What You Need to Know about Shared Worlds


 Erik Scott de Bie is a speculative fiction author and game designer who has been working in shared worlds since he started publishing in 2005. His latest Forgotten Realms novel is Shadowbane, about a vigilante paladin in a city of thieves, and the sequel, Eye of Justice, comes out this fall. He can be found at his website erikscottdebie.com or on Twitter @erikscottdebie.


Shared worlds are everywhere. From serial fantasy novels to decades-long comic book franchises to long-running TV shows and wildly successful movie dynasties, there are certain characters and worlds that people just love to experience. Fans love to see new spins on iconic characters that honor the old continuity. And yes, fans love to hate shared world writing that diverges from the established canon or takes a beloved character in a strange and unexpected direction.



Why do authors write in Shared Worlds?


For one thing, it’s awesome, particularly if you’re a fan. I’ve been reading and gaming in the Forgotten Realms since grade school, so I jumped at the chance to write novels and sourcebooks in it when I grew up. If you’re a particular fan of Buffy, or Star Wars, etc, writing for the IP is a major win.

Second, if you don’t have the time or energy to build your own world/setting, or if world-building just isn’t your thing, a shared world gives you a proven framework in which to set your story. The flip-side of that is that it’s easy to dismiss your work as derivative or unoriginal, because it’s based on a pre-existing setting.

Third, there’s the money to consider. Shared Worlds usually have their own built-in fanbase, and when you publish a novel in one of those settings, you already have an audience. For this reason, shared world pieces tend to bring in more money than the majority of non-shared world pieces. On the flipside, your audience is also somewhat limited, as shared world fans tend to follow in-world writing. If and when you want to craft original fiction, you’ll probably have a limited fanbase that follows you.


How does one write Good Shared World fiction?

Every piece of shared world fiction is sculpted by two distinct and opposite forces: the drive to create and the drive to incorporate. When writing in a shared world, you as an author find yourself constantly walking a fairly tight line between the two impulses, and hitting the proper balance is how you get the best stuff.

‘Creating’ implies making up your own story with your own characters that just happens to occur in a shared world. This usually requires distance from the rest of the world, so as not to cross canon. R.A. Salvatore is famous for setting his iconic Icewind Dale series as far as possible from anything else in the Forgotten Realms to avoid stepping on toes. Star Wars: The Old Republic takes place long before the popular series so as to go whatever way it wants. The downside to this impulse is that established fans of the setting aren’t necessarily going to achieve the setting recognition you’re looking for, and you’re susceptible to the “this doesn’t feel like the IP” criticism.

‘Incorporating’ implies that you are taking as much established lore about the setting as possible to tell a story that is shaped by the story of the IP. Ed Greenwood’s classic novel Spellfire was written specifically to showcase the Forgotten Realms, crafting a story that incorporates as many villainous organizations, intrigues, and NPCs as feasible for the book. The movie Watchmen stuck really close to the source material (Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel), refusing to take much license with the characters. The downside to this impulse is threefold:

1) It’s often a LOT of research (the Forgotten Realms, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc., have literally hundreds of novels/TV shows full of canon), 2) You open yourself to the criticism of “not being creative enough,” and 3) If you get it wrong, fans are going to eviscerate you on the internet and in reviews. Also, if your story is too idiosyncratic, and you need to be a hardcore lore wonk to understand it, it’s not going to have popular appeal.


So what’s a writer to do?

Find a good balance. Tell a story that stands on its own, but stays true to the canon. The lore should be there for hardcore fans to pick up, but also subtle enough that newbies can ignore it and roll with the narrative. Honor and embrace what else is going on in the setting, and let your story grow organically from the established lore without shoehorning your own story in.

Generally, respect the shared world, do your research, tell a damn good story, and you’re golden.

Tie-In Novels as Historical Fiction

Dave Gross is the author of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and the upcoming Queen of Thorns. His other recent work appears in the anthologies Tales of the Far West and Shotguns v. Cthulhu. You can read some of his stories for free at paizo.com or follow him on Twitter @frabjousdave or frabjousdave.blogspot.com.

After a couple of decades editing and writing for shared-world settings, I still enjoy playing in someone else’s sandbox. The advantages of building your sand castle in a popular setting make up for those occasions when you scoop up a cat turd. You can avoid those unpleasant surprises, or make the most of them, by approaching tie-in fiction as an archaeologist and historian.

Do Your Research

When approaching a tie-in project, you’ll start with either a wealth of source material—as in a big property like Star Wars—or with only a few pages of concepts—as in a brand-new setting like Far West. Each situation offers a different advantage. If your strengths lie in research and interpolation, you’ll love poring over dozens of volumes in search of details to bring your story to life. If the material is well organized, with a wiki for instance, it’ll be a breeze. With smaller settings, you’ll enjoy the freedom to invent within an established atmosphere. I’ve written novels for which my research filled a banker’s box and some for which my research fit on two pages.  Each method has its pleasures.

Obey the Canon

Whether you’re developing from existing elements or creating new ones, it’s crucial not to break with the established “physics” of the world. When pitching a story for a steampunk/wuxia/Wild West setting, I assumed incorrectly that magic was a part of the world. Thankfully that happened at the pitch stage, so the editor gently pointed out my mistake, and I moved on to a different pitch.  When I write for Pathfinder Tales, the editor asks me to footnote any mentions of spells or monsters from the game—or to point out where I’m inventing something new—to help him make sure my story jibes with the source material. As with any writing, the better your communication with the editor, the less pain you’ll endure in revision.

Resolve Existing Conflicts

Just like the real world, large settings like the Forgotten Realms occasionally produce conflicting references to a single location, time period, or character. Sometimes these vagaries are intentional, as with multiple interpretations of a religious prophecy. But discrepancies can slip through, just as archaeologists unearth contrary evidence or historians disagree in their interpretations of that evidence. If your editor can’t resolve the question and it’s left to you to make the call, make the most of it. Pick the interpretation that best serves your story, or the one that best reflects the “truth” of the setting. At the same time, trust your editor to make sure that writers working at the same time each have their own corners of the sandbox, minimizing conflicts.

Beware of Apocrypha

Fans love to add to their favorite tie-in settings, as do third-party-publishers (3PP). Take care to avoid both fan-created and 3PP content. Not only is that extra material unofficial, it’s also legally off-limits. This situation is especially dangerous to writers who have read widely from a setting’s source material.  Recently I discovered some fan-created material in a big folder of official source material, reminding me of this danger.

Extrapolate the Small Stuff

Even the most comprehensive setting won’t provide you with all the details you need for a rich story, and that’s where the real fun begins. You may know everything else about the goddess of death, but when you need the equivalent of the sign of the cross for a frightened character, it’s your moment to add a new detail. Some of my favorite additions to established settings have been the smallest: rituals, courtesies, and curses. The key is not to throw in something just because it’s cool by itself; it should make sense within the existing setting, so find a way to link the small to the big. For example, in a country where the authorities impale criminals on giant forks, “shooting the tines” might be the most offensive gesture. Do it well, and other authors will use your invention as their source material in the next book.


Writing tie-in fiction isn’t for everyone. Some precious souls look down on the work, despite its appreciative audience and many excellent examples of the form. And maybe you just don’t enjoy research; I know at least one brilliant writer who has done excellent tie-in work in the past but who avoids it now because it’s too much like studying for an exam. Still, if you’re a fan of a setting or its genre, if you play well with others, and if you do your research, you can have a lot of fun in the sandbox and uncover far more treasure than turds.