Shared universe

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A shared universe or shared world is a set of creative works where more than one writer (or other artist) independently contributes a work that can stand alone but fits into the joint development of the storyline, characters, or world of the overall project. It is common in genres like science fiction.[1]

It differs from collaborative writing where multiple artists are working together on the same work and from crossovers where the works and characters are independent except for a single meeting.

The term shared universe is also used within comics to reflect the overall milieu created by the comic book publisher in which characters, events, and premises from one product line appear in other product lines in a media franchise.

The term has also been used in a wider, non-literary sense to convey interdisciplinary[2] or social commonality,[3] often in the context of a "shared universe of discourse."[4]


Fiction in some media, such as most television programs and many comic book titles, is understood to require the contribution of multiple authors and does not by itself create a shared universe and is considered a collaborative art form. Incidental appearances, such as that of d'Artagnan in Cyrano de Bergerac, are considered literary cameo appearances. More substantial interaction between characters from different sources is often marketed as a crossover. While crossovers occur in a shared universe, not all crossovers are intended to merge their settings' back-stories and are instead used for marketing, parody, or to explore "what-if" scenarios.[5][6]

It can become difficult for writers contributing to a shared universe to maintain consistency and avoid contradicting details in earlier works, especially when a shared universe grows to be very large. The version deemed "official" by the author or company controlling the setting is known as canon. Not all shared universes have a controlling entity capable of or interested in determining canonicity, and not all fans agree with these determinations when they occur.[7] A fanon may instead find some degree of consensus within the setting's fandom.[8]

Some writers, in an effort to ensure that a canon can be established and to keep details of the setting believable, employ tools to correct contradictions and errors that result from multiple contributors working over a long period of time. One such tool is retconning, short for "retroactive continuity", which resolves errors in continuity that came about through previously-written conflicting material.[9]

Readers may also object when a story or series is integrated into a shared universe, feeling it "requir[es] one hero's fans to buy other heroes' titles".[10]

Originating in novels

The expansion of existing material into a shared universe is not restricted to settings licensed from movies and television. For example, Larry Niven opened his Known Space setting to other writers initially because he considered his lack of military experience prevented him from adequately describing the wars between mankind and the Kzinti.[11] The degree to which he has made the setting available for other writers became a topic of controversy, when Elf Sternberg created an erotic short story set in Known Space following an author's note from Niven indicating that "[i]f you want more Known Space stories, you'll have to write them yourself".[12] Niven has since clarified that his setting is still to be used only "under restricted circumstances and with permission",[13] which Niven granted to the several authors of the Man-Kzin Wars series. By contrast, author Eric Flint has edited and published collaborations with fan fiction writers directly, expanding his 1632 series.[14]

A setting may also be expanded in a similar manner after the death of its creator, although this posthumous expansion does not meet some strict definitions of a shared universe. One such example is August Derleth's development of the Cthulhu Mythos from the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, an approach whose result is considered by some to be "completely dissimilar" to Lovecraft's own works.[15] Less controversial posthumous expansions include Ruth Plumly Thompson's and later authors' sequels to L. Frank Baum's Oz stories and the further development of Isaac Asimov's Foundation universe by Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, and David Brin.[16]

Many other published works of this nature take the form of a series of short-story anthologies with occasional standalone novels. Examples include Robert Lynn Asprin's Thieves' World,[17] C. J. Cherryh's Merovingen Nights[18] and Janet Morris' Heroes in Hell.[19]

Universes in films

Fictional universes originated in film, are refereed to as cinematic universes and consist of a film franchise featuring an umbrella of multiple film franchises set within the same continuity, with each franchise within, telling a story focusing on a different character or a different group of characters and each franchise featuring its own cast, directors, writers, and crossovers between characters from different movies as well as a coherent, non contradictory narrative among each of them.

An early universe in cinema history was the "Universal Monsters" series of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, which ran from 1931 to 1951 and featured recurring cast and characters.

