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.