Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Only a decade ago, the shared universe was a rare flower – the province of only a few artists and, even then, rarely explored to its fullest potential. Now, it’s hard to name a movie studio that isn’t launching some kind of shared universe, from Marvel’s ‘cinematic universe’, in which characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Spider-Man pal around unfettered, to Universal’s announced ‘Dark Universe’ in which humanity must contend with mummies, werewolves, vampires and monsters both Frankenstein and otherwise.
You could be forgiven for forgetting that the shared universe actually has a rich and successful history in the written word, but has all that changed? With mass adoption, do authors have less to gain from a shared universe – might they even be risking putting off readers?
To answer those questions, I’ll be looking at what a shared universe does and doesn’t do for authors; its benefits and constraints, its unique artistic merits, and what it means for marketing your work. As ever, though, first things first.
What exactly is a shared universe?
A shared universe is created when an author tells multiple, divorced stories within the same ‘world’. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is the obvious example, being the setting for the events of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion.
While these stories may interact, intersect, and inform each other, they’re not linked as a traditional ‘series’, and the reader doesn’t have to read one to understand the others (though it may add context or enhance the story).
The ‘world’ referred to here doesn’t have to be literal – until recently (with the arrival of the new movies, and the need to simplify and/or modify backstory) the Star Wars ‘extended universe’ was a sprawling shared universe in which scores of writers had fleshed out the film series’ characters in print, as well as adding new people, planets, and periods of history (for example, in the much celebrated Thrawn Trilogy).
What are the benefits of a shared universe?
The primary benefit of a shared universe is that each new addition adds to an existing canon, creating a single property. This can have both artistic and commercial benefits.
Generally, as an author, you have two ways to compound on a successful book:
- Hope that it conveys your talent, and hope that wins you fans, and/or
- Produce a sequel, which promises to directly link from a successful title.
A shared universe offers a third path, allowing you to tell a detached story that still directly attracts readers of your other work. This can be overt – as in how Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has built on the success of the Harry Potter series – or almost incidental, as in how the works of Irvine Welsh have shared characters that duck in and out of stories, either in major or minor roles, without that being the selling point.
In this way, each new instalment of a shared universe ‘counts’. Readers grow to love a universe, and are more open to new stories that are set within it.
Artistically, things are similar. Each story in a shared universe helps build that world, adding settings, characters, and events that help define it for both author and reader.
This can even work as an existing canvas for an author’s ideas, giving them a fully realized world in which to imagine new events. Not only can this be creatively fulfilling, but it may also allow ideas to flow more easily, since there’s so much pre-established fact to work with.A shared universe can succeed as more than the sum of its parts.Click To Tweet
While a shared universe usually emerges from a single author’s canon, it can also be used to connect existing works. Countless authors have introduced public domain characters such as Sherlock Holmes into their stories, suggesting that readers should assume the events of Conan Doyle’s books as occurring within their own. Though rare in literature, this can also happen in tandem (think of the CSI and NCIS properties).
This also highlights the unique benefit for ‘events’ which shared universes offer. Here, it’s possible to further enhance the entertainment value of plot points through the vastness of a story’s world. For years, Star Wars fans debated who would triumph in a battle between villains Darth Maul and Darth Vader, despite the fact that the latter was only a child when the former was killed.
The Star Wars extended universe offered unexpected chances to bring the two together, something that fans went crazy for. Taking its name from the Marvel and DC comics universes, this is commonly known as an ‘event’ – something that is remarkable because of the way it allows disparate parts of a shared universe to interact.
In a series, it’s generally expected that characters are connected in myriad ways, since they’re caught up in the same story. A shared universe makes the distance between them more apparent, allowing the author to surprise the reader by making unexpected connections. This may mean characters meeting, backstory being explored, or simply world building being accomplished.
This connection adds an energy to every story set within a shared universe – the potential for truly unexpected, seemingly impossible, connections to be made. In this way, a shared universe offers a safety net for stories set within it – even if readers don’t love an individual story, they can enjoy being back in that world, and learning more about it. This, again, is one of the secrets of the serial, comic universes of Marvel and DC. Done well, it can tempt readers to explore new corners of a universe, or even stick with it through a creative period they don’t enjoy.
Those are some of the benefits of writing a shared universe, but don’t be misled – there are also drawbacks.
What are the drawbacks of a shared universe?
By its nature, a shared universe can be limiting. The ‘rules’ set down are difficult to change without harming the sense of a consistent world, and this can also be the case for small details of backstory and world building, as well as tone.