Some film series, are set within a single, coherent fictional universe, even if the writers, directors and cast change between films. In the case of the James Bond film series whom originated in 1962, some aspects of the fictional universe are retained between films, but the lead actor has changed several times.

As in the case of Star Wars film saga whom originated in 1977, the success of the Original Trilogy (1977-1983) spawned multiple novels, comics and video-games whom at the beginning were only film-adaptations, but due to the commercial success spawned into original story-lines telling stories set before, between and after the films, which as a whole were branded as the Star Was Expanded Universe (abbreviated as EU) , the EU writers worked under the rule of not contradicting the films. While originally the franchise creator George Lucas and his production company Lucasfilm deemed the story-lines that didn't happen on the films as non-canonical, because he considered some not to be coherent or to diminish the meaning of his films. Despite his stance, due to the popularity of some EU story-lines, during the production of the prequel trilogy (1999-2005), Lucas decided to include within his films minor EU elements he supported, such as characters and places; although as a whole Lucas didn't consider the EU as a canonical part of his story-line, he considered the elements he included within his films as canonical. In 2008, Lucas decided to create an animated series which premiered with a theatrical animated film, Star Wars: The Clone Wars which would have the same canonical value as the films. With the development of the sequel trilogy (2015-2019) and anthology films Lucasfilm rebranded the Expanded Universe as Star Wars Legends, and re-stated their views, officially saying none of those stories were at any point considered canonical to the film series. However, Lucasfilm liked the idea of an expanding the story beyond the films, and decided to make non-film story-lines as a canonical part of the story-line, although none of the Legends were deemed as canonical, from April 2014 onward, all new-stories told within novels, comics, video-games, as well as a follow up animated series continuing the story-line of The Clone Wars, were to be considered canonical to the films, and would be developed in a closer collaboration with Lucasfilm. The Star Wars canon is unique in that its stories, are told across multiple media, and all share the same continuity.[20]

As for comic book based films, there are two cinematic universes based on Marvel Comics characters, both set within a different continuity. The X-Men film series which originated in 2000, is the longest running superhero film-franchise to be set within the same continuity, while the Marvel Cinematic Universe has the most films.

Universes in television

A television series may lead to a spin-off series set in the same universe, often focusing on a single character from the original. The American sitcom Cheers led to two spin-off series based on its characters, in the form of Frasier and The Tortellis.

A significant example of shared universes among television shows is the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis, which suggests that hundreds of American television series take place in the same universe. It builds from the assumption that when an actor playing a character from one series guest-stars in a second series, in character, both of those series must take place in the same universe. The theory takes its name from a character in the final episode of St. Elsewhere, where the common interpretation of the events of that finale is that the entire St. Elsewhere universe – including all connected series – exist only within Westphall's imagination.[21]

The spin-off media from Doctor Who, known as the "Whoniverse", has relatively little consistency given its division into audio plays produced by Big Finish and the BBC, the New Adventures universe novel, or a universe based on comics published in Doctor Who Magazine and other publications.[22] The aforementioned Marvel Cinematic Universe has multiple TV shows that co-exist and share the same continuity.

Originating in comics/based upon comics

Promotional poster for Crossgen Chronicles, listing some of the interconnected titles in the Sigilverse.

Within comics, the term shared universe has been used to reflect the overall milieu created by the comic book publisher in which characters, events, and premises from one product line appear in other product lines in a media franchise.

