Why do people enjoy extended worlds and universes? Why do people dedicate time and energy to creating their own subplots and plots within another person’s world?
Probably for two reasons. The first would be for love of the characters. The second, I believe, is a want to stay in-universe – to play in someone else’s sandbox.
Extended universes appeal because they offer escape. They offer ideas, possibilities, and sub-cultures. This is part of the appeal of things like Harry Potter, GOT and Star Trek. It is also partially why contemporary fiction writes about doctors and detectives and policemen/women. Not just because an interesting job lends itself to being useful in the plot – but because these jobs, with their shift hours and their insulated nature, act as little subcultures in and of themselves.
So what makes a good extended universe? What creates a place that you want to stay and play around in even after you’ve closed the book or the end credits have rolled?
I believe there are two things: Relevancy and Detail.
The reason we find the cultures, histories, geography, language and weather of an extended universe so fascinating, is, initially at least, driven by the extended universe’s relationship to the story and characters. Knowing that there is a three-month-long windy season that flattens everything in sight is maybe an interesting titbit, but it’s nothing that grabs your attention. If your main character lives in a world where people have no solid structures because every year they pack up their every belonging and move underground to get away from the wind, that makes it relevant, and as such interesting. If a character is forced to go out into the winds, or if the food stores ( the ones that everyone has been building up to help them last out the three months of bad weather ) catch on fire or spoil, then the weather is even more relevant to the plot and the characters. It provides conflict.
So make the extended universe relevant. That is what draws a reader in. But if that’s all you ever do – provide details relevant to the plot – then the world you’ve created feels… underdone. Not quite there. Not entirely thought out. And that’s where detail comes in.
Detail? Why would you put detail that’s not relevant into a book? Why does it even matter?
Let’s take Game of Thrones for example. Harry Potter even. There’s plenty of world-building in both of these book series. Plenty of detail too. Lots of cultures and languages and history. Not all of it is immediately relevant. Not all of it will be. But it could be.
And that possibility does several things. First, it creates tension. It takes what would be one path, and makes it into eight. Adding detail to your extended universe (myths, histories, other cultures and places), creates those extra paths. Maybe they’ll never be used, maybe they will be. But even if they’re not, those extra details do something else.
They invite your reader in. This is where fan-fiction thrives – on the what-ifs. I’ve described fan-fiction as a way of playing is other people’s sandboxes. This extends the sandbox. It gives people space to play around without infringing on what you yourself did to the characters. It allows people to put themselves in the narrative, it allows them to go “wouldn’t it be cool if…”
Detailing and filling in your extended universe is thus made relevant by the eyes of the reader. But if the reader isn’t first drawn into the story, if they don’t care about the characters, then they aren’t going to care enough to interact with this extra detail.
The initial relevancy invites a reader in. A fully realised extended universe invites them to stay.
(1) Image taken from https://flic.kr/p/2hkKMK attributed to Russ Seidel. Used under creative commons