13 February 2011

SFX Weekender: Tie-in and shared universe fiction

The session on tie-in and shared universe fiction might not have been the sort of thing that I went to SFX Weekended for but it sounded interesting enough and it meant that I could keep my hard-won front-row seat for this and the following session too.

There were a couple of names I knew on the panel; I've read several of Dan Abnett's stories in 2000AD and in various Marvel Comics (e.g. Guardians of the Galaxy) and I'd seen Ben Arronovitch on the Dr Who panel earlier that day.

There were a few times that day when panellists were repeated, but that's a good thing when the panellists contribute knowledgeably and appropriately. There was no repeating of favourite stories here.

The conversation flowed immediately and we were treated to many insights in to the life of a writer working within the boundaries set by other people.

And perhaps the most interesting aspect of this was the way that a pre-defined world and characters takes some of the hard work away from authors, leaving space to play with the story.

The differences between canonical stories and spin-offs filled a large part of the session. During this Stephen Baxter produced an old Stingray book that I recognised as I have a copy in the attic!

We also learnt that Dan Abnett had been commissioned to write a Primeval story that the producers wanted to tell but which would have been too expensive to do on TV.

There are various reasons why copyright owners want to extend their franchise in to print media ranging from the obvious one of making more money from the brand to finding a way to keep fans engaged when the main product is not available.

The obvious example here is Dr Who that was kept going for several years in books and audio. Similarly the Warhammer books let game players in to the world of space Marines and Tyranids from places other than Games Workshop.

From the author's perspective there is the need to play within the rules and that's a question of getting the tone right (would the character behave like that?) as well as the continuity. And the continuity problem is getting bigger all the time as the back-catalogue grows. Imagine how much a new Dr Who or X-Men writer has to read and watch.

Ben Aaronvitch also made the interesting point that writing within a shared universe means a writer has other people they can talk to about their story, e.g. to discuss exactly how a character would behave in a given situation.

So what I initially treated as a fill-in session proved to be much more than that and I learnt a lot and gained even more respect for authors.

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