What To Write: Shared Worlds

Warhammer 40K Space Marines

NaNoWriMo starts in exactly a week! It’s incredibly exciting. That means that by now, you have probably been doing some major planning and getting yourself psyched up for what’s going to be an incredibly rewarding 30 days of literary abandon. But perhaps you haven’t quite decided what you want to write yet. You know you like fantasy (or science fiction), but you feel you either don’t have the time or the imagination to dream up an entirely new world. You don’t want to write a Harry Potter fan fic, because that seems lame to you, and yet you really want to have some characters sling some spells and swing some swords in a fight to restore ultimate order to the universe. Well, you’re in luck, because the topic we’re touching on today is the easiest to jump into, particularly if you have a bit of a plot idea in mind, but are stuck on the setting.

This is the concept of shared worlds. I consider it different than fan fiction, because these worlds are already utilized by many different writers—the only difference between their works and yours is the official sanction of the publishing body. The premier example of this is Star Wars. Star Wars contains an entire world of material beyond the six films, known as the Expanded Universe. There are far too many novels for me to count, and they run the gamut from the absolutely amazing (Timothy Zahn, one of my favourite sci-fi authors, has published nine to this date, with a tenth due to drop in December) to the totally terrible (remember Shadows of the Empire, Lucas Arts’ big promotional push leading up to the Special Edition original trilogy? I read it. Oh, God, I read the whole thing!). In addition, there are multiple role-playing games of both the digital and pen-and-paper variety.

That brings up an important point about these shared worlds—they are often drawn from role-playing games. Why? Because the nature of a role-playing game system is to establish a world, and allow you and your mates to define the characters however you wish. There are books upon books produced for the express intention of giving the game master the material necessary to detail a world for players, and that’s the greatest resource for you as a writer. Anyone who has ever played pen-and-paper role-playing games (I’ll be writing more about role-playing in a few later posts) knows that the game master is practically an author, without the writing on pages part. Role-playing games are an exercise in joint storytelling—and that means it’s incredibly easy to turn those resources to solo storytelling.

Any world that has been expounded upon enough and with enough freedom for new creation can count as this kind of shared world. Having this kind of world can be incredibly freeing to some writers (myself included) because it means that a lot of details have already been taken care of. It also allows us to research, much like we would for a novel set in a real-world location. It also means that you can be wrong. If you’re writing a story set in The Forgotten Realms, and you say that Bahamut is the god of the Dwarves and that the Drow are a peaceful race of subterranean dwellers, you’re going to look like an idiot, and everyone will hate you. Writing in one of these pre-created worlds is incredibly restrictive—more so than fan fiction, at times. In fan fiction, you can change something major, like putting Hogwarts in Germany, instead of the UK, and say “well, that’s what my story is.” If you write a Star Wars novel where Coruscant is located on the Outer Rim, that’s not “your story.” It’s incorrect.

So where is the line between fan fiction and these “shared worlds” drawn? It’s a little tricky to define, but I see it this way—if you are writing about pre-established characters, you’re writing fan fiction. So, to continue using Star Wars as an example, if you’re writing about Leia Organa’s adventures as a young girl, you’re writing fan fiction. If you’re writing about a bounty hunter fighting for survival in the underworld of Nar Shaddah, you’re writing original (gasp!!!) content in the shared Star Wars Universe. This is where I think Star Wars differs from (and is superior to) Star Trek—while there is Star Trek fiction published, it’s almost exclusively about the crews of the ships (or stations) on the various television series. There is no established canonical Star Trek Universe outside of the shows and films. For Star Wars, there is.

So where can you find these worlds to write about? I love looking at what pen-and-paper role-playing games are available. There’s also a wealth of other geeky materials that you could draw from, but sometimes determining if something has the appropriate depth to make it into this kind of story is difficult. Not every role-playing franchise does. World Of Warcraft obviously does, because it’s been written about by so many different people over the years, and the lore and setting are well established. Starcraft, much less so, because while there may be some stories, they’re mostly just the tales of the games, and no extremely developed world has been built around them to the extent that it has in World of Warcraft. Halo is much the same; while there is some level of detail to the world, it’s really only the level of detail necessary to tell Master Chief’s story. While Halo 3: ODST attempted to explore elements outside of the main storyline, it didn’t develop the world enough for there to be an accessible resource.

If you’re looking for a grim sci-fi world to draw from, however, I highly recommend Warhammer 40K. Not only are there already many, many novels and short stories written in this world, the universe is absolutely massive and well-developed. Just take a look at all the tabletop war game material and the extensive resources from Fantasy Flight Games for the pen-and-paper RPGs. There’s even plenty of art to inspire your imagination (like the picture of some space marines above). And yes, Warhammer is older than Starcraft. Blizzard imitated Games Workshop, not the other way around. The Mass Effect world would also be a legitimate source for this kind of game, because the amount of in-game information that Bioware provided about the world is absolutely staggering, but keep in mind that if you write about Commander Shepherd, you’re writing fan fiction, not this other variant.

For fantasy, there are always the Dungeons and Dragons worlds, including The Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance. Some of these worlds already have such established plots that it might be difficult to fit your story into them, but I trust that with a little wiggling and jiggling, you can do it. Remember, these worlds may be established, but they still have plenty of room for additional creation in them. I also like to draw inspiration from Magic The Gathering, which presents an idea of “Planes of Existence” where magic all follows a five-colour mana system, and powerful Plainswalkers go around creating chaos. Or something like that. Looking at the Planes of MTG can be inspiring for helping create settings. Keep in mind that your erotic Garruk and Liliana adventure on Innistrad is fan fiction, not shared world fiction (please send it to me!).

So, have you gotten inspired yet? Do you have a favourite “established world” that you write in, or have you ever used one to significantly influence your own fiction? Do you think this is all bogus? Discuss it in the comments! Again, I apologize for this being a late post. On Monday, I’ll give my last pre-NaNo prep piece on how I feel about outlines, and what I think is a productive way to prepare for the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. Then next Thursday will be Day 1, and I’ll be talking about that. Happy writing, everyone.

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1 Comment

Filed under What To Write, Writing Advice

One response to “What To Write: Shared Worlds

  1. Shared worlds are a great starting ground, but I love the challenge of taking what I love about them, twisting it, and opening up a new world.
    And yes, Star Wars’ expanded universe is astounding in its breadth and depth.

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