Writing in another world

Be honest, have you ever read a “geeky” book set in a universe established by someone other than the author of said book? Maybe something like a Star Wars book, or better yet, a book based on the characters and world of a popular video game? I have, in fact going over my Nook library (side note: e-readers are excellent ways to read books with embarrassing covers in public), I’ve read at least a dozen books set in the sprawling worlds created by movies, games or comics.

Usually the appeal of these books is the world itself. If you like all things Star Wars, you might be interested in the struggles and interpersonal dynamics of a group of storm trooper clones struggling to find individual identities. If you’re interested in getting some background on the story-heavy Mass Effect series, you might want to check out the books—they’re loaded with excellent world-building material.

As a writer and world-builder, sometimes I wonder what it would be like to play in someone else’s sandbox. I know that Star Wars writers have a massive multi-tiered encyclopedia they must adhere to, while authors writing in comic book worlds usually aren’t allowed to let heroes like Spider-Man die. While I’m sure those restrictions can be limiting, they could also push someone to be more creative…or extremely lazy. I’ve read both ends of the spectrum, which is why these days I don’t pick up a book set in an established world until after I’ve read some Amazon and Goodreads reviews. As a copywriter managing multiple brands, I feel like I’d do a good job at jumping between different worlds. It’s a challenge I’d happily take on sometime in the future.

I wonder if world-building authors look down on those that work in the worlds of others. I don’t, but it is kind of weird to see something like “ROBERT LUDLUM’s Jason Bourne” really huge on a book with the name of the actual author buried under the picture of the man in mid-sprint on the book cover. I always feel bad for that guy. It’s one thing to trumpet the world the reader is buying (the Star Wars books make sure to put the SW name and iconic imagery front and center), it’s another to sell a name.

For me, reading an author I like take a spin in an existing world is like seeing an actor I like in a familiar role. I’d love to see what someone else could do in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter universe. How cool would a Neil Gaiman Potter book be? What about a Star Wars book by a fancy literary writer like Michael Chabon? Artist interpret other’s work all the time, I’ve done it several times already this month. Why shouldn’t writers do the same?

Some worlds are so rich that it’s a shame they’re chained to just one person. Opening up a universe to more writers can do great things for the longevity of a brand and series. Star Wars is a great example. After the prequels, I gave up on Star Wars. The driving force of the series used to be a compelling narrative, now it seems like it’s all based on merchandise. But then Karen Traviss came along and put a unique spin on a world gone stale. I still don’t care for Star Wars, but I’ve since followed Traviss into other worlds, so that’s a plus. Speaking of Traviss, she has some interesting thoughts on being a tie-in or “franchise fiction” author, particularly on the line between writing for a living and writing fan fiction.

“Tie-in” is a great term for this stuff, as that’s usually what it is. I read the Mass Effect books because they tie-in to the game world. You don’t need to read them to play and enjoy the games, but having that extra knowledge certainly helps you understand and (I think) enjoy the universe more. In some cases the tie-ins can even lead to synergy in storytelling. Drew Karpyshyn is a head writer at Bioware  (the developers of Mass Effect) and he also wrote the Mass Effect books. After her work on the first few Gears of War books, Karen Traviss was brought in to work on the story for the Gears of War 3 game. According to previews I’ve read/seen, the new game’s story has her fingerprints—flawed but likable commandos with serious baggage—all over it. Seeing consistent narrative style across multiple mediums is pretty cool.

Is there a world you’d like to see expanded? How about a tie-in you’ve read that helped you appreciate the original source material more?