Some readers, for example, struggle to fully accept the relationship between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, finding the former to be simpler and less nuanced in ways that restrict its relationship with the latter.
This is something that worried author Terry Pratchett, whose sprawling Discworld universe progressed through the history of the titular planet from the viewpoints of many different characters. Pratchett was famously averse to producing a map of the Discworld, saying that he feared it would limit his storytelling options and force him to account for details by which he never intended to be bound.
There are no maps. You can’t map a sense of humor.
– Terry Pratchett
Of course, Pratchett’s position derives its fame from the fact that it was totally reversed; Pratchett ended up producing multiple maps, both of the Discworld and of specific settings within it. He later expressed the sentiment that, in fact, the limits he had feared simply gave him context for later stories, and it’s worth noting how much creativity thrives when set against sensible restraints. That said, it should also be appreciated that the Discworld is canonically malleable, and Pratchett was capable of overriding these maps at his convenience.
I said there would never be a map of the Discworld. This is it… People asked me if this fossilization of the imagination will prevent future stories. Well, London and New York have been mapped for some time, and still seem attractive as locations for novelists. There will be more Discworld stories, I hope. The only difference is that now I’ll have a map reference. This map possibly isn’t the way things are. But it is one of the ways they could be.
– Terry Pratchett, The Discworld Mapp
There’s also the risk that maintaining a shared universe may limit the stories you’re able to tell, or even develop. Many fans have expressed frustration at the existence of Pottermore, a website on which J.K. Rowling shares small details and stories about the world of the Harry Potter books. Their worry is that, by pouring every half-formed idea into an existing structure, Rowling will never be pushed to develop them into a full plot.
[Rowling] spends most of her time filling up Pottermore, online home of the official extended universe, with stuff no one cares about, as if she thinks we’re all clamoring for detailed profiles of wizard singers barely mentioned in the books. And a couple years back, when she was asked to write new Potter content for charity, she wrote Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which was the Dungeons & Dragons monster manual, but British. That book is now being adapted into a movie trilogy, despite being 42 pages long.
– 4 Signs J.K. Rowling Is the Next George Lucas, Cracked.com
Similarly, it’s possible that authors will come up with great ideas but try to fit them into an existing universe in a way that dilutes or lessens them. This can occur on a larger scale, with poorer stories weakening the shared universe as a whole. Where authors would otherwise be able to simply forget an unsuccessful story, adding it to a shared universe gives it permanence and longevity. The universe’s reputation may be harmed by this – as successful stories can tempt readers to try the experimental, so unsuccessful stories can dissuade them from further reading.Writing a shared universe means, good or bad, your stories share a reputation.Click To Tweet
From a marketing standpoint, it’s also possible that readers will be put off simply by the existence of a shared universe. Approaching a vast, interconnected world may be too much for many, especially if authors don’t provide ‘entry’ books which offer a clear way into the shared universe.
This is a problem faced by Marvel and DC. Both publish a range of graphic novels which focus on different characters in their respective shared universes. Spider-Man is doing something in one corner of the world, the Fantastic Four in another, but it’s possible that a large enough event (or poker night) will bring them together. These vast, decades-in-the-making universes breed loyal fans, but also ostracise those who don’t know where to begin.
To combat this, both publishers frequently relaunch titles and publish ‘event’ comics, meaning that there’s always a smattering of ‘first issues’ on the shelves for newcomers. This, in turn, can anger dedicated fans, who grow tired of seeing the status quo constantly shaken up to make things ‘new’. This can be an incredibly difficult balancing act, though it’s somewhat easier for print authors, who tend to have clearer, and fewer, series to manage.
Should I write a shared universe?
Having covered the main benefits and drawbacks, this decision of course depends on your personal outlook. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that a shared universe isn’t an end in itself. This is something many movie studios could stand to learn, but a shared universe exists to enhance the stories within it.Writing a shared universe only makes sense if it improves your stories.Click To Tweet
Irvine Welsh’s shared universe is one of the best examples. Many of his books are set in the same, or overlapping, areas, and characters naturally encounter each other. Primary characters from one story may turn up as bit players in another, the antagonist of one book may become the protagonist of another (as is the case with Begbie, from Trainspotting and The Blade Artist), and the events of one plot may influence or even kickstart another, mostly unrelated story, but it’s always in service of a believable, living world.
Characters aren’t forced together for show, but rather run in similar circles, suggesting a genuine seedy underbelly in which all the players are connected. Here, form suits tone – most characters ‘know a guy’, and the reader is in the same position, a sort of confidante in their world.
