by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Apart from the obvious — everybody is writing in the same universe— a good shared world has another feature: you get to use each other’s characters.
Now, that can lead to a terrible outcome if you don’t put in place fairly stringent controls. In Thieves World, the first shared world anthology, Bob Asprin and Lynn Abbey had only one limiting rule. You couldn’t kill another writer’s named character. And while I know you will find this shocking, sometimes write’s become competitive, and a shared world gives you the opportunity to indulge those tendencies. As result of this single rule there were a lot of blind, multiple amputee, in-a-coma characters in Thieves World.
Other shared world anthologies, seeing what had happened with Thieves World, allowed their writers to declare their characters off limits — which meant that they were less shared worlds and more of a series of short stories set in a common universe.
Since George and I thought the whole fun of a shared world was using each other’s characters, we wanted to try and avoid these two extremes. Bob and Lynn were enormously generous with their help and advice. We took their model and found ways to make it lucrative for a writer if they allowed their characters to be utilized by another writer. We also put in the rule that you had to show the character’s creator your pages and get their approval. They could say no to what you wanted to do, but if they did they lost out on money. There is even a nice bonus if you let you character die. (No, George, I’m not ready to kill Noel even though he is an evil bastard. He’s just too much fun to write.) But I digress….
Bottom line: so far it’s worked pretty well.
As for me… I’m an absolute tart when it comes to allowing other people to use my characters. Not so much for the money but for the fun of seeing how another person handles the character and to see my character through the eyes of others. It often times gives me an idea for a story about my own character or insight into their nature that I didn’t see because I’m too close to the individual.
The most famous of these character interactions was between Lew Shiner’s very popular character Fortunato and my own Dr. Tachyon. I believe it was Lew who first referred to Tachy as the space wimp in one of his Fortunato sections, and soon it became a thing with our fans as they argued about The Wimp and The Pimp and who was the cooler character.
In George’s Turtle origin story, “Shell Games,” Tachyon is definitely a major character, with his own viewpoint sections. George was able to explore themes of redemption and bravery where a young, idealistic man reminds the older man what it means to be a hero.
Victor Milan and I had great fun with the relationship between Captain Trips and Tachyon. We decided they were best friends and when Tachy needed help back on his home world in my Wild Cards novel Double Solitaire he… er, she… (well, read it and you’ll understand) takes Jay Ackroyd (another of George’s characters) and Captain Trips back to his/her home planet. I’ll never forget when George was reading the manuscript. My phone rang and George yelped “You gave me a wife?” But he let it stand because that’s what makes the books fun.
It’s often useful to discuss with the other writer what you intend to do, and perhaps because many of were into role playing games these discussions often turn into a conversation between the characters rather than a conversation between George and Melinda, or Melinda and Steve Leigh, or Melinda and Vic. One night Steve and I literally role-played the confrontation scene between Tachyon and Senator Gregg Hartmann for book six Ace In the Hole. The dialog we eventually wrote was pretty much verbatim what we said.
That was also the book where George called me up giddy with delight to ask me if Vic Milan’s truly evil character Mackie Messer could buzzsaw off Tachyon’s hand on a rope line. Of course I said yes, while George giggled maniacally.
In the Black Trump triad Laura Mixon-Gould and I had my joker character Dr. Finn marry her medical researcher Clara van Renssaeler. In fact I’m using them again in the upcoming book Joker Moon. Should I tell you about the late night discussion about how Finn and Clara would do…. no, this is a family friendly blog.
More recently Paul Cornell and I have had fun with his ditzy character Abigail the Understudy, and my nat cop Francis (Franny) Black. Poor Franny has a desperate crush on Abigail and she calls him the twelve year old.
There was also Franny’s bizarre relationship with Ty Franck’s evil character Baba Yaga in High Stakes. Her disdain for him ultimately led him to take a violent act to bring her to justice that was a real change to his basic nature. Not to mention facing eldritch horrors from the Cthulhu dimension. It’s going to be fun to go back to Franny in a future story and see how these experiences have changed him.
Creating characters is half alchemy and half formula. What do I need for this particular story? What issues drive this person? How can I torture them in ways that will make them grow and change? Because good characters should have an arc. Villains that are just evil and heroes who are just good are boring. People are complicated and most are drawn in shades of grey. It’s very easy for a writer to fall in love with their characters, to want to protect them. The beauty of Wild Cards is there are other writers who can help you view your creations through a different lens, challenge you on your preconceptions, understand that people’s perceptions of a particular event or action can be wildly different.
I think this push and pull on the characters are one of the keys to the longevity of Wild Cards. All the other shared worlds have fallen away but Wild Cards continues to explore the human heart.