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I think shared universes raise a few questions:

  • What do we do if works in a shared universe contradict each other?

  • What do we do if a question can be answered only by reference to another work in the shared universe (i.e. is this a valid answer to the question)?

  • Does the situation change at all if the works have different writers?

  • Does the situation change if it isn't supposed to significant that the works share a universe (as opposed to stories in which the shared universe is of direct importance)?

  • If all evidence points to one conclusion, and an answer is given, then an author releases another work which contradicts it, is the answer rendered invalid?

Nonetheless, I think all of these smaller questions can be resolved by establishing a simple set of rules for how we interpret these situations. Let's say we have contradictory evidence, drawn from a combination of the following:

  • The actual story in question
  • The word of the author in question (when referring to the story in question)
  • Other stories in same universe, by the same author
  • The word of the author in question with reference to other stories in the same universe, also written by them
  • The word of the author in question with reference to other stories in the same universe, written by someone else
  • Another story set in same universe, written by another author
  • The word of the author of one or more other stories set in the same universe

How do we know how to prioritise these and come up with a satisfactory answer?

  • Your questions seems to focus a lot on resolving contradictions, but consulting other works (or direct quotes from authors) to support a discussion based on one of the works seems also like a relevant part of this. – Martin Ender Feb 28 '17 at 14:38
  • @MartinEnder I agree with your overall point, but I think resolving the issue for contradictions will resolve it for everything else, and my question is written with this assumption in mind. Do you disagree with the assumption, or do you just think I've not expressed it clearly enough? – TheTermiteSociety Feb 28 '17 at 15:02
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    There's no need to come up with a standard criteria because the methods will vary from answer to answer. If you have questions about the best way to write an answer, then that's an question for chat, not meta. – user111 Feb 28 '17 at 16:20
  • It may also be worth letting the asker decide some of this themselves. If they only want information as it relates to a specific book or series of books, that's fair.... so (to use a film example) if someone only wanted information about Star Wars based on the original three films and not on any other "canon" material, it seems fair to allow them to make that limitation. – Catija Mar 1 '17 at 0:24
  • I think what @Catija meant is the novelisations of the original three films ;-) – Rand al'Thor Mar 1 '17 at 0:41
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Standback's answer is excellent on the general principle, but I thought it was worth paying some more specific attention to the issue you raise, and perhaps even looking at some examples.

What do we do if works in a shared universe contradict each other?

If a question is asked to which such contradictions are relevant, then discuss them in the answer. A good, complete analysis of a complex issue with many possible answers would discuss all available evidence, including if some parts of this evidence contradict others.

What do we do if a question can be answered only by reference to another work in the shared universe (i.e. is this a valid answer to the question)?

It's a valid answer unless there's some reason to consider it invalid. Again, if there are complications which make its (in)validity unclear, then discuss that in the answer.

Does the situation change at all if the works have different writers?
Does the situation change if it isn't supposed to be significant that the works share a universe (as opposed to stories in which the shared universe is of direct importance)?

Yes, these things could add extra complication to the situation, and again they should be taken account of in the full analysis.

If all evidence points to one conclusion, and an answer is given, then an author releases another work which contradicts it, is the answer rendered invalid?

No: not invalid, only outdated. If an answer provided an analysis which was complete at the time of writing, and then new evidence comes to light when the author releases a new book, then that answer is still a valid summary of the situation before that new book. It should then be edited to incorporate the new information - or, if for some reason this isn't done (e.g. if the answerer is no longer active on the site), somebody else could write up a new and more up-to-date answer. On this particular aspect of the issue, we could probably learn from the way SFF has dealt with similar problems: see e.g. this meta post about obsolete answers and this earlier one about wrong (e.g. obsolete) answers.


Examples

Let's say somebody asks whether, in the series, Harry Potter is a Horcrux. The answer to this one is complicated, because Dumbledore (the wise mentor) says in the last book that he is a Horcrux, but J.K. Rowling (the author) has said in an interview that he is not. On SFF, this question would be answered by considering which of these two sources is a higher level of 'canon'. Here on Literature, a good answer would take both claims into account along with any other pertinent information, discuss the contradictions between them, and (perhaps) give reasons why one of them should be considered more reliable than the other.

Another example: it's well known that two of the Sherlock Holmes stories contradict each other on the issue of where Watson's war wound is located on his body. If somebody asked a question about this (OK, it would be a bit of a trivial question), a good answer would be "the canon contradicts itself", supported by the two opposing quotes from the stories. I doubt there's any good reason to consider one more reliable than the other, but if there is, then a really good answer would also explain that.

You get the picture. If there are contradictions, an answer shouldn't be partisan towards only one possible interpretation, but should address and discuss those contradictions.


Let's say we have contradictory evidence, drawn from a combination of the following:

[long list]

How do we know how to prioritise these and come up with a satisfactory answer?

Don't prioritise them; cover them all! Of course, if there is a reason to prioritise one over the other, then say so. But such reasons will be different from case to case, series to series, author to author. The important thing is: don't just ignore any relevant piece of information, no matter the source.

  • Re Watson's war wound, you could explain that as him having two... – Mithical Mar 1 '17 at 9:19
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It seems to me that explaining the statuses of the different works, drawing attention to support or to contradictions, would be part of a good answer.

There's too much nuance here for a breakdown of seniority and significance -- it will change from series to series, and from question to question. Good answers should give as many significant sources as exist, and explain the significance of each source, whenever they aren't self-evident or might raise questions.

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