This isn’t the only way form and tone can be matched – if you’re writing a huge fantasy epic or operatic sci-fi saga, you may want to create a shared universe so you can build to a greater threat. It offers another level on which to work – a difference between a plot-defining threat and a story-spanning menace.
Similarly, it may be that you want to accentuate the size of your world in contrast to its characters. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire deals with war, political upheaval, and generational conflicts that dwarf individuals. It’s therefore appropriate that his Tales of Dunk and Egg stories take place generations before his more famous stories. Proving, rather than suggesting, the density of his world.
You should embrace the shared universe if you feel it’s the way to make the most of your stories, and this will frequently be the case. Be aware, though, that there are drawbacks and limits to be considered. If, however, you’ve already embarked on a shared universe when you discover them, there are options available to you.
What if I regret my shared universe?
Shared universes grow complicated, and you may reach a point where you wish your universe was slightly different. While some authors have the urge to abandon their universe and start again, this can frustrate loyal fans, and there are other options.
The first and most difficult is gradual change. In the Discworld books, Terry Pratchett describes a fantasy world which is constantly advancing. Technological, political, and even (non)human rights developments are made, often in the service of more complex stories or more relevant satire. Fans watch as races like trolls and dwarves are allowed to serve on the police force, vampires emerge from the shadows and try to shed the stigma, and a functioning postal service is established, quickly followed by a national mint.
None of these events would make sense in Pratchett’s initial entries in the universe, but he grows his world to a point where they make sense, and even feel like the logical progression.
Of course, you can do things much quicker. The new Star Trek movies offer an example of a ‘reboot’, in which a shared universe is made new. Here, a character travels back in time, interrupting the course of events that led to the original series. The new timeline uses many successful elements of the TV show, but is free to deviate from its path and even to retell stories in a new way. Similarly, Buffy creator Joss Whedon had a series of events completely rewrite the rules of magic within what’s known as the Buffyverse, allowing a fundamental aspect of the universe to change for canonical reasons.
If you want to feel really safe, you can even write the potential for massive change into your universe. Yet again, this is an area where DC and Marvel have a lot of history. Stories in DC graphic novels occur within a ‘multiverse’, which acknowledges the existence of many different realities. Sometimes, in order to change details of their shared universe, DC writers have introduced events in which these realities intersect and change each other. Characters move from one reality to another, history changes, and it all happens for reasons which (if done well) feel like natural extensions of how their world works.
DC’s competitor, Marvel, takes a gentler approach. In their shared universe, time works differently – characters are tied to a kind of perpetual ‘now’, which is the basis of their reality. This ‘now’ is married to the ‘now’ of the reader, meaning that anything that happened ‘ten years ago’ is perpetually moving forward in time; characters who were 30 in 1991 are still 30 in 2017. This is usually a gentle, gradual process, but can snag when a specific event is relevant to a character. The Punisher, for example, was originally characterized as a veteran of Vietnam, but is now generally depicted as having served in the Middle East. By prioritizing ‘now’, the same basic backstories exist, losing a little consistency to keep them perpetually relevant.
These are sophisticated systems that have emerged from trial and error, and they’re still not always successful, but they do show how an author can establish a shared universe that allows sweeping changes as part of its genetics.
How do I market my shared universe?
Marketing a shared universe is the final hurdle, but it’s one that isn’t as complex as it may seem. Many readers are looking for a universe to get lost in, and simply offering them that will win you fans. Otherwise, be sure to have conscious entry points – stories and books that new readers know will give them easy access.
You can even use a shared universe to make critical feedback more relevant – ‘praise for previous work’ is a lot less effective than ‘praise for the _______ universe’. Many readers will see an established universe as a sign of quality – it’s lasted this long and got this big, so there must be something to it.Many readers are looking for a shared universe to get lost in.Click To Tweet
These are the elements to accentuate in your marketing. The ideal shared universe is one which has proven itself to be enjoyable but still exists as a wild, surprising place where anything could happen.
As a final note, be aware if any of your books are the backbone of your universe. George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms benefits from its links to the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but that central series isn’t going to benefit from being advertised as ‘from the same world as the Tales of Dunk and Egg’).
Sharing your shared universe
A shared universe can be a truly staggering thing, whether it’s the work of one author or a franchise that produces story after excellent story. Weigh the benefits against the drawbacks, see what’s right for you, but above all, be sure that your universe benefits your stories. That’s the surest path to success.
Do you have question about writing a shared universe, or have examples that can help other authors? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more on writing a great shared universe, check out You’re Making A Mistake In Your World Building: Here’s How To Fix It and How To Write A Book Series That People Finish Reading.