World Bibles and World Wikis

September 12, 2011

This is the third in a series of posts regarding shared story world design

"globe detail" by Patrick Q (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The concept of a world bible is a tried and true practice in many creative areas, especially for serial storytelling like television or large entertainment franchises. A world bible is an internal document or system for cataloging characters, places, items, etc. for future reference.

World bibles help keep some of the minor details in place (e.g., ages and birthplaces of characters) while helping eliminate continuity issues (“Wait, John was living in Washington on his 21st birthday as established in the novel, “First Place.” This fan-written short story has his girlfriend surprising him on his 21st birthday while he was serving abroad in the Peace Corps!”). They are also invaluable for anyone trying to get up-to-speed on the particulars of a property (e.g., people joining the team or creating work-for-hire content).

In general, world bibles are not meant for public perusal. Depending on the kind and size of the SSW you build, you may not need a world bible.

But if your plans include any amount of on-going content generation or submission acceptance, I strongly advise you to maintain one. It will be of great help not only when you’re creating new content but also for canonicity/continuity checking against audience contributions.

The form of the world bible can be as simple as a text document or as complex as a database. You can maintain a local copy on your computer or use an online service. Format doesn’t matter as much as practicality and function.

Related to the world bible is the increasingly common “world wiki.” It’s an index of world items – people, places, things – organized and stored in an online format (Wikipedia being the grand daddy of them all). Unlike world bibles, world wikis are almost always publicly available.

World wikis do not usually duplicate all of the content of a world bible, though there is a large amount of overlap. For example, as a writer, you may need to know information about a character that isn’t meant for public consumption. Perhaps doing so would spoil a narrative twist, so it’s not published. These kinds of things are necessary as a reference in the private world bible but are not appropriate for the public world wiki.

Many SSWs maintain their own wikis, but in the absence of an official wiki (or one fans feel comfortable using), fans will create their own. And they often do a better job.

Take a look at the unofficial Star Wars wiki, Wookiepedia. It exists in parallel with the official Star Wars wiki, the Star Wars Database and, for all appearances, it’s doing a better job than the SW Database. How much better? Let’s take a look.

First, compare the entries for “Millenium Falcon” in Wookiepedia v. the official Star Wars wiki. Notice anything? Which one do you think is more comprehensive? Yeah, me, too.

Second, Google “star wars wiki.” Actually, never mind, I just did. Here’s what I got:

Hmmmm. The Star Wars Database doesn’t even make it on the first page of results (and I stopped checking after page ten).

Yes, this example is skewed on a couple of points. Star Wars is about the biggest entertainment outlier around, and there’s a huge fanbase to support Wookiepedia. And even my searches were biased (Lucasfilm doesn’t refer to its Database as a wiki, so using that keyword weights things in my favor).

So let’s level the playing field a bit and Google just “star wars.” My searches found Wookiepedia cooming in at 7th place on the 1st page. Clearly, this is a site fans find valuable, and more so than the information in the SW Database.

But plenty of smaller properties spawn their own fan-based wikis, and you shouldn’t be surprised if fans put up an unofficial wiki for your SSW. If you don’t offer one, it’s even more likely that a fan will create one.

Whether you maintain an official world wiki or not, you should decide on your policy for unofficial wikis early on. If you launch an official wiki, I recommend your strongest action against an unofficial one is to pretend it doesn’t exist. Ideally, you should view it as an indication of the popularity and success of your SSW.

If you do maintain an official wiki, you still need to decide how much you want to manage it. There are three basic approaches: a) you are completely responsible for all content; b) you and your audience share the workload of updating/maintaining it; and c) you host the wiki but assign selected and trusted fans to maintain it for you.

There are advantages and disadvantages to all three options, and constraints like time and money will shape your decision about how active you allow your audience to be in the official world wiki.

I encourage an official world wiki from the first day of launch, as it will help the early adopters/contributors fact-check their works before submitting. In addition to being online and readily available, world wikis also offer you the opportunity to invite another form of fan contribution: updating and maintaining the world wiki.

Much like designing a submission process, choosing how open your wiki is will affect your workload. It will be the same amount of effort for you, whether it’s kept private or maintained publicly online, but if you allow others to edit it, you’ll need to plan on spending time monitoring it.

The upside of allowing the audience (or even just a handful of trusted fans) to manage the wiki is that it gives them another way to contribute to the SSW and be part of the creative team. It can also offload much of the ongoing data-entry work of cataloging your growing SSW. Lastly, updating or moderating the world wiki is a valid form of fan participation. We aren’t all great at drawing, writing, coding, etc. I encourage you to look for any and all ways for fans to get involved and contribute.

Some Questions to Consider:

  • Do you need a world bible (in most cases, yes)?
  • What form will it take, and how will you maintain it?
  • Will you post an official, public wiki for your SSW? If so, will audiences be able to edit it (and how will you manage/review the new and edited entries)?
  • What is your policy regarding fan-based wiki? How will you respond? Ignore it? Recognize it? If you launched your own wiki, will you maintain it or offer to tap the fan-based wiki as the official one?

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