Shared universe

From Academic Kids

A Shared universe is a literary technique in which several different authors share settings and characters which appear in their respective works of fiction, often referring to events taking place in the other writers' stories. It can also be called a "shared setting." It can be a metafictional device. Shared fictional universes tend to appear more frequently in fantasy and science fiction than in other genres.


Corporate examples

  • The Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchises each have a vast empire of subsidiary and mostly non-canonical novels and comic books, and a vast community of dedicated, sometimes obsessive fanfiction writers.
  • The Star Wars franchise is unusual in that, at least in theory, every official work in it is considered canonical and must fit with all the others, although George Lucas is not bound by the latter restriction.
  • The Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game has millions of players worldwide, many of whom play characters in shared settings such as Faerūn, Eberron, and Ravenloft. There are also many novels and magazines dedicated to these shared settings. In addition, although these settings differ from one another in history and geography, they have many other elements in common (eg: elves live for several hundred years, but are not immortal; wizards must memorise spells each day); these settings are actually separate parts of a greater shared setting (Planescape).
  • Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Archie Comics, and many other comic book publishers over the years have each had proprietary shared universes, in which characters from one comic book (such as Superman) often interact with characters from other comic books in the same universe (such as Wonder Woman). Series featuring a group or team of characters, each with their own individual adventures written by other writers, are common. From time to time, two comics publishers may jointly produce a story in which characters from their respective universes interact; these stories are commonly presented as "out of continuity" to avoid entangling the universes. At one point in the 1990's, DC and Marvel cooperated in the temporary, highly hyped, Amalgam universe, which blended elements from the two universes, including merged characters (e.g. Batman and Wolverine were combined as the Dark Claw).
  • The cartoon libraries of Warner Brothers, Disney, Hanna-Barbera, and other animation houses each contain somewhat-independent stories featuring various combinations of their respective characters, created by a variety of writers and animators. Furthermore, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? featured Toons from various cartoon universes, most notably a musical interlude with Donald and Daffy Ducks, and an action sequence with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. Doing so implied a metafictional "tooniverse" that produces animated movie stars, which later Toon-related works have expanded upon.

Professional examples

Posthumous retroactive shared worlds

Amateur examples

The Internet boom in the 1990's made it possible for amateur authors with similar interests to write stories in the same shared universes. Since these authors mostly came from the role-playing game, furry, and fanfiction geek subcultures, the resulting shared universes tend toward those themes and genres most prevalent in those subcultures.

While professional/corporate shared universes usually attempt to maintain overall continuity, the sheer number of amateur writers working in any given shared universe make for less stringent continuity between writers. This is particularly true in fanfiction; because fanfiction stories draw heavily on canonical characters and events, such elements will inevitably be written about by many different authors, making some contradictions inevitable. A subgroup of writers may strive for continuity with one another, while disregarding others working within the same setting.

There is no clear dividing line between authors who use online methods to coordinate shared universe stories, and roleplayers who rely on player consensus in preference to gamemaster or dice to determine the course of events. The use of online chat and forums for roleplaying purposes has given rise to a great deal of collaborative story-writing, of varying literary merits. Some newsgroups play host to long-running shared-universe stories created in this way.

Shared-universe etiquette

Originally, shared universe stories were typically written by a small group of authors (most commonly, only two) who were already on friendly terms. With online stories, material may be written by a large number of authors who are strangers to one another.

This state of affairs often gives rise to friction between authors with conflicting visions; one of the most common points of disagreement is when authors seek to promote their favorite characters over those of other authors.

To avoid these conflicts, online forums frequently develop codes of etiquette that govern interaction. These codes vary according to the forum, but often include variants on these elements:

  • Restrictions on story scope, e.g. "No technology beyond that available on present-day Earth", or "No explicit sexual material".
  • Statements of aim, e.g. "This setting exists to explore the interactions between characters who wouldn't usually be able to talk to one another. Please don't change it in ways that would detract from that goal."
  • Each character is the property of a specific author; do not write speech, thoughts, or actions for another author's character except with their permission.
  • Do not involve another author's character in certain types of subplot (often, any subplot) without that author's consent.
  • Certain settings are 'common ground' and may not be significantly altered without agreement by other authors.

Threaded time

The threaded nature of some forums, and the fact that such stories are usually visible to readers before they are complete, can present a difficulty in keeping events in a linear chronology. If unchecked, story time can 'branch' in the same way as threaded conversations do. Approaches to this problem include:

  • Planning out events likely to branch 'behind the scenes' before making them public (e.g. over email between authors).
  • Retconning as necessary to restore linearity.
  • Imposing rules on who can add to the story, when, to ensure that each author's contribution is taken into account before the next is added.
  • Accepting 'threaded time', either as a reality of the shared universe or by doing one's best to ignore it.

See also

External links


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