Fictional universe

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Map of the Land of Oz, the fictional realm that is the setting for L. Frank Baum's Oz series.

A fictional universe[1] is the internally consistent fictional setting used in a narrative work or work of art, most commonly associated with works of fantasy and science fiction. Fictional universes appear in novels, comics, films, television shows, video games, art, and other creative works.

A fictional universe may be an alternative version of the real world, differing only in the particulars of the story. All fiction, in this sense, is set in a fictional universe, since at least some of its characters, events, and places are not real; the term "fictional universe", however, is usually not applied to worlds that do not contain speculative elements. Thus a world that is presented as the same as our own world but which has superheroes or magic is a fictional universe. Such "alternate reality" settings are common for comic books (as in Superman), low fantasy (as in Harry Potter), and near-future science fiction (as in Star Trek).

When the setting of a fictional universe is not presented as our own world but as its own distinct world, it is often instead called a fictional world or "fantasy world". In science fiction such a fictional world may be a remote alien planet or galaxy with little apparent relationship to the real world (as in Star Wars); in fantasy it may be a greatly fictionalized or invented version of earth's distant past or future (as in The Lord of the Rings). When such a world is meant to have no connection to our own world (in effect, our world does not exist in that world's reality) or is presented as a reality that can only be accessed from our own by a portal, it is sometimes called a secondary world; such settings are common in high fantasy (as in The Chronicles of Narnia, Earthsea, and Discworld). A fictional world that is meant to exist inside the real world (as in the Land of Oz or the Neverland) may be termed a fictional realm.

When a franchise of related works has two or more alternative fictional universes that are each internally consistent but which are not fully consistent with one another (as by having distinct plotlines and characters, for example between a comic and its film adaptation), each such alternative universe may be referred to as a (fictional) continuity.

Universe vs. setting[edit]

The level of detail and internal consistency distinguishes a fictional universe from a simple setting. A fictional universe has an established continuity and internal logic that must be adhered to throughout the work and also across separate works. For instance, many books may be set in conflicting fictional versions of Victorian London, but all the stories of Sherlock Holmes are set in the same Victorian London. However, the various film series based on Sherlock Holmes follow their own separate continuities, thus not taking place in the same fictional universe.

The history and geography of a fictional universe are well defined, and maps and timelines are often included in works set within them. Even new languages may be constructed. When subsequent works are written within the same universe, care is usually taken to ensure that established facts of the canon are not violated. Even if the fictional universe involves concepts such as elements of magic that don't exist in the real world, these must adhere to a set of rules established by the author.

A famous example of a detailed fictional universe is Arda (more popularly known as Middle-earth), of J. R. R. Tolkien's books The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. He created first its languages and then the world itself, which he states was "primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary 'history' for the Elvish tongues."[2]

A modern example of a fictional universe is that of the Avatar film series, as James Cameron invented an entire ecosystem, with a team of scientists to test whether it was viable. Additionally, he commissioned a linguistics expert to invent the Na'vi language. On Pandora there are many varied types of flora and fauna, including thousands that are shown.

Virtually every successful fictional TV series or comic book develops its own "universe" to keep track of the various episodes or issues. Writers for that series must follow its story bible,[3] which often becomes the series canon.

Frequently, when a series is perceived by its creators as too complicated or too self-inconsistent (because of, for example, too many writers), the producers or publishers may introduce retroactive continuity (retcon) to make future editions easier to write and more consistent. This creates an alternate universe that future authors can write about. These stories about the universe or universes that existed before the retcon are usually not canonical, unless the franchise-holder gives permission. Crisis on Infinite Earths was an especially sweeping example.

Some writers choose to introduce elements or characters from one work into another, to present the idea that both works are set in the same universe. For example, the character of Ursula Buffay from American sitcom Mad About You was also a recurring guest star in Friends, despite the two series having little else in common. Fellow NBC series Seinfeld also contained crossover references to Mad About You. L. Frank Baum introduced the characters of Cap'n Bill and Trot (from The Sea Fairies) into the Oz series in The Scarecrow of Oz, and they made a number of appearances in later Oz books. In science fiction, A. Bertram Chandler introduced into his future Galactic civilization the character Dominic Flandry from Poul Anderson's quite different Galactic future (he had Anderson's consent)—on the assumption that these were two alternate history timelines and that people could on some occasions cross from one to the other.


Sir Thomas More's Utopia is an early example of a cohesive fictional world with its own rules and functional concepts, but it consists of only one small island. Later fictional universes, like Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian stories or Lev Grossman's Fillory are global in scope and some, like Star Wars, Honorverse, BattleTech, or the Lensman series, are galactic or even intergalactic.

A fictional universe may even concern itself with more than one interconnected universe through fictional devices such as dreams, "time travel" or "parallel worlds". Such a series of interconnected universes is often called a multiverse. Such multiverses have been featured prominently in science fiction since at least the mid-20th century.

The Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror" introduced the Mirror Universe, in which the crew members of the Starship Enterprise were brutal rather than compassionate. The 2009 movie Star Trek created an "alternate reality" and freed the Star Trek franchise from continuity issues. In the mid-1980s, DC Comics Crisis on Infinite Earths streamlined its fictional continuity by destroying most of its alternate universes.


A fictional universe can be contained in a single work, as in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, or in serialized, series-based, open-ended or round robin-style fiction.

In most small-scale fictional universes, general properties and timeline events fit into a consistently organized continuity. However, in the case of universes that are rewritten or revised by different writers, editors, or producers, this continuity may be violated, by accident or by design.

The occasional publishing use of retroactive continuity (retcon) often occurs due to this kind of revision or oversight. Members of fandom often create a kind of fan-made canon (fanon) to patch up such errors; "fanon" that becomes generally accepted sometimes becomes actual canon. Other fan-made additions to a universe (fan fiction, alternate universe, pastiche, parody) are usually not considered canonical unless they get authorized.

Fictional continuity[edit]

In a 1970 article in CAPA-alpha, comics historian Don Markstein provided a definition of fictional universe meant to clarify the concept of fictional continuities.[4] According to the criteria he imagined:

  1. If characters A and B have met, then they are in the same universe; if characters B and C have met, then, transitively, A and C are in the same universe.
  2. Characters cannot be connected by real people—otherwise, it could be argued that Superman and the Fantastic Four were in the same universe, as Superman met John F. Kennedy, Kennedy met Neil Armstrong, and Armstrong met the Fantastic Four.
  3. Characters cannot be connected by characters "that do not originate with the publisher"—otherwise it could be argued that Superman and the Fantastic Four were in the same universe, as both met Hercules.
  4. Specific fictionalized versions of real people—for instance, the version of Jerry Lewis from DC Comics' The Adventures of Jerry Lewis, who was distinct from the real Jerry Lewis in that he had a housekeeper with magical powers—can be used as connections; this also applies to specific versions of public-domain fictional characters, such as Marvel Comics' version of Hercules or DC Comics' version of Robin Hood.
  5. Characters are only considered to have met if they appeared together in a story; therefore, characters who simply appeared on the same front cover are not necessarily in the same universe.


Shared universes often come about when a fictional universe achieves great commercial success and attracts other media. For example, a successful movie may catch the attention of various book authors, who wish to write stories based on that movie. Under U.S. law, the copyright-holder retains control of all other derivative works, including those written by other authors, but they might not feel comfortable in those other mediums or may feel that other individuals will do a better job; therefore, they may open up the copyright on a shared-universe basis. The degree to which the copyright-holder or franchise retains control is often one of the points in the license agreement.

For example, the comic book Superman was so popular that it spawned over 30 different radio, television, and movie series and a similar number of video games, as well as theme park rides, books, and songs. In the other direction, both Star Trek and Star Wars are responsible for hundreds of books and games of varying levels of canonicity.

Fictional universes are sometimes shared by multiple prose authors, with each author's works in that universe being granted approximately equal canonical status. For example, Larry Niven's fictional universe Known Space has an approximately 135-year period in which Niven allows other authors to write stories about the Man-Kzin Wars. Other fictional universes, like the Ring of Fire series, actively court canonical stimulus from fans, but gate and control the changes through a formalized process and the final say of the editor and universe creator.[5]

Other universes are created by one or several authors but are intended to be used non-canonically by others, such as the fictional settings for games, particularly role-playing games and video games. Settings for the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons are called campaign settings; other games have also incorporated this term on occasion. Virtual worlds are fictional worlds in which online computer games, notably MMORPGs and MUDs, take place. A fictional crossover occurs when two or more fictional characters, series or universes cross over with one another, usually in the context of a character created by one author or owned by one company meeting a character created or owned by another. In the case where two fictional universes covering entire actual universes cross over, physical travel from one universe to another may actually occur in the course of the story. Such crossovers are usually, but not always, considered non-canonical by their creators or by those in charge of the properties involved.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Also called an "imagined universe" or a "constructed universe".
  2. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. "Foreword". The Fellowship of the Ring.
  3. ^ Espenson, Jane (April 2008). "How to Give Maris Hives, Alphabetized". This is a blog entry on the subject by a professional scriptwriter.
  4. ^ "THE MERCHANT OF VENICE meets THE SHIEK OF ARABI", by Don Markstein (as "Om Markstein Sklom Stu"), in CAPA-alpha #71 (September 1970); archived at Toonopedia
  5. ^ Flint, Eric and various others (26 December 2006). Grantville Gazette III. Thomas Kidd (cover art). Baen Books. pp. 311–313. ISBN 978-1-4165-0941-7. The print published and e-published Grantville Gazettes all contain a post book afterword detailing where and how to submit a manuscript to the fictional canon oversight process for the 1632 series.