By 1961, Marvel Comics writer and editor Stan Lee, working with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, merged the bulk of the publisher's comics characters into the Marvel Universe.[10] Marvel sets its stories in an increasing number of alternate realities, each with an assigned number in a greater "multiverse".[23] DC Comics and Marvel have also periodically co-published series in which their respective characters meet and interact. These intercompany crossovers have typically been written as self-limiting events that avoid implying that the DC Universe and Marvel Universe co-exist. Exceptions include the twenty-four comics released under the metafictional imprint Amalgam Comics in 1996, depicting a shared universe populated by hybridizations of the two companies' characters. Marvel has since referred to this as part of its setting's greater multiverse by labeling it Earth-692.[23]

Although DC and Marvel's shared universe approaches to comics have set them apart from competitors in the industry,[24] other companies have attempted similar models. Valiant Comics and Crossgen both produced titles primarily set from their inception in a single, publisher-wide shared universe, known respectively as Unity[25] and the Sigilverse.[26]

Originating in video games and the Internet

The influence of the Internet on collaborative and interactive fiction has also resulted in a large number of amateur shared universe settings. Amateur authors have created shared universes by contributing to mailing lists, story archives and Usenet. One of the earliest of these settings, SFStory, saw its spin-off setting Superguy cited as illustrative of the potential of the Internet.[27] Another example is the furry-themed Tales from the Blind Pig created at the Transformation Story Archive which some limited publication.[28][29] Other early examples include the Dargon Project, Devilbunnies,[30] and the SCP Foundation.[citation needed]

Universes in animation

The Mickey Mouse universe dates back to the 1930s when the animated cartoon was expanded into a newspaper strip. Although the characters occasionally portray other roles and with other names, the writers address this discrepancy by thinking of the characters as being "employed" by Disney as actors. Walt Disney, when asked whether or not Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse were married, replied that the mice were indeed married in their "private li[ves]", but that they sometimes appeared as boyfriend and girlfriend for "screen purposes."[31] The Mickey Mouse universe also includes the Donald Duck universe as a subset.

The Pixar universe is an elaborate fan theory suggesting that all Pixar animated movies take place in the same universe. At the 2015 D23 Expo, during the "Pixar Secrets Revealed" panel, director Mark Andrews rejected the theory, with Inside Out co-director Ronnie del Carmen adding "Do you know what kinds of meetings we'd have to have to make sure all our movies line up?!"[32]

Other shared media franchises

The 2000 musical Seussical presented several works of Dr. Seuss as taking place in the same fictional world.

Hasbro toy products including G.I. Joe and Transformers are considered by their manufacturer to exist fictionally within the Hasbro Universe.

