Creating A Shared World
If a novel is a window through which we might view an entire world, it is hardly surprising that writers wish to show their readers more of that world. It’s human nature to want to draw connections and make a cohesive whole, and yet, paradoxically, the best books and films are often those which leave the world (or the plot) unfinished.
Famously, Joan Lindsay’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ had its final few pages removed by her editor to make the story more enigmatic. David Thompson’s ‘Suspects’ went to the other extreme, tying in all the heroes and villains from the world of 1940s crime noir thrillers into one big universe, showing how they were all related.
In the Avengers episode ‘Too Many Christmas Trees’, John Steed opens a Christmas card from his old partner Cathy Gale, mailed from Fort Knox. She had famously left the series to go and make ‘Goldfinger’. So this unites the worlds of the Avengers and James Bond.
It was a trick Stan Lee at Marvel Comics was quick to cotton onto, and DC Comics had been doing something similar in a more limited way, grouping together characters that naturally fitted. Does this mean that characters from ‘War and Peace’ could turn up in ‘Anna Karenina’ or ‘The Brothers Karamazov’? Why not go the whole hog and create a literary map of the world in which every single major character in literature overlaps into another story?
Books usually begin with a single character, slowly expanding to include a major secondary figure (so that the first has someone to talk to, which is why detectives have sidekicks), then undergo the Springfield Effect, expanding to include more and more minor figures for background colour. Although I remember having to print out a chart for ‘War and Peace’ in order to remember who everyone was.
On a lighter note, the world of prequels like ‘Rogue One’ and ‘Prometheus’ fill in events to the start-points of beloved stories.
Meanwhile, back on my own minor level, I’ve been working toward reducing the explanations in my novels so that, read in the right mindset, they become self-explanatory, but one thing I’m endlessly tempted to do is cross over between books, using characters from different worlds, so to speak. Several non Bryant & May books have appearances from the detectives and their predecessors, and now I’m just finishing a novel in which two characters, one from the B&M books, one from ‘Calabash'(!) share the stage together.
For Bryant & May I had always had in mind a kind of idealised London where everything you enjoy existed in the same timeframe and location. Artist Keith Page made this explicit in the second story in the B&M graphic novel, in which he peppered the panels with familiar faces from old films.
If we take comfort from books, is it better to imagine that all of the characters exist together than to think that they too, like us, live in a world of strangers? Or do you prefer your entertainment to be self-contained? I’m canvassing options.