You know what there are a lot of these days? Fictional universes where characters from a variety of diverse works are all brought together into a single work or series of works where they interact with one another in various ways. From HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, to the many different iterations of DC and Marvel comic book worlds and their film and television counterparts, to the shared elements of Anne Rice’s vampire and witch series and Stephen King’s interconnected multiverse and then some, there are a lot of these shared universes these days. Heck, there’s even theories from everyday people about how different works by certain creators are all secretly part of the same story (examples include this Pixar theory and this theory on the majority of Joss Whedon’s work).

So I’m wondering, what is the reason behind all of these interconnected story worlds? What makes storytellers and creators of all different mediums want to have such expansive universes where everything is secretly connected and you have to create a huge conspiracy layout on your wall with tape and string and stuff?

Well, I think some part of it is money. At the end of the day, most storytelling is a business (except for maybe some of what appears on YouTube), and if two characters in separate stories are making profits for a creator or their business, they may try to bring the characters together if it’s feasible and if the fans want to see it. Heck, that’s kind of the reason for most comic book crossovers and the movies based around those crossovers. Fans enjoy seeing Superman and Batman work together or Tony Stark mentor Spider-Man or whatever, so the companies give them what they want and get a profit back.

That’s not to say that all of it is money or that money’s the biggest motivator (unless you’re a Hollywood studio, of course). Another big part of it is the creators. They love their characters, and many would like to see those characters they’ve invested time and effort in come together in an awesome story. How would they play off each other? What sort of trouble would they get into with each other and how would they pull themselves out of it? And how would they grow after meeting each other? I think a lot of writers create these crossovers just so they can answer these questions. They may make multiple volumes to continue asking those questions, adding new characters or situations to continue creating exciting new stories and dynamics. It can be pretty enticing to do that with characters you love so much, and I bet audiences enjoy it as well.

In fact, I’ve imagined doing that with Snake and Laura Horn. Yeah, I have. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve wanted the story of the Snake to continue, and I’ve planned sequels not just for Snake, but for LH as well, including one where the two characters meet and get into a crazy adventure together. And I may be a few books and several years from that crossover, but it’s there if I want to write it, and eventually I will write it. It just sounds like too much fun to pass up.

snake front cover

I really have to get around to that sequel someday soon.

Another reason that creators may do crossover works is just because it makes things easier. Now, I hear you typing in the comments already “How the heck does a crossover or shared universe make things easier?” I know it seems counter-intuitive, but let me give an example: Anne Rice introduced in Queen of the Damned, the third book in her Vampire Chronicles, the Talamasca, an international organization of scholars interested in studying the paranormal. Now, try as I might I could not find any information on why, but when Rice wrote her Mayfair Witches trilogy, she brought in the Talamasca society. Why? Because at some point in the first book she details the entire family history of the Mayfair family and its dozen-plus matriarchs and I guess it made sense to just bring in the Talamasca as an explanation as to why there was an entire history of the family when the family itself isn’t very interested in its history. And it helped with the later books in certain ways to have the Talamasca. See? It was easier to bring in an existing fictional organization concerned with the paranormal than make up an entirely new reason for a third party to document an entire mystical family’s history.

I’ve also heard that’s why HP Lovecraft created the Cthulhu Mythos. He didn’t intend to create an entire cosmology, he just decided it might be easier to work with some familiar characteristics when creating all-powerful monsters, and from there it wasn’t too hard to make the jump to connecting Cthulhu to Yog-Sothoth and any of the other Old Ones. Now, I’m no Lovecraft expert, but I’d buy that explanation.

King’s references are so crazy! Check out this chart!

Of course, some authors do it because it’s fun to have a shared universe, for a variety of reasons. You can return to familiar characters and locations by doing so. You can make your readers marvel and go back to another story to say, “Hey, that matches up with so-and-so.” You can create a cosmology or a special reason why a character or characters or place or places appears in so many stories (I’ve got a character or two like that, I just haven’t been able to put them into any works yet. I tried with the human Barbie story and Evil Began in a Bar, but I couldn’t fit them into the former and I haven’t figured out how best to edit the latter yet, so…). And sometimes, it’s just fun to mess with your readers and make them wonder what the heck it all means (I’m pretty sure that’s the reason Stephen King references his other works so much, and the Dark Tower books simply grew out of a desire to create a complex story out of all that messing about).

Whatever the reason someone creates a shared universe, it’s pretty clear that there are plenty of reasons to do so, and that shared universes are here to stay. And whatever the reason behind them, as long as they’re done with love and people enjoy them, I see no reason not to keep doing them. Besides, I may have one or two I’d like to create someday.

Do you have a shared universe in your fiction? Why’d you create it? What has been the result of that?

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Comments
  1. I also like universes that cover multiple bodies of work. It makes it a familiar place 🙂

    • I like that as well, though occasionally I worry that the familiar stifles our desire for something new and untried. Then again, I may just be annoyed that Lionsgate’s planning prequels to the Hunger Games when they could adapt my book. Maybe a bit of both.
      What’s your favorite fictional universe? Mine would probably be either the universe of Doctor Who, or the world of the anime Code Geass.

  2. Ryan M. Church says:

    Look up the Wold Newton Universe. It started out with Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts slipping connections to the super sleuth into their fiction. It finally got a name when Phillip Jose Farmer wrote extensively in his fictitious biographies of Tarzan and Doc Savage. It binds all the shared universes together by tracing the geneologies of every heroic characters together. Sherlock Holmes. Conan. Cthulhu. Doctor Who. The A-Team. Zorro. Every Superhero. by following the details regarding people’s names, thinly veiled versions of characters who are included in stories but are not named. Following dates and all possible references to affairs etc.

    Its the fan theories that really drive these Universes after they are created. The motive is really a default setting to the creative process. Profit motive seems to only kick in when certain material is considered to no longer be regarded as official canon, to make room for new stories with no regard to the world building that came before. But that almost always happens when the intellectual property under corporate ownership is sold.

  3. Ryan M. Church says:

    The Terminator and Matrix franchises were stolen from the same story. The Original author only recently regained copyright control during production of the latest Terminator film.

    In the original story John Connor and Neo were the same person.

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