See also


  1. ^ Nielsen, Jakob (1995). Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and Beyond. Morgan Kaufmann. pp. 120–. ISBN 978-0-12-518408-3. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  2. ^ Smith, Harvey L. (Jan 1958). "Contingencies of Professional Differentiation". The American Journal of Sociology. 63 (4): 410. doi:10.1086/222264. 
  3. ^ Tannen, Deborah (1987). "Repetition in Conversation: Toward a Poetics of Talk". Language. Language, Vol. 63, No. 3. 63 (63): 574–605. JSTOR 415006. doi:10.2307/415006. 
  4. ^ *Blumenthal, David R. (1993). Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 34–. ISBN 978-0-664-25464-3. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
    • Baber, Robert L. (2011-09-09). The Language of Mathematics: Utilizing Math in Practice. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 207–. ISBN 978-1-118-06176-3. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
    • Davis, Boyd H.; Brewer, Jeutonne (1997). Electronic Discourse: Linguistic Individuals in Virtual Space. SUNY Press. pp. 86–. ISBN 978-0-7914-3475-8. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
    • Hashkes, Hannah (2015-02-26). Rabbinic Discourse as a System of Knowledge: "The Study of Torah is Equal to them All". BRILL. pp. 140–. ISBN 9789004290488. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
    • Crespi, Irving (2013-11-05). The Public Opinion Process: How the People Speak. Routledge. pp. 60–. ISBN 978-1-136-68489-0. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  5. ^ Reynolds, Richard (Mar 1994). Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-0-87805-694-1. 
  6. ^ Magnussen, Anne and Hans-christian Christiansen, eds. (Apr 2000). Comics & Culture: analytical and theoretical approaches to comics. Museum Tusculanum Press. ISBN 978-87-7289-580-2. 
  7. ^ Pustz, Matthew (1999). Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. University Press of Mississippi. 
  8. ^ Moore, Rebecca C. (Apr 2005). "All Shapes of Hunger: Teenagers and Fanfiction". Voya. 
  9. ^ Jones, Nick (Feb 2002). "Retcon Tricks". Star Trek Monthly Magazine: 18–21. 
  10. ^ a b Burt, Stephen (Winter 2005). ""Blown To Atoms or Reshaped At Will": Recent Books About Comics". College Literature. 32: 166. doi:10.1353/lit.2005.0004. 
  11. ^ Scribner, Ted; et al. "Novel Collaborations". Archived from the original on 2007-01-10. Retrieved 2007-01-13. 
  12. ^ Niven, Larry (1980). The Ringworld Engineers. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 
  13. ^ "Ladies and Gentlemen, Dr. Larry Niven". Slashdot. 2003-03-10. Retrieved 2007-01-13. 
  14. ^ Eves, David (Sep 2005). "1632: About this Site". Retrieved 2007-06-14. 
  15. ^ Tierney, Richard L. (2004-09-09). "The Derleth Mythos". Nightscapes. Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  16. ^ "Following Asimov's Foundation". Cyberhaven. 1999. Archived from the original on 2007-08-11. Retrieved 2007-06-14. 
  17. ^ Silver, Steven H. (Oct 2002). "A Conversation with Lynn Abbey". SF Site. Retrieved 2007-06-14. 
  18. ^ Cherryh, C.J. "C.J.Cherryh's Book Order Page". Retrieved 2007-01-10. 
  19. ^ Orson Scott Card & "How to write science fiction & fantasy" Writer's Digest Books 1990, p. 126.
  20. ^ "How Star Wars Mastered the Shared Universe". May 4, 2017. 
  21. ^ Gravely, Gary (August 2015). A Multiverse of Narratives: Possible Worlds Theory and Authorship From the Lone Artist to Corporate Authors (Ph.D. thesis). Murfreesboro, TN: Middle Tennessee State University. pp. 166–167. No.3719757 – via ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. 
  22. ^ "Gary Russell two". BBC. 2004-01-01. Archived from the original on 2012-07-21. Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  23. ^ a b writer, Kit Kiefer. (2004-11-24). Marvel Encyclopedia Volume 6: Fantastic Four. Marvel Comics. ISBN 978-0-7851-1480-2. 
  24. ^ Fowler, Brant W. (2006-06-05). "Myth Conceptions: 'Summer Blockbusters'". Silver Bullet Comics. Archived from the original on October 26, 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-10. 
  25. ^ Smith, Andy (2006-07-10). "The Valiant Comics F.A.Q.". Sequart. Archived from the original on 2006-10-23. Retrieved 2007-01-12. 
  26. ^ Lander, Randy. "Negation War #1". The 4th Rail. Archived from the original on November 20, 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-12. 
  27. ^ Engst, Adam C. & William Dickson (1994-01-15). Internet Explorer Kit. Hayden Books. ISBN 978-1-56830-089-4. 
  28. ^ "Index". Anthro. Retrieved 2006-12-03. 
  29. ^ "Stories". TSAT: Transformation Stories, Art, Talk (21). Apr–May 2002. Retrieved 2006-12-03. 
  30. ^ Miller, Steve (Jul 1994). "". Wired (2.07). Retrieved 2007-05-13. 
  31. ^ Holliss, Richard; Brian Sibley (1986). Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse: His Life and Times. New York: Harper & Row. p. 33. ISBN 0-06-015619-8. 
  32. ^ "10 Things We Learned from the 'Pixar Secrets Revealed' Panel". Oh My Disney. August 16, 2015. Retrieved August 17, 2015. 


  • James Lowder. Shared Worlds // The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders / Edited by Gary Westfahl. Advisory Board Richard Bleiler, John Clute, Fiona Kelleghan, David Langford, Andy Sawyer, and Darrell Schweitzer. — Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005. — 1395 pp. ISBN 0-313-32950-8, ISBN 978-0-313-32950-0
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