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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.[2][3]

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.

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".[4] 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).[2] 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

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."[5]

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.[6][7]

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.[8]

Fictional continuity

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.[9] 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.


See also: Shared universe

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.[10]

See also


  1. ^ Also called an "imagined universe" or a "constructed universe".
  2. ^ a b Schult, Stefanie; Tolkien, J. R. R.; Pratchett, Terry; Williams, Tad (2017). Subcreation: fictional-world construction from J.R.R. Tolkien to Terry Pratchett and Tad Williams. Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität Greifswald. Berlin: Logos Verlag Berlin GmbH. ISBN 978-3-8325-4419-5.
  3. ^ Pavel, Thomas G. (1986). Fictional Worlds. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674299665.
  4. ^ ForgeFiction (2021-12-21). "8 Do-s and Don't-s of Building a Fictional Universe". Medium. Retrieved 2023-07-16.
  5. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. "Foreword". The Fellowship of the Ring.
  6. ^ "The Science of Language (Na'vi, That Is)". News and Events. 2010-04-26. Retrieved 2023-07-16.
  7. ^ "Paul Frommer On Creating the Na'vi Language for Avatar". Retrieved 2023-07-16.
  8. ^ Espenson, Jane (April 2008). "How to Give Maris Hives, Alphabetized". Archived from the original on 2017-02-23. Retrieved 2009-08-01. This is a blog entry on the subject by a professional scriptwriter.
  9. ^ "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
  10. ^ 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.

Further reading