Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Thoughts on Media Universes

Just to clarify right off the bat, this has nothing to do with the media as we understand it to be the news.  This has to do with media meaning music, TV, and especially movies.  The fun media that we like to consume in some fashion.

I actually thought about this with any seriousness last December when I was interviewing for the Author Next Door (National Writers' Series).  She was asking about how far the series was going to go and this and that.  And then, with the release of Of Saints and Sinners, I actually considered that I am building a universe, and that such things are becoming more and more common.

When I say a media universe, the first thing you may think of is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Avengers, Black Panther, Doctor Stranger, and so on.  Ten years, dozens of movies.  Even if you don't watch it, chances are, you've heard of it.  What makes it a universe is that each story is (typically) independent of each other, yet it follows a (loose) general timeline (Captain America comes after Iron Man but they aren't direct sequels).  And every so often, characters will cross over.

In the book world, my favorite example of this is The Books of History Chronicles by Ted Dekker.  You've got The Circle series, the Showdown series, and others.  Each series is independent, but they all revolve around the Books of History.

The Timekeeper Chronicles is very similar to this, though it's only just begun to blossom.  The Chivalrous Welshman will remain the backbone of events and can be read without the aid of other series.  Likewise, other series can be read by themselves and have a distinct beginning, middle, and conclusion.  Of Saints and Sinners is able to be read by itself, though it is much more fun to tie it into the rest of the universe.  In the future, there will be more series to read: The Hands of Time, Akari-Bearer, and at least one more single, just to name a few.

But I was thinking the other day, why do it?  It's a lot of time, both to write and to read, and it can also add up monetarily.  Why do we like media universes?  What is the goal?

I think the answer is both simple and complex (yeah, yeah, I know, good going, very insightful).  But when we break it down into basic elements, it makes the bigger picture easier to understand.

Why do people write books?
This is the first question.  Why write at all?  Non-fiction aside,most people write fiction simply to entertain, to escape.  And the basic elements of a book is a beginning, middle, and end to a plot.  This can come in a variety of forms, the hero's journey, the three act sequence, or something totally off the wall.  We meet characters and follow them on adventures.  Sometimes, books are written to e serials, that is, independent books that feature the same characters and may follow a typical plot structure but can be read in any order.  Examples might be the Doctor Who novels, or many children's books like Clifford the Big Red DogThe Chronicles of Narnia may be a series or a serial because, although it follows a loose linear timeline, the books can generally be read in any order.

When does a book become a series?
A book becomes a series when there is more action to be had beyond a simple beginning, middle, and end, that can't be contained by three to five hundred pages, or whatever it is.  That's when arcing becomes important.

Perhaps the most common and easiest to explain example is almost any TV show.  I'll use the ninth season of Doctor Who as an example.  Each episode was its own thing, with a bad guy to be defeated or puzzles to solve or whatever, but the overarching theme was figuring out the identity of Bad Wolf.  At the very end of the season, viewers discover that it is, in fact, Rose. (Sorry, but Season 9 was so long ago, if you don't know that by now, then too bad.)

Many series, whether visual or written, have an overarching plot involving the protagonist and antagonist and an ongoing conflict between them.  The series typically ends when the bad guy is defeated, whether through political maneuvering that takes more than four hundred pages to detail, or a physical confrontation that requires more time to make it believable and impactful on the reader.

When does a series become a universe?
I'd say a series becomes a universe when there are multiple series revolving around the same overarching plot or theme.  In the case of The Timekeeper Chronicles, the overarching theme is Timekeeping, the Akari, and a number of considerations when it comes to its impact on humanity socially, culturally, religiously, politically, and so on.  Each book contributes to this with its own plot adding into a larger plot theme for the series which connects with other series in the universe.

Why write a universe versus a series?
The first question should be why write a series, other than extending a particular plotline?  Often this has to do with emotional involvement, getting to know the characters in such a way that they become real people.  It's an investment.  You become friends or enemies with certain characters and want to see them succeed or fail.  With a series, you spend more time with the characters than you would with a single book, which is why a TV show might run for a bazinga—I mean, a bazillion seasons, but a movie might get only one or two sequels.  You'll spend hours upon hours upon days with a TV show character, versus only a few hours with a movie character.

A universe can allow for similar expansion and investment in more characters.  The Chivalrous Welshman centers around Tommen's viewpoint, although Stopwatch did detour from this quite a bit.  But with the added series opening up more viewpoints, like Walter in Of Saints and Sinners, it allows for, not only the development of themes, but greater depth of character and plot.  Future series will address various viewpoints of the Dispersal, something only alluded to in TKC.  And it provides character perspective from different walks of life.  Rifun and Cassius come from very different cultures with very different practices, different worldviews which a Westerner would consider bizarre and even foolish.  But to them, it's life.  Micah and Micaiah had a very unusual childhood and certain events absolutely defined them.

A novel may skim the surface of the water on a jet ski, maybe go snorkeling a little and see some interesting things, but a series takes you beneath the waves, to see and touch and swim with the fishes.  Universes may take you to multiple locations to see new things, or see old things in a new way.

So this all brings us back to the question of why universes are becoming so popular.  While I do believe that Marvel brought it front and center, I think the real reason is simply escape.  We want to become invested in something, in other people, in other people's problems, but without actually getting involved physically.  We want to explore all these great places and read about these people, but we don't want to actually get physically sucked in.  We want to know what happens, but we don't necessarily want to help.  And anyway, the end has already been written.  Something is going to happen.  We just get to read about it.

Yes, it's a cynical perspective, but one look at social media or the evening news would tell you why.  People suck, and because it's real, we are involved in some way.  But a book, a whole new universe where we just read about the problems, know that everything turns out all right in the end, that's what we want.  Maybe we don't want a stereotypical John Wayne plot, maybe we like Game of Thrones where no one is safe and everything is usually up in the air to some degree, but whatever the case, it's not ours.  The universe doesn't exist, not really.  The people don't exist.  The problems are fictional.  So we get extensive character development, multiple prolonged plots, and plenty of emotional investment from a variety of perspectives.  And none of it is real.

On the other hand, what if it was?

-Brooke Shaffer

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