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Telling stories in an established fictional universe

I was watching the first episode of The Rings Of Power with the kids a few days ago. It is the second time through the series for me. I watched the whole thing not too long after it first came out but I was sick at the time and barely remember any of it.

I recall liking it then, though, and I am enjoying it so far this time as well.

While watching the first episode, I got to thinking about the perennial complaint about remakes and shared universes—how no one seems to be able to tell original stories anymore. I will grant that there is some merit to these sorts of gripes when it comes to remakes/reboots of older films and TV series. However, I think they are off the mark when it comes telling in-universe stories like this one.

I say this with love as a fan of genre fiction in general—especially horror, science fiction, and (albeit to a lesser extent) fantasy—but a lot of these worlds are already basically the same. Does it really matter all that much whether a story takes place in Middle Earth rather than some other fantasy realm? Yes, countless online flame wars have been fought over statements like that, but while nerds are arguing over the rules of the magical system or whether the physics of their favorite sci-fi franchise allow for time travel, all of that stuff tends to mostly be window dressing.

The important part is the characters, the story, and the quality of the writing. If those pieces are well done, they are going to work in just about any setting. Conversely, if any or all of them are bad, it does not matter whether they are set in a fictional world we all know; they are still going to suck.

Setting a well-written, well-executed story within a familiar fictional universe has some benefits. It does not have to spend as much time on world-building and it automatically gets a larger audience. The trade-off is that you may be tied to the limits—either real or perceived—of that universe. If done right, though, these stories can push at the boundaries and limits of the universe in interesting ways and expand the realm of what is possible.

So, I guess I would say that I don’t have a problem with stories set within existing franchises and fictional universes, and I don’t buy the argument at this form of storytelling represents some sort of inherent creative bankruptcy.

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