The Benefit of Writing in an Established Universe

So, this past week I’ve been writing up elements of the world that I run D&D in. Now in my campaign, I have three players new to the world of D&D and one player who has been running his own games of D&D for ten years. Often, I will add elements of the lore of D&D into my world. When these elements are discussed, there is a back-and-forth about how they are typically portrayed in the canon of the lore and where my world differs. While writing up the deities of my world, I’ve thought more about where the stories that have been told about the gods differ. So, that’s a fun writing topic, what are the benefits of writing in an established universe?

So, recently I’ve been shaping out the relationship of the elven deities Corellon and Lolth. The typical story of these two gods can be found here. So, in the typical story, Corellon is the accidental forefather of the elven race and Lolth is the treacherous one who attacked him. On its surface, my story is much the same. However, in my world’s version of this story, Lolth killed Corellon and spun his sinew in a weave of magic for her followers. Then Boccob, a dwarven god, stole her web and sewed magic across the world. Thus in my world, the dark elves that follow Lolth carry animosity to other races because they believe that something special was stolen from them long ago. The figure of Boccob is reshaped as a dwarven trickster god who has some interplay with the other pantheons of the world. Transforming these stories means that differences stand out and transform our relationship with the original text.

You might recall that idea if you read last week’s piece about remakes. I think there is a certain value in creating fiction that assesses the original text in a new context or looks at how we view influential texts by using a text in the same universe. Part of my devil may care attitude to a bunch of fans trying to scramble together an alternate take on the Last Jedi is because I think the final result will be … fascinating. I think that the $200 million movie released by the biggest movie studio in the world will ultimately be the better movie but this fan ‘remake’ will give us a picture of that subset of fan’s relationship to the Last Jedi and Star Wars as a whole. Choices and art aren’t apolitical, so it’ll be interesting to see how their choices bear political fruit. Particularly with a franchise whose empire is so often implicitly fascistic. Speaking of Last Jedi, there is something interesting in this sequel trilogy being a meta-narrative about Star Wars. A series which is arguably one of the most influential pieces of fiction of the 20th century. More info on this can be found here.

The last thing I want to talk about when it comes to writing in an established universe is the most obvious example of this phenomenon: fan fiction. Fan fiction has a complicated legacy. There is a derision of fan fiction in certain corners of the internet for its habit of revolving around the shipping of various characters. It may be easy to deride fan fiction but let’s not forget how much of our own pop culture is derived from rewritings of older stories. Dante’s Inferno as a retelling of the Orpheus myth. Marvel Comic’s Thor as a retelling of Norse god Thor. Enough Sherlock Holmes’ to host the world’s most narcissistic orgy. I’m certainly not the first post-modernist to declare that all culture is derivative. Whenever you’re learning storytelling, there is always some core ideas that get thrown around. Like the adage that there are only two stories: the man who succeeds and the man who fails. Or as Shakespeare would see it, comedy or tragedy. Now, certainly you can critique these ideas (the first adage is a bit phallocentric as our stories get more diverse, the second conveniently sidelines Shakespeare’s histories). I’m a scholar of postmodernism, not a master of it. Along this line of thinking, check out ‘Everything is a Remix’.

So, in some ways, an established universe is no different than a familiar genre or adaptation when it comes to creating fiction. We as writers are always working within the fiction that we’re exposed to. Like how the original Star Wars films are part King Arthur story, part Flash Gordon, and part World War II serial. The end result is unique but also bears its influences on its sleeve. Writers of fan fiction can take the ideas they developed in a scene of readers who share a mutual interest in an established property and make their very own smut novel that makes the New York Times best-seller list. Now, as a counter to that, there are texts that defy all of their influences in an attempt to stand out. Painful works like those of James Joyce. But even his works reference some element of fiction/cultural storytelling and trying to avoid every genre means that you are responding to established works, just by trying to avoid them. We are always transforming culture by way of exposure.

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