There are two schools of thought on extended continuities. What in the name of my little sanity am I talking about?
Okay, when I refer to extended continuities I mostly refer to an overarching plot or story that is connected across multiple existing storylines. So for simplicity sake let’s say you have a favourite book series that’s about seven books long or so. In that you have a plot that has a core cast of characters, some live and some die.
Now say you have another story that happens in the same world at around the same time as your story or shortly after. In fact, a few characters from that original series appear in this new series. They may be minor or major characters in this story, depends. Say that several different series of stories happen in the same narrative world; this is what many call an extended continuity. For simplicity sake I also would count anthologies of short stories as well.
Now, like I said, there are two schools of thought on the matter, those that think extended universes are great and those that think they are the bane of writing.
Let’s take a look at both sides.
First, for the good. Robert Asprin once argued that one of the problems of writing fiction was in creating and setting up a world only to discard it once the story was complete. In the creation of Thieves’ World used the example of the works of Robert E. Howard where you can have an instance where two thieves steal a bunch of gold from a city. Now say that a mob is chasing them as they flee. While they flee run past Conan, coming into town from a fresh adventure, tired, laid down with gold and aching to spend it. Now say the frenzied mob rounds the corner and sees one man holding a big sack of gold. Imagine what happens next.
The virtue of an extended continuity much like an ongoing story series is that there are established elements such as locations, powerful items and villains that can be relied upon. Thus when they are called in the audience needs only to see the mention of the character and memories fill in the personality which was previously established. Plus there’s a feeling of inclusion, in that you are part of a collective of people who understand this and you’ve earned that information. Thus there’s a sense of accomplishment from doing so.
Then there’s the bad side of it. Most of the arguments boil down to two points which I’ll cover here. First; some will argue that relying on an extended continuity is a crutch for a writer. Rather than using their own talent to create an original conflict they are relying on existing material thus not challenging themselves as creators.
The other is the sheer issue of what happens when a set fictional continuity becomes too large. At that point entering in becomes daunting for any new reader or viewer and the desire to explore is dwindled immensely since the odds of poor titles and stories goes up the bigger the continuity. That becomes even more daunting when the same poor stories might be essential to understanding plot. I’m sure many of you are now thinking of DC Comics and the Marvel Comics continuities with DC suffering through multiple reboots and Marvel with its storylines that eventually never change the status quo. Both of these are out of fear of losing potential new readers while isolating existing readers and making the preceding stories null and void. Personally I think both brands have shot themselves in the foot with this one. With the amount of titles they have coming out on a monthly basis, they ought to have multiple continuities, not just the singular main one apiece.
There is a third problem I’ve found on top of the two previous ones with extended continuities. When introducing new characters authors are often tempted to introduce them to existing ones and have them appear as formidable or just as powerful or talented as existing characters. For example, let’s say you want to make a swordfighter character in Conan’s world. Bit of a fencer type, a fella who uses more delicate fighting methods to make him stand out from the regular cast. You’re writing your story and you really want to sell that this guy is good. Then you get a stupid idea, and I mean stupid. This is what you think: “Well, I want to really sell my swordfighter as a viable guy so maybe I can have him fight a guy who exists who’s really strong! Oh I know! I’ll have him fight Conan and win!”
That, my friends, is the thought that launched 80% of all fanfiction. Don’t let anyone tell you different. You can see what’s wrong with this right from the start. Conan has a massive legacy behind him with countless adventures wherein he’s killed nearly every kind of fighter that exists. If anyone picked a fight with him it’d be consensual suicide. Thus if your character who doesn’t have half of the legacy that Conan does suddenly whoops the Cimmerian barbarian then your character is going to get the label many call “Mary Sue”.
Mary Sue is a term used to describe wish fulfillment characters that are powerful or important without sufficient justification or reason. As a result they appear to not have enough personality or interest to stand on their own and thus have to be given silly advantages to compensate. This sort of thing got so bad Marvel ended up parodying it with Squirrel Girl when she managed to defeat Dr. Doom.
I’m serious. This is a thing! It’s canon too!
And the problem is there’s no good way to do this either. You can’t have your character duel Conan and have them draw. It’s almost the same thing. The only option is for your character to put up a decent fight only to have Conan curb stomp him which, known Conan means he’ll straight up murder the fella. Even if it wasn’t Conan but someone more merciful if your character loses it may just make him look weak.
Although there’s a weird logic loophole where if you introduce that character in say Conan’s story (if we keep with our example) have them duel to a draw and then develop that character later in his own story that kind of mitigates it somehow. I’m not sure why.
So is an extended continuity worth it? Of course it is if you’re smart about it. The Marvel Film series is probably the greatest example of an extended continuity working well by using existing elements to make a great story. I think short story anthologies especially have great merit since all it takes to get in is a few bucks at a used bookstore and you’ve got the series. If it’s a good used bookstore that is. Plus now that we have Avengers proving that film continuities are possible I hope we can have original stories that have their own extended continuity.
But working an extended continuity is a lot like flying a spaceship. They’re really big and if one thing is out of order you are screwed.
So too does this work exist.