Thanks to superhero movies and comic books, these days you can’t throw a rock without hitting a shared universe. But what might seem like a passing fad or novelty is actually as old as literature itself. Throughout history, writers have hit on the idea of re-using characters from one story in another, or creating a fictional universe in which to set different stories. These shared elements can often be very subtle, only revealing themselves when you take a step back and take a close look at the connections. Here are five shared universes that we bet you haven’t noticed.
Every Single Novel by Bret Easton Ellis
Ellis has written a host of controversial novels, most notably American Psycho. His works are filled with distasteful, unlikable people doing distasteful, illegal, and horrifying things. And just about every single novel Ellis has published exists in a complex fictional universe where almost all the characters have connections to one another, appearing in the background or referenced in conversation. Even better, Ellis killed off a character that appeared in another writer’s novel—Allison Poole, from Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life—in American Psycho, thus linking his universe to McInerney’s work as well. Incidentally, Allison Poole appears in later Ellis novels, and is a key piece of evidence cited for the events of American Psycho being the ravings of a madman.
Every Single Stephen King Novel
It’s no secret that Stephen King has been slowly weaving every single novel he’s ever written into a comprehensive multiverse, but the slow pace of his undertaking has kept it hidden from some readers. An argument can be made that King kicked off his efforts in earnest with 1994’s Insomnia, which makes the multiverse explicit and introduces the idea that all the stories King has told are repetitions of a struggle between good and evil that ripples throughout time and space. What makes King’s multiverse exceptional is that he clearly wrote most of his early works without the concept in place, making his ability to weave them into a cohesive whole impressive indeed.
Several Agatha Christie Novels (The Pale Horse, Death on the Nile, etc.)
Agatha Christie had several famous characters who, of course, appeared in their own series—Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple being perhaps the most famous. Obviously (or at least, usually) books featuring the same main character are set in the same universe, but only careful readers will notice that other characters also recur across these various series, linking them all together into one world. In other words, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple exist in the same universe, solving crimes in parallel. The book central to this argument is The Pale Horse, which features four characters who appear in both Poirot and Marple novels, clearly establishing a shared universe in otherwise standalone novels.
Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere
What do you do if you have an idea to write a mega-epic fantasy novel series that could potentially result in 30 to 40 books, but you’re worried readers might be overwhelmed? You obscure the links between them. Sanderson has been working on separate fantasy series for years now, but they’re not nearly as separate as they seem—they’re all connected by a slowly-emerging backstory that reveals all their worlds to be part of a single universe. All of the events and even seemingly disparate magic systems are actually linked—although Sanderson has yet to establish most of the rules, though interviews make clear he has it all worked out in his head. We readers will just have to keep reading the books as they come. Which also makes this multiverse a brilliant piece of marketing, come to think of it.
William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County Novels
Yes, none other than William Faulkner was an enthusiastic builder of shared universes. His series of novels and stories set in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi are famously linked by the members of the Compson family, the main characters of The Sound and the Fury, who also appear in Absalom, Absalom! and are referred to in other novels and stories. As in any other multiverse, you can keep your eyes peeled for characters from one book or story to appear in the background of others, ultimately building Yoknapatawpha County into one of the most realistic fictional universes of all time.