer number of comics that are published each and every month.

Easily one of, if not the most famous of all the fictional shared universes would have to be the Star Wars Expanded Universe – or Star Wars Legends, as Disney has chosen to rebrand it. While I have read very little of these works (as I must confess I’m not a huge Star Wars fan), the scope of it is incredibly impressive. It features books, comics, roleplaying and video games, and more. And from what I have read online, it has also done a very good job of maintaining a consistent continuity, which is a significant achievement considering the amount of material it includes.

Around the same time the earliest Star Wars novels were being published, another fictional shared universe came into being, one of my personal favorites – Thieves’ World. What started as a series of short story anthologies would eventually add novels, comics, and roleplaying games as well. One of the distinct differences between Thieves’ World and Star Wars is that instead of a single author’s universe being expanded on by numerous unconnected other writers, with the informal understanding that new stories would not contradict previously established continuity (as was the case with Star Wars), Thieves’ World started out as an intentionally designed shared world.

Writer Robert Asprin was at a convention, and during a discussion with a couple of other writers, he voiced one of his main complaints about writing epic fantasy – that despite how many incredible, well-crafted, already known fantasy worlds were out there, every new writer was expected to develop their own, brand new world from scratch. He further suggested that wouldn’t it be great if all of our favorite fantasy characters shared one world, and could pop in and out of each other’s stories.

And thus was the idea for Thieves’ World born. Asprin contacted several other writers, and together they created the map, history, government, religion, and other details for the city of Sanctuary. Then each writer would produce a character write-up for their main character. This would be shared with all the other writers. Each writer was allowed to feature the other writers’ characters in their own stories, the only caveat being they were not allowed to kill off or seriously alter another author’s character.

This idea of planned cooperation was a big part of what I loved about the series. Having characters show up in each other’s stories gives them a cohesiveness, a true feel of all taking place in the same world, that just makes them that much more fun to read. And ultimately I think this works best in a short story anthology format. The amount of time it takes to write a novel means that by the time you’re finished, you have no idea what another author might have done with their characters in their own novel. For example, in the first Thieves’ World collection, one author’s story features a cameo of another author’s character – but this character was killed off by his author during his own story. This was easily dealt with, however, by the editor simply making certain the story with his minor appearance came before the story where he was killed off. In larger, more complex works, this kind of issue becomes more problematic.

Going back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you run into a similar concern when it comes to tying your properties together/using each other’s characters/plotlines. The MCU currently features a series of movies, 2 shows on ABC, and a series of shows to be released on Netflix. The problem you run into is that not every fan of the movies is necessarily watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or has a Netflix account (or has a Netflix account and for some inexplicable reason hasn’t watched Daredevil yet). How do you decide when and where to tie the various properties together without risking confusing those fans who aren’t watching all of the properties?

Personally I have no sympathy for anyone not watching everything Marvel-related, and would love to see a Daredevil cameo on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or Agent May make an appearance in the next Captain America movie. But I also understand Marvel’s position – from a business point of view you have to accept that not all your movie fans are watching the TV shows, which means there are limits to how much and in what ways the movies can reference the TV shows. The same holds true between the ABC shows and the Netflix shows. But imagine how many cool things they could do if this wasn’t a concern.

This is where a short story shared universe becomes ideal. As an editor, you can fairly safely assume that anyone reading one story in an anthology will likely read them all, which gives your writers the freedom to have as much or as little interactivity between their stories as they see fit. In some cases there may need to be contact between writers to ensure a solid continuity, but this becomes much easier in the context of short story writing because of the much faster turnaround time for a short story versus a novel (or a television show or movie).

So what do you think, dear readers? What is your favorite shared fictional universe? And would you want to write a story set in such a universe, given the opportunity? Sound off in the comments!

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